November 01, 2016
Every time I wanted to dismiss those headlines I thought about my visit to Ukraine last year, to cover their ongoing civil war. The most common sentence I heard was, “It’s like a bad dream.” Up to the minute the shooting started, almost no one thought civil war was a serious possibility.
So instead of waking up one day and screaming, “Holy shit, I can’t believe I didn’t take this possibility seriously,” I decided to take the possibility seriously. I talked to David Kilcullen, former Chief Strategist in the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator of Counterterrorism. He helped plan the successful “surge” in Iraq, and he’s seen a lot of civil wars in his time. He didn’t consider a new U.S. civil war likely … but he was also pretty damn far from ruling it out: “I think what we’re seeing now is, what I would describe as a proto-insurgency situation … the ingredients are out there, if somebody knew what they were doing, [they could] pull together an effective movement.”
So in the unlikely (but possible) event the U.S. broke out in a new civil war, what would it look like? I rounded up every civilian and military expert I could find and asked them that question. To my surprise, they all got back to me, and with the terrifying thought of me now definitely being on a U.S. terrorist watch list for doing this research, I learned …
The Beginning Looks A Lot Like Where We Are Right Now
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Since 1972, the General Social Survey has collected data on how many Americans think “most people can be trusted.” A guy named Josh Morgan graphed it, and while the south has always taken a more “we don’t like your kind ’round here” position, most of America started the 70s in a pretty good place:
Now fast-forward to 2012:
“Trust” isn’t just an intangible concept when we’re talking about the potential for civil warfare. Sinisa Malesevic is a professor who studies the sociology of civil wars and a survivor of the Yugoslavian civil war. He’s someone Marvel really should’ve reached out to for script advice, and he noted the breakdown of trust was one of the first traumatizing steps to war, “… in a very short period of time, there is a complete sense of fear, you do not know who is who, who is supporting which side … that fear spreads.”
Sinisa also pointed out that most civil wars start after a loss of trust in the government, particularly law enforcement: “One of the defining features of any state is a legitimate monopoly on the use of violence.” In other words, if we trust the police to handle bad guys better than armed groups of vigilantes, we’ll probably trust the government more than armed groups of insurgents.
“And if police are not seen as doing their job … I think that certainly has an impact.”
Colonel David Couvillon, a Marine Reserve officer who governed the Wasit province of Iraq after the start of the occupation, pointed out that insurgents can win without convincing anyone that they’re “right.” It’d be enough to push most Americans into the “both sides are evil” camp, which … isn’t an unfamiliar place for most of us to be:
“If you undermine the moral authority that the government or the military or the police forces have, you win. Then they become the enemy to everybody … it may not goad you into armed insurgency, but it will goad you into a certain acceptance. And once the guerrillas reach acceptance, they have a path to win.”
And so a big part of any hypothetical U.S. rebellion’s job, undermining public confidence in the police, has already been accomplished by the deadly alliance of “our police acting the way they’ve always acted” and “smartphones.” This isn’t just happening on the left wing, either. David Kilcullen is worried that the FBI is nearing a legitimacy crisis among American conservatives: “That’s why I think the politicization of the FBI via the Hillary emails … is very dangerous. People now start to see the FBI as a political secret police … there’s always been a belief that this is the case but that hasn’t been [widespread].”
This is important because it’s the FBI’s job to deal with domestic terrorism, including all those right-wing militias, and they can only do their job if people on the extreme right trust them … which now that I think about it, sounds like one of the really crappy episodes of Heroes back when it first started to dip into “this sucks” territory. Daryl Johnson, a former Homeland Security analyst who specialized in the militia movement, pointed out that “militia members turning on other militia members” is how the FBI gets a ton of its information. After the Oklahoma City Bombing, the Bureau started “setting up communications channels” with members of the militia movement “to try and defuse some of the paranoia.” But, he added, “Definitely since Ferguson there’s been an erosion of public trust in law enforcement in both the far right and far left.” And as for the public’s trust in the American government well, this Pew graph says more than I could without just making fart noises with my mouth.
So, how’s our hypothetical civil war likely to kick off?
The Violence Could Start With Farms Choking The Cities
Alex Wong/Getty Images
David Kilcullen was bullish on Deliverance country as the site for the start of our hypothetical Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo, “… Southern Appalachia.”
He noted that he wasn’t yet seeing “the organization out there” that might portend a bubba-dominated insurgent movement, but also noted that, “… it’s like a gathering series of storm clouds and it’s yet to get to a lighting strike”.
