Home/Rod Dreher/Letter From An Angry Middle-American Vet

Letter From An Angry Middle-American Vet

(Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

On my “Is A New Civil War Possible?” thread, I posted this reader e-mail as an update:

Just read your latest blog regarding the possibility of a new civil war and had some thoughts. I live in a suburb outside [mid-size Midwestern city] with my wife and two school-age children. [My city] is similar to Austin or Seattle or Portland in that it’s a deeply Progressive city surrounded by a rural conservative population (big difference is that there are more African-Americans here). I’m from [a small town in this state], but after serving for six years as an Army Infantry Officer, my wife and our two kids settled in [this area] because there is little opportunity in the rest of the state.

I say this all because I feel like I’m living on a fault line between the two sides of this civil war we are talking about. Ten minutes south of me they are protesting for Black Lives Matter and demanding government mandated shutdowns over COVID; ten minutes north of me they are holding outdoor high school graduations and Back the Blue rallies. My wife and I are conservative Christians who are very active in our church; our next door neighbors and good friends both work for universities and are very liberal. We hang out several times a week and get along well but avoid talking about anything that could lead to uncomfortable conversations. I’d like to think that we model what a good friendship across party lines is but I don’t have much faith in that.

It’s difficult to picture what a civil war would look like because while the differences between urban and rural are very striking, there are plenty of us in the middle who would have to make very tough decisions on which way to go. My wife and I both work in the corporate sector and feel like we are being slowly backed into the corner with our traditional beliefs and values. If the violence of the cities spills into the suburbs I can’t picture us standing and fighting as we’d be outnumbered. Even though there is a healthy mix of conservatives in our area, how many of them are prepared to fight back? Fortunately, we have family in the rural parts of the state to retreat to, but we’d be forced to give up our jobs and our house and the way of life we enjoy.

And that is how I think this will play out. People with traditional values will be forced to retreat to the rural areas and accept a different standard of living ( which might be better, who knows) while ceding the urban and suburban centers to the Left. We’ll take up a defensive posture with our guns as we really do not desire to use our weapons except for in self-defense. We’ll leave the Left to build their utopian society and they’ll leave us alone because in all reality they’ll have nobody to come tell us what to do. They’ll need rural America to provide them with some food and we’ll need them for…something.

Hmm, sounds kind of like the Benedict Option. Maybe it’s wishful thinking to believe we’ll be left alone but I still believe that Law Enforcement and the military lean right, so I can’t imagine them coming after us. Anyway, thanks for your work, I’ve enjoyed reading you for the past several years and will be sure to get the new book when it comes out.

I heard from that reader just now, and post his letter with his permission (I’m hiding his state):

Thanks for posting my email on your “New Civil War” thread. I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but I think this is a topic that really needs discussing. Some of my fellow readers seem to be naive or maybe just unfamiliar with some aspects of this current culture war and I wanted to offer some insight. Not saying that I have the answers, just giving my perspective.

As I mentioned, I am an Army veteran living in a [Midwestern] big-city suburb. I grew up in a poor rural farm town, put myself through college through a combination of athletic and academic scholarships, student loans, and part-time work. My only privilege comes from the fact that I had a large family support structure that could only offer love, encouragement, and a firm religious foundation as opposed to any monetary support. Following college, I joined the Army to serve my country in a time of war and to support my young wife and son. I was commissioned as an Infantry Officer and led soldiers  in Afghanistan on two separate occasions before I was wounded in combat and forced to medically retire.

Following my retirement, we moved back to [this Midwestern state] and I began working in the manufacturing sector in various leadership roles. My wife works in corporate retail. We’ve made a nice life for ourselves and our two kids in what I would call an upper middle class lifestyle. We’re certainly not rich and the COVID lockdowns have definitely affected our livelihoods. My company implemented several weeks of furloughs to make up for lost sales and her company just had a massive reduction in force in which she was thankfully spared. It’s not in the national news, but our region is home to the headquarters of many retail companies and last week was a bloodbath with regards to layoffs. Hundreds if not thousands of middle-class people lost their jobs spread out over a handful of companies.

I say this because many of your commenters are snidely asking who on the conservative side is going to fight in this so-called “civil-war”. It is people like these who will. The people who have quietly tried to live their lives in middle America. They are not racists. They are not homophobic. They just want the ability to enjoy the freedoms we are supposed to have in this country and want the same for everyone else. Not all of them are conservatives, but since they are mostly white, the Left has no place for them (I’ll admit the establishment Right doesn’t either).

There seems to be this impression that the only people on the Right who have guns are 65 year old NRA Boomers living in Hickville, USA. This is laughable. I have a lot of friends from the military spread out over the United States who I am connected with on social media or send text messages with from time to time. Most of us have a very similar perspective on what is going on around us. We signed up to serve our country during wars that in hindsight cost us a lot of blood and treasure. We came home to a country that is divided on class and race, which is confusing to us because we formed bonds with each other during war that transcended those divides. We aren’t treated particularly great by the government, who just wants to push pills to make us go away, or corporate America, who wants to use us as marketing props. We just want to live in the country that we thought we were fighting for and be free to work hard and raise our kids how we see fit. We don’t deny things could be better for a lot of people in America, but know the current proposals on the table won’t solve our problems.

By the way, we have guns and we know how to use them. Most of us would rather not do so, as we’ve seen firsthand the devastating effects of war, but we will defend ourselves if we have to. We aren’t planning raids on government buildings or seeking vigilante justice on the streets. But if an Antifa mob comes to burn down our neighborhoods you better bet that we’ll be willing to meet them at our front door.

