Yearning for the next civil war

He was stuck with the duty and he would fight. And he had no doubt he would die and that would be a good thing.

He looked around the battlefield that had been his home, and carefully raised himself out of the recliner. It wouldn’t do to fall and break a hip now. Company was coming, and he had to be ready to greet them. He hoped it would be today.

— From Absolved, a novel by Mike Vanderboegh

Combat veterans bear deep scars of memory. At the same time, they often feel nostalgia for their time of service. This is fitting. Nostalgia always mixes love with pain.

What should we call a similar yearning for a war to come? For a future civil war between Americans?

Some of my neighbors think such a war is inevitable. They may attend tea party rallies, or they may not; if they do, they indignantly deny that they were lured there by media celebrities like Glenn Beck.

They’ll tell you they’ve known for a long time that America has lost its way, and the halls of power are controlled by a conspiracy against freedom. Those who don’t surrender their firearms, control of their property, and their rights to the mega-state will be hunted down, one by one. Neighbor will betray neighbor in a dark, cruel, deceitful America ruled by brutal thugs. We’re already more than halfway there.

This belief isn’t really susceptible to argument. Believers feel that they have evidence aplenty — mostly the gap between what America is and what they feel it ought to be. In this they are a lot like dissenters on the green left. Both tend to quote the revolutionaries of 1776. Both insist that the federal government has become the enemy of the people, and they define both the Democrats and Republicans as nonentities, or obstacles in the struggle. Both believe it is up to the people to redeem the country and return it to the path that the Founders envisioned.

I think the main difference is that the “freedom movement” has mostly given up on civic politics in any form. Nothing good can be achieved through government, only by impeding and resisting government’s evil plans. They believe in declarations and manifestos — Glenn Beck’s 912 Project tries to capitalize on this grassroots trend — but these documents don’t amount to a political strategy. They are declarations of independence, rallying cries for a militia awaiting a war.

The freedom movement places its faith in arms and the knowledge of arms. Its culture is built on memory, sacrifice, and military ritual. Many participants are veterans who bear the love and pain that comes of having survived the madness of combat. Those who are not themselves veterans are convinced that they owe what freedoms they have to only one thing: the sacrifices veterans have made in wartime.

Again, this is not a forensic argument; it is a faith. It does not matter whether the battlefield was at Saratoga or the Central Highlands of Vietnam, whether Americans defeated the colonial oppressor or acted the role themselves. Without the sacrifice of American blood, we would not be free. Amen.

Anyone who says otherwise is spitting on the graves of our heroes, as well as being a tool of the conspiracy against freedom.

I am not being dismissive. I’m interested in understanding this movement, and not at all interested in cheap shots. Lest we forget, there are similar political faiths behind other factions in our political life, and none of them stand up too well to detached analysis. The creed of the freedom movement — that a conspiracy is out to destroy freedom, that America is freedom’s last refuge, and that volunteer fighters are freedom’s bulwark — has roots that go deeper than the Revolution of 1775.

With that said, let me point to a novel being written and published online. More than any essay, survey, or outsider “think piece,” I believe it conveys something of the animating spirit of this movement.

State flag of Alabama.

It’s also unexpectedly well written. And it’s set in Alabama, in places that are familiar to me, and perhaps to you. The title is Absolved, the author is Mike Vanderboegh, and the virtual book cover bears the design of the state flag of Alabama. [Link to first chapter]

The opening paragraphs are just plain good fiction: Phil Gordon is a strong character in a compelling situation, and he’s in danger.

We soon leave the man behind, though, and after a brief nod to John Locke, even the political dissident fades. Before long we are standing beside a professional killer. Phil Gordon wields the weapons of his forefathers against faceless government thugs as his home becomes a surprising postmodern Alamo.

The thugs were all wearing military body armor. It didn’t help them much.… Night vision devices splintered, kevlar helmets split, the trauma plates of their body armor were fractured and holed[,] and their illusions of invincibility were swept away along with their sorry lives.

The description of the battle is packed with titillating details of munitions technology and tactical methods. In the end, Phil Gordon the man has nothing in particular to say to us. He expresses his convictions by taking lives — lives with no value except as the price by which he sells his own. Like a medieval swordsman, he can imagine no finer monument than a hill of enemy bodies, all slain by his own hand.

The freedom movement that emerges from this story is a culture of despair, yearning for the purification of civil war.

As despair becomes the theme of our political discourse, this movement is bound to grow.

The way to challenge it is to begin by saying no to despair.

P.S. Not everyone in the self-styled freedom movement has given up on democratic politics. Even the tea party trend has its internal critics. Some of these “right-wingers” and “wingnuts,” whose mere existence gives liberals a case of the vapors, are committed to nonviolent resistance and inspired by the civil rights revolution — more so, I’ll suggest, than the typical liberal Democrat. If a dialogue were to take place, that commitment could become stronger.

Of course, there are also self-serving analogies to MLK and his allies, uttered just to score rhetorical points. But if you listen to paid pundits, you’re going to hear empty speech.

More about all this later.

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3 thoughts on “Yearning for the next civil war

  1. This is a very well written blog.
    I think the bulk of the Tea Party movement are normal people who simply see the future of their children withering away on the vine as Government fatcats plan their next “Great Society”. Such projects always grow in size and cost at such a rate as to consume the excess profits of the American family. “What, me worry?” (The MAD statement of Alfred E Newman) seems to be the motto of our politicians, after all they will be well taken care of. They rarely have to live by the rules they impose upon the electorate.
    This is the path to a level of Dictatorship; A slow, grinding loss of rights and Liberties.
    Can we stop it? Knowing the greatness of the American individual, I think we still have a chance.

  2. I like your points here. I talked a bit about populist movements and why they tend towards the unworkable here: http://www.ordinary-gentlemen.com/2010/02/notes-on-populism/

    To be honest, though, I thought that chapter was pretty lousy- I think it was the references to military and religious touchstones as a replacement for character traits. The main character isn’t remotely approachable if you’re not part of the in-group already- otherwise, it just reads as some psycho picking off faceless “thugs” written by the sort of individual who has no capacity for awareness of human suffering. Sort of the Turner Diaries without the race angle.

  3. Rufus, I agree with you as to how the chapter ends. At the start, though, I found it easy to care about Phil Gordon as a character, simply because he and his setting were well drawn.

    By the time we got to the gratuitous dig at John Kerry (his country is a dystopia, people are trying to kill him, and he’s still concerned with running down John Kerry?!), I had pretty much stopped caring.

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