A couple of weeks ago I watched a film called “Beasts of No Nation,” about a civil war in an unnamed West African country. The movie, released in 2015 and starring Idris Elba, was based on a novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala.
Although neither the book nor the movie specifies a particular country, the story could have been inspired by very real civil wars in Rwanda, Burundi, Sierra Leone, the Republic of Congo, or any of a dozen African countries that have endured such conflicts in recent decades. For that matter, it could have borrowed heavily from other civil wars on other continents, because these wars all follow the same pattern of poverty, bloodshed, and brutality.
The movie pulls no punches in its depiction of that bloodshed and brutality. It is often difficult to watch, such as when a boy soldier is ordered to bash in the skull of a civil engineer who is only there to fix a bridge, and pleads for his life. The boy’s brother and father were gunned down in an attack on their village, and he fled to the bush to escape. While there, he was recruited to join one of the village militias. The skull-bashing exercise is his coming out party, as it were.
A sense of doom permeates the film, as if you know that despite all the killing and dying, the war is over nothing – because almost everyone involved comes from nothing, and no matter who wins or loses, they’ll still have nothing when it is all over, and the same types of people will be in charge.
Cut to a couple days later, when I saw this headline on the Guardian website: “More than 40% of Americans Think Civil War Likely Within a Decade.” That figure was based on a YouGov/Economist poll of 1,500 U.S. adults, which found that 43% of respondents believe civil war is “at least somewhat likely” in the USA, while 14% say it is “very likely.”
You hear this kind of thing a lot lately – how the U.S. could be headed for a civil war, based on the deep divisions not just between the two major political parties, but also along cultural lines. As an expat living in London, it all has the air of a surreal fever dream. I experience it from afar, from the comfort of an ocean away, so it hits my brain with a certain feeling of detachment.
Even so, I absorb it with the proper amount of worry for my homeland. And although I know America is an increasingly divided and violent country, I’m not at all sure that it’s a good candidate for a civil war.
Here’s the dirty little secret about civil wars – they almost never happen in rich countries. According to a study of civil conflicts during the 40 years preceding 2009, once a country has reached a per capita income rivaling that of the world’s richest nations, its risk of civil war is “negligible.” Political feuds aren’t the main drivers of civil wars – economic forces are.
The United States has a median income of about $54,000 a year, and the average home value is nearly $430,000. It’s the richest country on earth based on total GDP, and nobody else is even close. It is so rich that its people spend more money on entertainment per capita than other countries spend on everything, period – food, housing, healthcare, etc.
I mean, sure, theoretically the U.S. could be headed for a civil war – but only after the baseball playoffs are over, and definitely not before the college football and NFL seasons wrap up. There’s probably a window in February and March, when it’s cold, and the holidays are long over, and it’s kind of dull and boring, and it’s too soon to head to the beach, and too early to seed the grass.
On paper, America is probably ripe for a civil war. It’s been 150 years since the last one, and everybody hates everybody, or at least pretends to. Plus, there are a shitload of guns in the United States just waiting to be put to use.
The question is: How would it work logistically? How are you going to pick sides when everybody is all jammed up together? This isn’t a North vs. South battle. It’s the guy down the street fighting the other guy down the street because one guy thinks an election was stolen, and the other doesn’t. Red states have plenty of blue voters, and blue states have plenty of red voters. Where do you draw the battle lines?
And who would fight it? A lot of the civil war chatter is coming from dipshits who spread conspiracy theories on the dark internet pretty much ‘round the clock. Could they really step away from their laptops long enough to engage in a civil war? From what I’ve seen, they can’t even step away long enough to comb their hair.
Presumably, a “civil war” in the United States – one involving bullets instead of words and ideas – would involve battles between government forces and the kinds of armed insurrectionists who attacked the U.S. Capitol building in support of a two-legged urinal named Donald Trump who lied about a stolen election.
But unlike insurrectionists in other countries, those in the U.S. did not come from poverty or oppression. Most were middle class or above – professionals and business owners, with nice homes and decent salaries.
Look at videos of the Capitol riot, and it’s easy to see that these folks are not missing many meals. There aren’t a lot of lean, malnourished bodies in those crowds. They might dress up in their Halloween militia/patriot/revolutionary costumes, but you can bet that back home they’re wearing the usual polo shirt-and-jeans ensemble while sitting down to their steak dinners.
The majority were white males, mid-30s or older – the very demographic that has been running things in the USA forever, and still controls almost all of the political and economic power.
They did succeed in breaching the Capitol – but only because of the inexplicably lax security on hand that day. They obviously had major mayhem on their minds, and contributed to the direct or indirect deaths of seven people. But the violent overthrow of the government they aimed for fell short, mainly because they weren’t smart or organized enough to pull it off.
What if the U.S. military had been unleashed on the Capitol building that day, and ordered to use its full force to quell the riot? You can bet it would have been a bloodbath – with nearly all of the blood coming from the rioters.
Again, these are not oppressed and hungry masses calling for civil war. They’re a bunch of well-fed conspiracy theorists with too much time on their hands. How do you think they would fare in a real civil war against a large and well-funded military, with bullets flying and bombs dropping and tanks rolling and jet fighters circling above? How many would be willing to lay down their comfortable, 40-something lives when the shit gets real?
Wars are not fought by older, middle-class folks. They are mainly fought by young people, often from the lower rungs of the economic spectrum. But these aren’t the ones foaming at the mouth about a civil war. No, those warnings come from the mouths of people who are neither poor, young, or oppressed, but somehow still rage against a mysterious shadow enemy threatening their “liberty,” which has never been threatened for a millisecond.
There hasn’t been a war on American soil since 1865. All of our wars take place overseas, out of sight and far away. Most Americans don’t have the first GD clue about war – including the fake revolutionaries who talk big and act tough and stockpile weapons.
They should visit a country where a real civil war is taking place, get a front-row seat, witness what’s really at stake. See the rivers of blood on the ground, the heads half blown off, the dead babies and orphaned children, the flattened shacks and torched land, the burned carcasses, the rotting corpses in the street with rats crawling out of them.
Civil wars usually happen because the have-nots are tired of getting kicked around by the haves. They don’t happen because one set of haves disagrees with another set of haves. More likely, the United States will simply become more balkanized, with the blue parts of the country becoming bluer, and the red becoming redder, and the laws of the land broken up into little pockets where one thing is legal here but illegal there.
It’s not the best system in the world. But America’s a big country. Hopefully it’s smart enough to live with its differences.
Check that: Hopefully it’s rich enough to live with its differences. The rest of the world should be so lucky.
Note: The photo is of the Three Stooges. I did not take it myself.