Recent events have prompted more than one reader to tell me my dystopian novel Our War (Orbit, August 2019), about a second American civil war, is quickly becoming nonfiction. A 2018 Rasmussen poll found that nearly a third of Americans believed a civil war was likely to happen in the United States in the next five years. While I personally believe civil strife (defined as 25+ deaths per year) is far more likely than civil war (defined as 1,000+ combatant deaths per year), the scenario depicted in Our War, which is precipitated by the impeachment of a president who refuses to step down, is certainly plausible.
In this novel, just as in reality, American politics has become so polarized and tribalized that it gained conditions that have precipitated coups and civil wars in other countries: entrenched polarization, distrust of public institutions, violence achieving legitimacy as a way of solving problems, lack of political leadership, and divisive press coverage.
The war’s first catalyst is the president’s impeachment by the House. As in reality, right-wing commentators, militias, and even politicians warn of civil war if the Congress were to remove him. Meanwhile, thousands of people camp at the National Mall in an “Occupy the Mall” protest demanding the president resign, though the country is evenly split on whether he should be removed, and one-third unequivocally support him. After the Senate convicts the president, he refuses to leave office, triggering a Constitutional crisis. Snipers fire into the crowds at the Mall, resulting in a massacre aired on live television and a nationwide panic.
Experts have estimated that as many as 60,000 armed right-wing militia members are operating in the United States. They stage a national armed protest that snowballs into a revolution. In their view, they are fulfilling the intent of the Founding Fathers who said if the government became broken, the citizenry had a right to overthrow and replace it. While their initial goal is to protect the president against a perceived soft coup by the Deep State, eventually they aim for a Constitutional Convention that will completely rewrite the American system.
Even with swelling recruitment in the first days of the civil war, they don’t have the numbers or resources to control the entire country, but they do have enough to roll into a small town, make changes to its government, and keep going to the next. The Three Percenters militia is to an extent based on this concept, that only a small percentage of Americans is necessary to successfully overthrow the government, inspired by a belief that only three percent of Americans fought and won the American Revolution.
The government, meanwhile, dithers in response to this rapid, diffuse threat to national security. While there are some 650,000 police in the United States, many would be sympathetic or even actively join the militia side, and the majority of the rest are in cities, where the militias are indeed stopped from going further. As for the powerful U.S. military, they would find it very difficult to respond. A recent Military Times survey found that nearly four out of five active-duty service members see the military as being more politically polarized. One out of three service members is registered Republican, with the officer corps tending to be more conservative, and one out of five is registered Democrat, with the rank and file tending to be more liberal. Add to this the fact that though impeached, the president remains the commander in chief of the nation’s armed forces.
The military faces a tough choice. They could remove the president with a coup, attempt to restore order by force and risk open warfare against Americans, or safeguard life and vital infrastructure while the president and Congress, which has relocated to New York, begin talks to achieve a political solution. They decide on the latter, leaving the war’s factions to fight it out among themselves.
Civil war ensues. Eventually, the battle lines would form not between states but largely between rural (sparse population density and predominantly conservative) and urban (high population density and predominantly liberal). For example, Indianapolis, where Our War takes place a year after the war started, is a deep “blue” city in a sea of “red.” In the early days of civil strife, gunmen came with automatic rifles in ski masks attempted to cordon off sections of the city, but failed in the face of massive crowds taking to the streets demanding unity and peace. After a bomb goes off in Mile Square, followed by days of house to house fighting between police and gunmen (including rogue police officers), the city government finally secures the city only to find it surrounded by right-wing militias who regard it as the grand prize. This is very similar to Sarajevo’s experience in the 1990s.
During the siege, various organizations inside Indianapolis form their own militias, some out of simple self defense, others to achieve their own political goals as the Left becomes similarly armed and increasingly radicalized. The police department becomes the government army operated by a centrist coalition, while Leftist and other civilian militias defend their turf. While the presidential side has better training and weaponry, the Congressional side has greater numbers. As the war goes on, refugees, failing infrastructure, shortages, and even atrocities and child soldiers become common.
The executive branch and Congress meet for peace talks in Ottawa, but the president holds out, hoping for successes on the battlefield that will result in more concessions. For the presidential side, the stakes are far more than whether the president stays in office or gains immunity from prosecution if he leaves. He and his backers are aiming for a Constitutional Convention that will rewrite the Constitution, with demands including zero restrictions on gun ownership, a national ID card, elimination of the income tax, a balanced budget requirement, English as the national language, and more. The Congressional side, led by centrists, mainly wants to remove the president and resume the same system as before the war, resulting in internal conflicts with the Left, which has its own demands, such as publicly funded elections, elimination of billionaires, healthcare as a right, and more. Meanwhile, reeling from the economic shock of America tottering on the brink of collapse, the rest of the world suffers its own wave of populist movements and wars. Various countries send aid to the United States, while some supply arms to one or even both sides of the conflict.
Our War poses the above as a possible scenario for a second American civil war, resulting from entrenched polarization and gridlock as the kindling, a Constitutional crisis as the spark, and a small but well-funded and coordinated militia movement attempting to overthrow the government.
This polarization, entrenched by competing media, results in Americans with common problems having entirely different narratives about why those problems exist and how to solve them, even different sets of facts. Meanwhile, gridlock has made government ineffective and destroyed trust in public institutions; the American political system, designed to promote unity, means one party cannot get much done without either the White House along with a Congressional super-majority, or the parties being civil and compromising.
I’d like to say the solution is to simply listen more to the “other side,” or some such platitude we often hear as the answer to these problems, but the truth is I believe there is simply too much money and power invested in the polarization for it to stop without more systemic change. Just as it attempts to be nonpartisan, Our War does no preaching, being a story designed to entertain while at the same time, as a dystopian novel, provide a warning. It is up to the reader to reflect on the themes and discuss solutions on their own. What I can say is I naturally hope a civil war never occurs in America, as in many civil wars, everybody fights, and nobody wins. Enough to say Our War is speculative fiction, however much it’s starting to resemble reality; let’s hope it stays that way.