Dirty war

In "The Lessons of Terror," Caleb Carr argues that terrorism never succeeds. If only we could believe him.

Topics: Osama Bin Laden, Terrorism, Middle East, Books,

Dirty war

Now that the first, purposeful flush of adrenaline has worn off, the war on terrorism has gotten awfully murky. For example, who, exactly, is our opponent — “the evil one” or an “axis of evil”? How do we fight this protean enemy and how will we know when we’ve won? Is deposing the Taliban enough or do we need to meddle in the affairs of other nations as we’re nation-building in Afghanistan? Should we pull out all the stops to whack Osama bin Laden, or is he merely one head of a beast that will grow nine more as soon as we decapitate it?

Talk about the fog of war — but here comes Caleb Carr, military historian turned bestselling novelist, to clear things up. His “The Lessons of Terror” is a beefed-up version of an essay about terrorism that ran in World Policy Journal six years ago, and in 274 sparsely printed pages he explains it all to you. The book has an enviable firmness of tone and authoritative manner, yet it’s general and sweeping enough to stir faint suspicions that things couldn’t possibly be this simple. And, somehow, when you try to apply Carr’s forceful dictums to the situation at hand, they tend to become as slippery and elusive as a handful of live minnows.

One thing is absolutely certain: Carr considers us to be at war. The primary assertion of his 1996 World Policy Journal essay is that terrorists ought to be treated as members of an army and not like a bunch of criminals. While some have argued that bin Laden ought to be captured and tried in court, Carr says it’s time that we regarded his followers and other international terrorists as “what they have in fact been for almost half a century: organized, highly trained, hugely destructive paramilitary units that were and are conducting offensive campaigns against a variety of nations and social systems.” Not that Carr is a priori against the capture and trial model where bin Laden is concerned — he admires the U.S.’s 1989 invasion of Panama and how efficiently it went about “nullifying” Panamanian dictator General Manuel Noriega, for example. And it’s not that he thinks we should offer the captives at Guantanamo Bay “the same rights that uniformed combatants enjoy under the various Geneva protocols.” No, dammit, the important thing is that we understand that we’re at war.

Why is it so important that we embrace what some of Carr’s critics (before Sept. 11) called “the war paradigm”? Because, it seems, once we accept that we are at war, then we will understand that “military history alone can teach us the lessons that will solve the dilemma of modern terrorism,” and Carr is the military historian to supply that instruction. Of course, what we might also realize is that to a hammer everything looks like a nail, but to be fair that doesn’t necessarily invalidate what Carr has to say in “The Lessons of Terror.”

Laid down early on and reiterated constantly throughout the book is Carr’s definition of terrorism itself: “warfare deliberately waged against civilians with the purpose of destroying their will to support either leaders or policies that the agents of such violence find objectionable.” Moreover, terrorism is not some frightening new manifestation of global strife, but “the expression of a constant theme in military history.” And with a certified military historian to lead us by the hand through 2000-plus years of armed conflict, we will see clearly and unquestioningly that “the strategy of terror is a spectacularly failed one.”

Carr argues that “warfare against civilians, whether inspired by hatred, revenge, greed, or political and psychological insecurity, has been one of the most ultimately self-defeating tactics in all military history.” But while in Carr’s view military action is the only appropriate response to terrorism, “the nature of that military action is as important as its undertaking … warfare against civilians must never be answered in kind.”

Whereupon Carr launches into a centuries-spanning survey of Western warfare, in theory and practice, with the occasional detour into Asia, Africa and Latin America, all arrayed to demonstrate his ideas. He begins with Rome, whose early success he links to its inclusive attitude toward its conquered peoples. The new subjects, even the slaves, could become citizens eventually, a policy that Carr calls “the central domestic foundation on which the near millennium of Roman hegemony rested.”

However, if when they were good the Romans were quite good, when they were bad, alas, they were as bad as anybody else. Carr sees the empire declining when it employed brutal scorched-earth policies in seizing and holding its provinces, proving that “when waged without provocation [warfare against civilians] usually brings on retaliation in kind, and when turned to for retaliatory purposes it only perpetuates a cycle of revenge and outrage.” Not only that, but the barbarian soldiers recruited into the Roman army to fill spots left empty by shirking young Romans had a tendency to turn on their rulers, demonstrating a martial truism the U.S. forgot, to its sorrow, with Afghanistan’s mujahedin: the proxy who fights for you today will fight against you tomorrow.

The rest of the history of warfare in the West and its outskirts, according to Carr, is a litany of savage, bloodthirsty “destructive war” occasionally brightened by a few great military minds who understood the superior quality of “progressive war.” His heroes include, above all, King Frederick II of Prussia, but also Sir Francis Drake and Oliver Cromwell (except when it came to Ireland). These men, Carr asserts, understood that “wars were best fought for particular and realistic political goals by soldiers whose restrained behavior would limit the impact of conflict on civilians and thereby maintain or even win those citizens’ loyalty.” (Rigorously strict military discipline was essential to prevent soldiers from slipping into the “barbarization” of rape and plunder.) This same strategy, Carr maintains, must be used against modern international terrorism.

