The Founding Fathers never envisioned a crazed narcissist as POTUS; one prepared to bring down the country to salve his bruised ego. Because of the heroic actions of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, and other senior officers like him, the line held – at least temporarily. Nationally, discontent runs high. The indicators foreshadowing a potential civil war are visible for those who know where to look. Whether intentional or not, the military has played a key role. As a minimum, they have trained millions of people in the ways of war. It would only take a small, but dedicated group to ignite the flames.
The Department of Defense has a potential coup problem. Consider this:
- Retired U.S. Army colonel, Phil Waldron, drafted comprehensive plans to overthrow the 2020 election results which were presented to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.
- Active-duty U.S. Marine Corps major, Chris Warnagiris. was arrested for breaching the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021
- Retired U.S. Army lieutenant general, Mike Flynn, advised the losing candidate to have the Department of Defense seize ballots in states that did not support him and have them conduct another election.
- With Oath Keepers leaders charged with sedition, 10 percent of their membership reportedly are active-duty military.
- Former USMC NCO, Ryan Nichols, on January 6, 2021, paraded through Washington shouting, “We’re going to drag motherf**k*rs through the streets.”
To be clear, I am NOT inferring a hostile takeover by a military junta led by senior generals from the Pentagon. Rather, the civil war would be something far more insidious, the roots of which are already exposed.
It has long been assumed that the American armed forces under control of the Department of Defense (DoD) were a stabilizing force that would remain loyal to the U.S. Constitution. This article challenges some of the most basic assumptions about the institutional stability of the DoD. With over half a century invested in national security matters, it was not until very recently that I ever imagined the possibility that such loyalty could be brought into question.
The events of January 6, 2021 and what has followed changed all that. Even worse is the recent (February 4, 2022) declaration by the Republican National Committee (RNC), that the attack on the Capitol, and events that led to it, were “legitimate political discourse.” Yes, the RNC, speaking for that body, stated that a violent attempt to disrupt Congress, overthrow the election, and prevent the peaceful transfer of power, was legitimate.
A basic assumption always has been that the military chain of command is clear and incontrovertible. In future situations, that may not be true. After the 2020 election, Executive Orders were drafted directing the military, and others, to secure voting machines in some states, conduct audits, and report back in 60 days. Had they been signed, that reporting date was past the inauguration date for Biden. Under such circumstances, who would have been the legitimate commander-in-chief? With an attempt to overthrow the election in motion, who is legitimately in charge may not be clear.
At the time those draft Executive Orders were written, former Army colonel, Chris Miller, was the acting Secretary of Defense. An affable fellow, and great Special Forces commander, he was woefully out of his depth and was never considered for Senate confirmation. He was thrust into office only because Trump was unhappy with Mark Esper, who had the audacity to follow his conscience and the law. While Miller might not have been willing to execute such an order, Trump could have found someone who would. He had already placed other loyalists in key Pentagon positions such as former brigadier general, Anthony Tata as acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Kash Patel, and Ezra Cohen-Watnick,
What we know is that there were many flag-grade officers who openly supported Trump before the election. In fact, 235 of them signed a letter to that effect. Incomprehensibly, by 2020 each signatory knew, or should have known, they were endorsing an inveterate narcissist, who publicly and repeatedly stated that in the event he lost the election, he was not committed to follow the U.S. Constitution and support the peaceful transfer of power. Blindly, they disregarded the experiences of their peers, who had attempted to operate within Trump’s sphere, only to be cast aside and personally denigrated for their service. Specifically, they failed to heed the warnings of former Secretary of Defense, USMC General Jim Mattis, former Secretary of Homeland Security and White House Chief of Staff, USMC General John Kelly, and former National Security Advisor, U.S. Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster.
While endorsing Trump does not mean they were prepared to violate their oath to the Constitution to protect the country from adversaries both foreign and domestic, we do know some were. The most flagrant example, of course, are the actions of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn who briefly served as the National Security Advisor. It was Flynn, who while visiting the White House following the election in which Trump was defeated, actively recommended that the military or others become involved in the election process by taking control of voting machines in selected states. Those, and other measures were designed expressly to overturn the will of the American people and keep Trump in power. Notably, earlier in December 2020, Trump had pardoned Flynn for his criminal convictions to which Flynn had pleaded guilty.
A fearful lot, it is worth considering a key sentence in that Trump-supporting, flag-officer letter signed by nearly all (if not all) white males (no females) who stated their ideological status is threatened. “With the Democratic Party welcoming to socialists and Marxists, our historic way of life is at stake,” they wrote. In fact, that notion of loss of their old way of life is a driving factor for many active-duty members and the millions of veterans. They fail to accept that the country has changed, and will continue to do so. Incessantly, they yearn to return to a time that never was.
