Monday, January 10, 2022

Why the U.S. Military Isn't Ready for Civil War

A huge platter of food for thought.

At Foreign Policy, "Why the U.S. Military Isn’t Ready for Civil War":

The unimaginable has become reality in the United States. Buffoonish mobs desecrating the U.S. Capitol building, tanks parading down the streets of Washington, running battles between protesters and militias, armed rebels attempting to kidnap sitting governors, uncertainty about the peaceful transition of power—if you read about them in another country, you would think a civil war had already begun. The basic truth is the United States might be on the brink of such a war today. Americans must now take the proposition seriously, not just as a political warning but as a probable military scenario—and a potential catastrophe.

The United States, of course, is not just any country—it is the world’s most enduring democracy and largest economy. But ever fewer Americans believe its size and power are going to save it anymore. In the aftermath of former President Donald Trump’s election, Thomas E. Ricks for Foreign Policy asked a group of national security experts to assess the chances of a civil war over the next 10 to 15 years. The consensus stood at 35 percent. A 2019 poll from Georgetown University asked registered voters how close to the “edge of a civil war” the country was, on a scale from 0 to 100. The mean of their answers was 67.23, so almost exactly two-thirds of the way.

There are plenty of reasons to trust this assessment. The United States, as is stands, is a textbook case of a country on the brink of civil conflict. The political system has been completely overwhelmed by hyperpartisanship that renders each political decision, at best, representative of the will of only half the country. The legal system is increasingly a spoil of political infighting. The Oath Keepers, one of the largest anti-government militias, have effectively infiltrated police forces and the Republican Party. Elected officials have opened the doors to vandals who desecrate their own legislatures. It has now become perfectly normal for political representatives to call for acts of violence against their political opponents. “When do we get to use the guns?” is an acceptable question at right-wing rallies. Political violence is on the rise, and the response of the courts has been to legitimize vigilantism—see the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse.

Only a spark is needed, one major domestic terrorist event that shifts the perception of the country—an anti-government patriot who takes his rage against the federal authority and finds expression in flying a drone loaded with explosives into the Capitol dome or a sheriff who decides to take up arms to defend the doctrine of interposition. It’s even possible, though unlikely, that a left-wing rejection of the police, like the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle, might force military action. Retired U.S. Army Col. Peter Mansoor, a professor of military history at the Ohio State University, is a veteran of the Iraq War who now studies the insurgencies of the past. He doesn’t have any difficulty picturing a contemporary U.S. equivalent to civil wars elsewhere. “It would not be like the first Civil War, with armies maneuvering on the battlefield,” he said. “I think it would very much be a free-for-all, neighbor on neighbor, based on beliefs and skin colors and religion. And it would be horrific.”

For the U.S. government, an outbreak of widespread political violence inside the country’s borders would necessarily become a military operation. U.S. militias are significant enough that the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security would simply be insufficient to deal with them. Only the U.S. military could be capable of dealing with insurgent forces. And from a tactical point of view, any engagement between U.S. forces and a militia (or any insurgent force of any kind for that matter) would be entirely one-sided. Despite the preparations of right-wing militias, and despite the sheer number of weapons available in the United States, the U.S. Marines are still the U.S. Marines. No militia or organized group of militias could compete with them in battle.

The real problems would be legal and bureaucratic, and these problems, in turn, would quickly take on a military character. The U.S. military isn’t culturally or institutionally designed to be an adequate domestic actor—rather, the opposite. Its role in American life has been specifically designed to make it ineffective in domestic operations. The use of the military would not be, in itself, a constitutional crisis; there are legal precedents and explicit executive orders governing the use of military force on U.S. soil. But any military response to civil unrest is highly likely to spin out of control into extended insurgency. And for all the U.S. military’s prowess, the outcome would be entirely uncertain.

