Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 9, Issue 1  /  

Civil War Comes to the West

Civil War Comes to the West Civil War Comes to the West
by Tyler Merbler from USA - DSC09265-2, CC BY 2.0,
To cite this article: Betz, David, “Civil War Comes to the West,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 1, summer 2023, pages 20-26.

This is the first of two essays. It deals with the reasons why civil war is likely to dominate the military and strategic affairs of the West in the coming years, contrary to the typical expectations of the future war literature, and generally the strategic logic which shall underpin such wars. The next essay will address specifically the actions and strategies which existing military forces might pursue before and during these conflicts.

Europe is a garden. We have built a garden. Everything works. It is the best combination of political freedom, economic prosperity and social cohesion that the humankind has been able to build—the three things together … Most of the rest of the world is a jungle…[i]

So said EU Foreign Affairs chief Josep Borrell in Bruges in October 2022. Future dictionaries will use it as an example of the definition of hubris.

That is because the major threat to the security and prosperity of the West today emanates from its own dire social instability, structural and economic decline, cultural desiccation and, in my view, elite pusillanimity. Some academics have begun to sound the alarm, notably Barbara Walter’s How Civil Wars Start—and How to Stop Them, which is concerned primarily with the dwindling domestic stability of the United States.[ii] To judge from President Biden’s September 2022 speech in which he declared ‘MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic’ governments are beginning to take heed, albeit cautiously and awkwardly.[iii]

The field of strategic studies, however, is largely silent on the issue, which is strange because it ought to be something of concern. Why is it correct to perceive the increasing danger of violent internal conflict erupting in the West? What are the strategies and tactics likely to be employed in the civil wars to come in the West and by whom? These are the questions which I shall address in this essay.


The literature on civil wars is united on two points. Firstly, they are not a concern of states that are rich and, secondly, nations which possess governmental stability are largely free of the phenomenon. There are degrees of equivocation on how much regime type matters, though most agree that securely-perceived-to-be-legitimate democracies and strong autocracies are stable. In the former, people do not rebel because they trust the political system works justly overall. In the latter, they do not because authorities identify and punish dissenters before they have a chance.

Factionalisation is another main concern, but extremely heterogeneous societies are not more prone to civil war than very homogenous ones. This is put down to the high ‘coordination costs’ between communities that exist in the former, which mitigate against the formation of mass movements. The most unstable are moderately homogenous societies, particularly when there is a perceived change in the status of a titular majority, or significant minority, which possesses the wherewithal to revolt on its own. By contrast, in societies comprised of many small minorities ‘divide and conquer’ can be an effective mechanism of controlling a population.[iv]

In my view, there is no good reason to fault the main thrust of extant theory on civil war causation as described above. The question, rather, is whether the assumption of the conditions which have traditionally placed Western nations outside the frame of analysis of people concerned with large-scale and persistent eruptions of violent civil discord are still valid.

The evidence strongly suggests that they are not. Indeed, as far back as the end of the Cold War some perceived that the culture which ‘won’ that conflict was itself beginning to fragment and degenerate. In 1991, Arthur Schlesinger argued in The Disuniting of America that the ‘cult of ethnicity’ increasingly endangered the unity of that society.[v] This was prescient.

Consider the striking findings of the Edelman Trust Barometer over the last twenty years. ‘Distrust’, it concluded recently, ‘is now society’s default emotion.’[vi] The situation in America, as shown in related research is acutely bad. As of 2019, even before the contested Biden election and the Covid-epidemic, 68 per cent of Americans agreed it was urgently necessary to repair levels of ‘confidence’ in society in government, with half averring that a ‘cultural sickness’ is what fading trust represented.[vii]

In sociological terms, what this collapse of trust reflects is a plunge in the stock of ‘social capital’, which is both a kind of ‘superglue’, a factor of societal cohesion, as well as a ‘lubricant’ that allows otherwise disparate groups in society to get along.[viii] That it is in decline is disputed by no one, and neither is anyone seriously unclear on the unhappy consequences.

