The United States Civil War of the 1860s was one of the bloodiest imaginable. Deaths were vastly greater than many external conflicts in which the USA has been involved.
Whereas Vietnam cost 50,000 American lives, over 600,000 Americans died in the American Civil War. That was out of a population of around 31 million, compared to 205 million at the time of Vietnam. Some estimates say that if the Civil War was fought today and a similar proportion died, the death toll would be over 6 million.
Of course, there were many reasons for the high death toll. Battlefield injuries were horrific due to the weaponry and tactics, and medical aid was rudimentary to say the least - it was almost a century before bacterial infection could be controlled. Many of the deaths occurred in prisoner-of-war camps, hellholes like Andersonville.
But contributing to the toll too was the culture behind the war. When countries turn inward against themselves, the results can be truly horrific. Just look at the Taliban's killing of fellow Afghans over several decades, the Syrian Civil War, or Islamic sect fighting in Iraq.
In the US, the battle between the anti-slavery north and the pro-slavery south knew almost no bounds, and had predecessors as far as violence goes. Even before the war there were bloody skirmishes between pro- and anti-slavery people. During the "Bleeding Kansas" years, anti-slavery forces, including the so-called Jayhawkers, launched attacks against pro-slavery civilians. Looting, burning and killing was under way even before the war officially began.
The US was formed out of a belief in "manifest destiny", a God-given right to occupy the land, and that right was enforced by the firearm. First Nations people bore much of the brunt of those gun battles, but so did fellow Americans as the power of arms, enshrined in the constitution, meant that weaponry was resorted to alarmingly readily. The popularity of the "Western" genre of films and TV underlines how that gun violence was normalised in US culture. Maybe today's police culture emanates from the same roots.
This right to bear arms has led to a situation today where each year nearly 40,000 Americans die of gunshot wounds, and 100,000 are injured. That 40,000 is two-thirds the size of Australia's losses in World War I. The shocking horror of mass shootings - Columbine, Sandy Hook and all the rest - has done nothing to stop this. The power of the National Rifle Association to quell any attempt to restrict gun ownership means that the present climate seems to show no sign of improving - rather the opposite.
The US leads the world in civilian gun ownership on a per capita basis, with over 125 firearms (small arms) per 100 people.
So, we find the US heading to a presidential election in a few months. Donald Trump's ascendancy to the highest office in the land was forged by forcing divisions in US society. Trump demonised anyone "liberal", meaning the Democrats, much of the media, virtually anyone remotely centrist, let alone anyone near the left. His following has been that vast segment of American society that felt itself disempowered by the so-called elites (never mind Trump being a New York billionaire who inherited a large portion of his wealth). As the world changed, they had lost jobs, lost self-worth, lost a sense of pride. Trump's chant of "Make America Great Again" was music to their ears - regardless of veracity or cost.
Trump's populism has widened divisions in American society. His dog-whistling has promoted anger, giving air to rightist, racist and well-armed groups. Rather than promoting harmony, Trump has banked on pitting Americans against one another. The militias - like the famed Minutemen - that formed a significant role in the War of Independence loom large in the mindset and pantheon of his followers. Militias can be found widely today, armed with a firepower not dreamed of back in the 1770s when George Washington crossed the Delaware.
Despite Trump and Republican small government sentiments, Trump has had no hesitation in using federal forces to try to quell Black Lives Matter protests and other outbreaks of unrest. His overriding of state governments would have drawn howls of outrage if undertaken by a Democrat leader.
Today the US population is bitterly divided, dangerously armed, and sooled-on by a Commander in Chief who has trashed the once-noble office of President. Trump's bullying, aggressive defensiveness, capricious changes of personnel and policy, and mind-numbingly simplistic tweets are in stark contrast to his predecessor. Barack Obama's grace, gentility, caution, intellectual depth and empathy are a world away.
That Trump has hinted he might not accept the result of the coming election (already alleging postal votes as potentially fraudulent, without a shred of evidence) has set an incredibly dangerous tone. Then there is his latest threat, to delay the election; even fellow Republicans have baulked at this, in the land of the free. He is determined to hold onto power, regardless of cost.
We can only hope that somehow sense will prevail, that Trump will be seen even by his followers for the danger that he is, that the powder keg that is the armed population of the US will not be lit. The COVID-19 pandemic has done its worst in countries led by rightist leaders - the US, Brazil, Great Britain. Given the US death toll of over 150,000, and the enormous economic impact of the virus, perhaps it is COVID-19 that might finally turn his followers against him and avert a far bigger catastrophe. One that might well put the first US Civil War in the shade.
As the Australian son of an American mother, I certainly hope so.
- Matthew Higgins is an historian who has worked at a number of national cultural institutions, from the Australian War Memorial to the National Museum of Australia.