Every time I survived a war zone I thought I was sending a warning home: don’t do this. But here we are.”

Before it opened people were worried that Alex Garland’s new film Civil War was a loaded weapon. Beyond its title there was the “all empires fall” tagline, publicity posters of sniper nests in the Statue of Liberty and aircraft carriers in the Hudson set against the hazy sunset of Apocalypse Now. All in an election year already dragged down by a doom spiral of politicians, war coverage and two candidates so disliked that one of the most decisive voter demographics is being termed “double haters.” Like other mass media moral panics- that the Joker movie would lead to an increase in incel violence or that video games cause mass shootings- it is likely that these fears won’t materialize in a recognizably linked way. Those already primed to instigate an armed uprising are probably not looking to a road-trip movie about journalists for inspiration; the rest of us are, and should be, shit scared by the experience.

Welcome to the Frontline

It’s fitting that a movie about civil war should be so divisive with critics across the political spectrum. Previously a writer and director of prescient science fiction, British filmmaker Garland’s choice to make a movie about a contemporary and bloody civil war in the United States has been read by some as pointed- and others as toothless. Vague references are made to a president suspending the FBI, targeting American citizens in airstrikes, killing journalists, an Antifa massacre, and a California-Texas alliance to fight the federal government. Whether dismissed as wild imagination or embraced as worst fears, Garland has been open about wanting audiences to come away asking themselves why they think a CA-TX partnership is impossible, or what reasons they would consider justifiable for another civil war.

In the public imagination- not just within the US but extending to stereotypes held outside of it- Texas and California are polar opposites in culture and values. They are the classic tropes of the ‘red’ versus ‘blue’ states we sort roughly 335 million Americans into. In reality very few states vote over 75% for one party, reflected in recent social science maps that illustrate a “Purple States of America” accounting for just how close the vote is. In 2016 Pennsylvania voted for Trump by a margin of 0.72%, but that’s enough to get a state and its residents dismissed as red (or best case scenario, as a volatile ‘swing’) for another four years until the next presidential election cycle. The originators and contributors of the Purple States project said it’s designed to combat the polarization of trying to easily sort a large and diverse country into two political binaries. Yet many worry the lines of battle have already been drawn.

In 2022 a YouGov/Economist survey found that more than two-fifths of Americans believe a civil war could happen in the next decade. News websites have whole subsections dedicated to “more on the possibility of a second Civil War” with suggested articles on why we are or aren’t facing another and how to recognize it. Civil wars don’t always announce, or pronounce, themselves, often assigned euphemistic political labels like “crisis,” “emergency” or “troubles.” Military historian John Shy points out that the American Revolution in proportion to population had just as many Americans fighting other Americans as during the Civil War of 1861-1865. Even that civil war over 150 years ago is still being fought in history textbooks and public monuments across the country. The United Daughters of the Confederacy are still in existence and, despite a disclaimer on their website saying they are committed to staying “quietly in the background, never engaging in public controversy” while memorializing “our forefathers who fought bravely,” they spend a considerable amount of their $1-2 Million dollar annual revenue (on top of $11 MM in assets) suing municipal governments who try to remove some of the 600 historical markers referring to the war as the “sacred cause,” “righteous cause,” or “lost cause” fought with “patriotic devotion,” “heroism unsurpassed” and “faultless valor.”

January 6th, 2021 marked the first time a Confederate flag was seen inside the White House, something the Confederates themselves hadn’t achieved during the Civil War of the 1800s. Many assumed this was the nexus of Garland’s film, although he’s since stated that he began writing it in 2018 and had originally considered setting it in the UK (unfeasible not least because of the lack of automatic weapons). Attacks on the White House are hardly new in film- Hollywood has shown us aliens blowing it to smithereens more than once, mutants and terrorists infiltrating the Oval Office. Roland Emmerich has dispatched it by both spaceship and tsunami on two separation occasions, and in 2012 alone two different studios simultaneously built interior replicas of the White House just to destroy them in the competing Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. American audiences have a proven fascination, and maybe even satisfaction, in watching the highest office in the land wiped from it.

Several weeks after watching Civil War I still can’t figure out whether it shares the same genre of action movies, or maybe the more serious political thrillers. At times it very much feels like a horror movie, with each passing car or unknown interaction a cause for dread. While Garland may not have based it on January 6th, it does share a creeping realization that the call might be coming from inside the house. “January 6th” is now a shorthand phrase of immediate American recognition, shared only by September 11th and July 4th. The visual images, reporting, arrests and prosecutions that came after confirmed that it wasn’t Cobra, North Koreans, or Martians, but our own neighbors and family members.

