A Serious (and Informed) Discussion of Civil War

"You Say You Want a Revolution"


Of late, there has been considerable discussion of a possible civil war in the United States. Some has been informed. Some has been interesting but unpersuasive. Some has been utter drek.


I think a civil war is unlikely.


Societies, like ours, with older people, are less inclined towards civil war. As Robert Bolt has Price Feisal say in Lawrence of Arabia (1962):


There's nothing further here for a warrior. We drive bargains. Old men's work. Young men make wars, and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men. Courage and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace. And the vices of peace are the vices of old men. Mistrust and caution. It must be so.


Put another way, the Romans during their Civil Wars at the end of their Republic and the English at the time of their Civil War, were all like "I could not love thee half so much loved I not honor more," while societies with more older people (like ours) are more in the mindset of Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff, "Honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honor prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honor set to a leg? no. Or an arm? no. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery, then?"


Still, the polarization of our society puts me in mind of this from the 1993 film Gettysburg:


And the same for your adversaries: Meade, Hooker, Hancock, and - shall I say - Lincoln! The same God, same language, same culture and history, same songs, stories, legends, myths - different dreams. Different dreams. So very sad.


So, it is worth having a discussion of this issue, hopefully, an informed one.


One note: I will use "civil war" to refer to a potential civil war and "Civil War" to refer to the actual events of 1861-'65.


Possible Combatants


The common view is that any civil war would be Red States versus Blue States with a precipitating event being something like the impeachment of Donald Trump.


However, which states are "Red" and which are "Blue" is a moving target.


The collapse of the "Blue Wall" in the upper Midwest/Old Northwest in 2016 was a momentous event. However, it is a trend that has been apparent for some time, since that region largely stopped electing governors in the mold of Jennifer Granholm and started electing more in the mold of Mitch Daniels. The usually perceptive political columnist Salena Zito misread this trend in 2008 for McCain and in 2012 for Romney, while correctly predicting it for Donald Trump in 2016.


While it was momentous, it may be transitory.


It was not irrational (although, in practice, it proved to be a disastrous misallocation of resources) for HRC to have attempted to flip Arizona into her column in the waning days of the 2016 election. With its increasingly Hispanic population and rising tech-sector, while not realized yet, "Blue Texas" is far from a pipe dream.


Further, as Red States tend to be Federal tax money consumers and Blue States tend to be Federal tax money producers, it is not altogether clear all Red States would join any Jacquerie/Peasants' Revolt, as it would be against their interests. At minimum, there would be many states that will have only nominal allegiance to one side or the other, as the Border States (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri) did with the Union during the Civil War.


It is not impossible that some states (or large regions of some states) might decide that a civil war was the last straw and decide to attempt to join Canada or Mexico, which might reasonably be seen as being more stable or having more potential.


Comparative Economic and Logistical Advantages


Considering the Blue State/Red State meme, what would the comparative economic and logistical advantages of the parties?


Obviously, the great presumptive advantage of the Red States would be their internal lines of communications. They are (to the degree this bloc exists at all in this context) contiguous.  They have access to ports on the Gulf Coast and in the Atlantic Southeast.


They have the bulk of the agricultural and manufacturing capacity.


They produce the bulk of the nations' military personnel and there is a strong martial tradition. The population is also relatively homogeneous.


These states are poorer than the Blue States for the most part.   They tend to be Federal Tax consumers rather than Federal Tax producers. The opioid addiction population is centered in the Red States and the population is relatively less educated.


While these states have the bulk of the agriculture and manufacturing, these resources are generally controlled by large commercial concerns (for example, Tyson Foods, Archer Daniels Midland) that are unlikely to have much sympathy for any force disrupting their operations.


Blue States control the bulk of the nation's wealth and produce the nation's most valuable exports: services and intellectual property, which are also fairly hard to interdict, as compared to manufactured goods or agricultural products.


Blue States tend to have the majority of the better educated people


Most large cities have a large urban proletariat or underclass that may not be fully loyal to the current dispensation and who may prove to be restive or a burden in times of trial.


