Over the last few weeks a growing number of people have started wondering, “Is it possible the United States is heading for a new civil war?” Granted, most of those people are writers for sites like Russia Today or the Huffington Post, and thus slightly less credible than a handful of Bazooka Joe gum wrapper comics. But Donald Trump has made a few tinpot dictator-ish statements recently.
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 definitelybeing 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 HuntIt’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?”
NewsweekThis 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.
“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.
They cite the fighting in the war on terror as a reason why a band of bearded, oxycontin-popping hillfolk might overthrow the U.S. government:
When your best-case scenario is, “Be like the Taliban” it might be time to rethink your value system.
But a few scattered bands of armed nuts won’t make a civil war. As David explained, “In insurgency theory, we typically break down an insurgency into three groups, the actual guerilla fighters,” and “what we call the auxiliary … who run the functional support networks,” these are the illicit veterinarians who pull bullets out of our hypothetical insurgents, the civilians who help feed and hide them, “… and then the underground … engages in propaganda, assassinations, robs banks and drives the movement forward …”
The guerillas have the sexiest job, but they’re nothing but armed men posing for Facebook photos without the support of a network. David explained that, for every dozen armed guys you need, “… maybe a hundred guys in the auxiliary … and a thousand guys in the underground movement … now you’re talking about an insurgency.”
And it turns out vicious insurgencies are a little bit like potato chips: you’re never going to have just one …
There Will Be Hundreds of Sides
George Frey/Getty Images
Our last Civil War involved two sides who came pre-packaged with a convenient ideological cheat-sheet (Union: less slavery, Confederacy, more slavery). David Kilcullen doesn’t expect a modern Civil War would be nearly that simple, “One of the lessons we found in Iraq … is it’s actually a lot harder to fight a disunited and fragmented insurgency, than to fight a united one … at one point when I was in Iraq I counted 170 groups that were fighting us.” Yeah, it turns out all those “Join or Die” flags were lying to us. Uncle Sam is real good at throttling enemies. He’s less skilled at Whack-A-Mole.
David felt that any potential U.S. civil war would involve more than two sides. He explained that it doesn’t matter if most of those sides are in conflict with most of the others; the more groups there are, the better their odds of success. And the rise of one credible insurgent group would make other rebellion-inclined individuals, even those on the opposite end of the political spectrum, more likely to whip out their big ol’ hogs and join the group helicoptering.
“If you look at the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s actually some parallels to what’s happening in that group and what’s happening at the fringe of the survivalist movement…” David pointed out that, if Trump were elected, “it’s possible” that left-wing groups might ignite the violence, “I think it’s a broader phenomenon than just white supremacists, and just preppers.” For an idea of how “broad” it could get, just look at the Baton Rouge shooter, Gavin Long, who shot six cops, killing three of them. He was affiliated with a black separatist groupthat also held some beliefs in common with Sovereign Citizens, a belief system most common among white, right-wing anti-government nuts. Any American civil war would generate a list of groups at least as long and confusing as the Syrian civil war:
Jeffrey Bolling/Institute for the Study of WarNote that these are just the rebel groups fighting in a single city.
Bill Fulton, an expert on the American militia movement and informant for the FBI, has far more than 170 groups on his list of “armed, violent organizations that might take a shot at the Federal Government”. That’s out of an estimated 1,360 “radical militias and anti-government groups” in the United States in 2012 (note that there were just 149 four years before)
“You have a lot of different people who believe the world should be different ways and once the gloves come up like they did in Iraq then all of those rise to the surface…I think depending on how far down the rabbit hole you want to go, we could end up with three or four hundred solid, different groups under probably twenty or so ideological banners.”
His insurgency candidates include criminal gangs like MS-13 (more on that later!), black nationalist groups, white nationalists, sovereign citizens and generally any armed, organized group with some kind of history to it. He picked the groups he picked because they aren’t flash-in-the-pan organizations, “That have enough background, in what their belief system is to carry them through that type of insurgency type activity. So if I’m a group of guys and we sit around and we hate the government, but we have no real passion for it and there’s not a lot of background for us…we might go up and blow up a federal building, but we’re not going to continue that on for years.”
Neither of the Davids we spoke to were actually all that worried about Trump himself: can you imagine this guy directing strikes from a cave in the Adirondacks?
Brian Blanco/Getty ImagesHe’d last about three days once the military blockade cut off his supply of tanning oil.
David Kilcullen pointed out, “Most successful insurgencies are led by members of the radicalized elite…it’s usually small town doctors and lawyers and local politicians and police chiefs…it’s those guys…a good example would be Fidel Castro…he was an upper middle class lawyer…Mao was a school teacher…that’s actually pretty common.”
And Hitler was an army veteran. That brings me to the next thing we can (unfortunately) look forward to…
Decades of Military Spending Will Bite Us In The Ass
“We now have a generation, maybe up to two million people, who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan”, David Kilcullen pointed out. Most of those folks are cooks or mechanics, or in the Coast Guard, and don’t know much more about fighting a war than the average Call Of Dutyplayer. But then there are Special Forces guys like these:
…who look like they could overthrow a small island republic on their lunch break. What happens if one of those dudes winds up caring an awful lot about, say, White Nationalism?
This fear is a big part of why David mentioned The Management of Savagery as a likely civil war blueprint: jihadi tactics would be immediately familiar to the disaffected veterans he expects to find training our hypothetical insurgency. It’s another example of the boomerang effect.
He brought up the shooting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana of three police officers by a former marine who stalked his victims before killing them:
David pointed out that the shooter had been a data specialist and, “…the military doesn’t train those guys in these techniques … someone like me, took that guy and trained him.”
When David says “someone like me”, he isn’t trying to sound like a badass, for most of the last few decades his job has been teaching militaries across the world how to military better. He’s not just some dude gawking at a YouTube video and spitting out theories.
And Bill pointed out that, even without direct training, anyone with Internet access can pull up the full text of the Marine Corps Counter-Insurgency manual just as easily as the Army’s guidelines for digging a proper poop hole. But in my lurking on militia sites, I did occasionally run into information that looked like it had its basis in something other than a manual. Take this guide to evading drones published by the Oathkeepers, an anti-government group made up of former military and police veterans.
I had a former drone operator review the video. He said their “thermal evasion suit” was based on a “decent premise”, although he said it would only work well if the shooter was stationary. It’s impossible to know if the info in this video came from someone with direct (albeit outdated) drone experience. In his time among America’s many militias, Bill said, “…I’ve probably ran into direct training” of groups by military veterans, “…five or six times, in five different states. It’s incredibly prevalent.”
Col. Couvillon, a retired Marine, pointed out that this basic pattern is already in use by criminal organizations in the United States, “Inner-city gangs have sent people into join the military, go get combat experience, go get combat training, go get logistical training, and then they go back home and incorporate those methods in their gangs…” In 2011, the FBI noted that at least 53 different gangs had placed members in every branch of the U.S. military:
And in the early stages of civil unrest, these groups typically find themselves recruiting every violent criminal and combat veteran they can find. These men aren’t just there to be fighters, they’re there to help train other people in the finer points of violence. Stathis Kalvyas, a professor at Yale and expert on civil wars, pointed out that revolutionary political groups often find themselves heavy on college graduates and light on “specialists in violence…”, so they recruit “criminal types” as well as veterans who know how to operate “the kind of command and control systems that are necessary to carry out a war”.
David Kilcullen, our counterinsurgency expert, agreed that young insurgent movements often bring in a lot of “street thugs” and other experienced violence-doers to “raise the temperature and get everybody used to it [violence].” Think of it as giving the Anonymous-mask-wearing masses a crash course in Bringing the Pain 101 and Fuckin’ Shit Up 203.
So the longer the fighting goes on, the more insurgent groups we see crop up and the better all the fighters get at fighting. Like the war in Syria, our hypothetical civil war is only going to get bloodier the longer it goes on, in fact…
The Internet Will Make It Even Bloodier
David Kilcullen literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency. And in that book he makes the point that media attention is like air to an insurgent movement. That’s why, when ISIS first started expanding, they made publishing this documentary a priority :
They also started rolling out issue after issue of their slick, glossy magazine, Dabiq, and built up a sizeable network across Twitter and other social media sites. This all translated into roughly 30,000 foreign recruits: an army of fighters who appeared because ISIS made their cause look freaking badass. Their social media game has also helped to inspire attacks, including the shooting in Orlando, at no cost to them.
Colonel Couvillon explained that on a tactical level, the existence of the Internet gave any insurgent group an incredible advantage. “…The lack of effective real time communication” was one of the hallmarks of old school guerilla groups, but “today’s social media” would make coordinating a guerrilla movement “much easier”.
TwitterPresenting the only people who welcome group DMs.
Social media will also make demonizing the other side (or sides) much easier. Internet access alone has been found to increase partisan hostility. And the kind of bickering people do on the Internet tends to cause a feedback loop, which makes them even angrier. We’ve already seen how easy social media makes it to demonize women writing fucking video games, let alone a volatile issue like politics. And Colonel Couvillon noted that, in war, “…motivation comes from patriotism or vilifying, demonizing the enemy. The Japs with monkey faces ….Charlie the Cong, ragheads, Krauts, nips, gooks…” When I asked if he thought it’d be possible to make Americans vilify other Americans in that way, he brought up the rivalries between high school football teams and said , “C’mon, it ain’t hard.”
And it’s also possible that the sharing of pictures and videos of wartime carnage might “brutalize” some of us. Over the last few years ISIS’s infamous beheading videos have inspired their followers to decapitate, or attempt to decapitate, infidels all over the world. But then beheading turned into the psychopath equivalent of a meme (also a meme?). CNN documented how it went viral worldwide among non-jihadists …
The professor CNN interviewed, Arie Kruglanski, suggested that this might be evidence of the “brutalization effect”. That term’s traditionally used to refer to the well-documented phenomenon of the death penalty inspiring more violence in states that use it. But the last few years of social media makes it look like that same basic principle holds true with snapchats of atrocities. And we’ve got more than enough documentation of mass shootings to know that they work like a “contagion”, inspiring copycat attacks usually within two weeks.
During his time in Iraq, one of David Kilcullen’s jobs was to “debrief” captured insurgent fighters. He told me he’d find himself asking questions like, “How did you get to a point where you were cutting off kids heads?” And they’d always respond with something like, “I have no idea, it was like a form of collective madness that just overtook us all…” David didn’t think that was all ass-covering, “…people will look back on their own behavior during the height of a civil war, and almost not recognize themselves, or recognize their behavior…and it turns out that’s not accidental, there’s an art to generating that.”
I sincerely apologize for the nightmares all of this information is going to give you for the next month. On the upside, today is National Deep Fried Clams Day! That’s … that’s enough to distract the terrified screaming in your brain, right? RIGHT?!