Work in Progress: The Next Civil War

My newsletter 165 from a couple of weeks ago, in which I discussed social problems and how they are solved, or are allowed to remain unresolved, resulted in four readers writing to me about the issues I raised. This is an unusually large response. Most of what I write I send into the void and never hear a peep about it. I assume that these are problems that many see, but which are unrewarding to discuss at the present time because their solutions would be politically unpalatable, yet the want of a solution is obvious, no matter how insistently we shove these problems into the background.

One could even say that this newsletter was somewhat apocalyptic in tone, since I ended by suggesting that partition of overly large political entities might be the only practicable solution. Everyone probably understands that partition as a solution would be a disaster, but in the US a future civil war is now a familiar talking point, and if civil war is on the table, partition is also on the table, either as a cause or as a result. Indeed, as disastrous as partition would be, civil war would be worse. Since the political divide in the US does not follow a boundary that could be marked off between states, it would mean that every state would be a battleground for partisans, and no one would be safe. A population transfer would be less disastrous than fifty civil wars in fifty states.

National Guard units are based in each state, and so retain some connection to local loyalties.

When I was thinking about similar issues some months ago I remembered something that I had read somewhere, and I spent quite a bit of time searching for a quote that I did not find. The quote was to the effect that, when people know that a civil war is coming, everyone starts counting who was control of what — who will the city police answer to? What will the state police do? Who will have control of the National Guard units? Who has the keys to the National Guard armories? (In the quote I can’t find this exercise was characterized as a perpetual headcount of a shifting situation on the ground.) If it came to a fight, these questions would of necessary sort themselves out pretty quickly, and the ones who can command serious firepower in the immediate aftermath would be the ones in charge.

In the case of the US, there is also the problem of national military forces, which includes strategic weapons, i.e., nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. The breakup of the US could mean multiple nation-states in North America in possession of nuclear weapons and advanced delivery systems. For example, north of me there is the Kitsap Naval Base, where nuclear submarines regularly put in for supply and service. That means that there are nukes at Kitsap, and people who know how to maintain them and how to operate the delivery systems. Would Kitsap Naval Base (also known as Bangor Trident Base) remain loyal to the US central government in the event of civil war or partition, or would it become an asset of an independent nation-state in the Pacific Northwest? What if there was no remaining US central government? How would local commanders choose their loyalties?

Bangor Trident Base

Because of the ideological capture of local governments discussed in newsletter 165, we can be confident that neither the governor of Washington or Oregon would be capable of asserting authority in a real crisis. The governors of Oregon and Washington are exclusively the consequence of liberal cities like Portland and Seattle; in the wake of a cataclysm, the demographic power of these cities will evaporate as though it never existed, and power will be in the hands of those who seize it. In this connection it is interesting to note that Kitsap County, though breathtakingly beautiful in sight of the Olympic mountains, is about as white trash of an area as I have ever seen. I even heard this joke some years ago: what do a divorce and a hurricane in Kitsap County have in common? One way or another, somebody’s losing a trailer. With rednecks, yahoos, and servicemen dominating Kitsap County, I can’t see a feckless do-nothing like Jay Inslee (or equivalent) effectively asserting power over Bangor.

One can imagine, if things got bad enough, that the central government would begin consolidating assets, withdrawing weapons systems from distant bases and consolidating them into one or a few bases that were confidently under control. However, the US has so much military hardware that withdrawal would be a messy business, leaving a lot of equipment behind (as we saw in Afghanistan). Everything left behind would become the armaments of local militias and the bases themselves would eventually be the core of new military forces of newly established nation-states. Port facilities can’t be moved, though they could be sabotaged if a scorched earth policy were pursued in retreat and the abandonment of assets. It would be in the interest of local powers who would inherit these assets by default to prevent such sabotage, meaning that conflicts could erupt as soon as it is obvious that the military is pulling out, which would make the withdrawal even messier and result in more asserts being abandoned in place. The first to seize a military base will run a high risk of getting killed, but will, if successful, secure a significant first mover advantage.

Speaking of distant bases, since the US is a superpower, it has both naval bases and air bases all over the world, each of which have their own assets and their own commanders with unknown loyalties in the event that the US ceases to be and loyalty to a now-defunct US government is only a memory, and no guide as to what should be done next. Some of these would be “absorbed” by the hosting nation-states, some would probably turn to piracy to support themselves, and some would become mercenaries.

Speaking of loyalties, I think we can predict that the outcome of the breakup of the US would see many different decisions made by many different individuals, just as we saw with the Civil War. Robert E. Lee could have had command of the Union forces, but he considered himself to be a man of Virginia, and his loyalty to Virginia came before his loyalty to the federal government. Probably we would see a lot less of this in a twenty-first century civil war, since American popular culture has become much more homogenous than was the case in the nineteenth century, and a homogenous loyalty to the central government might be stronger than local feeling, but local feeling has not been entirely eliminated. National Guard units, for example, are usually all from a given state and their loyalties would likely be to their states.

