Imagining Another Civil War is a Lost Cause (But That's Not Stopping People)Historians in the News
tags: Civil War, polarization
Richard Kreitner is a contributing writer at the Nation and the author of Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union (2020). He is working on a book about American Jews and slavery.
A little over two years ago, I dreamed that all hell had broken loose in New York. I was walking through the increasingly chaotic streets of Midtown, dragging an old grandfather clock with a built-in turntable, hoping to play Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen at just the right cinematic moment, the climax of the terror, when a swarm of armed men in unmarked uniforms—led, for whatever dream-logic reason, by Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov—burst out of the Times Square subway station and started beating people at random. I was looking for my wife, to warn her, when the goons found me. They knew who I was, what I had written, what I had said. I didn’t make it to her.
Rousing in a sweat, it didn’t take me long to untangle the meaning behind this dream. A few weeks earlier, I had finished editing my book, a history of secession in the United States and an argument for considering some form of disunion as a possible solution to America’s troubles. In it, I hoped to offer an entirely new account of the history of this nation through the ever-present possibility of its demise: the difficulty of forming a union in the first place; the ceaseless threats to its integrity once it existed; the devastating war that broke it apart; the rancid compromises that only superficially knit it back together; the return, in recent years, of a long-forgotten sense of its fundamental fragility and, possibly, its impermanence.
Through four or five years of laboring on the project, I had wrestled daily with the note on which to conclude: a rousing call for renewal, rediscovery of the merits of unity? Too trite, vapid, the same sort of feel-good appeal I knew had covered up so much injustice and inequality in the past. An unsentimental demand that it was time to pull the plug? Simplistic, careless; it was only on the worst days I really felt that way. In the end, I settled on what I hoped would prove a productive ambiguity: providing the reader with a fresh account of the country’s past might empower her to reexamine old assumptions and come to her own conclusions about its future. I couldn’t pretend to have answers I did not have. It seemed enough to pose the right questions.
Still, I could only interpret my dream as a sign of suppressed doubt about what it was I thought I was doing. “A reckoning is coming,” I offered in the book’s introduction. (Mea culpa: The word had not yet become nauseatingly ubiquitous.) I never intended my book as a call to civil war, nor was I necessarily “reckoning”-averse. But after I sent off the manuscript, the questions begin plaguing me: Even if the status quo was indefensible and unjust, might whatever came next be worse? Sure, the nation’s political order had become terminally dysfunctional, but how would its dissolution affect me and my family? Neither Trump’s eviction from the White House nor Democratic majorities in Congress would fix what was really wrong with the republic. But wasn’t posing the choice between national reinvention and national rupture perhaps a little glib, even reckless? I had long told friends I hoped my book would be “dangerous.” Five years later, married with one kid and another on the way, stunned along with everyone else by the paroxysms of the Trump era, that no longer seemed such a worthy aspiration.
A few days after my dream, the first cases of a mysterious pneumonia were reported in central China. By May, an armed militia had invaded the Michigan statehouse—some were later charged with plotting to kidnap the governor. That summer, federal agents in unmarked uniforms terrorized Black Lives Matter protesters in D.C. And one year ago, America’s own “little green men” conga-lined up the steps of the Capitol building, zip ties in tow, searching for politicians to hang. I had thought that seeing my predictions come true would be satisfying. Instead it has been disorienting—and terrifying.
It feels unseemly to begin a review of somebody else’s book with a bare-all account of my tortured feelings about my own. But the difficulty I have found trying to dispassionately address the imminent possibility of national fracture informs and heightens my admiration for Stephen Marche’s attempt to do so in The Next Civil War: Dispatches From the American Future, an expanded version of an essay the Canadian journalist published in the Walrus in 2018. While novels such as Omar El Akkad’s American War and Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas (both 2017), journalist Robert Evans’ podcast It Could Happen Here (2019–present), and films like Bushwick (2017) have offered convincing and disturbing fictional treatments of what a new civil war would look like, Marche’s is the first nonfiction text to probe the question at length.
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