There is dispute over its causation, however. Chancellor Angela Merkel once pointed the finger directly at multiculturalism, declaring that in Germany it had ‘utterly failed’, an idea that was echoed six months later by then Prime Minister David Cameron in Britain. He elaborated that ‘It ghettoises people into minority and majority groups with no common identity.’[ix] Such statements by leaders, both noteworthy centrists, of large, ostensibly politically stable, Western states cannot easily be dismissed as populist demagoguery.[x]

Additionally, ‘political polarisation’ has been enhanced by social media and identity politics, on which more below. Digital connectivity tends to drive societies towards greater depth and frequency of feelings of isolation in more tightly drawn affinity groups. Each of these is guarded by so-called ‘filter bubbles’, carefully constructed membranes of ideological disbelief that are constantly reinforced by active and passive curation of media consumption.[xi]

What might be described as ‘intertribal conflict’ is by no means confined to the virtual spaces of the Internet; rather, it manifests also in physical fighting in a self-reinforcing feedback cycle. Many examples of this from recent headlines might be given. A good one though, is the city of Leicester in Britain, which over the last year has witnessed recurring violence between the local Hindu and Muslim populations, both sides animated by intercommunal tensions in distant south Asia. A Hindu mob marched through the Muslim part of town chanting ‘Death to Pakistan’.[xii]

What this reflects above all is the considerable irrelevance of Britishness as an aspect of the pre-political loyalty of significant fraction of two of the largest minorities in Britain. Who wants to fight whom and over what? The answer in this case to this good strategic question has very little to do with the nominal nationality of the people who have observably already begun to fight.

Finally, to this volatile social mix must be added the economic dimension, which can only be described as extremely worrisome. By common estimation, the West has already started another economic downturn, a long overdue recurrence of the 2008 financial crisis, combined with the fallout of the deindustrialisation of Western economies, a notable by-product of which is the progressive de-dollarisation of global trade that has been turbocharged by sanctions on Russia, which has also induced a ballistic rise in the costs of basic goods such as energy, food, and housing.[xiii]

In terms of economic financialization, debt issuance, and consumption, the West has reached the end of the line, which means that a gigantic gap in expectation of well-being is opening. If there is one other thing that the literature on revolution agrees upon it is that expectation gaps are dangerous.[xiv] Again, simply put, a time-honoured means of controlling the rise of incipient mobs is the provision by the ruling powers of ‘bread and circuses’, in other words basic consumption and cheap entertainment—the efficacy of both of which is rapidly attenuating in the present day.

To conclude this section, it can be said that a generation ago all Western countries could still be described as to a large degree cohesive nations, each with a greater or lesser sense of common identity and heritage. By contrast, all now are incohesive political entities, jigsaw puzzles of competing identity-based tribes, living in large part in virtually segregated ‘communities’ competing over diminishing societal resources increasingly obviously and violently. Moreover, their economies are mired in a structural malaise leading, inevitably in the view of several knowledgeable observers to systemic collapse.[xv]


The intimacy of civil war, its political intensity, and its fundamentally social quality, plus the acute accessibility to attack on all sides of everyone’s weak points can make them particularly savage and miasmic. The Russian Civil War which followed the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 is a particularly good example. It is a form of war in which people suffer raw cruelty and fanaticism not for what they have done but for what they are.[xvi]

Perhaps civil wars in the West can be contained to the level of loathsomeness of those of Central America of the 1970s and 1980s. In which case ‘normal’ life will remain possible for the fraction of the population that is rich enough to insulate itself from the larger milieu of political assassinations, death squads and intercommunal reprisals, plus thriving criminal predation which typify a society in the process of tearing itself apart.[xvii]

The trouble is that the urge to fight, indeed the wish to accelerate towards conflict, is not confined to just one group—as one might gather from the recent alarm over far-Right populism—but is of a rather more general character, with radicalism increasingly visible in all sorts of communities.[xviii] Consider, for instance, the following lines from a French leftist tract published in 2007:

It’s well known that the streets teem with incivilities. The technical infrastructure of the metropolis is vulnerable… Its flows amount to more than the transportation of people and commodities. Information and energy circulate via wire networks, fibres and channels, and these can be attacked. In our time of utter decadence, the only thing imposing about temples is the dismal truth that they are already ruins.[xix]

At this point in the history of conflict, it hardly seems necessary to explain the techniques of taking existing social divisions in society and tearing them into chasms because they have been widely studied.[xx] The defence establishments of the West are very familiar with such matters as they have presented themselves in the varied foreign theatres in which they have been embroiled as part of the so-called War on Terror.

