The unimaginable has become reality in the United States. Buffoonish mobs desecrating the US Capitol building, tanks parading down the streets of Washington, running battles between protesters and militias, armed rebels attempting to kidnap sitting governors, uncertainty about the peaceful transition of power—if you read about them in another country, you would think a civil war had already begun. The basic truth is the United States might be on the brink of such a war today. Americans must now take the proposition seriously, not just as a political warning but as a probable military scenario—and a potential catastrophe.
The United States, of course, is not just any country—it is the world's most enduring democracy and largest economy. But ever fewer Americans believe its size and power are going to save it anymore. In the aftermath of former President Donald Trump's election, Thomas E. Ricks for Foreign Policy asked a group of national security experts to assess the chances of a civil war over the next 10 to 15 years. The consensus stood at 35 percent. A 2019 poll from Georgetown University asked registered voters how close to the "edge of a civil war" the country was, on a scale from 0 to 100. The mean of their answers was 67.23, so almost exactly two-thirds of the way.
There are plenty of reasons to trust this assessment. The United States, as is stands, is a textbook case of a country on the brink of civil conflict. The political system has been completely overwhelmed by hyperpartisanship that renders each political decision, at best, representative of the will of only half the country. The legal system is increasingly a spoil of political infighting. The Oath Keepers, one of the largest anti-government militias, have effectively infiltrated police forces and the Republican Party. Elected officials have opened the doors to vandals who desecrate their own legislatures. It has now become perfectly normal for political representatives to call for acts of violence against their political opponents. "When do we get to use the guns?" is an acceptable question at right-wing rallies. Political violence is on the rise, and the response of the courts has been to legitimize vigilantism—see the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse.
Only a spark is needed, one major domestic terrorist event that shifts the perception of the country—an anti-government patriot who takes his rage against the federal authority and finds expression in flying a drone loaded with explosives into the Capitol dome or a sheriff who decides to take up arms to defend the doctrine of interposition. It's even possible, though unlikely, that a left-wing rejection of the police, like the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle, might force military action. Retired US Army Col. Peter Mansoor, a professor of military history at the Ohio State University, is a veteran of the Iraq War who now studies the insurgencies of the past. He doesn't have any difficulty picturing a contemporary US equivalent to civil wars elsewhere. "It would not be like the first Civil War, with armies maneuvering on the battlefield," he said. "I think it would very much be a free-for-all, neighbor on neighbor, based on beliefs and skin colors and religion. And it would be horrific."
For the US government, an outbreak of widespread political violence inside the country's borders would necessarily become a military operation. US militias are significant enough that the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security would simply be insufficient to deal with them. Only the US military could be capable of dealing with insurgent forces. And from a tactical point of view, any engagement between US forces and a militia (or any insurgent force of any kind for that matter) would be entirely one-sided. Despite the preparations of right-wing militias, and despite the sheer number of weapons available in the United States, the US Marines are still the US Marines. No militia or organized group of militias could compete with them in battle.
The real problems would be legal and bureaucratic, and these problems, in turn, would quickly take on a military character. The US military isn't culturally or institutionally designed to be an adequate domestic actor—rather, the opposite. Its role in American life has been specifically designed to make it ineffective in domestic operations. The use of the military would not be, in itself, a constitutional crisis; there are legal precedents and explicit executive orders governing the use of military force on US soil. But any military response to civil unrest is highly likely to spin out of control into extended insurgency. And for all the US military's prowess, the outcome would be entirely uncertain.
Occupying forces in foreign countries are, almost without exception, seen as illegitimate by local populations. Would a US force on US soil face the same fundamental resistance? American forces would, after all, be American. But the United States is not like other countries. It was born in resistance to government. Its history has been filled with state resistance to federal authority. And it has experienced resistance to occupation by its own forces before.
The United States currently contains a diverse assortment of anti-government movements, from groups that are little more than survivalist hobbyists to neo-Nazi accelerationists and sovereign citizens. They are armed; several members of these groups have been caught with the materials needed to build low-grade nuclear weapons. A significant portion of the American public is actively pursuing the destruction of political authority as such. What happens if they continue to enact their stated goals of overthrowing the federal government and imposing their vision of liberty by force of arms, as the events of 6 January, 2021, have shown they are already beginning to do?
Joint Publication 3-27 defines the armed forces' role in homeland defense as protecting US "sovereignty, territory, domestic population, and critical infrastructure against external threats and aggression or other threats, as directed by the President." So which is it? Is the Army there to protect against "external threats"? Or is the category of "other threats" broad enough to include rebel militias?
