One of the themes I tried to explore a little in Lex Talionis is civil strife and out-and-out civil war. (The line between “revolution” and “civil war” is thin, murky, and often non-existent. A “civil war” ends up, much of the time, being a “revolution” that didn’t succeed right away.) Some of the reason for this was, admittedly, in reaction to not only some of the civil strife we’ve already seen on the streets of American cities (and out in the boonies, as well, with the Cliven Bundy bunch), but also some of the calls I’ve seen on the blogosphere and social media, on both sides of the political divide, for “revolution” or “let’s get the civil war over with already.”
Much like Jeff Stone and his compatriots, I’ve been on the ground in countries engaged in civil war. I’ve seen the disruption, the destruction of infrastructure, the fear, and, worse, the vendettas. Some of those vendettas in Iraq go back well before the days of Saddam, being tribe against tribe. We dealt with one small tribe on the south bank of the Euphrates in ’06. They were friendly enough, insisting that they were fully supportive of the government and were glad we were there. Maybe it was true, maybe it was what they wanted the big dudes with guns and gun trucks to hear. They were living in a small village of cinder-block houses, farming on the banks of the river. They were poor. We could have blasted their entire village to dust in less than an hour, with air support. (We wouldn’t have, and even if we’d tried, we’d never have gotten authorization, but they didn’t necessarily know that, nor would they necessarily have believed us if we’d explained that.)
The bridge across the river, less than a mile away, had been blown up; it was completely impassable. To cross the Euphrates, you had to drive several dozen miles upriver to the dam. When we asked the locals about getting the bridge fixed (that was a great deal of our job at the time: talking to the locals, finding out who lived where, and seeing if there was any way we could help them), they were adamant that they didn’t want it fixed. Because they had a feud with the tribe across the river, and with the bridge out, that tribe couldn’t come screw with them.
Now, this was a relatively minor anecdote, but it illustrates one of the unintended consequences of civil strife and disorder. The feud between these two tribes didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the wider insurgencies going on in Iraq in ’05-’06. But with the civil and sectarian strife happening, there was no order to keep that feud from flaring up. The only thing keeping it relatively controlled was destroyed infrastructure, probably smashed for an entirely different reason.
And that brings me to a part of revolutions and civil wars that those who are eager for them tend to overlook. Unintended consequences. Violence is chaotic and unpredictable on multiple levels. Political disagreement, while under the cloak of law and politics, can be kept under control. Once you let the dog of war off its chain, there’s no taking it back. There’s no controlling it anymore. Killings lead to grudges.
Some of the difficulty in getting this across to those who have not seen just how messy these wars are in person, is the fact that so much of our own history has been shortened and simplified to fit into a few pages of a high school history textbook. Our revolution worked out, so it’s time to have another one, get things back to basics. Except that the American Revolution was a secessionist rebellion, against a power that was otherwise occupied with a long-running cold war with the French at the time. And the French Revolution that followed, being more of a textbook “revolution,” resulted in the Reign of Terror, with a death toll of tens of thousands. Later revolutions, particularly in the 20th century, were worse. Ours only succeeded because of a particular set of historical and cultural factors, that are no longer in play.
The American Civil War gets even worse. It was not just a series of set battles. It was also Bleeding Kansas, the Redlegs, and Quantrell’s Raiders. Grudges from the Civil War were still being fought out on the frontier well into the 1870s and 1880s.
On top of all that, no civil war happens in a vacuum. The French helped the Colonials out during the American Revolution purely to hurt the British. The British offered aid to the Confederates during the Civil War to get back at the uppity Colonials, nearly a century after the Revolution. And outside influences in civil wars has only gotten more pronounced following World War II. How many civil wars did the US and USSR intervene in, purely as proxy wars against their rivals? Iran and Syria had their fingers deeply in the Iraqi insurgency, and still do (at least Iran does; the Assad regime has a few other things on its mind at the moment). For that matter, the Syrian Civil War is a stew of outside influences fighting each other by proxy, ranging from the US and Russia to Iran and Saudi Arabia. See my earlier post about Russian Influence Operations.
Eventually, there comes a time when there is no remaining choice but to fight. I am not denying that. But the downright eagerness for it that I’ve seen across the political spectrum is disturbing. Because as Jeff Stone said, ““Maybe it’s inevitable,” I continued tiredly. “But I’m still going to do what I can to head it off. Because this is my fucking country, and I don’t want to see it turn into the shitholes I’ve been fighting in for the last twenty years. And that’s why I can’t trust you. You actually want that shit to happen. And that plays right into our enemies’ hands.””