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The week before last, I was on a lovely vacation with my family and several others in SC. I flew home while Chris, Beth, Dan and Abby took a long drive to see some friends of Chris. I ended up spending about six hours in the Charleston airport after one of my flights was delayed, and needed additional reading. So I picked up "Lessons of Terror" by Caleb Carr. I had read his fiction before ("The Alienist") and enjoyed it, so was curious as to his essay style. The subject of the book was the examination of terror as a style of warfare; essentially, the military history of terrorism.

Military history is an interesting sub-branch of history, because rather than just look at what happened, there is usual an attempt to place the actions and reactions in a context of "How well did the various strategies work." That is, it's a results-focused, process view of history. Although that is sometimes seen as an aside in general history, it is the core of military history (MH). One reads MH in order to both understand what went before, and to better prepare for future military action.

Carr makes it very clear from the beginning that he is talking about terrorism in an historical context, and that many of the examples he gives will not sound much like what we, in the modern world, think of as terrorism. But he starts with a definition that seems, to me, to fit both his historical examples and the modern issues.

Terrorism is, he says, the deliberate military targeting of civilian populations and infrastructure in order to effect social and/or political change in the host country. He makes a clear differentiation between criminal activity (organized crime in the US, for example) and terrorism. Crime has, as its cause, making money. And while some terrorists use criminal activities to fund their terrorism, their goals are social and/or political ones. He is very adamant that modern terrorists be treated as military personnel (soldiers) and dealt with as such, rather than as criminals. He finds quite a bit of fault with our past (and much of our current) systems of terrorism prevention and prosecution, as they lean more towards the law enforcement side, rather than military. And while some people may find that the terms "soldier" and "army" are "too noble and honorable to bestow on the likes of Al Quaida," he makes two points to the contrary; 1) They behave like an army, so refusing to call them one is only an exercise in semantics. 2) Many armies throughout history have behaved as bad or more badly.

So, Carr says, terrorism is a military activity. What he then does is go through military history, starting with Rome and ending up with our modern day issues, and examine how well terror serves those countries or groups who use it.

Short answer -- it never works well, often backfires immediately and usually plants the seeds for the eventual destruction of the groups who both undertake and foster terrorism.

His first example, the Romans, is illustrative. Early on in the growth of the republic, Rome persecuted wars chiefly as a way to expand its trade and influence. Their twofold policy of making citizenship available to conquered people and the relative ease with which they permitted legal manumission of slavery are some of the most forward-thinking, humanist policies of their time.

Later, though, as the empire became large and cumbersome, and as the upper class spent less and less time involved in the military, the quality of the legions leadership deteriorated and the widespread use of systematic terror -- most specifically in Gaul (Germany) -- began to erode centuries of more civilized, effective Roman warfare.

It sounds almost silly when you say it straight out, as Carr does, but what did Rome think would be the effect of using mainly local recruits, providing them with excellent military training, and then using terror as a means to pacify local uprisings? It's a startling parallel to the US use/training/supply of the mujahadin in Afghanistan. What happened? The German officers eventually left the service, taking large blocks of their local soldiers with them, and formed the core of the Germanic resistance that would eventually sack Rome.

The main point of all Carr's examples (and he gives quite a few, from Medieval France through the Reformation, the Napoleonic Wars, the two World Wars, the Cold War and both Gulf Wars), is that terror mainly galvanizes the will of the terrorized group, turning ordinary people into fanatic enemies and soldiers into zealots.

Of course many people who are terrorized go on to perform their own acts of terrorism against those who used such tactics against them. That terrorism becomes a cycle, and often an unbreakable one, is one of the points Carr makes most strongly. The tendency for modern states to make "total" or "absolute war," bringing to bear all elements of their society against all elements of the enemy is the cause and driving force between the heinous slaughters of many modern conflicts and both World Wars.

In contrast, he serves up some examples of "progressive warfare," where tactics, speed and maneuverability are used to prosecute very specific, limited military and political goals. And while there may be civilian casualties, these are "collateral" and tend not to produce the extreme reactions and counter-terror-terror activities that come after a deliberate targeting of civilians.

One may disagree with some of his conclusions about specific results in specific wars, but he is quite convincing in the whole. The main caution he advises for great nations and states, including the US, is that we must not fall into the trap of meeting terror with terror. If we do that, he argues, we will end up fueling and energizing those forces we are trying to defeat. He does not make this as a moral argument, although there are clear moral issues at stake and he does mention them. His entire argument against "total war" and the targeting of civilians is that it simply does not work. It feeds a cycle of hate and resentment that fester long after any specific, limited goals are achieved, and, more often than not, gives rise to terrorism that impact the civilian population of the countries that began the cycle.