Though many idealists will welcome this insistence on “limited” rather than “total” war, Carr makes it clear that his advocacy of protection of civilians from armed conflict is based on sheer pragmatism. His is a quintessentially Hobbesian view; people will support the regime that best ensures “the safety of ordinary citizens by establishing a professional, politically disinterested and highly disciplined army.” Break from that guideline and sooner or later some consequence of your mistake will jump up and bite you on the ass and your empire will fall apart. Hence, “terrorism” always eventually fails.

While this is a reassuring scenario, it turns out to be tricky to apply both to history and to our current crisis, despite the fact that “The Lessons of Terror” seems specifically intended to do so. If “terrorism” consists only of attacks on civilians, then what do we call al-Qaida’s early actions in Saudi Arabia or the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, all of which selected military targets? Did the group only become “terrorists” when they bombed two American embassies in Africa in 1998? It’s also difficult to compare the attacks of Sept. 11 with the oppression inflicted by occupying Roman armies in Germania or Louis XIV’s brutal creation of a cordon sanitaire on France’s frontiers in the 17th century, both of which Carr characterizes as “tactics of terror.”

First of all, an attacking army doesn’t conceal its identity or its goals. In the case of the Sept. 11 attacks, the ultimate culprits and their motives remain facts we can only infer. Second, ruthless imperial armies force their opponents to choose between fighting back, perhaps to the death, and a life of subjugation that might be even worse than death. Islamist terrorists confront Americans with a choice between living under the constant threat of sudden violence and such alternatives as pulling U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia or ending aid to the secular government of Egypt, foreign policy commitments most Americans were probably unaware of to begin with. Most of the other contemporary terrorist situations Carr touches on — in such places as Israel and Ireland — involve far more intimate and tangled relations between attackers and victims. (On the explosive subject of Palestinian-Israeli violence, Carr blames both sides. He sees the region’s bloody history as deriving from the fact that Israel was founded with the use of terror — he cites the bombing of the King David Hotel in the waning days of the British Mandate by Jewish terrorists — but blames the Palestinians, too, for perpetuating the cycle of violence.)

Furthermore, Carr’s recommended response to the threat is to opt for “preemptive military offensives aimed at making not only terrorists but the states that harbor, supply, and otherwise assist them experience the same perpetual insecurity that they attempt to make their victims feel.” And yet, while “war can only be answered with war,” we must avoid any actions or policies that punish civilians. Carr advocates the abolition of the CIA, which he sees as bearing “an uncomfortable resemblance to an organ of state terror” and as “focusing enormous amounts of attention and funds on covert operations, while missing calls on larger, truly vital world developments” and just generally failing at its putative mission of gathering intelligence. He thinks the kind of military action required is best performed by new unmanned aircraft like the RQ-1A Predator and highly trained special operations forces who can strike surgically, but he disdains long-range air strikes.

Exactly who, though, should we sic these formidable assets on if we want to slap down al-Qaida? We can’t find most of the group’s members, and no one seems to know which, if any, states are sponsoring them. Rich Saudis are said to have funded anti-American Islamist militants for years, but we can no more bomb our ally Saudi Arabia than the British can bomb us because some Irish-Americans send money and guns to the IRA.

Carr’s unpredictable opinions make “The Lessons of Terror” a provocative read — he may hate the CIA, but he likes Donald Rumsfeld; he condemns America for historically pursuing a bloodthirsty strategy of “senseless battles of attrition” in most of its wars, but says that Native Americans first set that tone with “their own vicious techniques of destructive war.” But in the end, the confidence with which he teaches his lessons seems premature.

Exceptions to Carr’s rules tend to creep into the reader’s mind, undermining the whole enterprise, even when he takes the trouble to refute them. For example, the U.S. strategic bombing of Japan during World War II, both conventional and nuclear, intentionally killed huge numbers of civilians, yet Japan continues to be one of America’s most valued allies. Carr claims that the exceptional generosity that the victors of that war showed toward the defeated nations was an example of “unprecedented decency” that drew both Germany and Japan back into the “community of constructive, civilized nations” and “undid a great deal of the cruel stupidity of the Allied civilian-bombing campaigns.” But rather than supporting the idea that “terrorism” as Carr defines it always backfires, this suggests that whatever damage may be done by brutal military tactics can then be undone by political means. The war was won, after all, and so was the peace, and, as much as I’d like to believe otherwise, the amount of civilian carnage involved doesn’t seem to have affected either that much.

Thinking hard about “The Lessons of Terror” tends to lead the reader into this sort of cul de sac. Perhaps that’s an inevitable hazard when very, very general principles are so forcefully asserted. It would be comforting to believe that somebody somewhere understands absolutely, positively how to handle terrorism, but I suspect that we’re better off listening to the kind of experts who grasp that they, like the rest of us, are still learning.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>