Sunday Sermon: Don’t Worry About That Civil War

There’s a lot of talk going around about whether there’s going to be a civil war in the US. If you’re worried about that, let me adjust your fears, slightly. The situation is dangerous, and we should collectively respond by ruthlessly disempowering the republican party, then turning on the democrats and forcing them to split into progressives and centrists – and then controlling their agenda. That probably won’t happen, so let me just console you about the civil war.

Atlanta, 1864

Today’s militant idiocreeps that talk about civil war are referring back to the US civil war of 1861-1865. Contrary to the ideology a lot of americans accept, the outcome of that war was almost certainly never in doubt, although the south managed to eke out a political victory after a crushing military defeat, by the simple process of: acting as if nothing had happened. Of course things happened, but politically, the south managed to defang ‘reconstruction’ so that high treason was a sort of laudable political error, and they developed a complex, cobbled-together political system of disenfranchisement and violent threats that allowed them to continue to oppress black americans, to this day. It has been a difficult job untangling the Jim Crow regime because its very complexity and cobbled-together nature makes it impossible for there to be a single effective point of attack. Instead, the entire system must be ripped out and crushed, which – as southerners will quickly point out – has economic consequences, etc. As an aside, it appears to me that the southerners’ love of having black people to oppress has intensified after the well-deserved thrashing they took during the civil war; these are stubborn, stupid people who have bought into an emotional stratagem that ought to be familiar to incels everywhere: our vice is actually our virtue and we’re really noble people. That emotional response is important, today, because they still cling to a completely undeserved sense of superiority. This is a massive statement of the obvious, but an undeserved sense of superiority is, basically, what racism is. Violence is all that’s left. And the south already tried to demonstrate their superiority on the battlefield, and got clubbed down like baby seals.*

What about the right-wing militias that are going to cause chaos and violence? Not much, really. Here’s the thing: currently they are being very careful to hang back and not be starting fights unless they’re numerically superior  – which says a lot about their own perception of their superiority; it’s realistic. But, if they’re going to wait until they’re numerically or tactically superior for a large-scale action, they’re going to wait forever because they’re not superior at all. As I write this, the Proud Boys had a scheduled “day of rage” in Portland at which they projected 20,000 strong to show up, but wound up with between 200 and 300. [dailykos] The Proud Boys have been reduced to trumping up their numbers and are claiming 2,000, which is such a clear falsehood even the press are calling them on it. This is just another wretched example of right-wing organizations planning an intimidating rally and having it turn into a cosplay session where a vastly outnumbered bunch of fascists or sheet-wearing KKK stand around behind a police cordon that is there to protect them from a well-deserved beating. I’m not particularly scared when I see the militias, because, to me, they look like pop-up targets who are cosplaying at being soldiers. If they want to use violence to demonstrate their superiority, just like the south, they’re going to get clubbed down like baby seals.

proud boys’ tactical discipline; they look like fashy cosplayers

I have tried to explain elsewhere that the inner tensions in a revolution do not make it so simple as “overthrow the government, establish our rule” [stderr] because the parties involved will suddenly find they disagree about a lot of things. Hitler, in the shambles after WWI and the Wiemar Republic, had a lot of things going for him that today’s “let’s have a civil war” crowd simply do not – starting with a government that was a shambles, allowing Hitler to fill what was mostly a vacuum (after some shoving) with a focused ideological movement. The US government is not a shambles like Hitler confronted – far from it – in fact it is a global superpower that can wipe its feet on anybody and that has been gaining a great deal of practice, lately, at fighting and losing insurgencies. Sure, there are parts of the US military that might be unsure which side they are supporting, and when, but they’ll fall in line with their command structure because of the aforementioned foot-wiping, and the command structure will fall in line with where it owes its allegiance: the Washington establishment. Which is just as much anti-Trump as it is pro-Trump. Even the republican parts of the Washington establishment are going to hang back and watch to see what happens, before they throw down treason. There are definitely people in Washington who are hate-filled enough to throw down treason, but they’re the latest breed of the southern aristodipshittery, they are not competent to organize a war. If I had to lay money on who in Washington could organize a civil war, it’d be on AOC and Ilhan Omar. Elizabeth Warren is probably the only one I’d expect to show any competence at grand strategy though I admit Mitch McConnell is a good tactician and someone who’d be lethal with a dagger in a dark alley, but only from behind. What I am saying is, if some idiots try to start a civil war, there won’t be anyone in Washington who is willing to grab the reins of that power, step into the spotlight, throw down treason, and take control. I do doubt that any of the Washington set have met in secret to even discuss the possibility, because if you think about it, it’s a dumb idea and they’re rather obviously comfortable with the status quo. I’d be worried if there was a Douglas MacArthur or a Smedley Butler hanging around in the wings, but the US’ military hero factory has lately been coughing up bureaucrat-nonentities of questionable competence; do you see the troops flipping and rallying around David Petraeus? Ironically, Trump was right: the Washington elite are a bunch of losers – on both sides. Where he’s wrong is he’s crazy and overestimates himself. There is no Napoleon Bonaparte for the civil war buffs to rally to, unless it’s (horse-laugh) Ammon Bundy? Don Jr? The fact that there is a severe dearth of resolute leadership in Washington should be comfort to us all.

