A group of pro-Trump protesters climb the walls of the Capitol Building after storming the West lawn on January 6, 2021. Photo credit: Jon Cherry/Getty Images
Artillery Row Books

Could the US be heading towards civil war?

A crash course on the causes of modern civil wars

How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them by Barbara F. Walter

Is a second United States civil war closer than we think? Barbara F. Walter, one of the world’s leading experts on civil war, certainly thinks so.

She has produced a title which adequately outlines, informs and explores the patterns apparent in the world’s most notable civil wars from the last 70 years, arguing that the US is next to face the music.

Walter argues that civil wars follow a script

Among Walter’s key observations, is the fact that the US is now an “anocracy” on the infamous polity scale, the prominence of political parties dabbling in “identity politics” which promotes “factionalism” (a key indicator of civil war), the presence of “ethnic entrepreneurs” and the accelerant of the problem that is social media.

The purpose of How Civil Wars Start (And How to Stop Them) is self-evidently clear, and Walters does a fantastic job in relaying that immediately and in a striking manner. The dust jacket proclaims that “civil wars are the biggest danger to world peace today” and the book opens with a visceral chapter, placing the reader in the heart of the Capitol riot and occupation of the White House on January 6th 2021. 

The majority of the book is devoted to illustrating the first portion of Walter’s central argument, when she states that “civil wars ignite and escalate in ways that are predictable: they follow a script”. The second half of her argument, which fuels the drama and tension of the book, is the almost prophetic statement that the United States is dangerously close to a second civil war.

To further understand just how close the US is to erupting, Walter takes us on an in-depth tour of civil conflicts worldwide —Civil War 101, if you will. 

Placing the reader in various contexts, she relays the conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Walter introduces us to Noor, a Sunni Muslim in Baghdad whose life changed when various groups began to jostle for power in 2003. In Ukraine, we meet Mikhail, a political scholar and historian, who had witnessed his homeland torn apart, as conflict arose between pro-European and pro-Russian supporters over the Donetsk region.

Walter uses personal case studies throughout — and refers to India, Rwanda, Ireland and more — to ground the book in a wide variety of contexts. She demonstrates the point that  there are absolute, unifying factors in the occurrences of civil wars worldwide, despite the deep cultural, political, and socio-economic differences.

How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them by Barbara F. Walter

Walter also introduces a variety of terms for the reader, adequately explaining each throughout the book. For instance, she states that one of the “best predictors of whether a country will experience a civil war is whether they are moving toward or away from democracy”, and describes the status between democracy and autocracy as an “anocracy’, which best predicts an impending civil war.

She also details the nature of a “polity score”, which best describes how democratic or autocratic a country is each year, which is a device used throughout the book, to immediately signal to the reader, how close a country may be to a civil war, without hastily explaining every single nuance of the situation.

Walters details “ethnic entrepreneurs”, who are mouthpieces of a cause who sow fault lines along ethnic identity lines. “Sons of the soil” are groups that feel tied to a particular geographical location, and Walter uses the people of Abkhazia. Interestingly, Walter states that these groups “rebelled at a rate of 60 per cent”, twice the rate of those that did not.  These groups feel downgraded, as if another group has become more prominent in the cultural, social, and political spheres of their society.

Walter also touches on other key flashpoints of conflict, which include things like language and immigration. She uses the example of general Franco during the Spanish Civil War, who mandated an official statewide language, washing Catalan and others from daily life. Immigration is particularly concerning for Walters, as the world is entering an unprecedented time for mass immigration, which leads to civil unrest due to the absence of jobs.

Among the most interesting points in the book is the discussion of social media and its effect on the phenomenon of civil wars. She argues that it is a clear accelerant of civil conflict in two highly engaging passages around Africa and Myanmar. In 2011, Myanmar had one of the lowest rates for internet access in the world, which stood at 1 per cent. It shot up to 22 per cent in 2015, and as a result, Buddhist ultranationalists utilised Facebook to target Muslim populations nationwide. By 2018, it is estimated over 1M Rohingya Muslims had been forced to flee or were arrested, murdered, raped and injured. 

Walter over-dramatises the threat of a second civil war in the US

In 2016, a table showed countries with the least amount of internet access in the world, 12 out of the top 13 were African. In subsequent years, access to the internet grew, and as a result “the level of conflict began to rise”, with Walter citing the example of Tigrayans and Oromos in Ethiopia.

“It’s not likely to be a coincidence that the global shift away from democracy has tracked so closely with the advent of the internet, the introduction of smart phones and the widespread use of social media”, Walter states. I certainly agree. While it’s no surprise that the polarizing effect that social media has on groups contributes to the amount of civil wars in the world, it is shocking to see how clear-cut it is. 

Walter goes on to discuss disinformation campaigns, and the likes of Jair Bolsonaro hosting a weekly YouTube and Facebook livestream, and the French National Rally Party (otherwise known as the Marie Le Pen Party) hiring 15 full-time staffers who contribute to the digital branding of the party. As Walters elucidates: social media is clearly adding fuel to the fire, and there are people using this to their advantage. 

There are a few issues with the book: the main being that it builds to a discussion of the capitol riots, but Walter over-dramatises the threat of a second civil war in the US. 

Whilst the predictors laid out by Walter are seen in the US currently, a second civil war seems tremendously unlikely. Walter even recognises as such in the introduction, but she then likens the current state of the US to various international conflicts. Walter dedicates a whole passage to postulating for a fictional civil war scenario. In a passage about the stages of ethnic cleansing, she ultimately decides to tone down the hyperbole by proclaiming that “the United States is not on the verge of genocide.”

It is also clear where the author’s sympathies lie on the political spectrum. Walter focuses on conflicts that involve those with conservative views, and by and large neglects those involving groups on the left. For instance, although she recognises groups like Antifa and the rise of left-leaning domestic terrorist groups, she still declares that right-wing groups are more prone to instigating civil unrest. With the exception of Keith Olberman, there is no mention of leading figures on the left, and despite the amount of material on social media, there is no mention of the inherent leftist bias from companies like Twitter and other platforms. While this doesn’t deduct from the enjoyment of the book, it does take away from the book being a fair and comprehensive look at civil wars across the world.

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