He makes a good case. And his recommendation is that modern war against terror must be military, must be swift and deadly, and must not, under any circumstances, be seen as targeting anything but legitimate military targets. This might not give us the same sense of vengeful satisfaction that comes with indiscriminate bombings, but it will be, he believes, more successful in both the short and long term.

An interesting "airport read." What I found most compelling, though, was how it fits in with my belief that mercy, as preached and practiced by Christ, is the only truly effective, long-term method for dealing with contention and stress between individuals, groups and nations. Whether or not you believe, as Christians are taught, that mercy is a moral obligation, Carr's thesis supports the contention that I've been making for years, that "eye for an eye" justice, "meet terror with terror," and "the ends justify the means" aren't just morally questionable, but are ineffective as methods of driving long-term, beneficial change.

Carr even gives examples of how political "mercy" has been shown to be an extremely effective method of dealing with various conflicts. The overly punitive dictates of the Treaty of Versailles, for example, stand in marked contrast to the effectiveness of the Marshall Plan after WW2. While the latter managed to turn our two key Axis enemies, Germany and Japan, into two thriving, economic allies, the former merely laid the groundwork for the 2nd World War. The Allies were able to see that long-term world peace, economic stability and political survival were better served by helping former enemies rather than subjugating them.

Sounds a bunch like Christ's dictate that we "pray for our enemies." I'm also reminded of the Beatitudes, which, coincidentally, are in my scripture reading for today. Specifically, "the meek shall inherit the earth." Never made much sense to me. My observation is that the meek often get the smack-down. But, if as Carr asserts, persecuting the meek is a faulty and self-defeating military policy, perhaps the nation that best manages to exemplify mercy towards its enemies (both internal and external) will have the greatest success.

I believe that the US has often demonstrated just that sort of political strength, and has benefited from it. The early growth of our nation and our history of (relative) acceptance of "all kinds of people" made us a place where free-thinkers and iconoclasts from all over the world wanted to be. Taking in the "wretched refuse" from the rest of the world is one of our greatest achievements and has propelled our growth and economic success for almost 200 years. It is a policy that may have been promoted for pragmatic reasons, but is clearly a "merciful" tactic, when compared to the "if you don't like it, starve or leave" stand that many European nations have taken over the centuries.

"Blessed are the peacemakers... Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy... "

The older I get, the more this sounds like good political policy, both domestic and foreign. I wonder what kind of success we could achieve if we spent more time planting and harvesting mercy and less promoting "shock and awe."


I blog irregularly at TinkerX. I'm also on Twitter. @andyhavens, go figure.

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The following comments are for "Terror and mercy"
by andyhavens

Well Andy, had the feeling I had to read this, and it paid off. Think you have given valuable insights (and Chaleb). We have an expression called (Don't know how to translate, really) which goes "You harvest what you saw("plant")" And that's true in this matter as well. Respect fosters respect.

( Posted by: DrKilldare [Member] On: July 27, 2004 )

Terrorists Don't Wear Uniforms
You've got a well written, thought provoking essay here, Andy, but I've got a few problems with the logic of your author's case.

The biggest flaw I see in his reasoning lies in this quotation from your essay "...modern war against terror must be swift and deadly and must not, under any circumstances, be seen as targeting anything but legitimate military targets." Perhaps the reason the flaw in this line of logic sliped by you may be due to the fact that your author seems to have conveniently failed to differiantiate between guerrilla-style terrorism and state-run terrorism. The difficulty with executng swift, deadly retribution against terrorist threats is that guerrilla-style terrorists do not wear uniforms -- therefore, as any American soldier currently patroling on the street in Baghdad would likely inform you, swift actions against guerrilla-style terrorists will always, at least initially, appear to be directed at civilians.

Your author's case appears sound, but I wonder what he means, exactly, by swift, deadly action? How would his theories be put into practice in the ongoing Palestine-Isreal conflict, where the use of terror is commonplace? And aren't his ideas exactly the policy we put into practice in the recent war against Iraq?

The difficulty with waging a war against terrorism is that it is not a war against states or even soldiers, but a war against ideas and those ideas are being very passionately spread by individuals who are most certainly not soldiers but are, most often, religious or political leaders. How do you execute swift decisive action against a Mullah fanatically espousing "Death to America" but not waving a gun? How do you execute swift, deadly action against Osama bin Laden when you don't know where he is?

I'm also bothered by your author's insistence that terrorists be prosecuted as soldiers rather than as criminals. In that case, wouldn't we have to view the participants of the Boston Tea Party as terrorists worthy of a military tribunal? Or wait -- wasn't that how the British saw things and exactly why we went to war with them? How about members of the IRA, abortion clinic bombers, Earth-Firsters, Timothy McVeigh? Are these characters soldiers worthy of a military trial?