But there are other reasons we should not worry – reasons that go beyond the incompetence and ridiculousness of the enemy. I’ve already framed out the first for you, but let me make it explicit: the political structures necessary to make a civil war are simply non-existent right now. During the first civil war, the decision to rebel against the established government was made at the level of states. Political entities that already embodied massive organizational frameworks that could be kicked over toward organizing for a war. If Trump loses and refuses to leave office, there may be a republican chucklefuck governor who gives a speech about how they’re thinking about calling out the national guard, but there will not be a coalition of states throwing down treason in quick succession and declaring themselves to be a new nation, like happened in 1861. Remember, too, that in 1861 the southern states had been talking about it and maybe planning a bit, for a while. Sure, those plans weren’t solid, but there’s an important thing that happens when you start planning a war: you start sorting through the people around you and seeing who’s reliable and who’s not, and who’s going to get purged and who won’t, etc. Right now, we are a nation that has been dealing with a great deal of political division, but the response has been largely political: lawsuits, impeachment, long-winded speeches, and – sure – idiots standing around with guns, because the south will probably always have a lot of those, but nobody’s even thinking how to use them as cannon-fodder, yet. Remember: Hitler was able to occupy a power-vacuum in a failed state, whereas a proponent of civil war today would be trying to divide the largest conglomeration of financial and political interests in the history of mankind. The situation does not resemble Weimar Germany, it resembles Rome before Sulla. There are a tremendous number of body-blows that need to be delivered to the political foundations of the US – and Trump has started with a few of them – but any cracks you see are superficial. The one crack, which is genuine, is america’s addiction to racism, which has been a problem and will be until the political foundations of the US are razed and replaced with something a bit less xenophobic and more humanitarian. [That, by the way, I am afraid will happen step-wise as white supremacy loses out to demographics, but it won’t happen in my lifetime so it’s safe to predict]

The second reason there won’t be a civil war is that the US military of today is profoundly different from the military of 1861. The type of logistical systems they had in 1861 were vastly more simple than what they have, today, and – in case you hadn’t noticed – the military is integrated. Sure, the military appears to be dominated by right-wing dipshits, but the US military of today could not divide itself in half, like an amoeba, and yield two functioning militaries. That was actually the case in 1861, too, but it was less obvious and the southerners were able to convince themselves that they could win a war without having any significant industrial capacity, having a land-locked economy based on exporting drugs and cotton, and having minimal railway networks. First off, once he understood trains (which would have taken him 10 minutes) Napoleon would have looked at the south’s military situation and potential, and laughed. Now, what’d the “new south”‘s military look like? Um. There’s only one actually scary scenario but it’s highly speculative so I’ll leave it below the divider. But, really, if you want an idea of what it might look like – worst case scenario, it’s the Potemkin – and, the situation in Kronstadt in 1905 – a battleship flipped sides to the bolsheviks, but then discovered that things were more complicated than just bread and solidarity, and the battleship became its own polity of sorts. Lots of people get killed; that’s how that sort of thing plays itself out. The sailors did not have a chance to plan sensibly, and acted on the spur of the moment. Civil wars that succeed don’t happen that way. Revolutions do. [I am making a distinction between “a revolution” which is when the people get so angry that they rise en masse and overthrow the government, and “a civil war” which is when there are two contenders for who is the government. E.g.: the Russian revolution sequed into a civil war.]

