Opinion | Give me freedom or give me… what?

If the American experiment finally decides to call it quits, how could national disintegration begin?

Perhaps California is headed toward secession after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state’s strict gun control measures. Or Texas rebels when disputes over abortion laws turn deadly and the state’s National Guard remains loyal to the second Texas republic. Or a skirmish over the closure of a local bridge by federal inspectors escalates into a fight between a beloved sheriff and a famous general, and the rest of the town takes sides. Or it’s the coordinated bombing of state capitals timed for the 2028 presidential transition, with right-wing militias and left-wing activists blaming each other.

In other words: it’s not you, it’s me who hates you.

These scenarios are not of my own creation; they all appear in recent nonfiction books warning of an American schism. Secessionist impulses take shape in David French’s “Divided We Fall,” which warns that the political and cultural grouping of Americans risks tearing the country apart. (French published it before becoming a Times columnist in 2023.) Statehouse explosions erupt in Barbara F. Walter’s “How Civil Wars Start,” which notes that as democratic norms erode, opportunistic leaders can no longer easily aggravate ethnic and cultural divisions than end in violence. The Battle of the Bridge is one of many possible Sumter moments in Stephen Marche’s “The Next Civil War,” which states that our great divorce would result from irreconcilable differences over what America stands for.

These authors offer examples of what could happen, not predictions of what will happen. Their point is that our politics and culture are sensitive to such possibilities. “The crisis has already arrived,” writes Marche. “Only the inciting incidents are pending.”

It’s precisely the absence of inciting incidents that makes writer-director Alex Garland’s hotly debated new film, “Civil War” (whose box-office success was due in part to the multitude of newspapers editorialists we’ll see), a truly intriguing addition to this canon. We never know exactly who or what started America’s new civil war, or what ideologies, if any, are competing for power. It’s a confusing and risky move, but an effective one. An elaborate backstory would distract from the viewer’s engagement with the war itself – the bouts of desperation and detachment, of death and denial – as experienced and told by the weary journalists at the center of the story.

The choice of journalists as the film’s protagonists also creates an additional layer of removal, especially because, strangely, these journalists rarely discuss the origins of the conflict or question its politics, even among themselves. (“We record so other people will ask,” a veteran photographer reminds his protégé.) The story is built around their travels from New York to Washington, where they hope to get one last presidential interview before the capital falls.

“Civil War” is a travel film, if your journey takes place somewhere between the dislocation of “Nomadland” and the dystopia of “The Road.” If you’re looking to see national monuments before they turn to rubble. Stopping for gas involves Canadian currency and scenes of torture. If stadium encampments and mass graves had become standard features of beautiful America.

In this tale, California and Texas both separated and somehow allied together. They’re fighting remnants of the U.S. military, as well as some loyal Secret Service agents and die-hard White House staffers, all of whom serve the same purpose as the expendable midshipmen of a “Star Trek” landing party. There’s also something called the Florida Alliance, which has been trying to persuade Carolina to break away from Washington as well.

But the most memorable combatants in this war are the informal militias across the country, whose motivations for violence range from self-defense to self-indulgence. A fighter explains, with an annoyed expression, why he is targeting a sniper: “Someone is trying to kill us. “We’re trying to kill them.” Another exudes joy in slow motion as he executes his uniformed and hooded prisoners. Another militant mutters that he hanged a local looter in part because the boy ignored him in high school, a casual malevolence that reminds him of Shad Ledue, the murderous handyman in Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, “It Can’t Happen Here.” Once Ledue gains a little power – just enough – over his kind but oblivious former employers, his lasting resentment fuels his revenge.

Civil conflicts are fueled by different groups’ beliefs that their “position and status in society” have been downgraded, Walter writes. Whether such erosion is real may be less relevant than feelings of oppression and loss and the possibility of blaming and punishing someone for it. Once the door is barely open, high school name calling and condescending bosses become good excuses – precisely because they are so mean – for violence.

The strength of “Civil War” is that the fragments of context deepen the film’s ambiguity, as well as its realism. The president, we learn in passing, is serving a third term, and the action begins with him proving his lies before addressing the nation. (So ​​was secession a reaction to an authoritarian leader, or was his extended tenure himself a response to regional rebellion?) The president has made controversial decisions, such as deploying airstrikes against U.S. citizens (a plot point which reminded me of the killing of radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011) and the disbanding of the FBI (which evoked the fateful US decision to disband the Iraqi army in 2003). The war photographer at the heart of the film, played by Kirsten Dunst, became famous in college for taking a “legendary” photo of something called the Antifa massacre. (I immediately thought of the indelible photograph of Kent State from 1970, also taken by a university photographer, although it is unclear whether this new massacre was allegedly perpetrated by or against Antifa activists.)

