By Chris Arkenberg
Following an earlier 2017 survey, Foreign Policy’s Best Defense blog opened a poll about the likelihood of a second U.S. Civil War. However, framing it as a second civil war embeds numerous assumptions about warfare on U.S. soil that are based more on history than the current reality of how power acts in the world. The distinction is critical to effectively counter the emergence of networked violence in America.
It’s easy to imagine that a second civil war might proceed like the first: two institutionalized factions wielding state militaries against each other along prescribed strategic fronts. Generals would choose a side, those with the most troops and firepower at their disposal would claim victory. The outcome, we imagine, would likely be a winner-take-all restructuring of the United States.
But that’s not really how wars are fought in the 21st century. Indeed, much of the last century was about deconstructing the habits of large-scale, state-driven conventional warfare. As networks distribute power to the edges, warfighting shifts further away from a handful of monolithic forces and towards a diverse web of small actors. Warfare now often proceeds from ideologically and economically marginalized communities whose suffering and fear is wielded by cunning global actors. They become guerrillas, rebel factions, proxies, and insurgencies. Sometimes they look more like tribal conflicts composed along racial, religious, familial or economic lines, often on top of resource crises that push violence to become a necessary solution. But they are rarely simple two-sided conflicts.
To neglect this distinction risks missing the signs of coordinated disruption and violence. If we keep thinking in terms of opposed armies, we’ll fail to develop effective strategies for recognizing and containing networked, hybrid warfare.
For the United States, the shape of future homeland conflicts will be asymmetrical, distributed, and heterogeneous. A contemporary homeland conflict would likely self-compose with numerous dynamic factions organized by digital tools around ideological and affinity networks. It would likely be a patchwork of affiliated insurgency groups and their counterparts engaging in light skirmishes along the overlapping edges of their networks, mixed with occasional high-value terror attacks against soft and hard targets. Such groups are much smaller than conventional militaries and where they lack in firepower, they wield transgression. As in Charlottesville and Berkeley, the fronts are less territorial than ideological.
Furthermore, digital networks erode the boundaries of the state. Like the Islamic State and al Qaeda, any cell can browse the literature, claim allegiance in some far-flung burb, and start whipping up violence against their targets. Antifa and the Alt-Right are a hodge-podge of varying affinities loosely coupled under their respective brand names with local chapters coordinated across global networks. These are not top-down hierarchies. They’re agile and shapeless with the capacity to grow quickly then disappear.
“One simply cannot explain the speed and scale at which the Islamic State formed without that network effect,” Emile Simpson commented in another Foreign Policy article trying to augur the tremors of a new world war.
Just as we risk missing the signs of networked violence, thinking in terms of a classic civil war can blind us to the many actors working to disrupt the U.S. from within and beyond our borders.
Behind the extremists are often additional layers of benefactors and provocateurs: oligarchs, plutocrats, transnational criminal networks, and foreign powers wielding them on both sides towards their strategic goals. We’ve seen this with Russian-backed Facebook groups organizing right wing protests in the U.S., and in the increasing regularity of information warfare originating from Macedonian server farms, reclusive billionaires, and adversarial governments.
With these characteristics in mind we can envision what a modern U.S. civil war might look like. More sporadic and unexpected conflicts but with fewer deaths. Factions sprouting like mushrooms, taking different forms but coordinated across invisible networks. Waves of information warfare. Chaos and an accelerated bazaar of violence with a healthy immune response from the local and national authorities. The outcome (and probable goal) would likely be a fragmentation of the republic into smaller, more manageable alliances, though it may just as easily harden an increasingly authoritarian federal government. This is essentially how Russia waged its non-linear war against Ukraine.
To counter this emerging threat in America it’s critical to establish more formal practices for identifying and tracking domestic extremism — with an honest recognition that young, white males on both ends of the political spectrum are the most likely to commit violence. Likewise, we must formalize robust network analysis to map and track these distributed groups across their digital territories and to identify their backers, funders, and agitators. Finally, there needs to be a very serious conversation about how to regulate Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter as platforms for influence, instigation, propaganda, and recruiting.
For now, America is held in line by a strong rule of law and a good-enough economy that most people still have something to lose by choosing violence. But as our government and corporate leaders continue to deconstruct rule of law and economic opportunity, the norms degrade and the space for transgression becomes bigger. To FP’s poll, my gut says the likelihood of a second U.S. civil war in the next five years is between 20 and 40 percent but trending upward significantly.
Chris Arkenberg studies the interaction of disruptive technologies and complex systems. He is a technology analyst and strategist for Fortune 500, non-profit, and government clients. Among other roles, he’s been an advisor to the CTO of the Nature Conservancy, a visiting futurist with the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, a senior lecturer at the California College of the Arts, and a visiting researcher at Institute for the Future.