On January 29, 2022, at a rally in Conroe, Texas, former President Trump openly admitted that he had attempted to overthrow the prior presidential election. As he had done with Flynn, he stated he would pardon those who had been arrested and convicted of crimes relating to the January 6, 2021 insurrection that took place at the U.S. Capitol. The subject of numerous criminal investigations, like a Mafia boss, he encouraged his followers to protest vigorously if he were indicted. A dog-whistle comment, his base takes that to include violence. Important here, his base includes some active-duty personnel and many military retirees.
Currently there are numerous articles addressing extremes of political violence including the potential for civil war occurring inside this country. A recent poll indicated that 35 percent of the American electorate now believe that violence is justified to support their political goals. They are heavily weighted toward those registering as Republicans.
My experience has been that most members of the military tend to identify as conservative. That notion is generally confirmed by various polls that have been held. A 2009 Gallup survey found that, “most veterans of all ages are Republican.” That was based on polling of over 138,000 respondents. That belief also has been supported by the comments that were posted to articles found on military.com over the past few years. It was clear that many respondents, mostly retired military, supported Trump and his authoritarian ways, even under the most egregious circumstances.
A problem, of course, is that the GOP can no longer be considered as truly conservative but rather a cult paying fealty to the persona of Donald Trump. Many of the registered members seem unaware of the dramatic philosophical changes that have taken place within the Republican Party. For many people, historic party affiliation takes precedence over current facts, of which they have only a vague notion, often the talking points from Fox News, or from similar media outlets.
The situation is exemplified by the significantly higher number of veterans who have been arrested and charged in connection with the insurrection of January 21. The recruitment of veterans has been a priority of white supremacist groups for a number of years. That was borne out in a 2008 study conducted by Yale University. That study found that veterans tended to occupy leadership positions in those extremist organizations. However, the situation continues and is exacerbated with recent studies verifying the concerns held by Department of Defense leadership.
To be sure, a significant part of Trump’s base is comprised of white supremacists and race-baiting is a frequent tactic he employs. In recent years, particularly during Trump’s term of office, white supremacist organizations have been expanding and are considered a significant domestic threat. Internally the Pentagon knows there is a problem, but dealing with it is difficult.
Most Americans today have no concept of what a modern civil war would entail or look like. They are too invested in the one that took place in the 1860s in which there was clear demarcation between the northern forces and those of the Confederacy. It is important to divest ourselves of that anachronistic notion.
During the first Civil War more than 363 West Point graduates fought for the Confederacy so there is obvious precedence for U.S. Army officers fighting against the country. Among those were their leaders including General in Chief of the Armies, Robert E. Lee, (1829) Major General JEB Stuart, (1864) Lieutenant General Longstreet, (1842) and General Braxton Bragg, (1837) for whom the sprawling North Carolina fort is named. Despite having served as commission officers in the United States Army, all shifted their loyalties upon the onset of war. Today’s question is what circumstances might cause a shift in loyalties?
Barbara Walter, a political scientists at UCSD, in her prescient book, How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them, goes into considerable detail in addressing the complex issues involved. Having studied civil wars for several decades, she correctly notes that very frequently, while the triggering events emerge abruptly, it is only in retrospect that the extent of the underlying conditions for conflict are fully recognized. That is, they didn’t see it coming.
As Walter reported in The Washington Post in January, 2022, “The respected Center for Systemic Peace (CSP) calculated that, for the first time in more than two centuries, the United States no longer qualified as a democracy. It had, over the preceding five years, become an anocracy.” Anocracies are countries that lie in between full democracy and authoritarianism. Politically unstable, it is this state during which more frequently political violence and civil wars will occur.
After the inauguration of President Biden, and reinstitution of restraints on political power, the CSP raised America’s polity score back into the democratic range. Given the stated position and power of the RNC, I believe that change was premature and the threat of political violence remains quite high. Remember, it was Kevin McCarthy in the House, and Mitch McConnell in the Senate, who were vehemently opposed to Congress even investigating the insurrection activities of January 6, 2021. And now the RNC equates the attempts to overthrow the election to “legitimate political discourse.” (A statement worth repeating)
Importantly, this civil war would not be a military junta from the Pentagon or the 1st Marine Division versus the 82nd Airborne Division fighting on the plains of Kansas, or any other conventional forces. Rather, we likely would see escalation of violence by disparate groups who believe themselves to be disenfranchised and not accountable to a central government.