None of this is to say that there won’t be frustrated right-wing nutjobs who decide to offer themselves as sacrifice, but I predict it will not be organized, if they do. For one thing, the right-wing nutjobs have been fairly careful to absorb the “how to insurgency” lessons they believe are in The Turner Diaries which teach, among other things, that stochastic attacks are best. I.e.: no organization, so the FBI or the official government cannot roll up your command structure. That works well for trouble-making and kicking off a personal terror campaign, but civil wars originate in the clash of organized militaries in service of organized would-be governments. Trump can’t government his way out of a wet paper bag and most of his followers aren’t much better. A few of them, however, may need to be clubbed down like baby seals and we should be prepared to resolutely and ruthlessly follow that programme if that’s what they insist upon. On that note, remember that the United States is such a vicious, hateful bunch that our CIA not only reached out and murdered US citizen Anwar Al Awlaki, they killed his 16 year-old son and 8 year-old daughter. Only a ridiculously stupid southern chucklefuck would mess with people who play that rough.**

------ divider ------* clubbed down like baby seals:  usually in discussions of the civil war someone comes along about now and says “the south had a chance, early on, because the union generals at the beginning of the war were imbeciles.” Well, for the south to have a chance, the union’s political leadership would have had to remain remarkably comfortable with lousy battlefield commanders for the duration of an entire war.

The scary and credible scenario is one that literally keeps me up at night, sometimes. You remember that great movie with Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman, Red Tide – where Hackman decides he’s going to order a ballistic missile sub that he commands to launch a spread of nuclear weapons? There’s a lot of back and forth in the movie about who has the key(s) to the missile launch consoles, etc, but the important fact of that movie is hidden: the command/control system that allegedly prevents someone from getting a wild hair and launching a nuke does not apply to ballistic missile subs. The missiles in a boomer do not have a permissive action link that is tied to National Command Authority (NCA) it’s tied to the sub’s command authority – that’s because the (it’s changed now) purpose of a ballistic missile sub is retaliation-strike, and it may be the case that the NCA is unreachable because they’re a smoking hole. Boomer captains are supposed to be pretty stable characters; it is a position of global responsibility, after all. But what if there’s a boomer captain who’s into Qanon? What I said earlier about the current US military not dividing neatly like an amoeba does not apply with the nuclear arsenal.

** If you’re a fan of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History there you can insert some of his commentary about what incredibly horrible ruthless bastards the Assyrian kings were; because what the US did to Al Awlaki and his gene-line is light foreplay in their world.

Random thought: remember, the French army’s big innovation was to march and live off the land; they had relatively light logistics, which let them favor firepower and mobility. By the time of the US civil war, the military would not have been capable of fighting a sudden campaign like Napoleon’s 100 days. By WWI and WWII mobilizing an army was a massive undertaking. Remember the build-up to both of the gulf wars? They were excruciatingly long, to the point where the president was complaining about it to CNN. Today’s US military would need at least 2 years of preparation, and 300 billion dollars, to prepare to fight against itself.

Note: as this is a “sermon” I took the liberty of asserting abbreviated forms of my arguments, rather than going through citing references. I believe that the conclusions I present, drawn from my understanding of history and politics, are honest and accurate (or I wouldn’t say them) but I am not going to have a response to anyone who says “well your conclusions are wrong” this is an opinion piece. I guess we’ll all know by February.


  1. komarov says

    “[…] the command structure will fall in line with where it owes its allegiance: the Washington establishment. ”

    There never was a more generous paymaster than the US government. Maybe they should use that as a justification for their future budgets. “We’ve bred a hulking military beast and at this point we’re worried what’ll happen if we stopped feeding it.”

    “[…] the US military of today could not divide itself in half, like an amoeba, and yield two functioning militaries. ”

    Could we have a definition of “functioning military”, please? Even the undivided US military of today might not meet it, unless it’s simplistic like “hit target with bombs”. In that case it’s working perfectly – unless we split hairs about “target hit” vs. “intended target”.
    I supose “not in constant rebellion” is also a goal met. Perhaps that’s another advantage of a short-term democracy over ancient government: If the turn-over is short enough the pretorians may just decide to wait out the occasional unpopular emperor. All that murder must be hard work.

    “The sailors did not have a chance to plan sensibly, and acted on the spur of the moment. Civil wars that succeed don’t happen that way. Revolutions do.”

    I’m not sure I’d call the Russian revolution successful, since there were a couple of them in rapid succession and that big civil war. The one in 1905 didn’t even go beyond reforms, which we’re rolled back again in one of the Tsar’s last and, in some ways suicidal, acts. Sure, the winner get’s to declare it a success after the fact, but it was touch and go for the Bolsheviks. The final revolution in 1917 worked – for them – and just about managed to win the civil war. Followed soon after by the Terror, so in my mind there isn’t exactly a clear end-date to all the upheaval an chaos that began with the revolutions, just a transition to a different operating regime.