On the other hand, there is more of an overlap of interests in large cities between the privileged and that urban proletariat than is commonly believed, as demonstrated by Venkatesh's Floating City. Additionally, gangs have arisen as a stabilizing factor in neo-liberal societies, as demonstrated by Glenny's McMafia.


Large cities are not self-sufficient in food (or, for that matter, manufactured goods). On the other hand, most of the major cities in the Blue States are contagious to either the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean or Canada or Mexico.


Although most military personnel come from the Red States, one of the most storied units in OIF was TF WOLFHOUND, the 1-69 IN BN (NYARNG), raised in New York City and Long Island. Additionally, gangs may supply able and trainable combatants.


The fact that Federalism has declined considerably since the Civil War, implies that fewer career officers would return to their states, as men like Lee, Joseph Johnson and Longstreet did. Few people today consider their state their "nation" as Lee did, for example.


For these reasons, if any civil war followed the Red State/Blue State paradigm, I would say the comparative economic and logistical advantage is with the Blue States.              


What would the Grand Strategy of Such a Red State/Blue State Civil War be?


As with the Civil War, the Red States, like the Confederacy, would have specific terrain oriented objectives, in that case, Washington, DC, the enemy capital, and in this case, major population and economic centers, like the Acela Corridor, Chicago, LA and San Francisco.


Also, like the Civil War, the Blue States, like the Union, would need to execute a variant of Scott's "Anaconda Plan" to succeed, using diplomacy with Canada and Mexico to prevent Red State manufactured and agricultural goods from going through their ports and using the Navy to blockade Red State ports in the South East and on the Gulf Coast.


Thus the loyalty of the US Navy would be a strategic center of gravity. Others would include:


  1. the loyalty and proficiency of Army and Air National Guard forces in all states and control of their arms, equipment and logistics;
  2. the loyalty of agricultural and manufacturing concerns in the Red States;
  3. the USG (presumptively acting as a proxy for the Blue States) being able to influence Canada and Mexico to prevent Red State "blockade running" through their ports;
  4. .the USG's being able to convince Japan, the PRC and the EU to embargo Red State goods; and
  5. the USG being able to prevent other parties(for example, Putin's Russia or Iran or even IS or AQ) from intervening on behalf of the Red States to settle scores or shape the US political situation to their advantage).


All of these things, except the last, seem to be within the grasp of the Blue States and to provide an advantage to the Blue States. Therefore, all of these things are vulnerable to an effective attack by the Red States. Any combatant's greatest strengths provide a significant advantage to an opponent who can take them away or neutralize them.


As with Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, it would be an advantage for the Red States to develop an effective Navy. However, that would probably be impossible with the resources and time available, so they could acquire a comparable advantage by convincing the US Navy either not to take a side or to convince enough Naval personnel to desert or perform acts of sabotage sufficient to neutralize any attempt at blockade early on.


Much of what has been written about this topic has assumed something like either the American Civil War or the English Civil War, with both sides fielding organized forces, more or less from the beginning. In that event, if the US Army and the US Marine Corps remain loyal to the USG (again thinking of that as a proxy for the Blue States), The Blue States will win quickly and decisively, as with the 1991 Gulf War or as in OIF I in 2003.


On the other hand, if this began as a Phase I insurgency, and developed from there, denying the USG effective control of regions and making separate peace with industrial concerns in that region, it might have a chance for success. Phase I insurgencies have been conducted in the US recently, ranging from Gordon Kahl's tax revolt to The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, which controlled territory in Arkansas in the mid-1980s . . . until they were put down with comparative ease by the FBI Hostage Rescue Team ("HRT") in 1985. What has changed since then is that many more Americans have been exposed to Revolutionary Warfare by virtue of their having served in the Global War on Terrorism ("GWOT"). 


People like John Robb and William H. Lind have been concerned for over a decade that the GWOT could "follow s home."   Further, as proponents of the "4G War" concept, they believe that "2G" Militaries (like ours) cannot prevail in 4G Wars.