Walter identifies many of these groups as “sons of the soil,” and they view their dominant status as being unquestionable yet slipping away. In their view, such privilege is simply their due, and should not be challenged. For many white Americans, there is concern about the rapidly changing demographics as the United States becomes a truly multiracial country. The Brookings Institution projects that by 2045 whites will actually be a minority in this country. Unfortunately, there are many people living today who deem those demographic shifts to be a direct threat to their way of life.
No one should doubt the existence of violent extremist groups. That was clearly demonstrated during the riots in Charlottesville Virginia with the torchlight procession of white neo-Nazis chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” and “blood and soil.” Riots followed and on August 15th, 2017 they were famously bolstered by then-president Trump claiming, “There were very fine people – on both sides.” Among the rioters was Vasillios Pistolis, an active-duty Marine who boasted about his allegiance to Atomwaffen and his participation in the riots on social media. Atomwaffen is a known extremist group intent on starting a race war.
Dialogue captured by the FBI provides a look at how a civil war could be initiated. "You wanna create f***ing some instability while the Virginia situation is happening, make other things happen," Patrik Mathews said. "Derail some rail lines ... shut down the highways ... shut down the rest of the roads ... kick off the economic collapse of the U.S. within a week after the ]Boogaloo] starts." These groups know that it is military personnel who have the training and experience to carry out such actions.
The unfortunate problem is that there are some members of the Armed Forces who are sympathetic to these causes. This is not new. Timothy McVeigh, was a Gulf War veteran who eventually was executed for the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He met his coconspirator, Terry Nichols, at Ft. Benning, GA. Then too, McVeigh envisioned his action would serve as an incentive for others to engage in anti-government and racial-based violent activities. He is still recognized as an inspiration in white supremacist circles, a fact noted in many articles about the 2021 insurrection.
Remember, that position was overtly stated by Trump in March 2019 when he said, "I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad." The implications cannot be much clearer that he was laying the groundwork for what could devolve into a civil war.
In How Civil Wars Start, Barbara Walter notes, “We are a factualized anocracy that is quickly approaching and open insurgency stage, meaning we are closer to war than any of us would like to believe.” (pg 159) That is a warning flag that many politically astute people do not want to address.
Like the statements of Timothy McVeigh, several of the current extremist organizations overtly discuss initiating a war based on race. This is extremely disconcerting as most Americans believe we are long past that point, especially after Barack Obama was elected president. Rather, for many of these groups that accelerated their distrust and animosity.
According to professor Gregory Stanton there are ten stages to genocide. They are: classification, symbolization, discrimination, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, persecution, extermination, and denial. As Walter notes, “The steps toward ethnic cleansing are often so gradual as to feel imperceptible.” (pg 167) she correctly notes that our country has already passed through several phases and is probably entering phase six, where militias are “increasingly organizing, training, and arming themselves.” (pg 174) She also notes that at the transition to stage seven, a noticeable shift is detected with “fear of becoming the victim” a major factor. It does not take much observation to see victimhood of emerging as a significant theme in current social discourse. Disconcertingly, she notes that slipping into even more egregious behavior can happen extremely rapidly. (pg 187)
Exacerbating the problem is that America is awash with guns. Therefore, the instruments necessary to begin such a conflict are too readily available. There are an estimated 393 million guns in the hands of civilians in the US. While there are 72 million people who own guns, the total indicates there are 120 guns for every 100 people and that is climbing. With fear a major factor, during the pandemic in 2020, there were an estimated 40 million guns sold to civilians. America has more guns could per capita than any other country in the world. With few limitations, a large number of them are assault weapons designed for war. While many of those assault weapons are technically semiautomatic, it takes little finesse to convert them to fully-automatic ones.
Demonstrating his authoritarian tendencies, frequently Trump boasts about his supporters being the guys with guns, including many in law enforcement and biker gangs. During the 2020 campaign Trump stated, "I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad." He again stoked violence at the January 6, 2021 Stop the Steal Rally with his call to arms when he told the crowd, "We fight like hell. And if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore." Even more disconcerting should be his diatribe at the January 29, 2022 rally when he said, “"If these radical, vicious, racist prosecutors do anything wrong or illegal, I hope we are going to have in this country the biggest protest we have ever had in Washington DC, in New York, in Atlanta and elsewhere because our country and our elections are corrupt." To be clear, the former commander-in-chief intentionally is fueling divisions that easily could lead to civil war.