I'm also bothered because your author seems to be trying to justify the current Guatanamo Bay scenario without actually discussing it. Do you honestly see the detainment of thousands of non-uniform-wearing military combatants who have not been accused of any specific crime as being merciful? What about those detainees who were placed in the camp who were not in Iraq but in the US at the time of their arrest due to suspicions of terrorism? Doesn't that sound a lot more like the deterioration of the American legal system than a merciful method of dealing with terrorism?

In a final analysis, I feel your author makes a striking case which nevertheless does not hold up well under most theoretical applications.

( Posted by: hazelfaern [Member] On: September 6, 2004 )

What she said...

Jennifer, When the bullets fly at them, then they will listen... but only if they see it up close, and personal...

( Posted by: daprdan [Member] On: September 7, 2004 )

Reply to hazelfaern
One of the things Carr warns of is getting into "wars against ideas." The problem with warring against ideas -- in this case, the idea of "terrorism" -- is that it leads to all kinds of abuse against the holders of ideas. In the case you site above, that of an agressive Mullah preaching viloence against the US, we have to make a decision as to where the line between combatants and civilians lies. The Mullah is clearly a proponent of the "idea" of terrorism, but until he provides material support to terrorists or commits an act himself, has he committed an act of war?

In the US, our Constitution allows a wide variety of speech that could be construed as "potentially harmful." Now the Mullah's speech, of course, would be considered illegal within our own country; the Bill of Rights doesn't allow you to foment violence against the government. But, as the Mullah's speech is taking place in other, sovereign nations, aren't we obliged to treat it with even more lassitude?

This is the faulty thinking behind the Bush Doctrine of "Pre-Emptive-Self-Defense." Going to war because of "ideas." The best example of this thinking in an historical context is that of the German high-command directly prior to World War I. They were basically pissed off at not having a trade empire like England, and were tired of being treated like an almost-ran state, simply because they were relatively new to the scene as a large nation state. Their reason for invading France was that they believed France and Russia were plotting to keep Germany from her rightful role as the guiding power of Europe. They saw the various treaties being signed by the Allied powers as "encirclement," which they defined as a direct assault on their ability to grow and develop as an imperial power. They believed that the only reason France and Russia (and, to a lesser extent, England and Italy) would do such a thing, was that they were eventually planning to invade Germany in order to break it up into the former, smaller, pre-Kaiser states.

Which, of course, was bunkum. They just wanted an excuse to attack France. As, it turns out, was our main, published reason for attacking Iraq; WMDs.

The point being that nations of great power -- and the US is the only current Superpower (but keep your eye on China) -- have a duty to those with whom they disagree. In essence, the ends do not justify the means. If you want, as I do, to see American style, liberal democracy and capitalism flourish throughout the world, we need to hold ourselves to a much higher standard than do those who espouse doctrines that we find abhorent. Pre-emptive-self-defense is, I believe, inconsistent with both our stated beliefs on "what is right," and against international law. You can justify almost any kind of military action if you ask the public to agree with a supposition of future behavior by an enemy.

Guantanamo Bay is an excellent example of doing the right thing the wrong way, and I agree that the current holding of "suspected" terrorists is wrong, too. Because we are framing the "War on Terrorism" as a war on an idea, it becomes impossible to determine how to handle prisoners of war. In a real war, prisoners' treatment is defined by, among other international law, the Geneva Conventions. After a war is over, all prisoners are released, unless they will be tried for crimes against humanity, which would be the decision of a world court. So --- in our "War on Terrorism," how do we determine when to send our prisoners home? And to whom would we send them? They are nominally citizens of various nations -- Saudi Arabia, Syria, Afghanistan, etc. -- but they were carrying out acts which are contrary to the published beliefs of those governments. Another way that war on an idea just doesn't work.

In a war on ideas, there also is no good model for dealing with those persons who aren't terrorists themselves, but who provide them with care, hiding places, etc. In traditional, "total war" that Carr and I believe is counter-productive, armies get to destroy entire towns and provinces that provide any kind of help to the soldiers of an enemy. History is chock full of examples of this. Carr and I are in agreement that this kind of warfare is, esentially, state sponsored, army-delivered terrorism. Stragely enough, the Geneva Conventions also decry the use of violence against civilians who are suspected of having given aid to the military.

Is it more difficult to target guerilla-style fighers than those in uniform? Yes. Will it require the use of tools normally thought of as used by criminal investigators rather than armies? Yes. Will it take a long time? Hell, yes. But if we are to succeed at our "War on Terror," I believe we need to be extremely careful about crossing the line between "military" and "civilian" targets, else we create more of the very enemies we are trying to defeat.

If the war is, in fact, war on an idea, we have to be 100% sure that we are not guilty of using any of the tools of the "enemy idea," the tools of terrorism.

( Posted by: andyhavens [Member] On: September 7, 2004 )

Terror and Mercy
Andyhavens, no matter what anyone says remember this "Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself"

( Posted by: Dfortyseven [Member] On: June 8, 2005 )

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