In this important book, Stephen Marche has disquieting news for us. America may be headed toward a civil war. We are no longer a united country, and the political split between progressive Democrats and right-wing Republicans has widened to an extent similar to that between North and South before the first Civil War. Marche’s forecast is not altogether a grim one, however; if secession can be peacefully arranged, it has considerable advantages over today’s discord.
Marche in four “dispatches” describes four possible crisis situations that could lead to civil war: a conflict between local forces who no longer recognize federal authority and troops sent from Washington to disarm them; the assassination of a president; the destruction of New York City in a flood; and the outbreak of massive violence owing to terrorism and counterinsurgency measures that arouse resistance. Marche, who is a novelist as well as a journalist, vividly depicts these crises through stories about them.
He characterizes the split in our politics in this way: “The United States is coming to an end…. The United States is descending into the kind of sectarian conflict usually found in poor countries with histories of violence, not the world’s most enduring democracy and largest economy…. In the eyes of the expert class and ordinary American alike, the odds of a civil war in the near future are about the same as drawing a ten or higher in a pack of cards” (pp. 1–2).
In writing about these conflicts in our politics, Marche has set himself a difficult task, one that I do not think he has altogether succeeded in accomplishing. On the one hand he writes as an uninvolved analyst, and in doing so he has consulted a substantial number of experts in various fields; but on the other hand, he is firmly committed to one of the sides, that of the progressive Democrats. (I say this despite his suggestion that as a Canadian, he does not have to choose sides. He can and has.) Can he present an account of our difficulties that nevertheless is balanced and fair? His alliance at times colors his analysis, and I confess that I sometimes do not find his comments helpful; but he is intelligent and perceptive. If we allow for his bias, he has much to teach us.
A nation requires unity in order to stay together, and the spirit of party and faction, unduly pressed, will destroy it. George Washington emphasized this in his Farewell Address: “I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the state, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations” (p. 101). Marche says that “Washington must have recognized the vulnerability that he himself had helped to create, the vulnerability inherent to the glory of the American experiment. Difference is the core of the American experience. Difference is its genius…. But the United States only works if there is a tension between the forces allowing difference and the forces allowing unity” (p. 102).
If the necessary unity does not exist, it follows that the United States cannot stay together, a fact that, to judge by his “Conclusion: A Note on American Hope,” the author regrets, but to many it will seem that the price for national unity is not worth paying. For one thing, the focus of unity in our country in the face of conflicting interests has been the president. In a startling passage, Manche says, “The reason for the high murder rate of US presidents is that they are living symbols of national unity that today no other country possesses—icons as executives…. The US president has an aura that no public servant or monarch possesses or can possess” (p. 73). Do we really wish to be governed by such an “iconic” figure? That way lies the path to despotism.
If secession can be peacefully achieved, the prospects for a less contentious atmosphere in our politics are bright. Comparing red America and blue America, Manche says,
Each side accuses the other of hating America, which is only another way of saying both hate what the other means by America…. On both sides, the sense of being under occupation dominates…. Every political faction operates under a siege mentality…. Everyone wants to build a wall of one kind or another. The geographical divide between the competing American Utopias means that, in every election, whoever loses comes to feel like they’ve been dominated by a foreign power. (pp. 184–85)
Civil war might ensue if the federal government invaded seceding states or localities, and given the massive forces at the US government’s disposal, it is highly unlikely that secessionists could maintain their independence. It would be a grave mistake for the federal government to follow this course, because to attempt to maintain US authority over a recalcitrant population would require counterinsurgency tactics that applied elsewhere in the world have proved a miserable failure. Here Manche relies on the historian and retired general Daniel Bolger.
“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 says. “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. (p. 165)
If we look back to the aftermath of the Civil War, we have clear evidence that an occupying army cannot crush resistance. “The failure of Reconstruction after the first 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…. The compromise of 1877 was ultimately the retreat of federal power. ‘The South got essentially home rule’, Bolger says. Reconstruction was in a sense the first failed American occupation.” (pp. 171–72)
By the way, though he is far from a partisan of the South, Manche displays a refreshing skepticism about a legend the members of the cult of Lincoln have exerted great efforts to propagate: “The North, for its part, developed the myth that they had fought the war to end slavery … even after the war’s outbreak, Lincoln was clear enough about his motivations. ‘My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union and is not either to save or destroy slavery,’ he wrote in a letter. ‘If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it’” (p. 209).
Reading The Next Civil War may help us to prevent the next civil war.