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Uncivil War


Against the televised carnage of Gaza and eastern Ukraine, several civil wars, hot and cold, escape our attention in 2024: Sudan, Myanmar, Yemen. Meanwhile, insurgencies and complex militia groupings ravage the DRC and the Sahel region of Africa, among other regions.


Those fortunate enough not to have endured war cannot grasp its effects on those who have, and it is another step beyond to imagine civil war. Who is your friend and who is your enemy when a country sets on itself? It is especially traumatising to have neighbours turn on you with a special and very personal venom.


The director and writer, Alex Garland, has made the film Civil War (2024) to show what this could look like in the near future in the United States. Wary of being drawn into the febrile politics of election year, he posits an America at war with itself after a President claims an illegal third term where the FBI is abolished. Western Forces opposing his power grab are led by California and Texas, thus carefully drawing together naturally Democratic and Republican states.


Alex Garland specialises in films with a fractured and menacing reality – Ex Machina and Men and in dystopian landscapes – 28 Days Later. America, in its second civil war, turns familiar landscapes into scenes of quiet and unquiet danger. Blocks of flats, rural winter wonderlands, homely small town high streets, sun-kissed petrol stations each menace the war photojournalists who form the basis of the film.


The stuff of foreign wars is brought home. Helicopters float over river and forest scenes like 60s Vietnam. Bodies dumped unceremoniously into mass graves conjure up images of 90s Bosnia. The rubble, dust and sniper fire of devastated city centres are true of every urban war.


The civil war specialist, Barbara Walter in a RAG rating puts the United States at Amber. She does not foresee Garland’s hellscape, but – if it came to the worst - something similar to the Northern Ireland’s Troubles, where covert armed groups assassinate alleged collaborators, car bombs wreck shopping streets and government institutions are targeted by mortar fire. It does not help that Americans already own so many guns.


We like to think that personal character is reliable and consistent, but evidence suggests something else. Environment is a powerful influence on human behaviour. In settled times, most people are peaceable. When a country descends into civil war, character is severely tested. In the film, killings develop into atrocities; racism is given free reign. Men torture men they went to school with. A rural shoot out takes place between snipers who have no idea, or care, about allegiances.


If this sounds utterly horrible, then perhaps it gives a tiny fictional insight into the reality of some. War erodes not just value, but virtue, making people capable of things they once were not. Victims are traumatised twice over: because the violence is done by neighbours. Once trust is destroyed in such a fundamental way, it is hard to restore it. But this is only part of the story, because not everyone succumbs to their basest instincts and conflict can bring out something deeply human and truly divine; the heroism not just of courage under fire, but of tending to the neediest, of showing practical care to an enemy when they are disarmed.


We pray loosely, sometimes thoughtlessly for places of conflict. Civil war can be the worst because it is so very personal. Imagining that is the first step to interceding in prayer for those encircled by it.



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