Robert E. Lee chose loyalty to Virginia over loyalty to the federal government.

I have often said that, in the event of the failure of the US government, Utah would be immediately united under Mormon rule, and I expect that it would be one of the most stable regions in North America because of the stability of LDS institutions. And even those with weaker associations to some particular place or ideology would, in a catastrophic scenario, find themselves forced to choose, and some commanders would probably grasp at straws to find a reason to choose one side or another. It would be a very interesting bit of social science if we could do a detailed poll of military officers to find out where their loyalties would lie in the event of the failure of the US central government, but for obvious reasons this poll would never take place, and, if it did take place, no one would answer it honestly. Thus the poll would be taken at the moment of decision, in the heat of the action, and there would be no do-overs. Hesitation would probably mean death.

The collapse of the US central government is obviously an unlikely event, but it is not an impossible event. It is one of those events that have come to be called “low likelihood/high impact,” like a radio telescope receiving a bono fide SETI signal. Over longer scales of time than that of the present century, the low likelihood event is transformed into an inevitable event, as no central government endures forever. In this way, contemplating an event as disruptive and destructive as the collapse of the US central government is kind of like a trial run of the larger thought experiment of contemplating the end of civilization — another event unlikely in the short term, but inevitable in the long term.

An illustration of Asimov’s Foundation, in which Hari Seldon plays an crucial, albeit posthumous, role.

In the past week I’ve been working on some new apocalyptic material on the collapse of civilization, which is perhaps a reflection of my state of mind after the death of my father. But I have no interest in being just another Cassandra, as there are any number of doomsayers out there. The point is to analyze and understand the prospects for civilization at this time, even if these prospects are not particularly hopeful. Putting ourselves in the position of Asimov’s Hari Seldon, if we can understand the forces that could bring about the collapse of civilization, we may also see that there are ways to prevent the collapse, or to mitigate its severity.

This past week I finished listening to The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm by Lewis Dartnell. This is a book I had keenly anticipated, and I was pleased to find it available as an audiobook from the library. Dartnell, by the way, spoke during the online IBHA conference a few months ago, and he was a superb speaker, both in his polished delivery and the material he presented. I was keenly interested in this book because it deals with problems much like I discussed above, though Dartnell does not go into the details of the collapse of the civilization to be rebuilt, and he doesn’t even touch on problems of defense in the aftermath. But I have myself thought a lot about the rebuilding of civilization, so this detailed treatment was a real treat, and the book didn’t disappoint.

One of my takeaways from this book is an idea that Dartnell puts out there, but doesn’t follow up on. He acknowledges that in the event of a collapse in which the better part of the population is killed off rapidly, the survivors would have a grace period because of all the stored foods and supplies. In a messy collapse, in which the decline in population is only brought about by violence and starvation, that grace period is eliminated, and the survivors must secure their own food immediately or die. What interests me in this distinction is that different optimal ways of rebuilding civilization would hold for different disasters that caused the collapse of civilization.

A thorough treatment of the task Dartnell set himself in writing this book would be to make a taxonomy of the ways in which civilization might fail catastrophically (here we could simply use existing classifications of existential risk, as below) and, for each of a class of scenarios, spell out the optimal way to rebuild civilization. These pathways back to civilization would vary according to the nature of the disaster that befell us.

Nick Bostrom’s table of existential risks

While the book didn’t disappoint, it left a lot unsaid, and Dartnell was clear about the problems he was setting aside. What interests him is the rebuilding of industries that make civilization possible at the scale we know it today, or something approximating this scale. (There is another seemingly related book, How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler by Ryan North, that I may need to also read.) For the demands of immediate survival, there is Sam Sheridan’s book The Disaster Diaries: One Man’s Quest to Learn Everything Necessary to Survive the Apocalypse (I listened to this last year). Between these two books there is another gap — perhaps an opportunity for another book — that would address the period of time between immediate survival of a cataclysm and the period of time when it is possible to rebuild some of the industries that make a civilization viable, and this period of time must involve stabilization of the immediate situation in the wake of a cataclysm and then establishment of some kind of order — in other words, the business discussed above of securing sufficient military assets in the breakup of civilization that one can go about rebuilding industries without being the victim of other survivors keen to take what you have rebuilt.

When I was a child I especially loved novels of the violent collapse of civilization, and I read Alas, Babylon, Lucifer’s Hammer, The Stand, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and many others. One of the themes of The Stand is the idea that all these weapons will just be lying around after a disaster, waiting for someone to pick them up. All of these books are detailed considerations, in fictional form, of immediate survival followed by the rebuilding of the rudiments of community. One of the reasons I enjoyed these books so much as a child was that they were sufficiently detailed and explicit to offer a kind of post-apocalyptical checklist before works like Dartnell’s book was available. And, as we have seen, there are still significant gaps in the post-apocalyptic literature that remain to be filled, so we can look forward to more thoughtful engagements with the problem of rebuilding civilization.




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Nick Nielsen

One Man Think Tank

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