Colonel Couvillon also thought any conflict was likely to start in a rural area, “…people talk about, is it gonna be class warfare, race warfare … is it gonna be north versus south? Personally, I think it’s gonna be urban versus rural.”
It’s easy to imagine the basic scenario. Some Cliven Bundy-like stand-off on a ranch or in a small town sets up our Hollywood-loving brains for a Swayze-led shootout between folksy ranchers and imperial fucking stormtroopers:
Stephen Brashear/Getty Images
Ammon Bundy and the other militia who occupied the Malheur Wildlife Refuge were acquitted by a jury of their peers. That should give you an idea of how much support the American militia movement has in certain parts of the country. Daryl Johnson, our former Homeland Security analyst, worried that many rural police departments would be unable to effectively suppress their militia because, “… a lot of these rural police departments are outmanned and outgunned by the militia … you have a small department, in some areas there may be twice as many or three times as many militia members.”
During our talk David Kilcullen brought up something called the boomerang effect, where “… colonial powers go overseas, and apply techniques to suppressing colonial foreign subjects which then again come to their homeland.” In other words, “… techniques pioneered in Iraq and Afghanistan … being brought to the United States.” He’s talking about things like roadside bombs. David was particularly worried about a substance called Tannerite, which is totally legal to purchase and is basically Michael Bay boner fuel: “I am astounded that you can buy tannerite online … what tannerite is, is ammonium nitrate plus powdered aluminum. World War 2 bombs were filled with stuff that is essentially the same thing.”
How To Hunt It’s as much fun as it looks. It’s also as deadly as it looks so … scratch?
And a wide enough roadside bombing campaign could literally starve many American cities. 90% of food in the U.S. is transported by truck. Colonel Couvillon called our highway system a “key vulnerability” in any hypothetical civil war. And added, “Our way of life right here is about nine meals from anarchy.”
The United States military is forbidden from directly engaging in law enforcement within the boundaries of the United States. It’s a rule called posse comitatus. Colonel Couvillon explained that, for officers at least, “… it’s ingrained … you’re not the brownshirts, you’re not the Gestapo, you’re not the kempe thai, or any of the other strong-armed people … [in] the military, um, the posse comitatus rules are golden. They adhere to those consistently.”
But if mass starvation was on the table (er … off the table? I think I just created a paradoxical metaphor), you can bet the military would get called out to help fight the insurgency. Colonel Couvillon seemed to view that as a nightmare proposition, “If you remember the riots in LA in the middle nineties … when they called the marines up from Camp Pendeleton, that was traumatic. That shook the military all over the place …” Deploying American soldiers to fight American insurgents would be several Old Yellers of magnitude more traumatizing, “… say you move a combat unit from, ah … Fort AP Hill … into New York, and 10% of your army guys are from New York. And all of a sudden they’re facing possible relatives … do they turn more aggressive or less aggressive, what happens?”
Newsweek This doesn’t even cover the possibility of some members being people you may have actually served with. (More on that in a bit)
Nobody really knows. But he was willing to admit that a U.S. military crackdown on any kind of insurgency could get really ugly. Like Gary Busey’s teeth levels of ugly.
“There’s always restraint there to start with. And then the insurgency or the protests can incite the forces … and if you have superior weapons and start to bear down on [them], then it becomes an atrocity …”
And, if that happens, it’d be playing right into the insurgent’s hands.
The Revolution Will Plagiarize ISIS’s Tactics
Since David Kilcullen’s actually helped fight a couple of civil wars, I asked him to which strategies he thought we’d be most likely to see in our hypothetical civil war. He seemed most concerned with a new jihadi strategy, outlined in The Management of Savagery, a book that was basically the blueprint ISIS used to build their McMansion of Suffering.
None of those strategies included learning cover design.
“You don’t try to generate a mass movement … you don’t try to get the state to crack down on you, instead you try to generate a sectarian civil war so intense it makes the society ungovernable … and then you bring forth a sort of rules based system to give people predictability.”
The outbreak of that civil war wouldn’t look all that different from the normal news cycle, at first. David noted that it might start with a series of politically-motivated mass shootings and bombings, carried out with the express intent of generating copycat attacks. It’s not as crazy as it sounds; ISIS didn’t spend a dime to make the Orlando attack happen, they just had to convince the right guy with a gun. All these attacks are carried out with, “the conscious goal of … generating a backlash … I think it’s just a matter of time. There’s nothing about those ISIS propaganda techniques that’s inherently Islamic. It’s just a technique.”
And the most vocal militiamen out there aren’t shy in pointing out that they’re already looking to successful Islamic insurgent movements for inspiration. Check out this website by a militia who apparently think web design peaked in 1999.