In real life, unlike in Hollywood productions, civil wars—and wars in general—do not suddenly appear. They evolve gradually in space and time, because a period of conditioning is required for the population to accept them as new normal.
Once the socioeconomic and mental threshold is reached, and people’s collective memory of past times of harmony has been replaced with a new reality, a nation has arrived to the point of no return. From my personal and professional experience, humans have an inherited ability to sense when that moment occurs. It is an incredibly chilling feeling of knowing that a major conflict is about to happen and that one’s destiny is in the hands of others. In such a situation, an individual has only three options: to accept his/her helpless role and try to ride the storm out, to join opposing sides, or to be exterminated for not taking sides.
Each option is Hobson’s choice. Civil wars produce an incredible amount of brutality, death, and carnage frequently conducted not by strangers but by people who know each other. Sometimes the worst atrocities take place where previously peace-loving neighbors shared living space in harmony, not carrying about each other’s religion, ethnicity, or political affiliation. Change in conditions from peace to conflict brings out the worst in most humans (good people trying to prevent and/or mediate conflict escalation are eliminated first). It speaks volumes about how fragile we are as society and how little is needed to generate conditions that ultimately can lead to civil wars.
Fear is perhaps the foundational factor in generating conflict that ultimately becomes civil war. Most people assume that the key aspect in this process is actually anger, because they can see its destructive outcome. Yet anger itself is primarily the outcome of fear of losing the existing way of life, destruction of a community, or losing one’s life altogether. Fear is an ultimate driving force of ordinary people’s quest for survival.
When status quo changes and conditions in society worsen to the point of no return, there is no antidote to fear, no possibility to reverse the onset of violence. It is impossible to return to original conditions—which not long ago, prior to violence breaking out, were perfectly normal for the entire society—without a set of events that drastically alter the foundation of society. This is why wars within and between states are often perceived as a necessary aspect of radical social change, as repugnant as it sounds, about which I elaborated in Empire, Oracle, and an Attack on Russia, China, and America.
A Day in Life of…
Unfortunately all of the above described symptoms are now becoming rather evident in American society, which is steadily heading toward the threshold of a major internal conflict (which can only be minimized by starting a major external conflict and unifying people against an external enemy, a tactic many countries have employed before). The term “civil war” is becoming normalized in American society to the point that, as one foreign commentator on the internet forum, it is now perceived as “a day’s work” type of issue. An increasing number of statements, from the country’s President’s tweets to comments in electronic and print media, have normalize this term like indeed, will be a day’s work if/when it arrives.
Figure 1. Americans have been known for looking after each other despite their heterogeneous backgrounds. How much of that tradition is left is the question. (Photograph was taken by the author.)
I have observed the process of normalization of forthcoming conflict among the masses in other parts of the world, and it is amazing how rapidly a new reality can be accepted by a country’s resident. Yesterday’s unimaginable future becomes today’s playing field. Collective memory begins to work hard on erasing all the positive aspects that have made a society great and peaceful, and focuses on negative, polarizing, and mostly trivial but devastating efforts to undermine existing social cohesion.
Out of fear and then anger, people begin to fight for reasons they can no longer even explain. Violence becomes more important strategy employed in conflict resolution than meaningful dialogue. Hardly anyone will pause for a moment and, without accusations toward this or that side, ask “How did we arrive to this point and why?” The answer is simple—by not being diligent enough in preventing otherwise abnormal conditions to steadily evolve and become a new normal.
Addendum: Bridging the Intellectual Gap
Fifteen years ago, I was invited to speak in a literature class at a US university and discuss the Nobel Prize winning work of the Yugoslav writer, Ivo Andrić, The Bridge on the Drina. One of the themes of our conversation was the relationship between fear and (civil) wars, in relation to the events described in his novel and those during the former Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. The majority of the students, aged between 18 and 22, simply could not comprehend why people in Bosnia and Herzegovina would fight against each other when they share an overwhelmingly greater number of similarities than of differences.
I agreed with them that the conflict was unnecessary, but my opinion was a voice in the wilderness in the context of Balkan conflicts, because it was normal there to focus on differences, rather than similarities, despite how inconsequential the differences actually were. Today, I wonder about what these educated people now think about their own society, and if they remember much from reading Andrić’s classic and listening to my words. All of this taking place while they are trading insults in the cyber sphere or marching against each other’s beliefs, bringing Bosnia much closer to America.