We’re not there yet, but barring some miracle we’ll be there at some point. There are a lot of people in the middle getting squeezed from both sides right now. Corporate America sells us out for profit on one side while Progressive America chastises us as privileged bigots on the other. Another COVID lockdown is going to crush the economy even worse than the first time and put a lot more people out of work. We’re backing a lot of people into a corner and there are few places left on this earth to escape to. Nobody wants another civil war, but we are doing a damn good job at creating the circumstances for it to happen.

Discuss.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

My first thought is that we have actually undergone two civil wars, the first being the War of Independence. The Adams breakdown of support, generally supported by historical research, would indicate that support for independence remained fairly weak for much of the war. I would classify the War of Independence, as many have, as a British Empire civil war or a British North America civil war.
As a historian who has studied conflicts and also US history, I am also frightened by the rhetoric. My old preacher said that when you start to see national institutions breaking apart over politics, such as the Protestant denominations before the civil war, conflict is not far behind.
In all honesty, I see pathways to civil war regardless of who wins in November.
Should Trump win, I do believe we will see secession movements in blue states dominated by major cities. Personally, I favor a “let our erring sisters go in peace” approach.  Additionally, any states seceding after a Trump victory will be obligated to leave their rural areas in the Union to join other states or to form new ones.  We would end up with a string of Singapores or Chile shaped countries in coastal areas, I speculate.
Civil war after a Biden win would be another thing entirely. It would be urban and rural warfare fighting over control of the nation-state more than secession attempts. I see no way the blue states and cities could win in such a scenario. Rural areas have hundreds of millions of guns, many in the hands of irregular warfare combat veterans ranging from the ages of 18 to 80. The same topography that made Appalachia appealing to John Brown still exists, but now is honeycombed by countless thousands of miles of uncharted mine tunnels and natural limestone caves.  The Rockies are like Afghanistan writ large in terms of landscape.
In other words, even if a Democrat led war effort could muster support from most of the military and law enforcement community, they would have to fight a war Democrats warned us against for two generations – another Vietnam.
I also do not see the war progressing as the Midwestern letter writer expects. Like Canaan, US urban areas can be cut off from each other at least at ground level and possibly even besieged to an extent. US cities are vulnerable in ways that country areas are not, especially since a civil war would cut them off of energy and food supplies unless shipped from overseas.
Also, the urban population of the US by and large does not own arms and is less likely to have experienced military training.
Civil war is the worst possible outcome of our current political crisis, which is why I personally say that if cities want to leave the Union they are not worth a fight.  I hope and pray that the country finds a way to live and let live, but I am losing optimism on that front.
This e-mail jolted me, and I’ll tell you why. The break-up of the United States is, for me, an unthinkable catastrophe. At this point, it’s only a theoretical exercise. But let’s say some version of it did come to pass. I live in a big blue city inside a red state. If there was any sort of formal break-up, I would go back to my home parish and stand with my family and the people with whom I grew up. Simple as that. Depending on the particulars, I might talk my way out of it, but that’s my instinct.
Realizing this made me understand the US Civil War in a way I hadn’t quite done before. We talk about the Southerners being “traitors” to the Union, and maybe that’s true. I don’t want to argue that. But what I am saying is that they were being loyal to their primary institutions: their families and their people. If that meant betraying America, then they were going to betray America. Emotionally and psychologically, this is the same kind of thing we hear about soldiers in combat: they don’t ultimately fight for America the Beautiful, the blessing of democracy, the US Constitution, or any of that. They fight for each other.
Don’t misunderstand: I believe that breaking up America would be a terrible idea! I don’t want to fight my fellow Americans. If people wanted to go, let them go. How many people today, I wonder, care so much about preserving the Union that they would be willing to go to war to keep California or Texas from seceding? I don’t, and it’s not because I hate California or Texas. How about you?
But if we’re gaming out scenarios as a thought experiment, and if Blue states and regions sought to separate in some way from the rest, I would leave the Blue if I were living there, and go live in the Red, with my tribe — even if it cost me money. I wonder how common that sentiment is. I talked yesterday with a Louisiana friend who was telling me yesterday about how in his experience with his adult children and their friends, so many people of the younger generations just don’t have that same experience of natural roots that we older people do.
UPDATE: A reader comments:

Yep. This is very much the situation I’m in right now, except that I’m not a veteran. Living in suburbia, conservative, family guy; trying to make sense of the culture wars right now with some objectivity, and getting told that trying to see things “objectively” is itself patriarchy and racism.

My wife and I are closet conservatives, even in our relatively mild suburb in a red state. Most of our friends and peers have gone WAY to the left of the past several years. My wife and I, at least once a week, converse about current events, and these conversations always end the same way: we can’t tell anyone else we know about this. No one. We’d lose all our friends and social support.

I’ve been putting off buying a gun for years now, because I really loathe the idea of having them around my kids. But we recently decided it’s time to get one and get trained. I hate that. I hate all of this.

We have several close (white) friends who also live in the suburbs, but will regularly drive downtown, protest police “brutality” for a few hours, then pick up a $6 coffee on the way back to their gated neighborhood and make sure that their day’s work is all over social media to show what good “allies” they are. One recently posted that it was unfair, dangerous (and of course racist) for the local police to form barricades around public buildings during these protests, because (and I quote) “if a few buildings need to burn, let them burn.” I’m not sure how to tell these people they will feel differently when it is their cookie-cutter McMansions burning, and that that’s what they’re heading towards. But again, if we were to tell them that, we’d be accused of (you guessed it) racism.

It’s like our society wants to die. Die of Covid, die of mob violence, die of existential boredom. I don’t always agree with your conclusions, but that’s why I follow your blog so closely: the Benedict Option was a prescient book; every day it looks more like the only solution conservative, or even independent-thinking, people are going to have. I’m just so sad about it all. This is NOT the future I want for my kids.

God have mercy.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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