Is it a complete wonder that those lessons and ideas should have found their way back home? The Citizen’s Guide to Fifth Generation Warfare co-written by MGEN Michael Flynn, former head of the Defence Intelligence Agency and President Trump’s initial National Security Advisor, is a well-designed handbook and explicit in its aim, which is to educate people in the West about revolt. In his own words, he wrote it because ‘I never dreamed the greatest battles to be waged would be right here in our homeland against subversive elements of our own government.’[xxi]

Over the last thirty years the West has preoccupied itself thanklessly in an expeditionary capacity in the invertebrate civil wars of others. It ought to have learned that it is impossible to maintain an integrated multi-valent society once neighbours start kidnapping each other’s children and murdering them with hand drills, blowing up each other’s cultural events, slaying each other’s teachers and religious leaders, and tearing down their icons. It is soberingly worth noting, moreover, that plenty of instances of all those things have occurred already in the West and all of them have occurred in France alone in the last five years.[xxii]

Scenarios, mostly focused on the United States, of what civil wars in the West would look like exist in the literature.[xxiii] They tend to share one thing in common particularly, which is the expectation as expressed by Peter Mansoor, professor of military history at Ohio State University, that they will,

…not be like the first [American] civil war, with armies manoeuvring on the battlefield [but] would very much be a free-for-all, neighbour-on-neighbour, based on beliefs and skin colour and religion. And it would be horrific.[xxiv]

Approximately 75 per cent of post-Cold War civil conflicts have been fought by ethnic factions.[xxv] Therefore, that civil war in the West will be likewise is unexceptional. The nature of the belief that Mansoor invokes as being important is, however, worth dwelling upon. I would suggest that the belief in question is the acceptance by all groups in society of the precepts of ‘identity politics’.

Identity politics may be defined as politics in which people having a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity tend to promote their own specific interests or concerns without regard to the interests or concerns of any larger political group. It is overtly post-national. It is this above all that makes civil conflict in the West not merely likely but practically inevitable, in my view.

The peculiarity of contemporary Western multiculturalism, relative to examples of other heterogenous societies, is threefold. Firstly, it is in the ‘sweet spot’ with respect to theories of civil war causation, specifically the supposed problem of coordination costs is diminished in a situation where White majorities (trending rapidly toward large minority status in some cases) live alongside multiple smaller minorities.

Secondly, thus far what has been practiced is a sort of ‘asymmetric multiculturalism’ in which in-group preference, ethnic pride, and group solidarity—notably in voting—are acceptable for all groups except Whites for whom such things are considered to represent supremacist attitudes that are anathematic to social order.

Thirdly, because of the above what has emerged is a perception that the status quo is invidiously unbalanced, which provides an argument for revolt on the part of the White majority (or large minority) that is rooted in stirring language of justice. From a strategic communications perspective, a morally inflected narrative which has a clearly articulated grievance, a plausible and urgent remedy, and a receptive conscience community is powerful.[xxvi]

‘Great Replacement’ theory is an expression of this narrative.[xxvii] ‘Downgrading’ is the term by which it is described in civil war theory. It refers to the perception of a dominant group that what is occurring to them is,

…a situation of status reversal, not just political defeat. Dominant groups go from a situation where, one moment, they get to decide whose language is spoken, whose laws are enforced, and whose culture is revered, to a situation where they do not.[xxviii]

For the present analysis what is important here, beyond the resonance of the narrative of ‘downgrading’ clearly observable in how widely it has propagated, is another peculiarity of multiculturalism in the West, which is that it is also geographically asymmetric.[xxix] There is a distinctively observable urban-rural dimension to immigrant settlement patterns: basically, the cities are radically more heterogenous than the countryside. Thus, logically, we may conclude that civil wars in the West that burn across ethnic cleavages will have a distinctively rural vs. urban character.

