We Don’t Need Your Civil War
Photograph taken by Philipp Michel Reichold in 2001.
Because I drive through Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park every day, the American Civil War has become part of the wallpaper of my life. By sheer happenstance, I live less than a mile from the place where Union General William Tecumseh Sherman marched his army up nearby Kennesaw Mountain to dislodge Confederate defenders who were dug in there, June 27, 1864. By the end of the next day, around 4,000 men were dead on the mountainside, three quarters of them Union soldiers. Kennesaw Mountain was the last major military opposition to General Sherman’s famous "March to the Sea" through Georgia, and even though Sherman lost the battle, he ultimately forced the Confederates to retreat and continued on his southward advance towards Atlanta.
I don’t normally think about this battle, but after recently hearing Trump supporters again publicly threaten a new civil war, I found myself contemplating the fates of those 4,000 dead practically on my doorstep I57 years ago. By itself, 4,000 is just a number, abstract and cold, but I have wondered this week, what does it mean for so many young people to die in a single day in a single place? There are about 2,500 students in the local high school and another 1,300 at the middle school. Together, if you throw in a few hundred teachers, that adds to about 4,000 people—friends and neighbors and the kids who live within a mile or two of my house. This is a morbid thought, I will admit, but when some of your fellow citizens are making straightfaced, earnest threats of mass violence, I feel obligated to seriously contemplate the prospect of a civil war.
Some may think I’m being distasteful and cruel to use schoolchildren in such a morbid mental exercise. They are innocents; let’s leave them out of this unseemly talk of political violence. And I would, except for the fact that modern civil wars do not discriminate combatants from noncombatants, civilians from soldiers, or children from adults. No one is spared in a civil war, and if modern history is any guide, children are especially vulnerable. They have been used as soldiers in recent conflicts in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen, to name just a handful of war-ravaged countries. Anyone who wishes for a new American civil war should be prepared for teens and pre-teens to be turned into soldiers because that is what modern civil wars look like.
Does this child-soldier scenario terrify you? It should. Civil wars tear up the delicate fabric of society. They destroy innocence and all semblance of safety and security. They turn neighbors against each other. They turn the future black.
A new American civil war would very likely be fought like other civil wars around the world in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. There would be spectacular acts of terrorism, so no one would feel safe. There would also be irregular soldiers—not the well-trained, disciplined professionals we’ve come to expect in America’s armed services, but men and boys carrying guns and riding in the backs of pickup trucks. Maybe they would be wearing fatigues, but maybe not, because these won’t be professional soldiers. They very likely will not have training or discipline, which means they are capable of anything. So on the day they arrive in your town, the trucks rumbling down Main Street, you will have no idea what will happen next.
And then, your worst nightmare will be realized. They will start rounding up people and bringing them to the stadium in your town, the one where the two-time state champion high school football team plays. Maybe they have a list of people to detain, or maybe they’re not that organized or discriminating. The stadium holds just over 6,000 people and within a day, it is filled to capacity with terrified people. For the next two weeks, the soldiers will interrogate the “prisoners.” You hear the stories coming out of the stadium, of hunger, unsanitary conditions, torture, and rape. The details are too horrifying to even contemplate. Then, some of the women and girls are taken away to a special military barracks in the next county. Everyone knows what will happen to them there, though no one dares say it out loud. And one night, under cover of darkness, a few hundred of the men and boys are put on trucks and driven out into the woods. There, they are lined up in front of freshly dug ditches and shot. A bulldozer is waiting to push dirt over the bodies.
That is what happens in a modern civil war. If you don’t believe me—if you think I am being unnecessarily ghoulish to make a point—google the civil wars in Bosnia, Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, or the Congo. If my scenario sounds far-fetched and unrealistic, consider that all of the atrocities mentioned in the paragraph above were committed by Serbian “irregular” soldiers in the Bosnian Civil War just thirty years ago, when Bill Clinton was president and Pearl Jam was touring with their second album, so, not that long ago. Bosnia was a modern European society with automobiles and highways and TV stations and a big cosmopolitan city called Sarajevo with many coffee shops, theatres, and a world-renowned symphony orchestra. Google the massacre at Srebrenica if you don’t believe me. Google the rape camps.
If the detail of the football stadium seems excessive, consider that stadiums were used by the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Pinochet regime in Chile to hold and execute political prisoners. This is what happens in a civil war—everything good and wholesome is desecrated and there are no longer any safe spaces.
If the suggestion of rape by soldiers is unimaginable, consider that sexual assault is a common feature of modern civil wars. In 1994, researchers interviewed a random sample of 205 Liberian women. One hundred women (49%) reported being sexually assaulted or raped by soldiers during the first Liberian Civil War, which lasted from 1989-1994.
Civil wars destroy societies. Who then would blithely speak of civil war as an acceptable outcome for American society? Almost certainly these people are emotionally immature and grossly ignorant of history. There is no way to gauge the seriousness or relative danger of this kind of rhetoric because in the era of the keyboard warrior, it is all too easy to threaten to go to war with your neighbors while still wearing the slippers your daughter gave you for Christmas. The suburbs are full of armchair revolutionaries who harbor adolescent fantasies about participating in some kind of glorious armed struggle. Maybe some of them would be less willing to talk of civil war if they better understood what happens when one breaks out.