Why a US Civil War could be even more disastrous than the first: When NPR beings to weigh in, it is safe to say that talk of a second American Civil War has officially gone mainstream. Shockingly, however, given the gravity of the topic, much of the current, rancorous debate appears to underestimate the long-term damage that would ensue following a second Civil War. It is therefore crucial that we clarify the reasons why a new Civil War could lead to a far more enduring disaster, for America and the world, than the War Between the States.
The problem with the recent discussion is that, while most analysts correctly point out that a new war would look very different from the last, they draw the wrong lessons from this observation. As the political scientist Barbra F. Walter has recently noted, in a 21st-century war there would no longer be two large armies, wearing uniforms, facing off on the battlefield. Instead, as we have seen in countless civil conflicts around the world since WWII, the environment would be dominated by fluid complexity. Much of the violence would come from ununiformed fighters, motivated by divergent ideologies but fighting for overlapping goals, committing sporadic acts of terror. “Think about Northern Ireland,” Walter said recently on CNN, drawing comparisons to a conflict responsible for approximately 1,900 deaths over the course of several decades.
Yet, we should recognize that highlighting Northern Ireland, or the Ukrainian separatism that has killed 15,000 people since 2014, or related contemporary examples may unintentionally cause the American public to miscalculate about just how dangerous a war would be in the current context. After all, the American Civil War that erupted in 1861 caused over 600,000 deaths and 1.5 million casualties, and many citizens continue to feel that this astronomical price was justified to produce a decisive end to slavery and Southern threats of secession.
The risk is that a considerable segment of public opinion might come to believe that a much smaller price in lives would be equally justified in order to achieve lofty political goals such as, for example, protecting some version of “the American way of life” or “defending our democracy.” Indeed, polls now suggest that as many as 1 in 3 Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike, may be sympathetic to this instrumental view of political violence. This is why it must be made clear that a second Civil War, even if it did prove less deadly – something that cannot be guaranteed – could produce a long-term disaster from which the nation might never truly recover.
First, the international situation is far more precarious than it was in 1861. At that time, many observers expected Great Britain to intervene on behalf of Southern secessionists to protect its cotton supply. Some thought Tsarist Russia would then feel compelled to support the North in order to exert geopolitical pressure on Britain, its rival in Central Asia. In the event, for reasons that remain poorly understood, both European powers declined to become involved in America’s fraternal bloodshed; if they had, the war could have been far more costly and the outcome more ambiguous.
Conditions have changed. Decreases in the cost of international transportation and the evolution of global finance mean that it has never been easier to provide support for groups fighting abroad. Scholars have shown that, in the hundreds of civil wars since World War II, over 60% have been subject to outside intervention.
Outside meddling fractures contemporary civil wars into multiple competing factions, producing conflicts that are nasty, brutish, and long. This is why the average contemporary civil war now lasts over twice as long as civil conflicts did in the past, and four times as long as an average conventional interstate war. It also frequently produces massive civilian death tolls. In the 1860s, America was fortunate, but today foreign rivals that struggle to match the conventional power of the US military appear eager to fan the flames of our domestic political strife, up to the point of domestic collapse. Our febrile latticework of economic, political, and ethnic resentments make this a far easier task than many would care to admit.
Second, unique historical factors limited the economic damage from the first Civil War. For one thing, the major battles were fought mostly in the South, not in the Northern industrial heartland, and the war itself was largely financed by domestic borrowing in the form of “Union bonds” bought by American citizens. Most importantly, the American economy in the 1860s could generate rapid growth simply by building out a basket of technologies that had already been invented in prior decades. For example, the modern railroad was invented in 1825, but construction of the transcontinental railroad was not completed until 1869. The telegraph was invented in 1837, but the first viable transatlantic lines were not laid until 1865 and 1866, respectively. Taken together, these factors meant that, following a Union victory, industry was poised for an enormous expansion.
Again, the situation is more fragile today. The centers of American production and innovation would no longer be geographically immune from violence; indeed, they would be prime targets. The economy writ large is also far more dependent on flows of foreign capital and the ability to attract top global research talent. Widespread instability would certainly raise the cost of borrowing and servicing the United States’ $29 trillion-dollar national debt. It could also make the country less attractive to the best foreign researchers. All this matters because the technologies that will provide economic growth in the near future – things like artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and quantum computing – are still in the early stages of innovation and subject to intense international competition. Civil war now would be a long-term economic catastrophe; it might also give authoritarian rivals such as China an insurmountable lead on the technologies that will dominate the future.
All of this means that, no matter how dysfunctional the political process seems to have become, civil war today will never produce a durable solution to the issues that divide Americans. There can be no rerun of 1865, when basic disagreements about slavery and federal power were permanently laid to rest.
This fact bears repeating. As the great military historian John Keegan reminded us, Western thought from the Greeks to Clausewitz and beyond has evinced a fascination with the idea of decisive wars that settle lingering political disputes once and for all. Alas, history is seldom this tidy. Most wars drag on while the underlying issues remain unresolved. Exhaustion may force a temporary hiatus, but festering hostilities lurk just below the surface. This is especially true of civil wars in the contemporary world. The stark reality is that no political goal worth achieving can be won through a civil war in the 21st century, and the costs would be far greater than many seem to imagine.
Christopher M. England received his PhD in political science from Johns Hopkins University. In addition to academic articles, his writing has been published by The Atlantic Council, The National Interest, RealClearDefense, and The American Conservative.