The “Civil War” is not so much ripped from the headlines as stitched from history; it is not a vision of what could happen in America, but a collage of what has already happened, partly here and much elsewhere.

In this sense, the film is reminiscent of Omar El Akkad’s 2017 novel “American War,” which imagines a new civil conflict at the end of the 21st century, after climate change reshapes the country and a federal ban on the use of fossil fuels leads to a revolt of Americans clinging to weapons and gas consumers. El Akkad, a journalist who has covered terrorism, military tribunals and mass migration around the world, decides to put them all in one place, a future America where principles have given way to punishment. “It’s no longer just about secession,” someone explains after the fighting begins. “It’s about avenging our dead.” It’s a book-length refutation of American exceptionalism.

“Civil War” launches a similar rebuttal in a lament from Dunst’s character, who struggles with flashbacks to the many conflicts she’s talked about and can’t accept that it’s happening here. “Every time I survived a war zone and got the photo,” she says, “I thought I was sending a warning home: Don’t do it. But here we are.

The missing backstory in “Civil War” doesn’t stop us from considering how such a war might have started; forces viewers to realize that many different paths could lead us there. We don’t have to be the United States of the 1850s or the Balkans of the 1990s; we can choose our misadventure.

Of course, not everyone chooses a side. Political violence does not necessarily depend on mass mobilization but simply on the right mix of fanaticism of minorities and indifference, or perhaps fear, of the majority. In “Civil War,” journalists come across a time-warped city, with sprinklers still running and stores still open, seemingly isolated from the chaos. One resident explains that she sees the war on television but would simply prefer to “stay out.” The coexistence of brutality and normality is a recurring feature of war, and I can imagine many Americans walking through the current Civil War with a similar distance. (Maybe they’d call it self-care.) But I suspect more than enough of us would experience what Marche calls “the pleasure of contempt.” That pleasure is everywhere in “Civil War,” no less than in the Abu Ghraib-style photo that slowly unfolds over the closing credits.

In “How Civil Wars Begin,” Walter points to the collapse of a unified national identity as a precursor to conflict. In Iraq, he writes, people began to wonder who was Shiite and who was Sunni; in Bosnia, the distinction between Serbian, Croatian and Muslim identities prevailed over everything else. One of the most disturbing moments in “Civil War” shows a fighter in camouflage threatening journalists. When they insist that they are Americans, he asks, “What kind of American are you?” At gunpoint, they respond, and the fateful exchange shows that the definition of America is no longer found in the creed of freedom, equality and opportunity, but in the mud of blood, soil and language.

The search for a coherent national definition emerges in these recent books that warn of our deepening divisions. Walter compares the political tensions of our time to the 1850s and 1860s. “Both times, the country’s political parties had radically different visions of America’s future. What could the country be? What should “the country is?” He hopes that America’s enduring ideals and shared history can inspire us to “fulfill the promise of a truly multiethnic democracy.” In “Divided We Fall,” French imagines, but does not expect, that we might draw on our federalist tradition to let different states live as they choose, preserving individual rights, not to mention the union.

Such outcomes would require acceptance of those shared ideals and history, some semblance of consensus about what kind of country we want to be. This is more difficult in an America where identities and symbols proliferate, a country where the rights and claims of groups risk prevailing over the commonalities and commitments that unite us. “Identity-based parties make it impossible for voters to change sides,” Walter writes. “They can’t go anywhere if their political identity is tied to their ethnic or religious identity.”

Marche hopes America will regain its swagger and reinvent its politics, but the alienation he sees offers little encouragement. “Each side accuses the other of hating America,” he writes, “which is just another way of saying that they both hate what the other means by America.”

The debate about what kind of America we want is vital and ongoing. But when we move from the universal to the personal, from the kind of America we want to the kind of American we will accept, then we have gone from conversation to interrogation, from investigation to tragedy. You don’t have to believe a new civil war is coming to understand the dangers of the question, “What kind of American are you?” – and realize that the more answers we grasp, the weaker we become.