Michael Harris Sees America Headed for Civil War. He's Almost Certainly Wrong.


The Tyee's Michael Harris sees a second civil war on the horizon for the United States.

Unresolved issues from the Civil War, the civil rights battles of the 1960s, and the Black Lives Matter movement have found their way back into mainstream political life south of the border.

Racist politicking in America is no longer travelling incognito. And the Republican is its political arm, failing to censure outright racist statements by its politicians while methodically working to return Jim Crow vote suppression to states where Black voters might deliver defeat to its candidates.

Canadians must keep a sharp eye on developments to our south both as a warning to root out any such impulses at home, and to steer clear of the social calamity brewing in the U.S.

Yes, America is plainly a mess. Tribalism infects the society. Racial tensions - black, Hispanic and, now, Asian, are on the front burner. Could it boil over into a civil war? Highly unlikely.

Social and political unrest comes in a variety of flavours from protests to general strikes and acts of civil disobedience to domestic terrorism to insurgency. These all can, and usually do, happen without triggering a civil war.

Even civil wars differ. The US Civil War was a war of secession by one group of states seeking to form their own nation, the Confederacy.  It was a war of structure, governments already in existence with defined territory, civil administrations, taxation and such. It was Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee pitted against Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Grant and Wm. Tecumseh Sherman. The English Civil War was a war to decide who, if anyone, would hold the throne, a war for all the marbles. It pitted Parliament against the Royalists. 

The United States has succumbed to a form of toxic tribalism. It's really nasty stuff but could it spark a civil war? How many Michael Flynn's lurk within America's military establishment? What is the military command's treason quotient?

Revolutions are rarely "grass roots" affairs. Crane Brinton demolished that idea in his book, "Anatomy of  Revolution." They're messy, chaotic uprisings that often see the instigators themselves displaced by other revolutionaries. Think Menshevik-Bolshevik in Moscow. Or the Girondins and Jacobins of the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror and the Thermidorian Reaction leading to Bonaparte.

The America born out of revolution in 1776 and hardened in the Civil War is not the America of 2021, America the indulgent, the self-interested. Look at these modern "militiamen." You've seen them at demonstrations, storming state houses, swarming the Capitol, festooned in their ridiculous camo gear, badges and semi-automatic assault rifles. Do they look like a military contingent just spoiling for a civil war to you? When was the last time you were in the company of real soldiers? These are no Roundheads or Bolsheviks or Jacobins. Today's insurgents probably can't agree on whether it'll be Denny's or Wendy's.

I think the greater peril to the Union may lie within the military. There's precedent for this. Both Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee were graduates of West Point. Neither hesitated to turn his back on the United States in order to serve the Confederacy. Neither was held accountable for treason in the aftermath.

Toward the end of the Trump administration concern was voiced about the loyalty of the military. It was enough that each chief of staff (army, navy, air force, marines) and the Joint Chiefs collectively thought it necessary to issue proclamations of their fealty to the Constitution. Imagine having to declare that you would not join Trump in a constitutional coup d'état and yet they did just that, even reminding their subordinates of their own duty to the Constitution. Still waters run deep?

We watched the spectacle of disgraced former general, Mike Flynn, urging Trump to declare martial law in those states that voted against him. We saw Flynn's brother's involvement in delaying the military response to the storming of the Capitol Building.

The "military-industrial complex" Eisenhower warned of before he left office has today morphed into a military-industrial-neoconservative-Christian fundamentalist-commercial warfighting (Haliburton/Blackwater, etc.) complex. When the US went for an "all-volunteer" military the door was opened to radical politics, radical Christianity, and a militarized corporate sector that rakes in huge revenues by cherry-picking roles the military once performed itself.

So far the generals, most of them anyway, remain loyal to their oath to defend the Constitution but the ground beneath their feet is shifting.

One hundred and sixty years ago, America's generals had to choose sides. The key figures chose to follow their home states or regions or heritage. Some joined the Confederacy to wage war against their former comrades in arms in the blue uniforms. Until the last two years they were venerated for what was nothing short of treason. 

Could that happen again "for the good of the country"? Perhaps but it wouldn't be a war of secession. There's no simple "slave state" v. "free state" dichotomy. The Right and the Left are much too co-mingled to sustain that sort of warfare. That would leave Option B, a coup d'état, which is almost equally unimaginable absent some seismic triggering event.

A more likely scenario is an escalation of domestic terrorism, America's most popular form of anti-establishment violence. But that, of itself, will not a civil war make. It will be messy, it will be costly, it will worsen already strained social division but until it rises to the level of a true national insurgency it will be a law enforcement problem.


  1. The occupiers of what is now America have had two wars amongst themselves so I would not put a civil war past them.
    That said the probability is that they will continue their trend to dis functionality.
    The possibility is that the US will join it's Latin American counterparts !!
    The McDonald s Marauders or the Kentucky Chickenmen are less likely to stave off the Boy Scouts of America than the US Army no matter how much they have been evangelised.
    Dis functionality is the way forward for the USA.
    Think Northern Ireland.


  2. I can't see a full-blown, protracted civil war in any conventional sense. There could be a military regime akin to what befell the civilian administration in Japan prior to WWII where the civilians remained ostensibly in control but yielded military and foreign policy decision-making to their military superiors. It didn't work out too well but, then again, Japan, like America, is no Rome.

  3. Your faith in the military is misplaced, imo.

    "So far the generals, most of them anyway, remain loyal to their oath to defend the Constitution but the ground beneath their feet is shifting."

    The top brass held back support, on Jan. 6, for several hours until it became clear that the insurrection had failed.

  4. That was the nuance, "most of them anyway." Your suggestion that the "top brass" were waiting on the possibility that the Jan 6 insurrection might succeed (in what, exactly?) is pretty far out there, NPoV. Mike Flynn's brother certainly hesitated and Trump's acting defense secretary was no better but they're not the Joint Chiefs, are they?

    1. "Three hours and 19 minutes, while a riot raged at the Capitol.

      That’s how long the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard says elapsed between then-Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund’s “frantic” plea for help quelling a violent mob and the ultimate approval of military aid by the Pentagon. The discrepancy between his estimate and the Pentagon's conflicting testimony is now at the heart of lawmakers’ investigation into the security lapses that prolonged the siege on Congress on Jan. 6."

      "Walker, with evident exasperation, told two Senate committees that he preemptively loaded troops on buses amid the chaos of the insurrection while awaiting approval from acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller. That approval took hours to arrive, he said. In the interim, top Army leaders — including the brother of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn — pushed back, worrying that the visual of National Guard troops ringing the Capitol could “inflame” the rioters, Walker said."


      "WASHINGTON -- Defence Department leaders placed unusual restrictions on the U.S. National Guard for the day of the Capitol riot and delayed sending help for hours despite an urgent plea from police for reinforcement, according to testimony Wednesday that added to the finger-pointing about the government response.

      Maj. Gen. William Walker, commanding general of the District of Columbia National Guard, told senators that the then-chief of the Capitol Police requested military support in a "voice cracking with emotion" in a 1:49 p.m. call as rioters began pushing toward the Capitol. Walker said he immediately relayed the request to the Army but did not learn until after 5 p.m. that the Defence Department had approved it. Guard troops who had been waiting on buses were then rushed to the Capitol, arriving in 18 minutes, Walker said."


    2. I understand that, NPoV. Yeah, Flynn's brother and the acting defense secretary stalled this out. Those two don't fit my definition of the "top brass."

    3. Ah yes ... just two 'bad apples'.
      Perhaps none of the brass could have been keeping track of events as the pentagon only allows old war movies on their TVs.

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