    “Today’s US military would need at least 2 years of preparation, and 300 billion dollars, to prepare to fight against itself.”

    Add another two years for the endless committees deciding who gets to be on which side and gets which assets. Three if there has to be one to decide just how many sides there should be. (Democrats, Republicans, Southerners and Not-Racist-Just-Proud-Heritage-Southerners)

    “I guess we’ll all know by February.”

    Trump is practically declaring thimself the winner now, so he would – could – never wait that long to start something big following a numerical election loss. If legal challeges weren’t going anywhere I doubt he could hold himself back until the year is out. If a president / usurper does start something his* supporters either follow then and there or not at all. No waiting for the deadline when he officially becomes a tyrant.

    *I should use the generic “they” but don’t think the US is ready for a female (or minority) dictator yet. Maybe in 30 or 40 years.

  2. says

    A point I should have made somewhere:
    If the Proud Boys start attacking national guard armories and taking charge of grown-up military gear, then they have switched to thinking they have local superiority and can stand up to a real military. They’d be wrong about that, too, but that’s a good litmus test: if we see Proud Boy -operated M-1 tanks then there is a civil war on.

  3. xohjoh2n says

    The situation does not resemble Weimar Germany, it resembles Rome before Sulla.

    What a cheerful thought:

    Sulla played an important role in the long political struggle between the Optimates and Populares factions at Rome. He was a leader of the former, which sought to maintain the Senatorial supremacy against the social reforms advocated by the latter, headed by Marius. In a dispute over the command of the war against Mithridates, initially awarded to Sulla by the Senate but withdrawn as a result of Marius’s intrigues, Sulla marched on Rome in an unprecedented act and defeated Marius in battle. The Populares nonetheless seized power once he left with his army to Asia. He returned victorious from the East in 82 BC, marched a second time on Rome, and crushed the Populares and their Italian allies at the Battle of the Colline Gate. He then revived the office of dictator, which had been inactive since the Second Punic War over a century before. He used his powers to purge his opponents, and reform Roman constitutional laws, in order to restore the primacy of the Senate and limit the power of the tribunes of the plebs.

  4. says

    What a cheerful thought:

    I was trying to imply that we don’t have anything like Sulla, yet and that Trump’s nowhere near that level of threat.

    Prior to Sulla was the struggle between the Optimates (establishment) and Populares (populists) e.g.: the Gracchi brothers. But there was also Marcus Livius Drusus. It was a turbulent time with occasional violence and a lot of political dysfunction. The period is sometimes referred to as “the social wars” and some historians mark it as the beginning of the end of the republic.

  5. says

    The wild card is the US military. It could be like 1989, either pro-democracy like the Soviet army or pro-dictatorship like the PLA. It won’t be like 1861.

    Given the words of US generals current and retired about Cheetolini, I suspect the leadership is more likely to stand on the ethical side. But the rank and file may be another story, given the demographic split (57% white, 43% Black or People of Colour). Non-white people are in a higher percentage in the US military than the general population, but whites are still a majority; how many of them will stand for democracy over dictatorship? Especially with history of religious indoctrination (e.g. fundies at the air force academy) and the lowering of admission standards for the military (Rumsfeld’s rejects, the modern version of “McNamara’s Morons”).

    You might even see division within the military – the highest ranking officers (pre-Bush) and the lowest recruits (Millennials, most likely to be socially progressive) seeing eye to eye, while the middle ranks (sargeants to colonels) support the regime. If that happens like that, things will work out.

  6. lorn says

    I really think the regular military, possibly not without exceptions, will stay out of the political fray.

    This leaves the various militias, boy’s clubs, knitting circles, and such. IMHO the best any non-government quasi-military organizations will be able to do, and nearly the only role/strategy I can see them profiting from is to model their actions after the early KKK. Essentially, given their dispersed nature and loose associations they will stage small actions into perceived liberal enclaves and against individuals they take as leaders or troublesome.

    Look for Friday night rides in pickup trucks by a variable team of good-ole-boys based upon who has gas, guns, and is not in the doghouse with their wife. The intention is to intimidate and terrorize the libs and to have a good time. Picture Colombian death squads without the dedication, training, heavy weapons, organization, leadership, or any vision of how any of this is supposed to work. They will mostly work locally because they can’t stay out too late because they have church on Sunday and work on Monday.

