How Likely Is A New American Civil War? Surprising Lessons From Lebanon's Conflict

The Long March
The Martyr's Square statue in Beirut, 1982, during the civil war
WIkimedia Commons

What is the likelihood of civil war in the United States? Few Americans ask me this question, despite the fact that I am a scholar of civil war. The wars I study took place in the Middle East, though, and few Americans believe the United States shares any similarities with the benighted nations of that region.


Of course, there are vast, significant differences between the United States and a country like Lebanon. Yet civil war, as a phenomenon, does not respect categorical boundaries between nations—civil wars erupt in small states as in large states, in wealthy states as in poor states, in democracies as in dictatorships.

When Lebanon’s civil war broke out in 1975, Washington Post correspondent Jonathan Randal earned the dubious honor of having predicted the war nearly a year before. In a September 1974 article, Randal measured the domestic political situation in Lebanon against what he called his “shit detector,” a veteran journalist’s rubric for assessing the health of a particular nation, regardless of appearances. His article was counterintuitive, because Lebanon in 1974, despite its precarious geography and various internal tensions, still enjoyed a reputation as the “Switzerland of the Middle East,” a glittering, bustling gateway between East and West, a “banker’s republic” awash in oil money. Movie stars and socialites hobnobbed with sheikhs and intellectuals in Beirut’s sumptuous hotels. The country’s booming economy (and official neutrality in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute) made it a safe bet for investors looking to gain a foothold in the region.

Jetsetters and financiers rejoiced in Lebanon’s freewheeling open market. Randal saw something sinister in it. Seven months before clashes between Palestinian armed groups and right-wing Lebanese militias escalated into full-scale warfare, he observed four phenomena, markers of the deep rot at the heart of the Lebanese system:

  1. Mail service was “fast rivaling Italy’s in unreliability.”
  2. The “real estate frenzy” in Beirut, fueled by oil money flowing in from the Gulf, meant that “almost every green space in Beirut” fell victim to development.
  3. Reported murders jumped from just 27 to 317 in four years (out of an estimated population of 2.54 million)
  4. A high proportion of individual gun ownership – and a general tendency to ignore government gun control regulations.

One of Randal’s sources added four more data points for the “shit detector:”

  1. A lack of “free and decent” schooling
  2. No public transportation or centralized garbage collection in Beirut
  3. Increasingly low taxes for members of Lebanon’s highest income bracket (estimated in the article around 11% of income)
  4. No social security system

Measuring the United States against the shit detector won’t, of course, determine whether or not civil war will break out in this country. Yet, decaying internal systems are an important indicator for civil conflict. Randal’s detector suggests there’s room for both optimism and concern in the United States.

  1. The U.S. Postal Service, despite declining mail volumes and burgeoning costs, remains comparatively reliable. While USPS faces many challenges in the realm of efficiency, one can still post a letter with near-certainty that it will be delivered.
  2. A “very tight” supply of affordable housing is pushing housing prices in the United States up. In response, real estate developers are rushing to build—more luxury housing. Instead of freeing up affordable housing for lower-income families, though, many cities are seeing a rise in un- or partially-occupied housing, as the wealthy purchase second and third homes. The effect of these trends is a “growing rent burden” for middle and low-income families.
  3. The homicide rate in the United States is at its lowest point in history. Despite concerns over an uptick in murders between 2014 and 2016, the rate seems to have leveled off in 2017 (at a point well below historical rates).
  4. Reliable studies of gun ownership in the United States indicate that the country has one of the highest proportions of gun ownership in the world, with some indications that the number of guns in the country outstrips the number of citizens.  U.S. gun owners are more likely to own several guns, and have access to relatively simple workarounds for nominal gun control regulations over the use of automatic weapons.
  5. The United States enjoys a far better, and more comprehensively accessible, public school system than many other countries. Yet worrying trends are evident: persistent underfunding and declining pay prompted several teacher’s strikes earlier this year. The current administration’s contempt for the Department of Education is evident, although its most extreme plans are unlikely to manifest.
  6. Political and social trends in the United States have long undermined efforts to improve public transportation in the country. The country’s most famous mass transit system, the New York City Subway, is facing acute problems due to overcrowding.
  7. The current administration’s tax bill disproportionately benefits those in the top income brackets, lowering their personal income tax rate from 39% to 37%. Given recent revelations about the widespread use of offshore tax havens among the American elite, it seems likely that real tax rates for the wealthy are much lower.
  8. Partly due to the new tax bill, Social Security is facing a dire funding shortage: old-age benefits are likely to run out by 2034, although reduced benefits will remain available until 2093.

That the United States in 2018 is in a less dire position than Lebanon in 1974 is some small comfort. There are some additional similarities that do not appear on the rubric:  like Lebanon in 1975: The United States has a boor for president, powerful and unreliable allies with their own agendas, and an almost cartoonishly ineffective government. Our major conservative party, like the powerful conservative parties in Lebanon are “hanging on to an eroding power base, mindful that their relative edge would be swallowed up… showing increasing signs of schizophrenia.” Our major liberal party is, like the progressive parties of Lebanon, disorganized and de-centered, failing to answer the question at the heart of the crisis: what does meaningful equality look like?   

Randal predicted in his article that Lebanon, where politicians had been working for months to defuse countless minor conflicts, would eventually see a final showdown between these competing forces. His prediction came true in early 1975, after a fashion: a major conflagration came indeed, but violence failed to resolve the tension between those seeking reform and those defending the status quo. Fifteen years of warfare decimated Lebanon’s economy, destroyed its environment, and, ultimately, debilitated the country’s future, all without solving the disputes at the heart of its initial battles.    

The war created conditions in Lebanon that persist to this day: cynicism about democratic institutions, contempt for the political class, and a deep pessimism about the possibility of achieving justice—or equality.

A long, devastating civil war can create these conditions in a country, but it is not necessary. The threat of violent retribution for speaking the truth can easily lead to cynicism. Persistent, flagrant corruption breeds contempt for our political leaders. Pessimism almost inevitably flows from these and many other violations of democratic norms. Fortunately, peaceful methods for countering these trends exist.  

The critical lesson of any civil war is often the most overlooked: violence does not clarify. Instead, violence operates according to its own logic, confusing a conflict’s original parameters as stakes rise higher and brutality escalates. War is a good way to freeze politics, not accelerate it.

What determines a country’s susceptibility to civil war has less to do with its people than with its ruling elite. Are they willing—or able—to reform a broken system rather than instigate violence? Are they willing to face electoral risks for bold policy? Are they willing to live up to their own sweeping rhetoric? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then it falls to citizens to answer a question for themselves: is preserving our fractured present worth sacrificing the future?

Emily Whalen is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Texas at Austin. She tweets @eiwhalen

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