What most people get wrong about our ‘civil war’

One of my favorite things to do each week is to comb through articles and blog posts about our ‘coming civil war’. While a civil war, by definition, has not yet started, I do argue that a domestic conflict has already started (my specific thoughts are here, here, and here).

There are plenty of naysayers, and I understand their logic. They advise listeners or readers, “Go to your local Walmart or grocery store. Your local doctor’s office. Your local bank. Walk out your front door and talk to your neighbor.” They ask if Americans are at war with each other in these places, and use these anecdotes to explain that America isn’t locked into a civil war and won’t be.

They’re right in that regard. America isn’t at war.

But the problem with their argument is that it’s not all of America fighting the culture war, nor is it all of America fighting in the ongoing domestic conflict. It’s an ‘irate, tireless minority’. (The brunt of the ‘fighting’ in this conflict isn’t being waged by the average American, as two of my favorite thinkers people in the world — Victor Davis Hanson and Niall Ferguson — have alluded to. You can read my review of Ferguson’s latest book here.)

Another reason why most Americans — the overwhelming majority — aren’t engaged in our domestic conflict is because we’re still really early. Those engaged in establishing the battle lines of today’s culture war were ‘innovators’ in the 1990s. Those engaged in the culture war through the 2008 and 2016 elections were ‘early adopters’. But once the ‘early majority’ joins as soon as 2019-2021, the evidence of an active domestic conflict could be overwhelming. That’s a very distinct possibility.

My estimate is that we have maybe a few percent of the population pushing left or right extremes at the center of the culture war, but there’s an even smaller percentage (a fraction) that actually engages in political violence. There’s probably another 10 percent on either side actively engaged in political, information, and economic warfare. The remaining 75 percent is on the bubble, indifferent, or just plain stuck in the middle — a lot like other intra-state conflicts we’ve experienced.

So can we really have a domestic conflict with just a few thousand combatants?

Well, yeah. But we’re probably still very early.

To understand why we’re still in the beginning phases of our domestic conflict, we can look at three concepts: the three-part insurgency model, the ‘tooth to tail ratio’ of irregular conflicts, and contemporary examples of irregular conflicts which feature relatively few combatants on either side. (I’ve previously stated the case that, according to the doctrine of low intensity conflict, we’re already in a domestic conflict, however, these three concepts are a second frame of reference for understanding our conflict.)

 

The three-part insurgency model

I’m not suggesting that we’re getting to an outright insurgency in America, but briefly: there are three parts of an insurgent movement. Guerrilla fighters, the Underground, and the Auxiliary. Guerrillas are the irregular force; typically a small group/unit/cell responsible for carrying out direct action against enemy targets. The Underground is typically responsible for running intelligence networks, sabotage, propaganda, and other critical elements of warfare. And then there’s the Auxiliary, which is the support element responsible for logistics and supply, operating safe houses, intelligence gathering, and other generally nonviolent support activities. While there may be some crossover, traditional insurgent and resistance movements have elements of all three parts.

Are we seeing this triad in the current resistance movement? Yes, absolutely, but still at very informal and  low levels. As I argue, we’re witnessing a high grade culture war, but a low grade domestic conflict. (And I should also state that the term ‘civil war’ would imply politically-related deaths. Some definitions of ‘civil war’ put the number of those deaths as low as 25 per year, or as high as 1,000 per year; but either way, deaths from politically-related violence are not at ‘civil war’ levels, strictly speaking.)

 

Tooth to tail ratios

The tooth to tail ratio is a measurement of fighters to support roles in a conflict. For instance, in Iraq or Afghanistan, there were anywhere between 10-30 support soldiers for every one infantry soldier. The tooth to tail ratio also applied for the Taliban, Sunni and Shia fighters in Iraq, and most other insurgent and resistance movements throughout history; although the ratios differ greatly.

What’s the tooth to tail ratio in our current conflict? For every one person engaging in political violence, how many are there supporting them with intelligence, safe houses, transportation, etc.? Not many. Most of the people engaged in political violence probably don’t have logistics support. If this 1:1 ratio were to ever start growing — which is to say that if very clear lines were to be drawn between guerrilla, underground, and auxiliary roles, and Americans began filling those roles on either side — then I would have a much greater reasoning to say that our low grade domestic conflict is developing. (If we start seeing the emergence of traditional combat, combat support, and combat service support roles, then I would expect a hot war to be imminent or have already started in earnest.) For what it’s worth, I routinely see PDF downloads and links to anarchist and communist/socialist insurgent publications (ELF, Mao, Marighella, etc.) on left wing extremist websites. Many of these groups hold meetings and informal recruiting events where these topics are studied and discussed. And some groups on the right are also studying these kinds of doctrinal materials. Last year, we saw a professionally-written operations order for a white nationalist event. It was no doubt written by an Army veteran. So military doctrine and training are being implemented on both the far right and far left. Once we see formal logistical support roles begin to develop alongside those who carry out political violence, then we can likely say that the domestic conflict has turned a corner. Until then, if or when it happens, we’re still in a low grade domestic conflict and it’s entirely possible that we stay there.

 

Contemporary examples

For all the references to ‘the’ Civil War (1861-1865), it’s important to note that military powers involved around 10% of the population of the United States over the entire course of the war. But at its peak, only 2.3 percent of the entire population was fielded in the military.

Today’s intra-state conflict is unlikely to reach those levels. Instead, what we see will probably be pretty similar to more contemporary intra-state conflicts and insurgent movements. It’s difficult to judge just what percentage of the populace engaged in violence in Iraq or Afghanistan at any given point, but suffice it to say that it was very small. A U.S. Government report from September 2017 estimated that the strength of the Taliban ranged from 25,000 to 35,000 fighters. Even if all those fighters were Afghans, the percentage of the population involved in fighting would be around 0.1 percent. (Since those fighters are not likely to all be Afghans, the percentage is likely lower.) The number of fighters in the Chechen insurgency at any given time was probably less than that. At the height of the Bosnian war, probably one percent of the Serb population were actively fighting at any one time. Around 1.5 percent of the Croat population was actively fighting at the same time. There are countless other examples of civil wars and ethnic/sectarian conflicts where very small parts of the population actively fight.

As a baseline scenario, I consider a low grade domestic conflict featuring sporadic violence, and at times spikes in certain regions, to be very possible. Life will go on, but we could be looking at an intractable, low intensity conflict that lasts for years.

But it’s tough to forecast just where this is going, this far out. Our maxim is that “The more extreme the prediction, the less likely it is to come true,” which is why we consider low frequency events to be so extreme. But they do happen. And if we have political instability or violence coincide with the next recession — which could be in 2020 — then we could absolutely see lots of different factors contribute to a ‘perfect storm’ scenario in the United States.

It’s something to seriously consider, and it’s our work here at Forward Observer.

Always Out Front,

Samuel Culper

 

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Samuel Culper is a former military intelligence NCO and contract Intelligence analyst. After 39 months of deployment time to Iraq and Afghanistan, he's now the conflict and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.

3 Comments

    1. Ah, 2013. I was there. That was the cabin. Good find. And I stand corrected: a Corolla hatchback not a Tercel hatchback.

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