A second civil war in the United States would be an unparalleled disaster. Nobody who is sane and who has studied modern civil wars from Spain to Lebanon to the Balkans and beyond would ever wish to see one occur. But if political, cultural and demographic trends are sweeping us toward that unhappy destiny, it would be wise to at least cast a weather eye over the possible terrain.
Now, before you scream out your exceptions, yes, there are rich black cattle ranchers and poor whites living in blighted urban areas and so on. However, to focus on them is to miss the critical centers of gravity of Civil War Two for the over-study of interesting but insignificant outliers. Filling one corner of the CW2 Square will be the poorer and darker, who primarily are liberal and progressive Democrats who believe in a malleable “living Constitution.” And in the other corner will be the richer and whiter, who mainly are conservative or libertarian Republicans who believe in the original intent of the written Constitution. Again, keep your eyes on the two meta-cores, not the exceptions.
Now, let’s add the third dimension and shoot another axis out from the square to form the CW2 Cube. Label the third axis Urban versus Rural, or City versus Country if you prefer. This axis gives a geographical dimension to the meta-terrain, but there will be no convenient dividing line between the opposed sides as there was during the first civil war. It has frequently been observed that today’s red-blue political map is better understood at the county than at the state level. Even blue states like Illinois, California and New York are rural-red outside of their blue urban cores. Obviously, these urban cores are heavily populated but geographically small, with all that means to the electoral process today and to a possible civil war later.
Most of us live in the mushy, mongrel middle, far from the tips of the two opposite corners. But the centers of gravity of Civil War Two shall be as I have described: the relatively richer, whiter and more rural against the poorer, darker and urban. One can also propose many more axes of conflict than can fit on a cube, such as the religious versus the non-believers, socialists versus capitalists, statists versus individualists and so on. However, after you reflect upon the CW2 Cube, I think you will find that most of these extra axes can be overlaid parallel to one of the three already posited.
To begin: you do not want to live as a trapped and cut-off minority in what might become “enemy territory.” If you live amidst your civil war enemies, as defined and located within the CW2 Cube, you will be in mortal danger even if your immediate neighbors know, love and respect you. Those persons who have a stake in fanning the flames of CW2 (and their number shall be legion), will intentionally target those remaining “holdouts” who may be respected minority neighbors. (In this essay, minority means “the minority within a given group or area.” Blacks are the majority in some areas, and whites are the minorities in others, and so on.)
Frequently in modern civil wars, roaming armed groups (in or out of uniform) will even force people to kill their own beloved and respected minority neighbors as an ultimate loyalty test. If they refuse, they may themselves be killed as “traitors.” Besides pre-conflict racists and radicals, there will be an ever-increasing pool of persons attempting to expel minorities from their homes. Those embittered unfortunates who have already been ethnically cleansed will be seeking new living quarters, and the homes and property of “enemy” minorities still living in majority territory will be the first on the chopping block. (Not the auction block, because payment of any kind is rarely offered.) This process of minority eviction becomes self-perpetuating.
Often, those members of minorities who escape as refugees are the lucky ones who do not lose their lives during the back-and-forth of escalating violence. The fact that they may have been loved, admired and respected for many years by their majority-population neighbors will not protect them. This is a clear lesson of modern civil war. Another is that while the rich or the well-to-do can sometimes hide their wealth and pass as proles, the same cannot be said about concealing one’s racial or ethnic identity. Religious affiliation and political leanings can also be hidden, but outward appearance cannot. Civil War Two may begin on purely political grounds, but it will devolve into something worse.
Does this mean that all white city-dwellers should head for the hinterland, or that dark-skinned folks living in the country should move to the city? It’s not for me to say. We all hope and pray that there will never be a second “hot civil war” in America, instead of merely the “cold civil war” we are engaged in today. But the lessons of modern civil wars should not be ignored. Another lesson is that it will take tremendous moral courage to defy the hot-heads and radicals, and shield your minority neighbors from harm. Think of Anne Frank. Think of those indescribably brave inhabitants of the former Yugoslavia who hid their minority neighbors, when the discovery of that fact could and often did lead to their own deaths.
While Civil War Two is on the table for discussion, allow me to introduce two aggravating factors that don’t fit neatly on the cube. The first is the concept of multiple embedded minorities. Picture the old cartoon mainstay showing a line of fish getting ready to gobble another fish, from the leviathan down to the small fry. You might live in a neighborhood where you are in the majority, but the neighborhood is in a town where you are in the minority. And the town is surrounded by a larger area where your own kind once again predominates.
Or you might fit into the picture as the smallest of all fish, living in the only minority household within a majority neighborhood. From street to neighborhood to city to state to region can easily place you in the middle of several levels of embedded minorities-within-majorities. This formulation might work for many decades during times of relative prosperity and well-being, but during a civil war it is a recipe for disaster, as unstable as nitroglycerin-filled bowling pins. It’s all cool just as long as the pins are standing still and calmly hanging out together, but look out when the Black Swan bowling ball comes rolling in! An unstoppable chain reaction ensues, as each new act of violence is avenged up and down the line.
Remember that funny line-of-fish cartoon, and imagine it a few seconds later when the biting begins. It’s not so funny then — especially for the smaller fish.
The second aggravating factor is the unstable triangle of the three-sided civil war. The Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Muslims provide a classic example. Each side of the unstable triangle will backstab yesterday’s ally at the moment they perceive themselves to be at a local disadvantage, or when they see an opportunity to wipe out an historic enemy with a new Final Solution. The unstable ethnic triangle in the United States will in many places be composed of black, white and Hispanic sides. By comparison, the old black and white social dichotomy was inherently stable, even when it might have been rife with injustice.
In some areas, Asians, Middle-easterners, Native Americans and other groups will contribute to the formation of regional social geometries that are even more unstable than the unstable triangle. Study modern civil wars and you will cringe at the implications. A steel roller-coaster overloaded with old dynamite and electric blasting caps during a lightning storm comes to my mind.
And finally, some urban settings are just disastrous during a modern civil war, even if they might offer a terrific quality of life during peacetime. Perhaps the top of the list of danger areas are high-rise buildings located near potential civil war flashpoints or fault lines. Living in a cluster of high-rises divided by a “green line” during a guerrilla sniper war is a worst-case horror show. Not to mention the misery attendant to life in a tall building without running water, electricity, sewage service, working elevators, heating or air-conditioning. While under intermittent sniper fire. For months.
So should you stay or should you go? If you don’t believe that another civil war in America is possible, then simply disregard this column. But if you think that a second civil war could happen then picture the CW2 Cube and map your location within it. If you think that you live near a possible civil war fault line, especially as a local minority, consider relocating.
After the fact, a common sentiment heard from urbane, secular Bosnians living in the Olympic City of Sarajevo expressed complete disbelief that a brutal, bloody civil war could have come to their modern European city and tear their lives apart.
But it did.
A parting suggestion to students of modern civil war is to read “Seasons in Hell: Understanding Bosnia’s War” by the British journalist Ed Vulliamy. It’s currently collecting dust at your local public library, waiting only to be read.
Forewarned is forearmed.