How Civil Wars Start

On a recent trip to Idaho I finished listening to How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them by Barbara F. Walter.

Although her observations and interpretation of current events in the U.S. differ significantly from mine her broader perspective of civil wars world wide and the causes resonated as quite plausible to me. I highly recommended reading it and skipping or pushing through the parts where you know she is oblivious to reality. For example, in her mind January 6th 2021 was an attempted coup. The attempted kidnapping of Gov. Whitmer of Michigan was something similar rather than an FBI entrapment operation.* And President Trump and the Republican party was/is authoritarian while Democrats are pro-freedom..

There are times when I just had to pause and try to recover from some of the crazy stuff she would say. Things like (paraphrasing) “California has a minority majority”. What? In a literal reading that is completely nonsensical. Or, (still paraphrasing) as she talks about the need for government to becoming less authoritarian, “Social media must be regulated and not allow extremists a safe haven.”

I finally managed to reconcile the schizophrenia by deciding she was too close an observer to the situation in the U.S. With this I could move on to accept her study of other countries as more objective and could be used as evidence for the claimed principles of civil war detection and prevention.

The following are my takeaways:

  • Governments exist on a scale of –10 (fully autocratic) to +10 (full democracies).
  • Countries at either end of the scale are stable and not subject to civil war.
  • Countries in the middle, anocracies, are at risk of civil war.
  • The US. is at it’s lowest point, +5, since the early 1800 (this doesn’t seem to account for the great unpleasantness of 1861 to 1865) after being a +10 for decades.
  • A political divide along racial and/or religious lines is a critical component of civil wars.
  • Long time abuse and lack of political influence of one group combined with losing hope for an end to their abuse is one of two possible triggers for violence.
  • Or a loss of power and/or status/prestige by a group is the second possible trigger for the use of violence.
  • Social media has played a huge role in the initiation of civil wars world wide. The rise of social media is highly correlated with the exponential increase in violent conflicts.

These principals were explained and supported by examples from conflicts all over the world.

* The trial may reveal things that change my mind on this.


8 thoughts on “How Civil Wars Start

  1. She’s been making the rounds promoting her book and her take on both Trump and January 6 was enough for me to dismiss her as little more than a useful idiot.

  2. Any kind of war is hell. I was raised in Algeria during their civil war against the French colonialism. I also spent a couple of years in Iraq and saw the results guerrilla warfare. Hollywood glamorizes war, from Rat Patrol, through Combat to Star Wars. The hero always wins, and no one sees the destruction and carnage. I hope we never get to that

  3. I think her perception of the correlation of social media and violence is warped by recency bias.

    There’s very compelling evidence that humanity is currently experiencing the most peaceful state in all of recorded history, except for the minor drop these last two years.

    • She claims the number of civil wars has increased dramatically since, IIRC, the mid 1990s.

      • Yes, but I think Wall’s point is that this is only about half of one percent of history. Consider how much of Roman history is filled with war (civil or otherwise). Or, to pick an example I know well, the 80 year war in which Holland won its independence Some of that qualifies as civil war, in fact (the religious factions type).

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