How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them

by Barbara F. Walter

Hardcover, 2022

Call number

303.6 WAL


Crown (2022), 320 pages


"A leading political scientist examines the dramatic rise in violent extremism around the globe and sounds the alarm on the increasing likelihood of a second civil war in the United States. Political violence rips apart several towns in southwest Texas. A far-right militia plots to kidnap the governor of Michigan and try her for treason. An armed mob of Trump supporters and conspiracy theorists storms the U.S. Capitol. Are these isolated incidents? Or is this the start of something bigger? Barbara F. Walter has spent her career studying civil conflict in places like Iraq and Sri Lanka, but now she has become increasingly worried about her own country. Perhaps surprisingly, both autocracies and healthy democracies are largely immune from civil war; it's the countries in the middle ground that are most vulnerable. And this is where more and more countries, including the United States, are finding themselves today. Over the last two decades, the number of active civil wars around the world has almost doubled. Walter reveals the warning signs-where wars tend to start, who initiates them, what triggers them-and why some countries tip over into conflict while others remain stable. Drawing on the latest international research and lessons from over twenty countries, Walter identifies the crucial risk factors, from democratic backsliding to factionalization and the politics of resentment. A civil war today won't look like America in the 1860s, Russia in the 1920s, or Spain in the 1930s. It will begin with sporadic acts of violence and terror, accelerated by social media. It will sneak up on us and leave us wondering how we could have been so blind. In this urgent and insightful book, Walter redefines civil war for a new age, providing the framework we need to confront the danger we now face-and the knowledge to stop it before it's too late"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member pomo58
How Civil Wars Start by Barbara F Walter is essential reading for anyone who has the uneasy feeling that we might be approaching a civil war but can't put their finger on how or why. Admittedly some readers, those who support the recent coup attempt, will feel their side has been "unjustly" singled
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out. And for some readers in the US their warped sense of exceptionalism will let them dismiss the entire field as not being applicable here. But for those of us who actually care about trying to make the democracy better rather than destroy it, the warning signs are made crystal clear and some prescriptive suggestions are offered for avoiding it.

I'm not sure I can accurately summarize the many aspects of what can make a society or a government ripe for civil war so I won't try. I can say that for every example she cites from other civil wars she boils the essence of what happened down so we can see where the similarities are in our own country. That is, if one is open to trying to stop the civil war and not on the side of overthrowing democracy in the country.

I found most of her prescriptive ideas valuable, especially the ones related to the form of government, namely the electoral college (get rid of it, it has outlasted its purpose) and the Senate. A couple of the social media-based ideas are a little more problematic for me. I don't disagree with all of it but would want to see a detailed concept before getting on board with too much banning of speech, though I have no problem banning things that are demonstrably false being promoted as true.

Highly recommended and a good starting point for both understanding and beginning to take steps to thwart the current attempts to overthrow democracy.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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LibraryThing member swmproblems
You can probably go look at my tags for this book and if this is your kind of thing, like it is mine, you were hooked at political violence without even getting to genocide or Trump yet. But seriously, this book is really, really good and a few parts of the book have been similar to other books
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I've read, but I like that because maybe I can remember most of it. And duh, of course certain points have been used in other books I've read, that's basically because I read a lot about the same shit and it's being repeated because it's actually fucking true. But there were several times when I really thought to myself, "damn, this is really, really good and this woman is super-cool". 5+Stars
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LibraryThing member ericlee
Barbara Walter’s book has a promising beginning. An academic who has been studying civil wars for some time now, she tries to come up with an explanation for why civil wars happen. A lot of what she learns is very interesting. For example, economics — apparently — has very little to do with
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this. And there are several ratings systems that can give one an indication of the risks of civil war in any particular country.

She reviews some of the better known civil wars in recent times including Rwanda, Bosnia, Northern Ireland and so on. The book is clearly building up to a discussion of the United States in recent years and that comes sooner rather than later. This is the part of the book that is weakest — especially a long section of fiction that imagines civil war breaking out in the USA in 2028 under President Kamala Harris (and no, I don’t think Kamala Harris will be US president then either).

The bulk of the book is about the US and it feels rather long-winded. Some of the discussion of the civil wars in other countries feels more cursory. For example, her explanation of why the IRA and the British government came to the negotiating table is superficial and inaccurate.

The main argument about the risk of civil war in the US is, however, a convincing one. This is a chilling book.
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