• How Civil Wars Start

  • And How to Stop Them
  • By: Barbara F. Walter
  • Narrated by: Beth Hicks
  • Length: 7 hrs and 17 mins
  • 4.6 out of 5 stars (833 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • 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

“Required reading for anyone invested in preserving our 246-year experiment in self-government.”—The New York Times Book Review 

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, Ukraine, 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.

Praise for How Civil Wars Start

“It turns out that there is a discipline that you might call ‘civilwarology’—the study of the factors that lead to civil war. . . . Barbara F. Walter became a civilwarologist nearly a quarter of a century ago and her entry is evidently well-thumbed in the Rolodexes of the CIA and the U.S. State Department. In other words, she knows what she’s talking about—which makes this book rather scary.”—The Times (U.K.)

©2022 Barbara F. Walter (P)2022 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

“[A] bracing manual . . . Walter’s book lays out America’s possible roads to dystopia with impressive concision. Her synthesis of the various barometers of a country heading to civil war is hard to refute when applied to the U.S. . . . Indispensable.”—Financial Times

“Like those who spoke up clearly about the dangers of global warming decades ago, Walter delivers a grave message that we ignore at our peril.”—David Remnick, The New Yorker 

“Rigorously researched and lucidly argued, How Civil Wars Start is an arresting wake-up call.”—Esquire 

What listeners say about How Civil Wars Start

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  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Progressive propoganda piece

I saw this book advertised on a CNN piece and since the topic fascinates me I decided to purchase it. I found it to be rather banal with a lot of liberal fear-mongering. Most of the book is spent summarizing past civil wars, so if you are looking for a breakdown of how one might occur again in the USA, just skip to the last chapters. Overall, the science used to justify this premise seems sketchy at best, and much of the book uses loosely relevant facts and current events to stretch out this "War is imminent!" pizza dough into a larger pie. The writing was decent enough, but not spectacular. Wouldn't recommend this book overall.

22 people found this helpful

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Reveals the limits of a Political Science approach

The book is not without occasional insights. But the author’s Political Science approach (as opposed to a historical approach) to the study of Civil Wars leads to a superficial bouncing around from one conflict to another, some of which stretch the definition of Civil War. The thumbnail sketches of these conflicts are too simplistic and reveal that the author’s limited mastery of the details of some of these conflicts. She embarrassingly refers to the Battle of the Bogside as occurring in Belfast, not (London)Derry for example. The ahistorical approach also means that she cannot show how such conflicts are often the result of a sequence of events over time that build upon each other. Overall, it reveals the problem of trying to build a grand theory of the causes of Civil Wars, which can be imposed upon a wide-ranging set of conflicts in an effort to explain them.the narration is good.

20 people found this helpful

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A terrifying and prescient warning

Remember the uproar amongst Trump supporters on July 4th, 2017 when they accused NPR of leftist propaganda for tweeting the Declaration of Independence?

Those reviewers are the source of negative reviews of this book that they almost certainly did not read. Their knee-jerk reaction is to take offense at reality when it doesn't fit with their Christian Nationalist and white supremacist world-view.

There is a frighteningly large percentage of Americans who are actively trying to lead us into a second Civil War. This book shows that the path we are on follows the pattern seen worldwide in the run-up to virtually every civil war from the last 150 years.

"How Civil Wars Start" is as engrossing as it is terrifying but ends with a note of optimism; there's hope that it isn't too late.

Let's hope this book inspires those who seek ever-increasing power to recognize the real potential consequences of their gaslighting. Let's hope that the book causes a real conversation in this country about the dangers of ultra-rightwing militia groups.

20 people found this helpful

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Well-researched and well-written book.

Listened to this book in one day. Both terrifying and hopeful. Narration was well done.

18 people found this helpful

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Pretty Bias Book

This book starts off good, a lot of the information seems to be based on personal experience. However once you get to the last 4-5 chapters it talks about the US and it gets pretty bias, bias against the conservative side of government. The author talks a lot about the alt right but barely mentions Antifa or BLM and their issues. Also critices the conservative reps but doesn't mention the socialist threat to our democracy. Author also makes a case for the government to monitor and to an extend control social media...buy at your own risk. Wish I could get my money back.

16 people found this helpful

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Should Be Required Reading

At this tumultuous time in our country’s history, this book explains in easily understood terms, how and why the United States is in the state it is in. It offers the history of how civil wars have begun in other parts of the world as well as our own civil war. It supplies reasons for the divisions we are seeing, but it also gives hope in how our anger and resentment can be turned around. Well worth the effort to read or listen to this invaluable “history lesson.”

16 people found this helpful

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This was a very good history of civil wars especially in the last hundred years.

The author introduces several ways of measuring political stability and ways of predicting sliding into Civil War and makes a strong argument that the United States is closer to Civil War right now than we have been since the original Civil War in the 1860s. There’s also good advice about how to begin to deal with this before it gets further out of control.

13 people found this helpful

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thorough and concerning

The book has a chapter on each warning sign that gives an example from another country. In a later chapter, it discusses where the US is in relation to these warning signs. The end has suggestions on how to strengthen our democracy and decrease the chances of a civil war happening here.

12 people found this helpful

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  • Ed
  • 02-02-22

Pretty One-Sided

She has some good ideas, but would have more credibility if her theories were applied uniformly. In chapters 1-6 she goes through a compelling (though superficial and in some cases historically debatable) list of some global conflicts and the patterns leading up to them. She asserts (correctly, I think) that marginalized factions stir up conflict and assesses some of the ways they drum up support and push moderates into taking sides.

After that, though, she applies her theories almost entirely to conservative America. She discusses at length the riots of January 6, 2020, as well as other examples or right-wing extremism, and shows how they were perpetrated by white factions that felt marginalized and hopeless, and thus turned to violence. However, I was disappointed by the fact that there was no mention of any left-sided extremism designed to stir up the same kind of polarized conflict. There are lots of examples of police officers that have been ambushed by extremists trying to start race wars (Dallas 7/7/16 comes to mind), and the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” in Seattle (a literal secession worth discussing in a book about civil wars) wasn’t even mentioned. The efforts of ANTIFA only got a sentence or two, and she quickly asserts that the right is far more dangerous.

I’m not taking sides in this, only trying to say that the author would have more credibility if she spoke to both sides. From the center, her implication seemed that Republicans are dangerous white racists, and the assertion that the best way to prevent future factionalism is more internet censorship and stronger federal law enforcement is questionable.

Overall, the book had good ideas, but seemed written by and for the CNN audience, with no effort to bridge the gap.

9 people found this helpful

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An academic view of our democratic decline.

A precise and academic view of the potential collapse of american democracy. Author provides detailed examples from many civil wars in other countries in the modern era and bring those points to comparison of the situation in the united states at the very end.

Several reviews are saying that the author is biased and doesn’t mention liberal involvement of the potential collapse. That is incorrect. At every point availed the author mentions research and facts pointing to how each political ideology contributes. Politics have become largely about identity. Conservatives are becoming a minority and therefore are more likely to do something about it, while Liberals are the majority and have more to lose if the system changes. The book explains why it isn’t biased, but proven fact the entire time.

8 people found this helpful

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