    Early on they will be fairly easy to coax down the garden path into an ambush where they are savaged. I suspect that probably 80% of them really don’t have the stomach for actual warfare. Cosplay and militaria are fine but bleeding … not so much.

    If they later get help from insurgency trained military, and are eventually organized and led, they will learn rapidly. At which point they will be much more effective and get into classic guerilla tactics and assassinations.

  7. archangelospumoni says

    Many thanks for the post and the comments, but I offer David Brin. Cal Tech bachelor’s degree, PhD in Space Science from Cal, (hard) science fiction author, futurist, thinker. He hypothesizes that we are presently in Phase 8 (eight) of our “original” Civil War. We usually automatically think our Civil War was over in 1865, but not so.

    Please google David Brin Phases Civil War. Thought-provoking, airtight, only lacking the part about carrying muskets. You’ll thank me for this post.
    Archangelo Spumoni

  8. says

    I’m familiar with Brin. He’s a smart guy.

    I don’t see any realistic point in re-defining “civil war” to mean “not war” but low-level conflict. He may as well say that there has been an extended period in which there has been political and economic conflict – and that would be right. It has flared up to military conflict and low-level insurgency, but it’s stretching common understanding of “war” past the breaking-point to call that a continuing civil war. The civil war of 1861-1865 had all of the rituals of a war – a beginning (declaration) and end (surrender) I think Brin may be offering some interesting concepts and I’ll check them out, but I don’t want to re-parse what appears to be established history.

    [Update: OK, I read it. Not impressed. For one thing, the argument that “the sides are the same, therefore let’s call it one war” runs counter to how history is done; we don’t refer to all the Punic Wars, for example, as one war because it was Rome versus Carthage. Referring to the wars as distinct helps us know what we are talking about because otherwise we’re stuck referring to “the Punic War” and then adding a bunch of other information to it, to locate our reference in time.

    Also, I’m surprised, given his thesis, that he did not contextualize the assassination of Lincoln as continued guerilla action – which it kind of was – and part of a resumption of war by other means. His description of reconstruction omits the extremely important and timely role Andrew Johnson played in mooting reconstruction.

    He and I are agreed, apparently, that racism and slavery have been the fault-line running through US history since before the colonies seceded from England – he didn’t catch that, though – and that it has been an endless source of conflict of all sorts: political, military, economic, and philosophical. That doesn’t make it an ongoing war, it makes it an ongoing unresolved conflict. Perhaps it helps him to contextualize that as a single “war” but I don’t think that’s particularly helpful since it places him in opposition to established historiography without adding significantly to it.]

  9. julezyme says

    What do we do with the information that local cops are often aligned with, turn blind eyes towards, or even actively support Proud Boy types? We have thousands of militarized police forces bent on suppressing dissent. Do we call it something different that civil war if citizen militias have the backing of local cops against the populace? Or would we just call that an expansion of the status quo against Black Americans with franchise extended to a big chunk of other demographics?

  10. Dauphni says

    When the people being targeted don’t have the resources to fight back on equal footing we usually call that “genocide”.

  11. aquietvoice says


    It’s totally fair for you to think of civil war in the organized terms you’ve layed out.
    However, when dealing with what people experience, I think most people are more likely to put the divide in a different place: if their lives are ruled mostly by laws and social constructs, there is a functioning state. If local physical power and group allegiance is more important, then it’s civil war.

    People who are talking about civil war, IMO, are more talking about a situation where groups of armed citizens are able to go out and attack people.

    People have had to deal with instances where this is true for a long time – especially when dealing with racism. However, something that a lot of people have found confronting recently are large numbers of people believing in wildly different versions of reality – for instance that masks choke a person if worn – no longer just in the media but in a very visible day-to-day sense in the real world.

    Combined with new lows in the confidence people have in the police, and people have pretty good reason to worry that local force is going to be important on a much larger scale than before.
    You may be familiar with violence but most people aren’t, and they are pretty rightly terrified of an outcome like that.

    Civil war – in the American Civil War sense – may not be likely, but honestly dividing by daily experience rather than organization is a pretty valuable way of looking at it, even if it isn’t communicated well.

    tl, dr: Daily random violence isn’t close to civil war in an organizational sense but from the perspective of people’s regular lives it’s much closer to civil war than it is to cooking dinner.

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