Strategic Logic

Go back a few pages to the French leftist tract which I cited earlier and observe its main premise: the streets already teem with incivilities—the cities are already ruins, or more precisely they are currently configured so precariously that all it takes is a little push to accomplish their destruction. In a nutshell, that is the strategic logic evinced openly by anti-status quo groups today of all political stripes. They intend to precipitate the collapse of the heterogenous major cities causing cascading crises leading to systemic failure and a period of mass chaos that they hope to wait out from the relative security of the relatively homogenous rural provinces.

Although the premise sounds simple, its underlying logic accords with the conclusions of some impeccable authorities. For instance, consider this passage from a 1974 booklet on The Limits of the City:

Either the limits imposed on the city by modern social life will be overcome, or forms of city life may arise that are congruent with the barbarism in store for humanity if people of this age should fail to resolve their social problems. The evidence for this tendency can be seen not only in the metropolis, choking with an alienated and atomized aggregate of human beings, but in the ‘well-policed’ totalitarian city composed of starved black ghettoes and privileged white enclaves—a city that would be a cemetery of freedom, culture, and the human spirit.[xxx]

Its author, an American Jewish social theorist, Trotskyist, influential urbanist, and ecologist, cannot be called a man of the far-Right—though his identification of the problems of society as being atomization and degeneracy (a fair way to describe what he called ‘cultural desiccation’) are both far-Right tropes.

Much of the very large literature on the issue of urban vulnerability is couched in terms of the resilience of ‘critical infrastructure’ to external attack, or disaster, and to some extent terrorism.[xxxi] The fact of the matter, though, is that the most critical vulnerability of infrastructure is to domestic attack, against which it is unguarded (and likely un-guardable). Normally functioning societies have no need of such defences, which is to say that a lot of comfortable assumptions ride on those two words.

In Britain, for example, there are 24 gas compression stations, all in semi-rural environs, two of which serve London. None are hidden or more guarded than any normal light industrial facility. Attacking one requires no more than being able to plough through a chain link fence. Likewise, the network of Major Accident Hazard Pipelines (MAHPs—the clue is in the name), is intrinsically vulnerable.[xxxii] In July 2004 in Ghislengien, Belgium, when one was accidentally damaged by construction work 25 people were killed and 150 seriously injured.[xxxiii]

One could say much the same of the major elements of the electrical grid—high-tension pylons, transformer stations, and so on—and just as well the communications network—routing facilities, cell and microwave towers, fibre optic cable nodes, and the like. As for transport infrastructure, much of which is severely run down even without active efforts to disrupt it, many major cities—New York being a prime example—are accessed via bridge or tunnel which constitute known bottlenecks that are easily attacked.[xxxiv]

Disruption of any of these systems would have knock-on effects on the supply of food and medicine, which is tenuous under normal conditions. The fact is that the average modern urbanite has on hand no more than a few days of food and the cities they live in possess typically no more than a few days more food supply in warehouses and on store shelves. Britain’s food supply chain, for instance, is described as resilient and complex but is also dependent on just-in-time networks that are highly vulnerable to disruption.[xxxv]

In summation of this section, we may observe that the civil wars for which the West is in store will be demarcated along ethnic lines, which on account of the relative distribution of population groups strongly suggests that they will have a distinctive rural vs. urban character. Its strategic logic will be to cause the destruction of metropolitan centres through infrastructural attacks with a view to causing cascading systemic failure leading to uncontrollable civil disorder generating further rapid decline. The tactics employed are plausible on account of the tenuous stability of modern cities at the best of times, a fact observed by reputable scholars that incipient revolutionaries have simply recognised.