The Insurrection Act stipulates the latter. Originally enacted in 1807, it provides for the suppression of an insurrection against a state government at the request of the governor. There is also Section 253 of Title 10 of the US Code, which allows the president to use the armed forces to suppress insurrection or domestic violence if it (1) hinders the execution of the laws to the extent that a part or class of citizens are deprived of constitutional rights and the state is unable or refuses to protect those rights or (2) obstructs the execution of any federal law or impedes the course of justice under federal laws. There is precedent for such direct engagement: Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War; President Dwight D. Eisenhower calling troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 to enforce desegregation; the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
But the rules of force issued to the 7th Infantry Division during the Los Angeles riots specified minimum levels of force in response to levels of civilian violence. Today's political violence threatens to be far more organized. The question is, what would happen if the US military were obliged to respond in kind?
Under the conditions of the Insurrection Act, the Justice Department is the lead federal agency in cases of homeland pacification. In practice, this means the president would appoint a senior civilian representative of the attorney general to oversee military operations. The two-tier authority that results—inherent in the double role of police action and military action—would crush intelligence-gathering efforts. The Reagan administration explicitly decreed in Executive Order 12333 that the military is only allowed, in the case of US citizens, to gather enough information for situational awareness. The nub of the problem is coming up with an effective definition of the phrase "essential to meet operational requirements," as the Defense Department terms it. Any failure to uphold the constitutional rights of the rebels would justify their claim that the government is illegitimate.
The struggle would take place under conditions of greater scrutiny than any US military operation in history. Information operations are the great weakness of the US military; control over the subtle but all-powerful narratives that give governments legitimacy have always eluded even the most brilliant American soldiers. Four-star Army Gen. John Galvin, back in 1986, described the military mind as "uncomfortable with warfare's societal dimension." Every general who has written a new counterinsurgency operating manual—or reported on the reasons for the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, including retired Army Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal—has mentioned the same weakness in understanding the interplay of culture and conflict. Military leaders are, by nature, technicians rather than humanists. They are deliberately not politicians. The Joint Chiefs of Staff's failure to address the informational nature of conflict in the 21st century is another example of the oldest crisis in warfare. The generals are always preparing for the last war.
During a domestic operation, the military information support officer would be more important than anyone in the intelligence preparation of the battlefield process or any of the engineering officers. Whatever actions are undertaken will be in the context of a highly active and highly polarized media and in the context of a highly polarized legal system with diminishing legitimacy. For half the country, the military engagement against insurrectionists or terrorists will be necessary to preserve democracy and the rule of law. For the other half, it will be the desecration of individual liberty. The beginning of any action, of any sort, by a US military force against US citizens would create an automatic sense of illegitimacy. The already incipient legitimacy crisis would be exacerbated.
Sixty years of US experience has taught the same lesson about counterinsurgency: If you lose, you lose. If you win, you still lose. At present, the official US counterinsurgency, or COIN, strategy remains a version of Petraeus's 2006 "clear, hold, and build" strategy. In the current edition of Joint Publication 3-24, which provides the US military with a doctrine for counterinsurgency operations, it is outlined as "shape, clear, hold, build, and transition," part of a suite of COIN strategies that include the generational approach (engaging with youth who are most likely to join insurgencies) and network engagement (through social media). All of these strategies have the smack of desperation in their operating modes. The military holds on to these strategies because at least they are strategies, not because they work. For decades, the US military has been defined by its ineffectiveness against insurgencies in foreign countries. Why would it do any better at home?
The central problem is that it is impossible to build legitimacy as an occupier; the process of holding, even with the best of intentions, is humiliating and disruptive. The illegitimacy of any occupying force—the French in Algeria and Indochina, the Russians in Afghanistan, the British everywhere—would meet greater opposition than ever in an American-on-American context. The defiance begins in a claim to the illegitimacy of federal authority. If you are occupying an anti-government patriot stronghold, any state-building, of any kind, will be forced. The locals don't want government. That's the point. But how could any force "address the underlying causes of violence," as JP 3-24 states, without the machinery of legitimization?
You don't have to look very far to find an example of a failed occupation on US soil. The South, under Reconstruction, spawned the Ku Klux Klan, Red Shirts, and White League—terrorist organizations that beleaguered the Northern administration until it abandoned the project of reconciliation. The resentment of the occupation after the Civil War survives to this day. Many in the South have not forgotten the abuses of Sherman's March to the Sea, nor forgiven the Northern authorities for the humiliation of subjugation. The occupied Americans hated the occupying Americans. That hatred endures.
