This Mighty Scourge of War
“If blood be the price of admiralty,
Lord God, we ha’ paid in full!”
Kipling- The Song of the Dead
At this point, I think everyone, on every side, can accept that everyone else has heard the basic arguments. The basic points of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” and the dearth of gun deaths in the UK are so commonplace as to be cliche.
And I think we can also accept that no one is coming for granddad’s 30-06, or that Glock in your purse. Any realistic proposal put forth at this point has centered on the restriction of certain types of semi-automatic weapons. Specifically, restriction of the AR-15 and its various knockoffs and virtually identical variants.
There have been a number of defenses of the perceived right to own assault weapons. But this one is both the most interesting and the most important
“We need these weapons to protect ourselves from a potential government takeover. Should the government turn evil, the American people can rise up and overthrow it, restoring democracy.”
An interesting claim. The idea of launching another civil war raises three fundamental questions, each endlessly complex.
First: Could such a rising occur?
Second: What would that mean, in terms of combat?
Third: could such a rising be successful?
Before I begin, let me say- I am not anti-gun. At heart, I am pro-gun, for a number of reasons. First, I like guns. I like hunting. I like shooting. Second, I believe that the right to own a weapon should not, inherently, be denied. The right to defend yourself, your family, and even your property, with lethal force if necessary, is a right as fundamental as that of free speech. A right that does not stem from a government, but is native to any thinking being. I don’t want to talk about the morality of guns, but instead of the logistics of a second Civil War.
That such actions could become necessary is not beyond belief. Governments, even democracies can become abusive and dictatorial. And never forget that the last vote of the Athenian democracy was removing that democracy. So let us hypothesize an American government in which the abuses have become so great that there is widespread consensus that revolution is the only course of action left. Imagine whatever abuses you want.
So we have our revolutionary impetus. Now what?
Well, to start off with, the numbers are on our side. There are an estimated 270 million guns in private hands. The combined military/police arms are about 4 million.* This works out to about 90 guns per 100 people. However, those weapons are unequally distributed- only 47% of the American people own guns.** Roughly then, half the American people don’t own guns, and those that do own two apiece.
Very well then. We have our weapons, and we have our cause. Proceeding then, to our first question: Is a universal or semi-universal rising of the American people possible?
Well, first we can turn to our own history. We have had a civil war in this nation before. (An unsuccessful one, it should be noted. ) This up rising was able to assemble an army that is the stuff of legend. Could such an army be raised again?
Possibly, although I doubt it. The South had a number of significant advantages in that area.
First- a pre-existing societal homogeneity. At the start of the Civil War, the American South was both physically and socially united . Not only primarily white (aside from the slaves) but with a deeply cultural connection. The confederates were primarily white protestants from two large groups. Either poor Scots-Irish who would act as foot soldiers, or an incestuously close old-English aristocracy that would form the officer class. The soldiers of the Confederacy came from a common culture that made creating an army a much simpler task. To put it simply, this is an advantage that does not exist anymore.
Second- skill level. The largely sustenance based agricultural level of the poor southerners who would eventually suck up most of the Yankee grapeshot meant that they could be assumed to be handy with a gun, capable of walking a long way, and living in some seriously shitty conditions without complaining.
Third- time. This is perhaps the greatest advantage the Confederacy had. For a number of reasons, including most of the decent officers fighting for the South, the Union was extremely slow to turn the Civil War into the serious conflict it would become. At the beginning of the war, moving on Richmond would have been more than possible, it would have been relatively simple. The Union hesitant actions allowed the Confederacy to arm itself and train an army.
But a buildup to a modern Civil War would not be so simple. First, we no longer have the cultural homogeneity of the Confederacy. Instead of splintering more or less neatly into two halves, resistance to the government would, over most of the country. More than likely, given current trends, it would be Blue vs. Red- Liberal vs. Conservative. While it is certainly possible to imagine other conflicts developing that would fracture the country in different ways, the simple fact is our political positions line up with our conflicts quite neatly.
For example: consider this map of the 1860 election. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/showelection.php?year=1860
Notice how neatly the results split along the Union/Confederacy lines, and notice how the only serious outlier is Missouri- a state that would be torn apart, with units fighting for both north and south, plus an internal brush war closer to the tribal struggles of the Congo than the typical battles of the Civil War.
Now consider this electoral map of West Virginia:
In 2012, the state went overwhelming for Romney, and yet the map is half blue. Take a look at the other maps available on that site- with the exception of Oklahoma and Nebraska, every state is a speckled mess of blue and red. In 1860, travel was virtual impossible, so society was far more insular, and in general, people voted the same as their neighbors.
In the election of 1860, its worth noting that the only states where election results were even close was in places like California that had attracted a wide variety of immigrants from all over the country. Most other states swung widely either one way or the other. Simply put, that sort of homogeneity does not exist anywhere anymore. A sectarian war would not be two largely homogeneous entities duking it out, but a bloody melange- upstate New York vs. Downstate, or Western Mississippi vs. Eastern Mississippi.
And that is only one issue. No matter what the issue, it is difficult to imagine a coalition of urban blacks and country rednecks. A civil war would be a nationwide event, with widely disparate groups fighting their neighbors. For the rebels, communication, let alone common action, would be a serious stumbling block.