Recognition of the possibility of civil war in the West exists in politics and related punditry and in a range of scholarship. Many people still deny or are reluctant to talk of it. Perhaps they fear a kind of ‘security dilemma’ that might occur; if people become convinced that civil war is coming because important people say so they might behave in ways that cause or hasten it. Equally, one might surmise, some know the truth but are factionally invested in the conflict and are simply positioning over who will be judged by history to have fired the first shot in it.

Neither, in my view, are credible positions to hold when confronted with the unfortunate reality. Theory is generally clear and convincing about the conditions under which civil war is likely to occur. Walton concluded that in any year just under four per cent of the countries in which the conditions of civil war were present would experience it.[xxxvi] Accepting this, even as something of a pessimistic baseline, would suggest over the coming decade the collective West is in deep trouble. Moreover, there is little reason to hope that should one kick off in one major country its consequences would not spread more widely to others.

Moreover, it is not simply that the conditions are present in the West; it is, rather, that the conditions are nearing the ideal. The relative wealth, social stability and related lack of demographic factionalism, plus the perception of the ability of normal politics to solve problems that once made the West seem immune to civil war are now no longer valid. In fact, in each of these categories the direction of pull is towards civil conflict. Increasingly, people perceive this to be the case and their levels of confidence in government would seem to be declining even more in the face of the apparent unwillingness or inability of leaders to confront the situation honestly.

The result, society-wise, is a reinforcing spiral calling to mind the opening lines of Yeats’ famous ‘The Second Coming’.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…

The fact of the matter is that the tools of revolt in the form of various appurtenances of modern life are just lying around, knowledge of how to employ them is widespread, targets are obvious and undefended, and more and more formerly regular citizens seem minded to take the shot.


