Caleb Carr has a point. He begins his latest tome, a slim, yet fascinating volume entitled “The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians: Why It Has Always Failed and Why It Will Fail Again,“ with this declaration: “To be emblematic of our age is to bear an evil burden.“ The 20th Century, he believes will be remembered largely for its non-stop succession of wars, genocides, and massacres, and we barely set foot in the new millennium before the event that will most likely define its first decade took place on September 11, 2001.
How did we come to this? How have we gotten to a point where men and women, in the name of a myriad of different causes, are capable not only of committing unthinkable atrocities, but doing so as a self-righteous act of war? What can possibly be done to reverse a centuries-old practice of targeting civilians in order to affect the political operation of nations? Why do our leaders continue to ignore history, thus repeating past mistakes when it comes to combating terrorism?
Carr seems as qualified as any analyst of history or military strategy to tackle these sobering questions. The bestselling author of the novels “The Alienist“ and “The Angel of Darkness,“ as well as a contributing editor of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History whose military and political writings have appeared in a wide range of magazines and periodicals, he is a thoughtful and concise writer who makes it a point to get to the point, as in “There have never been two more vital and powerful forces at work in the world than international capitalist democracy and fundamental Islam, nor two forces more capable of physical and cultural destruction.“
Pronouncements like that have a way of getting the readers attention, but Carr also holds it throughout. His ideas here have their genesis in a 1996 article he wrote for The World Policy Journal, but the book itself was crafted to refute any thinking that the September 11 acts of terrorism were somehow unique or unprecedented.
While it may seem a modern phenomenon, Carr demonstrates that terrorism is a staple of warfare that dates back to the days of Ancient Rome and has continued through time, from the Middle Ages to the reign of Louis XIV to being successfully employed by America in the war between the states and in Vietnam.
In the first chapter, “A Catastrophe, Not a Cure,“ he lays the groundwork for his case: “Long before the deliberate military targeting of civilians as a method of affecting the political behavior of nations and leaders came to be called terrorism, the tactic had a host of other names. From the time of the Roman republic to the late eighteenth century, for example, the phrase that was most often used was destructive war. The Romans themselves often used the phrase punitive war, although strictly speaking punitive expeditions and raids were only a part of destructive war. For while many Roman military campaigns were indeed undertaken as punishment for treachery or rebellion, other destructive actions sprang out of the simple desire to impress newly conquered peoples with the fearsome might of Rome, and thereby (or so it was hoped) undercut any support for indigenous leaders. In addition, there was a pressing need to allow the famous Roman legions, who were infamously underpaid, to plunder and rape as a reward for their almost inhuman steadiness in the heat of battle. The example of Rome incorporates nearly every possible permutation of warfare against civilians. In this as in so many things, antiquitys greatest state provided a remarkably complete set of precedents for many later Western republics and empires... In other words, we can detect in the example of Rome the most essential truth about warfare against civilians: that when waged without provocation it usually brings on retaliation in kind, and when turned to for retaliatory purposes it only perpetuates a cycle of revenge and outrage that can go on for generations. Therefore it should be avoided in both its forms - initial and reactive - for, again, those nations and peoples who indulge in warfare against civilians to the greatest extent will ultimately see their people and their interests suffer to a similar degree. Romes greatest conquests were not achieved because of the depredations that occurred either to keep troublesome subjects obedient or after battles and sieges had been won; they were achieved despite those depredations and because the promise of inclusion in the society and infrastructure of Rome was too attractive for most people to refuse. The cruelties inflicted by the Roman army achieved only the creation and perpetuation of under- lying bitterness, which could simmer and finally boil over into open support for rebellious leaders who urged a return to more traditional tribal societies.“
As he methodically treks through history, Carr shows how terrorism has consistently failed as a military and political tactic and why it will continue to do so in the future, no matter how advanced the scope and range of weapons and tactics becomes. His main premise is that while terrorism is vastly effective in building enemy resolve, its very concept is a self-defeating one that will only be eliminated when it is “perceived as a tactic that brings nothing save defeat to its agents.“ To do that, it must be viewed in strictly military terms. Political science, sociology, religious and cultural identity, and emotion have little place in waging a war on terrorism - it is a war and terrorists are soldiers, not criminals or zealots.
We are indeed at a crossroads of history, and because of that, Carrs book deserves a widespread audience. His notions that military reform is the only way to reach social transformation is a provocative one, and it will be most interesting to see how the lessons we have learned over the past 2,000 years play a role in settling one of the greatest crises our nation and international brotherhood have ever faced.