Then the question of preexisting skill arises. Here, it is safe to say that there is something to be said for the rebels here. Most gun owners have at least taken their weapons for a spin, and in the urban conflicts that would result, hardiness would be less of a factor.
The real issue is one of time to prepare. Simply put, while most who argue against the possibility of a successful revolution stress the US governments advantages in materiel, at the start, the most telling advantage would be their intelligence. Consider the information gathering capabilities of the current government. A hypothetical American tyranny would expand those programs exponentially.
Further, the government forces would have the advantage of working with a pre-existing system, government forces would be able to recognize each other and work in concert. For a rebel leader in North Carolina, the most difficult part of the job would be deciding if the rebel leader from New York was a government plant or not. Not to mention the government’s increased ability to wiretap, pay off or manipulate traitors to the rebel cause, and so on.
But let us suppose that these hurdles were overcome. Could a rebellion successfully fight the US military? The two positions on this argument are clearly defined- pro-gun activists imagine a revolutionary war scenario- small, brave units in a sort of clean, stand up fight. Anti-gun activists imagine the US Air Force raining bombs down on rebels with AR-15’s cowering in cellars.
The truth, I think, bears no resemblance to either scenario. And yes, a rebel force with small arms could put up a more or less successful resistance to the US military- for a certain definition of successful.
Again- we have examples of the sort of war it would be. We just finished fighting two of them. It would be a guerrilla war on a massive urban scale. The US has become increasingly built up in the past fifty years- urban sprawl would make everything from Portland to Miami one giant Stalingrad- a confused, bloody slugfest of ambush and IED. The most important rebel weapon would not be the AR-15, however. It would be diesel and fertilizer. The tactics of the Taliban and Iraqi insurgents would be the most effective, working as well in downtown Omaha as downtown Baghdad. Blow up your enemies on remote. You can’t go toe to toe with them, so instead, you use fear and paranoia- small, nasty raids followed by fading back into the civilian population.
The War Nerd is one of the most astute commentators on warfare I have ever read, and one point he makes repeatedly is that the three wars fought on American soil- the Revolution, 1812, and the Civil War, were anomalous in the extreme for how incredibly clean they were. Fundamentally, in all three cases, the armies fought under codes of honor that are unimaginable to us today. Further, in all three cases, the combatants saw themselves as fundamentally the same as the enemy. Even further the technological limitations of the time meant that a small ragtag militia could successfully go up against the opposing professional military. A smoothbore musket is pretty much the same no matter who holds it.
A modern guerrilla war would be nowhere near so clean. It would probably begin that way- a lot of talk of “errant brothers” and how we’re all the same underneath. But it would quickly dissolve. First of all, the government forces would be carefully separated- Californians fighting in Virginia, Texans in Boston. And soon, the nature of guerrilla warfare would overcome bonds of national fellowship.
See, wars start off with high ideals. But as any soldier will tell you- you don’t end up fighting for that. You fight for your buddy next to you. And a few IEDs would lead to a lot of hate, which would be taken out on the local population. Maybe you’re a little rougher searching houses, maybe you shoot at targets you’re a little less sure of. And then you make a mistake, and blow up a wedding. Now the locals hate you even more. And so it goes.
Which leads naturally to the third question- can such a war be won?
And the answer is- what do you mean, win?
As noted above, in terms of civilian casualties, the Civil War was remarkably clean, and even so, Reconstruction was bleak, miserable and difficult. The repercussions of those choices still resonate in our society today. Compare that to the brutal realities of modern guerrilla war, and the task of rebuilding is orders of magnitude greater. Propaganda can now propagate at the speed of light. Modern infrastructure is not only more complex, but infinitely more delicate than that of the 19th century- simply rebuilding would be a monumental task. And remember those election maps- everywhere during the war would become incredibly balkanized- Belfast across the nation.
More importantly, guerrilla civil wars would quickly degenerate into the bloody algebra of the feud. You kill my cousin, so I kill you, and now your cousins want to kill me, and then my cousins and so on and so forth. West Belfast or East Kentucky, the story is the same. Eventually, it is no longer about politics, but a cycle of vengeance. Violence would continue for years after the official conflict ended. Eventually, families and communities would become extremely insular. You’d marry someone like you, have kids that you taught to hold your hatred. This cycle can continue for centuries- they still fight this way in Ulster. I’ve been to Northern Ireland, and even now, twenty years after a stable peace, neighborhoods are still suspicious, and old enmity is just under the surface. They still fly the Red Hand in some neighborhoods, and the tricolor in others.
A civil war today, in America might be possible, might even be fought successfully on a large scale. But it would destroy us at a fundamental level. Brother against brother, in the most horrifying literal sense. No longer state by state, but county by county we would tear each other apart. Not on great battlefields or the set piece fights of a bygone age, but street to street- snipers on the roof, carbombs by the side of the road. Informers brutally killed to send a message. Soldiers taking vengeance on civilians taking vengeance on soldiers until all that we were was washed away in blood, leaving behind the blind imbecility of war.
So could you do, with that AR-15 in the corner and a few of your buddies? Perhaps. But in the end, whatever you’d thought was worth it, whatever causa belli you decided upon would be gone beyond recall. And all that would be left of America is former neighbors tossing midnight molotovs over the walls, seeking to destroy people they’d never even seen. Everything we were, forgotten in violence.