 A Phase I insurgency/4G War strategy could reduce USG control of less valuable areas and might allow Red State governors to force a "norm of Nullification" on the USG rather than a formal change of government or secession. However, since I suspect that the people who would act would have a mentality like that of the leadership of The Covenant, the Sword and the Army of the Lord, I doubt that will happen.


Michael B. Added May 23, 2017 - 8:00pm
Here's what "Uncle Billy" Sherman, who lived in the South and had many Southern friends, had to say to the Secesh:
"You people of the South don't know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don't know what you're talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it … Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth — right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail."
I think much of that remains true to this day.
George N Romey Added May 23, 2017 - 8:24pm
If civil war were to break out in the US it would be I believe anti establishment versus establishment and establishment supporters. One item that makes this difficult to predict is that there fervor anti establishment on both the right and the left. Would they combine forces?  Would they fight against each other?
If good paying jobs continue to erode and it infects the professional class more and more anything possible.  The poor and the lower middle class have been poor for generations.  They know no other life.  But take a bunch of MBAs with pedigree experience and have them lose their status, their possessions, their credit rating, etc. because the $100K a year gets replaced by a $30K service job is another story.
Finally, there is youth.  The 60s youth revolution occurred primary against Vietnam and secondary against previous generation morals.  Generations since then have been much morally closer.  Baby Boomers were not screaming about rock and roll and long hair to their millennial children.  Youth tends to be apathetic as a whole unless they start dying for little cause. 
Patrick Writes Added May 23, 2017 - 9:28pm
There will be no Civil War. There would have to a be a slow movement of people to majority red or blue states. The entire Midwest is up for grabs every election (just barely ticks over to blue or red depending on the candidate). The country is too integrated. If it got higher concentrations of "blue" or "red" you could get concerned. Right now, it would never happen. 
The English Civil War broke down (for the common man) along religious lines. The American Civil War around very different cultural norms and the ingrained institution of slavery. There is nothing close these kinds of differences at present. 
Jeffry Gilbert Added May 24, 2017 - 5:00am
One doubts the DUHmerican public's attention can be diverted from the Voice long enough to consider any option much less revolution.
John Minehan Added May 24, 2017 - 11:14am
Michael B,
I think that quite a lot of what Sherman said would be applicable here.
On one hand, I think that should either: 1) convince people not to do this at all; or 2) convince people who felt that this had to be done to do a 4G (and largely political) strategy which might be both more effective and less disruptive.
On the other hand, I think anyone who did this would have a mentality like that of The Covenant the Sword and the Arm of the Lord in the 1980s and pursue a strategy like the one in Billy Roper's recent article, that would be as bloody and disruptive as it would be ineffective. 
John Minehan Added May 24, 2017 - 11:20am
Patrick Writes,
I think what you describe is already happening, the "Big Sort."
I agree that there is no participating event on the horizon for a civil war.  I have always thought that without the issue of slavery, there would have been a peaceful secession around 1860 over economic issues.  With that issue there was a Civil War. 
Like you, I don't see anything like that today.  
John Minehan Added May 24, 2017 - 11:30am
I agree.  Put another way, societies with more older people don't answer the question "What are you rebelling against?" with "Whadda you got?" 
John Minehan Added May 24, 2017 - 11:32am
"One doubts the DUHmerican public's attention can be diverted from the Voice long enough to consider any option much less revolution."
But, isn't that a function of what the Voices are saying (or are understood as saying)?
Jeffry Gilbert Added May 24, 2017 - 11:53am
The Voice is a TV program and it's reference was intended to be a metaphor for all the nonsense created to divert their attention.
John Minehan Added May 24, 2017 - 12:27pm
But at a point, someone realizes that a faux revolution is the best diversion of all.
The problem would be getting that genie back in the bottle . . . .
Patrick Writes Added May 24, 2017 - 8:36pm
@John - I think if the Midwest ever "sorted" itself along political lines, you might be for some trouble. But at present, that region of about 8 states is integrated almost 50 / 50 as evidenced by Obama carrying 75% of the Midwest states in 2012 and Trump carrying 75% only 4 years later. It's not as heavily populated as the Upper East Coast and West Coast but has far much more than truly interior states like Kansas, Oklahoma, the Dakotas or Montana. 