It's in the nature of insurgent conflict that violence builds on itself. Symbolic horrors echo. Resonance compounds. The most recent COIN manual has digested, or at least acknowledged, the problem of perception. Insurgencies and counterinsurgencies are engaged in competitive storytelling. "Insurgent groups harness narratives to communicate grievances, goals, and justifications for actions to both internal and external audiences," JP 3-24 reads. "Insurgency narratives have three elements or components: actors and the environments in which they operate, events along a temporal continuum, and causality—cause and effect relative to the first two elements." The key word here is "audiences." And how good can any military force be at playing to audiences?
The tactical considerations of battles between the US military and any domestic militia forces would be completely irrelevant. No one with any tactical expertise can imagine anything other than a one-sided engagement. Professional military forces are professional.
By the same token, no one with any political expertise in counterinsurgency could imagine that any of those victories would matter. For retired Army Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger, who teaches history at North Carolina State University, the problem of counterinsurgency is fundamentally not a military one. "A succession of winning firefights makes exactly no difference," he says. When you read Bolger's book Why We Lost, an on-the-ground report on the failures of two decades of US counterinsurgency, you keep waiting for the losses. The Americans win nearly every engagement—and totally. They have excellent plans that are well executed. Their collection of victories is irrelevant. "By definition, you're the occupier, and everything you do just proves to the local population that their 'local government' is nothing but a proxy or a tool," he said.
Every time the Marines demolished another outpost of domestic resistance, it would only exacerbate the underlying crises. "You will occasionally hear people say, 'I'm not worried about an insurrection because the Army's got all the tanks and the Air Force has bombers,'" Bolger said. "Look, if that's what you're reduced to, just going in and killing people, you're not solving the insurrection. In fact, you're spreading it. You're guaranteeing more of it." You cannot punish people out of hating you. The military is an instrument of punishment. Its very function makes it useless.
For Bolger, who has seen this futility from every angle, counterinsurgency strategy is a contradiction in terms. It is a game in which the only winning strategy is not to play. But not everyone has the luxury of not playing.
Mansoor, the retired Army colonel, has a different perspective
For Mansoor, a successful counterinsurgency is next to—but not quite—impossible, a vital distinction. For one thing, insurgencies fail when they are unpopular with the local population, as in the case of the Shining Path in Peru or Che Guevara in Bolivia. "The most important thing is to get the politics right, and if you get the politics right, you're going to be able to win a counterinsurgency," Mansoor said while acknowledging that "the reason these insurgencies occur in the first place is because of politics."
The role of the military, in Mansoor's view, is to clamp down on violence so that political progress can be made. "If you have so much violence going on, the politics is frozen," he said. That need for stability to promote dialogue was the assumption behind the 2007 surge in Iraq. And there, an expanded counterinsurgency strategy did make politics possible. It's just that the parties found themselves exactly where they started before the violence.
The solution to the next US civil war would be the solution to the crises America already faces. The military at best could provide the space that the United States currently possesses to negotiate its problems. If America cannot solve these problems now, why would it be able to solve them after widespread violence?
Once counterinsurgency starts, it's nearly impossible to extricate your forces. How can anyone manage to maintain perspective in the middle of a fight for survival? "You get focused because it's life or death on patrols, ambushes, night raids, because your life is on the line," Bolger said. "You're hopeful, as you're doing that, that somebody way up the chain is thinking, 'Hey, I'm making these guys do this because this is getting us towards whatever we want.' My experience was that they were making us do it because that's what we did. I don't think they had an overall plan that I could detect. When you're talking about your own country, the stakes would be much higher."
For Mansoor, the sheer scale of the United States in terms of geography and population would present a massive military problem. "You need a troop ratio where you have a lot of security forces to clamp down on violence. The United States is a very large continent with a large population. I'm not sure we could ever have that many people in uniform to make it happen. What you would see is the rise of militias on both sides." The military's role would be to suppress violence. The only way to suppress violence would be to put the country on lockdown.
"You have to control the population," Mansoor said. "In Baghdad, we did that by segmenting off the city with cement barriers, by instituting martial law and censuses. There was a curfew. There were checkpoints all over the place. We went into people's homes in cordon-and-search operations looking for arms and munitions. We had a full-scale intelligence operation to ferret out the terrorist and insurgent leaders. We had an unblinking eye over the city taking 24/7 surveillance. It's very invasive for civil rights. It became essentially impossible for the terrorists and insurgents to move or communicate." Areas of population were broken down by ethnicity and by 12-foot steel-reinforced blast walls. Citizens were interrogated every time they left or entered their neighborhood. Anyone suspicious was arrested. "This is the other thing that would occur. Massive detention centers across the United States where people who were suspected of being disloyal or who were disloyal would be warehoused on a massive scale," Mansoor said. The United States is already the most incarcerated society in the world. An attempt to clamp down on domestic terrorism would make it vastly more so.
