Can we avoid civil war in the streets of America? When the Cold War was ending, some historians and social observers predicted the “end of history” and a period of international peace through globalization.
However, others were not so sanguine about a rosy future. A group of U.S. Marine Corps officers and civilian military theorists were thinking about the possibility of wars between non-state actors within nations that would fail absent the discipline of Soviet-American competition. They gave the problem of dealing with armed non-state actors the label of Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) and foresaw a future where the U.S. military would be dealing with such non-state military actors.
At the time, most of them thought that 4GW would primarily occur in the Third World; but ironically, the first 4GW conflict occurred in Europe when the former Yugoslavia disintegrated. Somalia, Liberia, Yemen and Sierra Leone followed.
Some of the proponents of preparing for 4GW cautioned that much of future conflict of this type would take place in the world’s emerging urban areas, and one of them was a future commandant of the Marine Corps. When Gen. Charles Krulak took over the reins of the corps in 1995, he directed the Marines to prepare for combat in cities, and he didn’t preclude war in America’s streets in that potential future environment.
At the time, I believed that Gen. Krulak’s vision was not far-fetched regarding the possibility of urban warfare in the United States because of what I had seen in Lebanon as a U.N. observer. Virtually overnight in the mid-1970s Lebanon had been transformed from one of the bright spots in the Middle East to a hellhole of incoherent violence because the nation’s political and religious factions were allowed to settle their differences by violence rather than through political discourse.
The carnage in the streets of Beirut was a portent of things to come when the Cold War ended. Now, many of the seeds that created the Lebanese Civil War are being played out in the streets of cities such as Chicago, Portland and Seattle.
Nations fail when their leaders stop enforcing the rule of law and allow violent factions the legitimacy to begin to establish effective rule in the territory that they control; this undermines the mechanisms of governance such as the police, other security services and the courts. That is exactly what is happening in many of our nation’s large urban areas.
In Portland, Oregon, radical thugs rule the night and have federal facilities under siege. Having castrated their police departments, the mayors of both Portland and Seattle, Washington, have lost control over huge swaths of their cities culminating in the humiliating spectacle of Portland’s mayor being gassed by federal agents while simultaneously being heckled by the demonstrators he was pandering to while shouting “Black lives matter.” New York City has rendered the court system and rule of law virtually meaningless by allowing arrested rioters to be freed without bail.
As the radical factions become better organized, militarized and increasingly armed, counter-protesters are beginning to fill the vacuum left by demoralized police in the Pacific Northwest. We have not yet degenerated into full-scale urban warfare, but governance is clearly failing in several of our largest cities. While not addressing the threat of 4GW by name, Attorney General William Barr clearly cited the danger in his recent testimony before Congress.
If civil war in our streets is to be avoided, there are things President Trump should do. He should threaten to declare cities where the local government cannot or will not control the violence to be in a state of insurrection temporarily replacing the mayors and city councils with federal administrators and use troops to restore order if necessary.
It need not come to that. The failure of governance is happening largely in urban areas with Democratic mayors and city councils. They have largely abrogated their civic responsibilities by surrendering the streets to mobs led by radicals. In doing so, these officials showed a complete lack of leadership.
The mayor of Rochester, New York — a liberal Democrat — regained control of her city. After demonstrations turned into riots and gun violence spiked, she banned after-dark gathering of five people or more, and she refused to allow police to aid demonstrators in committing illegal acts such as blocking interstate highways. Rochester demonstrations continue, but they remain largely peaceful. We can avoid domestic 4GW if more mayors do their jobs and allow the police and courts to do theirs.
• Gary Anderson retired as the chief of staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, and was one of the leaders of Marine Corps urban warfare experimentation.
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