Although Republicans are fighting hard to prevent historical discussions of controversial racial issues, it is important to acknowledge that previously we engaged in policies that were in effect genocide. Certainly, slavery was one of those. Then too there were the many military campaigns to eliminate the indigenous people who inhabited much of the country. Lest you think American genocide only was long ago, note that sterilization of African American women was prevalent in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Regarding racial divisions, there are many people who firmly believe, “It can’t happen here!” We can only hope that is true, but history is not on the side of those who believe that. Those studying civil wars have noted how quickly the conflict can devolve. Consider what happened in the Balkan states, where ethnic intermarriage and relative tranquility had been maintained for decades. Remember, what occurred in Rwanda in April 1994, where Hutus and Tutsis had been living peacefully side-by-side only to have normal citizens pick up machetes and decimate their neighbors. And then there was the Holocaust of World War II.
Obviously, America is not Yugoslavia, Rwanda, or any similar state. But the issue is not geography, but rather the rapid devolution that is often accompanied is horrendous acts. In the U.S., the reluctance of the majority of Republican Party leadership to acknowledge facts, or take responsibilities for the rapid degradation of the political situation are warning flags of impending danger.
What appears to be new, and of great concern, is the willingness of some senior commissioned officers to participate in these activities. It also would appear that some flag-grade officers voiced support for Trump based on fear of potential political ideological shifts and did not believe the massive evidence of his incompetence and likely criminal activities. Again, they did not listen to their peers who had attempted to keep the ship of state on course. Trump signaled to them, and the world, that he likely was going to initiate coup-like activities and they ignored it.
During internet dialogues with several retired senior officers, as well as comparable level former members of the Intelligence Community, it is clear they believe the Big Lie and seem to share Trump’s autocratic propensities. Unfortunately, there is considerable support for the insurrection from military retirees at lower levels as well; more than we would like to believe. Many of them seem to be fear-driven of demographic changes and an ideological shift to the left that is generally supported by the younger generation.
As Walter notes, a civil war would be one of attrition. That “attrition campaign would target high-value buildings infrastructure and people anything that could inflict financial or psychological pain on the US population. This would include not only churches and subway systems but places like Federal Reserve buildings, state capitals, or monuments in Washington D.C.. It would also target citizens who are likely to vote for liberal candidates, such as immigrants or those who live in cities or swing states.” (pg 182)
Lest I sound too imbalanced, noteworthy are the violent attacks by leftist groups that took place in multiple cites following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. They too went after government buildings and other symbols of power causing extensive damage and generating a public outcry rebuking those actions.
It is unlikely that there would be two clearly delineated sides. Rather, civil war would entail multiple factions each with its own agenda, but overlapping objectives. This fractionalization has been seen in other civil wars. Thus, centralized governance would be difficult if not impossible.
One can argue that the insurrection that was mounted after the 2020 election, initially executed on January 6, 2021, and the follow-on activities were thwarted. That may be more luck than institutional resilience. We know that states around the country are currently enacting laws that would make future attempts to overthrow an election easier. Some political scientists also argue that the discussion of a potential civil war actually increases the likelihood that one might occur. Personally, I view that more as wishful thinking. It is far better to acknowledge the danger of the current situation.
The Department of Defense undoubtedly provides a training ground for those who might engage in a civil war. Counting active duty and civilian employees, plus members of the National Guard and reserve components, there are just under 3 million people under DoD control. The vast majority are undoubtedly loyal Americans. The problem is there is a significant number who still believe the current administration is not legitimate. Far worse, is the greater percent of veterans who believe the last election was stolen and the country headed in the wrong direction. That includes a substantial number of retirees who are very outspoken and are prepared to act on their beliefs.
Without trust and confidence, a democracy cannot exist. Trust and confidence had eroded over recent decades, yet declined precipitously with the election of Trump. Since he left office, Trump has continuously exploited his rallies explicitly telling them elections are fraudulent. As a stabilizing force, the Department of Defense is faced with a Herculean task. On one hand, they must be prepared to take on near-peer competition around the world. Simultaneously, it must be concerned about internal integrity.
Of utmost importance should be to guarantee that all senior leadership understand their allegiance to the U.S. Constitution versus any individual or party affiliation. It is imperative that the military be seen as apolitical, competent, and dependable. Like it or not, they will play a pivotal role in determining whether or not an actual civil war emerges, or in that event, what the outcome of armed conflict would be.
As a former Special Forces and infantry officer, I recommend they begin by establishing even stricter control of all arms rooms under their jurisdiction. That includes tightening the rules as to who has access weapons at all times.
We may have just dodged a bullet, but that does not ensure domestic tranquility is at hand. Quite the contrary, the drums are beating and the clouds of war gathering. We must act now to prevent domestic catastrophe.