Some thoughts on how we might get from where we’re at now to a Second Civil War
You persuade your base that there is no other way but violence.
By Lt. Col. Robert F. McTague, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense office of Second Civil War affairs
If we have a second Civil War, trying to understand what is happening will feel more like Ukraine in 2014 than Virginia in 1861.
Our first Civil War was primarily about slavery, but that was in the context of social and economic models in the South that were ripe for extinction. The South’s reaction was to launch a last-ditch effort to maintain and prop up its way of life at all costs, so it was visceral and violent.
Likewise, Trump’s election was an angry, defiant death throe, a angry cry against demographic and economic changes that are in fact irreversible. So, if you are a New Right strategist today — call them the Great Disruptors — the question is, how do you confront those inevitabilities?
First, you continue at the low level, with some really advanced, effective gerrymandering, as in Wisconsin. You continue to enflame working class whites, who have been ignored by the Democrats for decades. You also try to limit immigration and free trade as much as possible.
Even so, even as they do this, the New Right’s Disruptors know they can slow down changes to the nation, but they can’t stop them. So what’s the next step? You up the ante. You make it holy war. You persuade your base that there is no other way but violence. I believe many, perhaps most, of the members of Trump’s base will sign up for that.
Why? Because they will believe they are on the side of good, of right, of Americanism.
Many people in the South and heartland in general often think of themselves as patriotic, loyal Americans, more so than “liberals,” “Yankees,” “elites” and people from the North and urban areas. I know this well from two decades in the Army. Southerners nowadays, including Texans, often see themselves as the “realer Americans,” the people who really stand up for the country, who have a better feel for what it stands for.
How do you translate those feelings into tactics? Well, first, you don’t secede. Rather, you set the stage for yourself to be the big winner, the good guy. You make yourself “America” and make the “other guys” the troublemakers and secessionists. All you really are doing, you insist, is trying to make this country great again. Sound familiar?
You set out to marginalize your opposition. You declare that your enemies are the anti-American “elites,” concentrated in “Sanctuary Cities” that are economically thriving — and thumbing their noses are the rest of the country. They’re looking at you, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, Miami, Atlanta, Charlotte, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.
The bad news for Disruptors is, these elitist cities are also many of the US’s largest ports and financial centers. The good news: they are easy to isolate and disenfranchise.
If I were a truly Machiavellian New Right strategist, I’d focus my fire on the state of California. Make it The Other. Attack it relentlessly. Threaten its culture and power. Cut off water that flows into it from outside the state, essential to its people and agriculture. Ignore those nettlesome decisions from the 9th Circuit.
Think of how it would benefit the base if California somehow withdrew from the next presidential election, sat it out in protest. Sound crazy? It is, but it’s also exactly the kind of audacious reshaping of the American electorate these strategists need.
The Disruptors would accept violence as part of the equation. I don’t foresee set-piece battles between great armies, but I think they understand the strategy would involve persistent conflict that kills hundreds or even thousands on the way to achieving its aims. If they can get away with it with minimal bloodshed, great; if not, “so be it.”
In March, my totally unscientific hunch was a second civil war had less than a 20% chance of happening. Now I’m guessing it’s closer to 40%. The revision is less a reaction to the current president or perceived deterioration of the political environment as it is a revision of my own understanding of “where we are.” I’ve lately become persuaded that our current leaders are nearly incapable of mediation, reconciliation, or compromise in much of anything, regardless of the stakes; nor do I expect that to improve. If anything, I expect it to worsen.
I now think that something akin to the scenario I’ve presented here is only a matter of time. Why? Because for the New Right, it is the only alternative to political extinction. Soon, they will have no choice but to be bold, drastic and ruthless. We’d be foolish not to expect something real and violent as a result.
Robert F. McTague retired in 2016 as a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army. He did two tours in Iraq, and also served in Kuwait, Qatar, Korea, Croatia, Romania, and Turkey. He completed two NATO tours as well. He now makes his home in Bucharest, Romania.
Rumblings of a second Civil War: Some links
More information on a second Civil War.
“Roger Stone Predicts a Civil War if Donald Trump is Impeached,” Salon
“Georgia Governor Expects Lawmakers to Plunge into Civil War Debate Next Year,” AJC
“Alex Jones and Other Conservatives Call For Civil War Against Liberals,” Newsweek
“Savage: Civil War if Trump Taken Down,” Infowars
“Is America Headed for a New Kind of Civil War?” the New Yorker
“Our House Divided,” the New York Times
“Pro-Confederate Activists Held ‘Secession Day’ Event at Roy Moore’s Foundation Two Years in a Row,” CNN