Outside the Midwest, I understand the rest of the country is getting to be very concentrated "blue" or "red" though. 
John Minehan Added May 25, 2017 - 8:19am
The area's moribund economy might do that "sorting," but let's see.
Trump's general incompetence? inexperience? is not doing the Right any good.  But this also might make more people look for violent solutions . . . . 
Dino Manalis Added May 25, 2017 - 9:10am
We're the United States of America, we're not Syria or Libya, strong and indivisible!
John Minehan Added May 25, 2017 - 9:35am
"We're the United States of America, we're not Syria or Libya, strong and indivisible!"
I think the above indicates that a civil war is unlikely but far from inconceivable.
It would be very hard to either force secession or change the government, especially given the caliber of the people most likely to try. 
Billy Roper Added May 25, 2017 - 11:09am
There is an ongoing balkanization of America, as people vote with their feet and separate based on their political allegiances, which are euphemistically taking the open position for their ethnicity. Every day our nation is more polarized and divided. As I demonstrated through comparative census statistics and demographic studies in 'The Balk', what used to called White flight is increasing, and becoming a regional phenomenon, in reaction to blacks from the upper midwest and northeast moving back to the deep south, and Whites there responding by moving to the upper south. The same phenomenon is occurring out west in response to Mestizo immigration.
John Minehan Added May 25, 2017 - 11:47am
But you and people like you have no workable military solution.
Cut the crap.
Phil Greenough Added May 25, 2017 - 3:09pm
I believe societies like ours are less inclined towards civil war because we have so much to lose.  In other words, we already industrialized and we’re a leader in the economy of the future.  Let alone the fact we have the highest GDP in the world by a wide margin.  As a result of our advancement, we live longer and have less children.  This is true of all industrialized nations.  In other words, age alone doesn’t explain why we aren’t inclined towards civil war, it’s a host of reasons with age being a product of those reasons. 
Billy Roper Added May 25, 2017 - 3:10pm
That's assuming that people like me aren't already in the military. In all branches. At many levels. And that the balkanization of society doesn't extend to the military, as well. And that there will never be an exterior or internal event which creates a vacuum of federal power, or an abdication of the will to use that power. Keep assuming. The guys who became the Founding Fathers didn't have a workable military solution in 1775, either.
John Minehan Added May 25, 2017 - 3:18pm
Age is a proxy for what you are talking about, Mr. Greenough.  But it also includes a certain unwillingness to throw good money after bad, as typified by the Falstaff quote.
Arguably, the post-2008 economic slow down means we have less to lose, but I still see this as unlikely.   
Jeff Jackson Added May 25, 2017 - 8:18pm
Actually, the courts, while making some decisions in favor of the federal government, have made decisions in favor of the states. The FBI is refraining from enforcing federal laws in states that have legalized or decriminalized marijuana. Federalism is alive and well in America, and that is a good thing.
Mark Hunter Added May 25, 2017 - 11:59pm
The problem with predicting there won't be a civil war is that most people don't see that kind of thing coming in their countries ... until it comes.
Billy Roper Added May 26, 2017 - 8:29am
The Titanic was too big, well constructed, and luxurious to ever sink.
John Minehan Added May 26, 2017 - 3:22pm
"The problem with predicting there won't be a civil war is that most people don't see that kind of thing coming in their countries ... until it comes."
That's a fair point, but generally, people see it coming but don't know when . . . . 
John Minehan Added May 26, 2017 - 3:24pm
"Federalism is alive and well in America, and that is a good thing."
As is, based on your example and the absence of "Real ID" is Nullification, an underestimated political tool, if a legal nullity. 
Billy Roper Added May 26, 2017 - 5:47pm
It would be helpful to remember that the first American Revolution was in essence a civil war, and it depended on significant third party external participation to achieve the outcome we're all familiar with. George Washington had the French. The dissenting side in the next conflict may receive some help from Russia, with Love.
Thomas Napers Added May 27, 2017 - 5:03am
Whenever someone discusses how polarized our society is, I always bring up the civil war.  It really puts our political squabbles into perspective, today it’s simply a lot of hot air over nothing.  That doesn’t mean things can’t escalate and erupt into civil war, but let’s be honest, large amounts of people are not willing to lose their life over political differences anytime soon. 
Billy Roper Added May 27, 2017 - 6:45am
Large amounts of people don't matter, as Samuel Adams correctly observed, right before a small amount of people changed history.
John Minehan Added May 27, 2017 - 7:14am
"Large amounts of people don't matter, as Samuel Adams correctly observed, right before a small amount of people changed history."
True enough, if you have people on your side like Sam Adams (John Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Washington. et al.).
But apparently less true if you have people like the late Gordon Kahl, or the people behind The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord on your side.
Think of it this way, there has been an anti-government, revolutionary movement in Middle America since before the rise of AQ . . . and it has accomplished far less.  
John Minehan Added May 27, 2017 - 7:21am
Put another way, look at how far The Order (Brüder Schweigen ) got compared to AQ, where both organizations started at around the same time.
Look at how far the "Sovereign Citizen's" movement has gotten (Hint: most lawyers and judges view it as embarrassing, time-consuming nonsense).
It's a joke, Billy, and you are the only one not in on it.  
Nathaniel Smith Added May 27, 2017 - 8:49pm
I agree: civil war here is extremely unlikely.

