Guns Will Not Save Us From Tyranny
Recently, Ethan Peikes posted a column on the Carolina Political Review in which he argued that the American people would stand no chance in the event of a war against the federal government. In response, Will Rierson posted the column “The Feasibility of Gun Confiscation,” in which he argued against Peikes, essentially laying the case for how a guerrilla-style insurrection over gun confiscations could potentially hold its own in the US. To keep the debate moving forward, I’d like to throw in my two cents and push back against Rierson’s argument. While he brings a number of strong points to the discussion, such as the ideological overlap between many in the military and those who would hypothetically revolt against a tyrannical government, his argument ultimately fails to acknowledge two key points; the extent of the military industrial complex in our society, and the ruthlessness of a government fighting for its survival.
First, any examination of American war must look at the role of the US military industrial complex. Five-star World War II General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously warned the American public about the growing military industrial complex in his 1961 farewell address. In short, Eisenhower spoke on the dangerously close relationship developing between weapons manufacturers and the US government. In modern times, we’ve seen the war industry further entrench itself in our political system through malicious business practices like dividing production into as many districts as possible to ensure congressional support and extensive lobbying efforts through organizations such as the beloved NRA.
The American war industry’s most loyal customers are the US government and its allies and these businesses are deeply invested in maintaining the political status quo so that they can keep raking in their trillions. In the event of an armed insurrection against the US government, the weapons industry would be the first group to stand against the pro-gun rebels. Yes, that includes the NRA. Our conservative leaders who preach protection for the second amendment are already bought and paid for by Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Smith & Wesson, and the rest of weapons industry (just to be clear, the military industrial complex is not a partisan issue; political leaders on the left are equally corrupted by the system). The military industrial complex blurs the lines between government and private war industry to where their goals and survival become dangerously intertwined.
In Rierson’s analysis, he fails to recognize the role that the military industrial complex would play in dividing conservatives and motivating an all out war in a hypothetical civil revolt over gun confiscations. The polarization of the current gun control debate has driven many on the right to embrace the war industry and their mouthpieces like the NRA as the true protectors of the second amendment. I fear that in the event of an actual armed conflict, these groups will be more interested in the survival of their biggest client than in the survival of their loyal supporters. And of course, they would then exert their massive influence over conservatives to dissuade and divide any organized revolt.
This ties into my second point, which is the ruthlessness of a government fighting for its own self preservation. Rierson cites the US military’s numerous failures with guerrilla warfare in the past as evidence for the possibility of a successful American guerrilla revolt. The problem with this argument is that the examples used, Vietnam and Afghanistan, were not failures just because the enemy used guerrilla warfare; rather they were wars that lacked purpose and total motivated support from the US government and its people. These were not wars fought directly for survival in the same way that World War II was.
In the event of an actual revolt among the American people, the government would be fighting for its own self preservation and there would be no restraint from the military. As we’ve seen in historical examples of tyrannical governments battling civil revolts, the hunger for self preservation drives excessive force, horrific atrocities, and disregard for civilian lives. Look to the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s and the bombing of Guernica, or the more recent Syrian Civil War, in which civilians have been gassed in chemical attacks and entire cities turned into battlegrounds.
Rierson fails to recognize the desperation of an all out war for survival, and so the argument that the government may decide that winning is “more trouble than it's worth” doesn’t apply. With the trillion dollar military industrial complex behind the government, along with the rest of the world’s elite who depend on the status quo of the US government, a fight to the bitter end would be worth every penny.
I’m willing to grant Rierson that the fight may not end immediately, but modern technologies like nuclear and biochemical weapons make this kind of war for self-preservation unwinnable. The last time the United States fought directly for its survival was World War II, and it ended very poorly for its opponent. Even if a revolt against the US was successful, there would be nothing left to claim victory over but rubble. To return to President Eisenhower, on the topic of nuclear weapons he once said, “You cannot have this type of war. There just aren’t enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets.”
And apart from the war itself, imagine the propaganda campaign a war for survival would require. Rierson mentioned that many conservatives, like those in the military, wouldn’t stand by idly as a civil war occurred, but I would counter that. The US government wouldn’t stand by idly and let their people sympathize with those who wish to overthrow them. A government desperate for survivable would do all it could to manipulate and divide the public.
In fact, I have a theory of how this could be achieved quite easily. Given the level of political division and polarization today, a group of rural conservative rebels could be easily demonized, especially among liberal-leaning urban population centers on the coasts. Even among conservatives, there are numerous ideological divisions that could be attacked. Already in our country, we view those with different political viewpoints as enemies, and in the event of a civil war, these existing divisions would be the government’s ultimate weapon. While we can have a reasonable and mutually respectful political debate here at the CPR, this is not the norm in modern America by any means.
As we experienced in Vietnam and Afghanistan, a war is equal parts ideological as it is actual fighting. To defeat an insurrection, the US could simply exploit the political cracks that already exist in our society to divide the people. Disorganized and divided people are easily controlled and defeated by any government. And hateful and fearful people are more easily herded into supporting tyranny. To tie in Rierson’s discussion of our Founding Fathers, the architects of our nation recognized the need for unity as a tool to fight tyranny just as much as they recognized the right to bear arms. This is why our government is deeply based in democratic values. This is why Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “Join, or Die.” The American Revolution was not successful simply because of guerilla warfare or an availability of muskets, but also because of the strong unity across the people of the colonies and among their ideologically-diverse leaders.
Peikes was absolutely correct when he wrote, “if we end up in a war with the federal government, we’ve already lost.” This is not only because of the sheer power of the US military, but also because the fight against tyranny does not start on the battlefield with an AR-15. It starts in our votes against politicians who are corrupted by war industry lobbying groups and who exacerbate the military industrial complex. It starts with how we view those on the other side of the political aisle. And most importantly, it starts in our daily lives with how we treat people who disagree with us. A healthy, educated, and moderate democracy is our greatest weapon against tyranny; not guns. As Eisenhower said in his farewell address, “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Thank you to Will and Ethan for sharing your thoughts on this important topic, and I too welcome further debate.