[i] European Diplomatic Academy, Opening remarks by High Representative Josep Borrell at the inauguration of the pilot programme (Bruges: 13 October 2022),
[ii] Barbara Walter, How Civil Wars Start—and How to Stop Them (London: Penguin, 2022).
[iii] See ‘Remarks by President Biden on the Continued Battle for the Soul of the Nation’, The White House (1 September 2022),
[iv] The introductory material in Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, ‘On Economic Causes of Civil War’, Oxford Economic Papers, Vol. 50, No. 4 (October 1998), pp. 563–573 and Volker Krause and Susumu Suzuki, ‘Causes of Civil War in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa: A Comparison’, Social Science Quarterly, Vol. 86, No. 1 (March 2005), pp. 160-177, provide a good summation of the state of the field. Also Eok Leong Swee, ‘Economics of Civil war’, Australian Economic Review, Vol. 49, No. 1 (March 2016), pp. 105-111.
[v] Arthur Schlesinger, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (New York: Whittle Books, 1991).
[vi] Richard Edelman, ‘Breaking the Vicious Cycle of Distrust’, Edelman Trust Barometer (2022),
[vii] Lee Rainie et al, ‘Trust in America’, Pew Research Centre (22 July 2019),
[viii] Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001).
[ix] See Matthew Weaver, ‘Angela Merkel: German multiculturalism has “utterly failed”’, Guardian (17 October 2010), and Jamie Doward, ‘David Cameron's Attack on Multiculturalism Divides the Coalition’, Guardian (6 February 2011),
[x] It bears noting also that Putnam’s later research on diversity also points in this direction. See, Robert Putnam, ‘E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century The 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture’, Scandinavian Political Studies, Vol. 30, No. 2 (2007), pp. 137-174.
[xi] These dynamics are discussed in Alicia Wanless and Michael Buerk, ‘Participatory Propaganda’, in David Herbert and Stefan Fisher-Hoyrem (eds.), Social Media and Social Order (Warsaw: De Gruyter, 2021), pp. 111-132.
[xii] Jessica Murray, Aina J Khan and Rajeev Syal, ‘”It Feels Like People Want to Fight”: How Communal Unrest Flared in Leicester’, Guardian (23 September 2022),
[xiii] This is particularly convincingly argued by Ray Dalio, Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed or Fail (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2021). Additional insightful commentary specifically on the dire financial outlook of the United States is Alastair Walton, ’The Elephant in the Room: The US Fiscal Deficit & Debt Outlook Over the Next 30 Years’ (Australian National University: College of Business and Economics, 10 September 2019).
[xiv] See the classic exchange between James Chowning Davies ‘The J-Curve and Power Struggle Theories of Collective Violence’, pp. 607-610 and David Snyder and Charles Tilly ‘On Debating and Falsifying Theories of Collective Violence’ in American Sociological Review, Vol. 39, No. 4 (August 1974), pp. 610-613.
[xv] On which point see Peter Turchin, End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites and the Path of Political Disintegration (London: Penguin, 2023) as well as Miguel Centeno et al (eds), How Worlds Collapse (New York: Routledge, 2023), esp. chap. 1 ‘Globalisation and Fragility: A Systems Approach to Collapse’.
[xvi] See Bruce Lincoln, Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War (New York: De Capo Press, 1999), p. 44.
[xvii] Albeit written from the perspective of American intervention in said conflicts, Todd Greentree’s Crossroads of Intervention (Westport, CT: Praeger 2008), provides a thorough descriptive account of 1980s Central America.
[xviii] A good example of concern over far-Right radicalism is Marek N. Posard, Leslie Adrienne Payne, and Laura L. Miller, Reducing the Risk of Extremist Activity in the U.S. Military (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2021).
[xix] The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection (Cambridge, MA: Semiotext(e), 2009), pp. 111-112.
[xx] David Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Guerrilla (London: Hurst, 2013), stands out amongst a wide literature on the topic.
[xxi] Michael Flynn and Boone Cutler, The Citizen’s Guide to Fifth Generation Warfare (no publication place given: Resilient Patriot LLC, 2022), Appendix 1 (unpaginated). Lest it be thought that such informed and sincere radicalism is simply a far-Right issue, readers are directed to Leftist revolutionary handbooks and texts such as William Powell’s The Anarchist Cookbook (Syracuse NJ: Barricade Books, 1971) and Carlos Marighela’s, Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla (1969), available at amongst others, have been around for decades.
[xxii] For a sobering look at the long-term trajectory for France which puts into context more recent attacks, see Andrew Hussey, The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and its Arabs ((New York: Faber and Faber, 2014).
[xxiii] Among the most well-developed is Stephen Marche’s The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future (New York: Avid Reader Press, 2022).
[xxiv] Quoted in Marche, p. 2.
[xxv] James Fearon and David Laitin, ‘Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War’, American Political Science Review, Vol. 97, No. 1 (February 2003), pp. 75-90.
[xxvi] On the structure of effective strategic narratives, see David Betz and Vaughn Phillips, ‘Putting the Strategy Back into Strategic Communications’, Defence Strategic Communications, Vol. 3 (Autumn 2017), pp. 50-51.
[xxvii] Renaud Camus, You Will not Replace Us! (Paris: Self-published, 2018).
[xxviii] Walton, Civil Wars, p. 65.
[xxix] For examples of this narrative resonance see David Abbott, Dark Albion: A Requiem for the English (Kindle: 2013), Jim Goad, Whiteness: The Original Sin (Kindle: 2018), and Douglas Murray, The War on the West (London: HarperCollins, 2022), amongst others.
[xxx] Murray Bookchin, The Limits of the City (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1974), pp. 2-3.
[xxxi] See Jon Coaffee, Security, Resilience, and Planning (London: Lund Humphries, 2020).
[xxxii] See Phil Shea, ‘Mapping Major Accident Hazard Pipelines for Land Use Planning Decision Making’, UK Onshore Pipeline Operators’ Association (undated),
[xxxiii] See ‘Ghislengien Pipeline Explosion 2004’, Process, Safety, Integrity (undated),
[xxxiv] See James McBride and Anshu Siripurapu, ‘The State of US Infrastructure’, Backgrounder: Council on Foreign Relations (8 November 2021),
[xxxv] UK Food Security Report 2021 (London: Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, December 2021), p. 152.
[xxxvi] Walton, Civil Wars, p. 198.