Americans are far more involved with each other now than in 1861. Travel, moving from job to job, family in far-off states, national media and traditions will not readily be destroyed. And there is no single underlying issue of region vs. region.

Social media have their dangers but they also instantly transport ideas around the country and world.

Pennsylvania is one of the many purple states. It's not just one party against the other non-stop. In the county where I live, with 19,000 fewer Dem than R registered voters, Clinton won in November by 25,000 votes. I don't think "Red" and "Blue" Americans are about to start shooting each other—especially when many individuals, states, and counties switch back and forth at will.

Some people seem to think that Donald Trump can single-handedly destroy our democracy. As I wrote on January 1 at https://politicswestchesterview.wordpress.com/2017/01/01/more-times-that-try-mens-souls/: "this country, which was just coming into existence in Paine’s time, has been through much worse than Donald Trump."

Our democracy has many layers of defense: elective institutions, the patriotism of the political parties, the impact of the court system, journalism, the military, corporations (which really do not like disorder), and ultimately the people.

Although we can complain about certain details like the Electoral College, the Framers, who were skeptical about human nature, did a really good job of protecting us against the perils that can beset a democracy.

I don't see extremes like Saudi Arabia or Venezuela in our future, and I don't see civil war.
John Minehan Added May 27, 2017 - 10:31pm
Well stated! 
Billy Roper Added May 28, 2017 - 2:55pm
LOL. Spoken like a kike. Oh, that's right....
Jeff Michka Added May 28, 2017 - 8:07pm
Billy the Nazi gets to talk like one: Spoken like a kike. Oh, that's right...AND you celebrate traitorous former Americans, confederate scumbags, Third Riech icons, and want a divided USA for your own racial purposes.  You, simply, are a traitor, Billy, and all the "anti-communist" rallies won't make you a patriot.
Thomas Napers Added May 29, 2017 - 5:00am
Nathaniel Smith - “Although we can complain about certain details like the Electoral College, the Framers, who were skeptical about human nature, did a really good job of protecting us against the perils that can beset a democracy.”
If true, how do you explain the Civil War?  Our framers tried to deal with slavery at the onset of our nation and decided to take a pass.  I don’t fault them at the time, but it was that decision that ultimately led to the Civil War.
John Minehan – “Think of it this way, there has been an anti-government, revolutionary movement in Middle America”
There are anti-government revolutionaries all over this country.  It’s not concentrated in one political party and it’s not concentrated in one political ideology. 
Billy Roper Added May 29, 2017 - 11:10am
Balkanization and polarization are increasing every day.
John Minehan Added May 30, 2017 - 1:07pm
"There are anti-government revolutionaries all over this country.  It’s not concentrated in one political party and it’s not concentrated in one political ideology."

 And none of them have been particularly successful since 1861 and none of them have been ultimately successful since 1783.  That's sort of long odds, I think.