How long could such repression last? "We're talking about a future civil war in the United States, so the effort would extend indefinitely because of the passions that would invoke," Mansoor said. For Bolger, as a historian as well as a retired officer, what is extraordinary is how little the United States has learned from even the insurgencies on its own soil. The British Army won nearly every pitched battle in the Revolutionary War. Yet the British could not hold the country against the will of its inhabitants. The failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War reveals the near impossibility of holding Americans under a political regime they won't tolerate. The North won the war but couldn't stomach occupation. "What really happens? The Northern forces struggle, undergunned, undermanned, with provisional support from the government, a very small occupying force up to 1877, and every year everybody's looking at their watch saying, 'Are we done yet?'" Bolger said. "So what happens? The African American population that's nominally free becomes peons with almost no rights by 1877, basically disenfranchised in every practical sense, and the people in the North accepted it because they knew they couldn't do anything about it. They weren't going to kill every single Southerner." The Compromise of 1877 was ultimately the retreat of federal power. "The South got essentially home rule," Bolger said. Reconstruction was in a sense the first failed US occupation.
To ordinary people, to Americans trying to live their lives caught between the random violence of terrorists and the grinding repression of the state, victory and defeat would look much the same. "If you're in a situation where you're using armed force to try to quell a population, you're either going to have to kill a bunch of them or you're going to pull out and let them have local control," Bolger said. "You're never going to talk them into seeing it your way." The United States, as an entity, survived one civil war. The question for the next civil war is not necessarily would the United States survive but would it be recognizable after?
Both the right and the left would come to another civil war with structural advantages. The right would benefit from the ferocity and militarization of its base, significant infiltration of the radical right into institutional life, and the legacy of the Senate and the electoral college, which would provide a constitutional basis for a takeover of the military despite their smaller numbers. The left, for its part, makes up the majority of the country, and they have the money. The counties that voted for Joe Biden in 2020 accounted for 70 percent of the national GDP. With each side's respective strengths, there would be no overwhelming force or clear winner from the outset.
A coup would hardly be unprecedented in global terms: In Chile, in 1973, a constitutional democracy in place for nearly 48 years devolved into winner-take-all, zero-sum partisan politics until the military imposed tranquilidad. Other countries, even established democracies such as Canada, have imposed martial law in the middle of severe political upheaval. But a hard coup in the United States—tanks rolling up Pennsylvania Avenue to impose military control over the country—is unlikely. The deep-seated causes of almost every coup, anywhere, are "poverty, economic activities based mostly on land, and hybrid political regimes," according to Taeko Hiroi, a professor of political science at the University of Texas at El Paso. Countries that are neither authoritarian nor democratic are most vulnerable. The immediate triggers of coups tend to be "social instability, anti-government protests, economic crisis, and regime transitions." It's not that these conditions are inconceivable for the United States, but the real reason why a hard coup is unlikely is simply that it hasn't happened before. "One of the most important factors in a country's propensity to experience coups is its history," Hiroi said. "Coups are more likely to happen to countries that have experienced coups."
The United States does not have a history of coups, but it does have a history of radical political violence, both in its extensive history of political assassination and its history of civil war and insurgency under occupation. The typical conclusion of insurgency conflicts is not victory by either side but exhaustion by all. Exhaustion would reshape the US political landscape. "What bargains or deals would be struck with local authorities to stop the violence?" Bolger said. A devolution of power wouldn't even require any formal legislation. The transition could be quite surreptitious. It's a question of what laws the federal government would choose to enforce. There are precedents. Some states have allowed the sale and consumption of marijuana, for example, although the drug remains illegal under federal law. "Would what resulted look much like the America we know today? I don't know. The question is, at what point does it cause the society as a whole to fracture? At what point does it go too far, and you say, 'OK, this is no longer a country. We're all just pretending it's the same thing.'" That question is not just for future Americans. It is impinging on the present. With or without a civil war, Americans are going to face an existential question: Are they part of the same country anymore? Or are they just pretending? The American experiment is coming to an end.
To put the matter as simply as possible, the country possesses no effective way for processing or mollifying or even slowing political violence. While there is still some room to negotiate, policymakers should at the very least clarify, or modestly untangle, the bureaucratic quagmire that inevitably faces any future use of military force on US soil. Currently, any attempt by the military to do so would only exacerbate underlying tensions. The systems for dealing with breakdowns in the system are themselves broken. The question now is how long and how far the fall will be.
Stephen Marche is a novelist and essayist who lives in Toronto.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement.