Anymore, I’m keeping a clock inside my head, like one of those countdown-to-midnight clocks that once got published about certain predictable catastrophes, like the next nuclear war. Mine is weighing the chances of a second civil war in America. I wrote about this in a recent novel, Coming of Age, where—among many other story lines—the national debt makes this country vulnerable to foreign manipulation and initiates a split between the largely urbanized coastal states and the more rural inland states.
Most people consider even thinking about another civil war to be the sign of an unbalanced mental or emotional condition. For me, such a war is just another future hazard. Many countries have had civil wars when their political differences reached the irreconcilable stage. Most recently, these have been countries under attack by Marxist revolutionaries and leftist rebels: Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Cambodia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, and myriad African hotspots like Nigeria, the Congo, and South Sudan. In the Middle East, the wars have more recently been between the secular governments installed after the two world wars and the religious fundamentalists, but the contention is still between those who want an open society based on personal freedom and those who want it closed and based on rigid codes of moral or political conduct.
And even long-established countries that today we think of as enlightened and stable had their periods of civil war. England had its own war against the monarchy in the 17th century. France had its revolution against the aristocracy in the 18th century. And America—not counting the colonial revolt against English rule—had her crisis and convulsion in the middle of the 19th century. Russia fell apart under pressure from leftist revolutionaries and monarchical incompetence in the middle of World War I, went through a period of civil war, and emerged as a Communist regime. Germany fell apart in the 1920s as the result of losing that world war, went through a period of hyperinflation and street thuggery, and emerged as a National-Socialist dictatorship. China—with help from a Japanese invasion before and during World War II—fell apart into feuding, warlord-dominated enclaves and emerged as the People’s Republic in 1949.
You might think armed conflict over political or religious issues can’t happen in this country again, because we have a … a what? A document called the Constitution that has endured for 227 years now and is the model for good government around the world? A huge military armed with nuclear weapons that is, by design and by decree, politically neutral and subservient to civil authority? A built-in mechanism for regime change enshrined in popular elections held every two and four years? All of this makes us special and in some cases unique in the world. It does not, however, render us invulnerable to irreconcilable differences that cannot be healed by the ballot box and will not submit to long-standing social and military traditions.
Documents, traditions, and laws are effective only so long as the majority of people hold them to be inviolable and put them above personal advantage and political opinion. History is full of carved idols, tablets of stone and bronze, and inherited traditions that became honored only by rote and with the lips but were ignored in everyday practice and with the heart. Ancient Rome went from being a democratic republic to an imperial dictatorship in the span of two generations by just such a hollowing out of her traditions. Rome’s period of civil war was a contest between powerful politicians who fielded essentially their own private armies. All through it and the dictatorship that followed, the country still maintained the form of electing its politicians and military leaders, but the process was controlled and the outcome inevitable. Even the Soviet Union had its popular elections, but with the sole candidate nominated by the local soviets with guidance from the Communist Party. Even the Islamic Republic of Iran votes—but only for candidates already approved by the theocracy.
In the vast majority of the more recent civil wars, the dispute was not about some single social or economic issue—like slavery in the American Civil War, or economic collapse in my Coming of Age books—but about the ongoing nature of society itself, the principles under which people should be governed, and—in the case of the revolutionary insurgencies—who should exercise those principles.1 Even the religiously tinged uprisings in the Middle East—and now in parts of Europe and Asia—are not about doctrinal issues and matters of faith so much as about imposing Sharia law and Islamic culture on countries that have recently adopted—or, in Europe, have long practiced—Western-style, secular democratic government, free market economics, and liberal social policies.
In some cases, the war—that is, actual military hostilities—comes only after some defining action and not as a lead-up to it. In the American Civil War and in the wars between North and South Korea or North and South Vietnam, the separation of one part of the country had already occurred, whether by secession or through international agreement. In the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks had already taken power in the capital during the October Revolution and forced the royalists and the remaining moderates to retreat into the countryside or to emigrate. Sometimes, however, the war is the deciding factor in regime change, as in the case of the civil wars in Spain in the 1930s and Cambodia in the 1970s.
Which way will the United States go in the early 21st century—if we must go to war at all?
Although my novel Coming of Age portrayed a split between largely contiguous sections of the country—the urban, progressive coasts versus the rural, traditionalist interior—I don’t think that model holds in today’s political situation. We saw from the breakdown of voting patterns in the 2016 national election, by county rather than by state, that the sentiments between left and right are far more distributed. Most of the dense urban counties went Democratic, while the less populated rural counties—but holding an impressive amount of geographic territory—went Republican. California, for example, is staunchly progressive in the urban centers of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, where most of the population lives, but also strongly traditionalist in its rural counties, which encompass most of the land area. If California ever decided to secede from the Union—as some are seriously promoting—either as part of a new federation with other progressive-dominated states like Oregon and Washington, or as its own country, it would quickly lose the Central Valley and the Foothills through their own act of secession. Indeed, the far northern counties of California and the southeastern counties in Oregon are already agitating—and have been doing so since 1941—to form a new state called “Jefferson.”
In the hardening controversy between progressives and conservatives—where reasonable discussion and polite disagreement have already given way to marches, occasional riots, and now to political shootings—the solution won’t be anything as simple as a resolution to take one part of the country out of the Union and form a new country with either free-market capitalism or bureaucratic socialism as its economic model. But in any new secessionist country, under either model, the government and its politicians would probably still consider themselves to be a democracy, and they might adopt some form of the U.S. Constitution as their founding document. However, the rules and practices of that democracy would likely change from what we have now. A progressive state would probably adopt a larger, more intrusive federal bureaucracy, give less authority to a smaller popular assembly, and seek more open and contextual adherence to that new constitution—i.e., treating it as a “living document.” A more conservative state would intentionally create a smaller standing government, give more rulemaking power to its congress, and adopt a more strictly “originalist” interpretation of its constitution.
But the geographic lines and the regional sentiment to support such a nicely defined state-by-state or regional split simply don’t exist. No, I believe we have progressives and conservatives living too close together, as in California. Or in Upstate New York versus New York City. Or in any other urban-rural split you could name. We are more like the intermixing of Hindu and Muslim in the British Raj before its partition into the states of India and Pakistan. And that means the next American civil war—if it ever comes, if some reconciliation doesn’t take place soon—will be more like Spain’s or Cambodia’s. More neighbor against neighbor, cities versus the suburbs and rural counties, more like guerrilla and urban warfare.
Whether the U.S. military could keep out of such a conflict is an open question. All of our officers have taken oaths to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Most soldiers and serving professionals—and since the end of the Selective Service draft, we have built a professional military based on self-selected, volunteer service—are traditionalists who see themselves as upholding the values of the country as a whole rather than the privileges of a politicized bureaucracy in any current government. If the party in power is openly contemptuous of America, its history, its traditions, and Western civilization in general, that is going to be a hard oath to keep.
Of course, a country engaged in urban warfare could not survive long. In short order—no more than a couple of years, if we go by history elsewhere—one side would dominate and the other give up. Otherwise, we would eventually see a flow of forces that moves people of similar loyalties and opinions into geographical refuges and strongholds. Such regions might eventually become the basis for new countries that coexist side by side, like North and South Korea. But the bet is still that one side will quickly dominate, as in Franco’s Spain and Mao’s China. And the risk in today’s world is that, while civil chaos exists, foreign intervention and opportunism might take the country down. With intercontinental ballistic missiles and other weapons of force projection, the two oceans guarding our borders, and our friendly neighbors to the north and south, will no longer protect us.
I hope we can avoid this. Such a war would mean large numbers of military and civilian dead, ten times as many injured, years of civil disruption, billions of dollars in destroyed infrastructure and property, trillions in lost personal and public wealth and lost productivity. War is the ultimate leveler. But it seems to be the only way two groups of human beings can settle their long-held, irreconcilable differences without possibility of deception. Oaths can be renounced. Treaties can be broken. Laws can be ignored or reinterpreted. Extralegal actors—rioters and assassins, brigands and pirates—can be encouraged. But once you have beaten an enemy to the point at which he cannot lift his arms to hold a weapon, once you have decimated his population, razed his cities, and salted his lands—or once you are put into this form of submission yourself—then you can pretty much call the issue settled and start working on the peace terms.
I don’t know what the future will bring—and I say that as a science-fiction writer whose business is to foresee and interpret the future. But I know that somewhere a clock is ticking.
1. When Lenin came back to Russia, via a sealed train through Germany, he was aghast to find his old revolutionary cadres shouting, “All power to the soviets!” These were the workers’ and soldiers’ councils—the meaning of the word “soviet”—that had sprung up in Moscow and Saint Petersburg during the revolution. “Do not cry ‘all power to the soviets,’ ” he chided them, “until you have control of the soviets.”