The Key to My Neighbor’s House

HG Wells (himself an author of world-ending science fiction wars) called WWI the “war to end all wars,” with devastation so immense it would be unthinkable to repeat it. Two decades later, many veterans were still alive to fight in WWII, which Oppenheimer optimistically hoped not only to end with the atomic bomb, but to end all war forever.

Instead, the rest of the century saw a shift from war between countries to wars within them. The fall of empires and transition of territories led to liberation movements and revolutions that focused the violence against internal opponents and other perceived threats to security. Of 118 armed conflicts between 1989 and 2004, only seven were foreign wars between nations. The effort to build new nationalisms and “imagined communities” often meant deciding who was included as a citizen, or defining identity by who was not. What anthropologist Arjun Appadurai calls “the fear of smaller numbers” threatened fragile new identities through the unassimilated or those too different to fit into a new narrative of ethnic genius and historic homeland. New maps couldn’t be drawn without pushing or pulling desired and undesirable members of the population from the claimed territory. As one warlord nicknamed ‘the Butcher of Bosnia’ said: “Borders are always drawn in blood and states marked out with graves.”

Civil wars have a unique horror in both their brutality and their intimacy. All wars, to some extent, involve dehumanizing and demonizing the Other: giving the enemy offensive nicknames, using propaganda to illustrate just how dangerous and different they are, why they’re a threat to our way of life. The sense of foreignness is reinforced after transporting soldiers to a strange land to fight those who might look different or speak a foreign language, helping throw up barriers to recognition of fellow humanity. Especially, as Vietnam soldier and war reporter Philip Caputo said, you take soldiers away from the social restraints of home and acceptable, normatively enforced behavior and tell them it’s kill or be killed. War correspondent Chris Hedges saw this process of mythmaking in the civil wars he covered: “We view ourselves, our people, as the embodiment of absolute goodness. Our enemies invert our view of the world to justify their own cruelty. In most mythic wars this is the case. Each side reduces the other to objects- eventually in the form of corpses.” Rather than the emotional removal and physical distance of overseas conflicts, when the war comes to your doorstep in civil wars the ‘us’ vs ‘them’ often live next door to each other. The American Civil War of the 1800s talked about “brother against brother,” but the 1990s saw an increase in communal violence across the world, where killers were able to get access to their victims through the spare key they’d given them- “the key to my neighbor’s house.” In multiethnic areas often the only one who knew whether you were on the wrong side of enemy lines were the ones who’d gone to school with you, attended your wedding, knew which religious holidays you recognized or which way you’d voted.

These are the real strengths of Garland’s film, to the point that they almost eclipse whatever the mysterious wider reason for the war is. By focusing on granular experiences of civil war through the interactions of the journalist characters with those they meet on their road trip to DC, we see victims and perpetrators of war whose allegiance to either the President or Alliance is never stated- and is ultimately irrelevant. In New Jersey men with automatic rifles guard a gas station, three suspected looters strung up but alive in the carwash behind them. “I went to school with that guy,” says one, “he never spoke to me.” Individuals often use civil wars to settle scores, or take opportunities offered by the sudden collapse of civil rule and prohibition on violence. Conflict expert Stathis Kalyvas says rather than it being a top-down process in which the politics twist private life, civil wars often privatize politics: violence is not the outcome of a civil war, but the process.

This is reinforced by Garland in scenes where communities are described or shown as “opting-out”: two of the journalist characters have parents in rural areas who act as if the war isn’t happening. Somewhere off the highway in Pennsylvania (at least guessing by the “GO STEELERS” graffiti on an overpass next to swinging, executed bodies) they find a small town with a quintessential Main Street, USA who refuses to participate in the war. The very presence of snipers on the roof who enforce this through threat of violence in itself threatens to bring war. In another scene, two snipers are engaged in a drawn out, long-distance confrontation. When asked by the journalists who they’re fighting for, they look at them like they’re stupid, insane, or both. When asked why they’re shooting, they say because they’re being shot at.