Occupying forces in foreign countries are, almost without exception, seen as illegitimate by local populations. Would a U.S. force on U.S. soil face the same fundamental resistance? American forces would, after all, be American. But the United States is not like other countries. It was born in resistance to government. Its history has been filled with state resistance to federal authority. And it has experienced resistance to occupation by its own forces before. The United States currently contains a diverse assortment of anti-government movements, from groups that are little more than survivalist hobbyists to neo-Nazi accelerationists and sovereign citizens. They are armed; several members of these groups have been caught with the materials needed to build low-grade nuclear weapons. A significant portion of the American public is actively pursuing the destruction of political authority as such. What happens if they continue to enact their stated goals of overthrowing the federal government and imposing their vision of liberty by force of arms, as the events of Jan. 6, 2021, have shown they are already beginning to do?

Joint Publication 3-27 defines the armed forces’ role in homeland defense as protecting U.S. “sovereignty, territory, domestic population, and critical infrastructure against external threats and aggression or other threats, as directed by the President.” So which is it? Is the Army there to protect against “external threats”? Or is the category of “other threats” broad enough to include rebel militias?

The Insurrection Act stipulates the latter. Originally enacted in 1807, it provides for the suppression of an insurrection against a state government at the request of the governor. There is also Section 253 of Title 10 of the U.S. Code, which allows the president to use the armed forces to suppress insurrection or domestic violence if it (1) hinders the execution of the laws to the extent that a part or class of citizens are deprived of constitutional rights and the state is unable or refuses to protect those rights or (2) obstructs the execution of any federal law or impedes the course of justice under federal laws. There is precedent for such direct engagement: Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War; President Dwight D. Eisenhower calling troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 to enforce desegregation; the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

But the rules of force issued to the 7th Infantry Division during the Los Angeles riots specified minimum levels of force in response to levels of civilian violence. Today’s political violence threatens to be far more organized. The question is, what would happen if the U.S. military were obliged to respond in kind? ....


Sixty years of U.S. experience has taught the same lesson about counterinsurgency: If you lose, you lose. If you win, you still lose. At present, the official U.S. counterinsurgency, or COIN, strategy remains a version of Petraeus’s 2006 “clear, hold, and build” strategy. In the current edition of Joint Publication 3-24, which provides the U.S. military with a doctrine for counterinsurgency operations, it is outlined as “shape, clear, hold, build, and transition,” part of a suite of COIN strategies that include the generational approach (engaging with youth who are most likely to join insurgencies) and network engagement (through social media). All of these strategies have the smack of desperation in their operating modes. The military holds on to these strategies because at least they are strategies, not because they work. For decades, the U.S. military has been defined by its ineffectiveness against insurgencies in foreign countries. Why would it do any better at home?

The central problem is that it is impossible to build legitimacy as an occupier; the process of holding, even with the best of intentions, is humiliating and disruptive. The illegitimacy of any occupying force—the French in Algeria and Indochina, the Russians in Afghanistan, the British everywhere—would meet greater opposition than ever in an American-on-American context. The defiance begins in a claim to the illegitimacy of federal authority. If you are occupying an anti-government patriot stronghold, any state-building, of any kind, will be forced. The locals don’t want government. That’s the point. But how could any force “address the underlying causes of violence,” as JP 3-24 states, without the machinery of legitimization?

You don’t have to look very far to find an example of a failed occupation on U.S. soil. The South, under Reconstruction, spawned the Ku Klux Klan, Red Shirts, and White League—terrorist organizations that beleaguered the Northern administration until it abandoned the project of reconciliation. The resentment of the occupation after the Civil War survives to this day. Many in the South have not forgotten the abuses of Sherman’s March to the Sea, nor forgiven the Northern authorities for the humiliation of subjugation. The occupied Americans hated the occupying Americans. That hatred endures.

It’s in the nature of insurgent conflict that violence builds on itself. Symbolic horrors echo. Resonance compounds. The most recent COIN manual has digested, or at least acknowledged, the problem of perception. Insurgencies and counterinsurgencies are engaged in competitive storytelling. “Insurgent groups harness narratives to communicate grievances, goals, and justifications for actions to both internal and external audiences,” JP 3-24 reads. “Insurgency narratives have three elements or components: actors and the environments in which they operate, events along a temporal continuum, and causality—cause and effect relative to the first two elements.” The key word here is “audiences.” And how good can any military force be at playing to audiences?

The tactical considerations of battles between the U.S. military and any domestic militia forces would be completely irrelevant. No one with any tactical expertise can imagine anything other than a one-sided engagement. Professional military forces are professional...