Communities do experience civil wars unevenly, some escaping unscathed while others collapse under the pressure of displaced populations and ever-moving lines of battle.  Complicating details like this makes it easy for us to dismiss many civil wars happening around the world as “intractable” or “ancient hatreds” and therefore absolving us of any responsibility for intervention, but as Hedges’ memoir summarized: “war is made, not born.” It is sometimes assumed that civil wars at least make sense to those living it with obvious sides to pick. Yet the reality gets flattened even in our understanding of our own civil war: communities as far south as the mountains of Tennessee tried to avoid fighting, only to be pressganged into the Confederacy or “bushwhacked” as punishment for refusing to fight (the book Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier depicts this use of local actors to force residents into service for the war).

Civil wars seem like a case of black and white once distilled into competing sides with their own insignias and flags (interestingly, both are only minimally present in the movie) but establishing “friend or foe” is less clear once the violence spirals down from political elites to the level of communities on the ground. In one of the most famous media depictions of civil conflict Shakespeare said, “civil blood makes civil hands unclean” and civil wars are messy in execution, not just in a visceral sense but in the way categories are transgressed throughout the conflict. Individuals can be victims, but also at times perpetrators or bystanders, or at different points experience all three in what Holocaust survivor Primo Levi called “the gray zone.” Survival or victimhood can become dependent on increasingly arbitrary and hard to navigate parameters; having the right spelling of a name or the wrong regional accent, working the right occupation, or giving the wrong answer when stopped at a checkpoint.

These militias operating checkpoints and drawing new borders in blood often operate outside or alongside the official chain of command- they might be wearing the uniform but have their own agendas and the position to pursue them. In the most chilling scene from Civil War, Jesse Plemons is wearing fatigues and heart-shaped sunglasses while he spreads lye over a mass grave filled with bodies, directing a dump truck piled with more. Which side he fights for isn’t specified- and he doesn’t ask the journalists which side they’re on either (quickly made clear not out of any respect of the press). What he does ask- as highlighted in the film’s trailer- is “what kind of American are you?” What the trailer doesn’t show is he at this point has already executed the two Asian journalists in the group, and even being white and from Missouri or Colorado doesn’t protect the others. Like many civil wars, the political ideology of the President and Alliance doesn’t matter here, behind this house, in this field. Being on a certain ‘side’ doesn’t matter when the definition of enemy and threshold of acceptable violence and targeting of civilians is so quickly and easily changed and twisted by those with their fingers on the triggers. The scene has the horrible feeling of a trap with no right answer, and no easy escape, all while kneeling next to an ununiformed mass grave.

Production of War

At $50 million, Civil War is the most expensive movie Garland or A24 have made. For all of its strongest scenes in close-quarter, high-stakes personal interactions, it still has sweeping shots of an almost abandoned New York City, tanks and tracer fire tearing apart the District of Columbia. For a movie that asks you to interrogate the way war correspondents and photographers engage with conflict as a spectacle, it still leans into needle drops and epic helicopter shots. This movie is not beyond criticism, but some of the critiques have been smacked of both American amnesia and exceptionalism.

One of the absolute worst takes I’ve read is that Garland shouldn’t have been allowed to make this movie on principle as a foreigner, and therefore an outsider. Most recently the cultural and media discourse surrounding speculative fiction of a dystopian America in the near-future has been occupied by Handmaid’s Tale, created by Canadian author Margaret Atwood. Zone of Interest and previous generations of high-profile Holocaust movies are not considered any less powerful or relevant for having been made by non-Germans or Poles. As Garland pointed out when pressed about setting Civil War in America, US politics- by its own design- is felt deeply and widely outside of its physical borders. Even when it makes movies about overseas wars it has participated in, it’s so centered on the US perspective that it eclipses that country’s own claims to experience and representation in a war on their soil. Author and conflict and memory scholar Viet Thanh Nguyen pointed out that Vietnamese refugees resettled in America were often confused by Hollywood’s continued fixation on Vietnam’s civil war and repeated funding of big, bloody blockbusters despite portraying the war in a negative light.

Some reviews purport to be pointing out plot holes by asking how realistic it is that journalists would be allowed to accompany troops, and who are they filing stories with anyway if the Fourth Estate has collapsed along with civil society. In recent history media has been allowed such unprecedented access to the Gulf War that philosopher Jean Baudrillard said it “did not take place” so much as becoming a scripted media event, a televised drama. Even as the US government was banning photographs of soldier’s coffins being returned to America during the Iraq War, Rolling Stone among others were allowed to “embed” journalists with marines and other units spearheading the invasion. As we’ve seen in Gaza and the Ukraine, local journalists do not stop working just because the electricity is cut off and their office buildings have been turned to rubble. Even if within the world of Civil War domestic outlets had ceased to function, there is a whole world outside America with interested media- two of the main characters mention they work for Reuters, a Canadian company headquartered in London.

One podcast I won’t name unintentionally got to the unspoken heart of the controversy, a secret fear I think limits some viewer’s engagement out of self-preservation. In the film’s final and almost anticlimactic shot the President has just been executed after a short and uninspiring exchange of words. The podcast commentator found it hard to believe that press would be allowed to accompany these soldiers as they hunted down and unceremoniously dispatched the president, even though it happens regularly in war. You can quickly google front page photographs of Mussolini hanging from the gallows, Saddam’s arrest, or Gaddafi’s execution. When Osama Bin Laden was captured, professional wrestler John Cena announced it live on TV to an arena full of people at WWE. I suspect that there is a resistance, maybe based on naïve optimism rather than blind patriotism, that we would be shielded by virtue of American values. That the films we usually enjoy about war are set safely “over there,” whether overseas, in the past, or in an alternate universe where the laws of physics and Constitutional ideals don’t apply. As the podcast commentator continued: “The last shot- not ideal. Pretty bracing, but Garland has been like- this movie is about ‘this could happen here,’ right? And that’s where I’m…this could happen here…but this is also not America at all.”

The biggest problem for most is that Garland does not offer (or spoon feed) specifics about the factional ideologies or the causes for the war. I struggle to think of a way it could have done this well without being trite or egregiously alienating large portions of the audience. I would argue that had the movie established side A believed this and side B were fighting for that, we would quickly choose the side that aligned the most with our personal belief system and subjective political world view. It’s human nature to want to pick a side and choose a team, even when removed from any practical attachments- it’s how you get people in New Jersey rooting for the Dallas Cowboys, or anyone outside the UK supporting Manchester United. I suspect a reason Garland chose to set the movie in the US is in part due to its dramatic contemporary increase in political tribalism. Candidate lawn signs are no longer out for a few weeks or months surrounding the election, but sometimes years round. These signals are not just to demonstrate support for a specific candidate, but also to broadcast to your neighbors and passersby your political allegiance and team colors. An ever-expanding selection of political merchandise (recently bibles and branded sneakers) is available, where our parents and grandparents just had badges and pennants they threw away or put in a drawer after an election, or a bumper sticker they forgot.

Even in the film, it’s tempting to side with the Hawaiian-shirt wearing irregular militia the journalists briefly follow through a firefight. You experience the adrenaline of the shoot-out and building clearance, the emotion of their comrade being shot and their attempts to save him. It feels almost easy to side with them even without knowing their unspecified political stance- until you see them summarily execute three prisoners of war. If we established early in the movie that they were our Side A, we’d feel shortchanged and like we were watching some bad politically motivated take designed to make the specific side of the political spectrum we sympathize with look bad. If it was Side B, we’d feel it just confirmed everything we knew about their innate badness. It would perpetuate the exact polarization the movie is trying to reflect, without refracting. Garland has said the main purpose of this scene was to have it devoid of dialogue- show, not tell, and let the conversation be the one you have leaving the cinema.

Garland has defended this as a purposeful containment rather than an avoidance or absence of reason- “a provocation but not antagonism” he told an interviewer; “the absence is the absence of flags” and choosing interactive inference over hammering in signposts. If you can move past the lack of exposition, the hidden strength of Garland’s refusal to spell out the movie’s political designs is that it reflects our own. A friend told me the President (played by Nick Offerman with no clear political indicators in his opening speech) was clearly Trump coded, because he’s referred to as a fascist. But there’s a significant portion of people that believe Biden and his administration are fascist- and not just on the right. Similar to the passing reference to an “Antifa massacre”- it doesn’t tell us whether Antifa are the victims or the perpetrators. Garland is telling us it’s not important what he thinks, but what we think- because in a civil war we’re all in it together.

Further reading:




War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges

Safe Area Gorazde by Joe Sacco

Fear of Small Numbers by Arjun Appadurai

The Logic of Violence in Civil War by Stathis N. Kalyvas

Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag

Generation Kill by Evan Wright

Homeland by Dale Maharidge & Michael Williamson

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horowitz



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