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The Lessons of Terror : A History of Warfare Against Civilians: Why It Has Always Failed and Why It Will Fail Again (2002)
Someone could question how it happened that Agathocles
and anyone like him, after infinite betrayals and cruelties, could live
for a long
Karl Popper's great contribution to science was the idea that we can never know a scientific hypothesis or theory to be "true", we can only know it to be the best available explanation for an observed phenomenon until it is proven false. The key to this insight is the notion of falsifiabilty; when we find evidence that refutes a theory, no matter how elegant and compelling that theory may have seemed, we must acknowledge it to be flawed, perhaps even totally false. Sadly, the social sciences have remained largely immune to this important insight, and historians, economists, sociologists, evolutionists and the like have continued to insist that their theories are correct no matter what proof is presented that shows them to be wrong. In this book, Caleb Carr appears to represent a classic example of the historian who has been so seduced by the tidiness of his own theory that he is either unwilling or incapable of recognizing the evidence that contradicts it. This blind stubbornness mars what is otherwise a very interesting essay on terrorism and terroristic warfare.
Mr. Carr enunciates a relatively serviceable general rule, that terrorism is :
...simply the contemporary name given to, and the
modern permutation of, warfare deliberately waged against civilians
This seems unnecessarily overbroad, incorporating, as it does, even warfare pursued by duly constituted nation-states (including the liberal democracies of the West), for wholly legitimate purposes, as for instance the strategic bombing campaigns waged against Germany and Japan by the United States in WWII. Still, even if one would not personally equate such actions with terrorist acts undertaken by private groups, one could accept such a definition for the purposes of argument. But then Mr. Carr adds the corollary that :
Warfare against civilians, whether inspired by hatred,
revenge, greed, or political and psychological insecurity, has been one
The silliness of this assertion becomes apparent when he correctly notes that the United States has repeatedly pursued this kind of absolute warfare, particularly in the Civil War, Indian Wars, and WWII, which, unfortunately for the validity of his thesis are three of the most complete victories in the history of warfare. If total war is counterproductive, how do we explain the enduring peace that these three wars brought?
Mr. Carr attempts to skirt this issue by portraying the Civil War as only a partial victory because the South remained unreconciled to union and to full rights for blacks, resorting even to terrorism, in the form of the Ku Klux Klan, and by saying that post-War economic aid made WWII unique. Yet Mr. Carr also says that the ultimate aim of war should be peace, and judged by his own terms, these wars must be considered some of the most successful of all time. In the Civil War, the North not only defeated the South but established the inviolability of the Union in such absolute terms that it has never been seriously threatened again. By the end of the Indian Wars, not only had the Native American tribes been reduced to impotence, the notion that any ethnic group might assert its rights militarily was effectively laid to rest. After WWII, not only were Japan and Germany transformed from perennially martial to at least temporarily pacific societies, no other nation since has been foolhardy enough to challenge American might, out of a certainty that when push comes to shove America will readily resort to even nuclear weapons. Contrary to Mr. Carr's argument, it seems hard to dismiss the evidence that the waging of total war has reaped enormous benefits for the United States.
In fact, I would argue further that the failure to resort to total war in other modern conflicts has had disastrous consequences for the United States. The U.S. should probably never have intervened in WWI, but once it did, had Imperial Germany been utterly destroyed, there might never have been a WWII. Likewise, America could have strangled the Russian Revolution in its crib at that point, but instead sent only a token force to try to disrupt things. Even worse, after defeating the totalitarian powers of Germany and Japan, America's failure to destroy the totalitarian Soviet Union in 1945 led to almost a half-century of further mass murder, genocide, brush and proxy war, crippling defense budgets, and the like. And in the course of the long Cold War, when America was offered repeated opportunities to employ total war--for instance we could have simply removed Castro or annihilated Communist China, North Korea, and North Vietnam--our reluctance to do so increased human suffering, here and abroad, and prolonged the conflicts. It seems then that unlimited war, far from being counterproductive, has been fabulously successful, at least when waged by a great democracy, which can cloak itself, whether fairly or not, in a mantle of moral righteousness (for more on this see Victor Davis Hansons's excellent books : Soul of Battle and Carnage and Culture).
However, Mr. Carr is on somewhat stronger footing when he argues that intentionally attacking civilians may be morally dubious. Much of the book really offers Mr. Carr's case for the professionalization of militaries and of warfare, and the idea that killing in wartime should be restricted exclusively to armed combatants. He apparently wants to turn the clock back to the time when sightseers would pack picnic lunches and go out to watch two armies fight one another, a common enough occurrence up to and including the American Civil War. Indeed, if such an orderly kind of warfare were still plausible, it just might make sense to seek its return. But, setting aside the question of whether it is still possible to wage a narrowly limited war, there is a serious case to be made for the opposing viewpoint : that war should be carried to the civilian populace of belligerent nations for the express purpose of turning them against their current regime, if possible, and if not--since as Mr. Carr correctly points out, such attacks often do steel the nerves of civilians and unite them behind even unpopular regimes for the duration of the attacks--then to ensure that the populace will be so battle-scarred as to oppose any future government that might seek to pursue a policy of military aggression. For instance, it may well be the case that the firebombing of Tokyo served to strengthen Japanese resolve to resist Allied invasion, but it is unquestionably true that the profound ruination and mass killing that was visited upon the Japanese people in those conventional bombings and in the subsequent atomic bombings turned them into one of the most conflict averse polities in the modern world. The annihilation of hundreds of thousands, even millions of people, through the lethal means of total warfare may be a horrible prospect to contemplate, but if for instance the killing of even a million citizens of the nascent Soviet Union in 1919 might have saved ten million Russian lives over the next few decades, we must not be too hasty in abjuring total war.
It also seems fair to debate the question of whether the citizens of even a despotic regime do not in some sense deserve to be made targets of warfare. We may find it somewhat comforting to pretend that only Hitler deserves the blame for the crimes of Nazi Germany, but didn't the German people allow him to rise to and stay in power? And isn't it more likely, and more realistic, that large numbers of the German people had to actively collaborate in Nazi activities (as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen showed in his book, Hitler's Willing Executioners) and that many more had to knowingly and willingly acquiesce? If it is the case, and I would argue that it is, that all governments are to some degree consensual, then perhaps we serve a useful purpose when we subject entire populations to retaliation for the evil acts of their governments. This is at least a topic that Mr. Carr might have addressed, but he does not.
That Mr. Carr fumbles several of his own arguments so badly is especially unfortunate because much else of what he has to say is worth hearing. In particular, his argument that the United States should develop the capability to more effectively pursue limited warfare, and his assertion that the threat of terrorism is better faced via limited warfare than by means of unlimited warfare, both seem quite correct. Of course, it is not at all clear who his argument is with, since America is very carefully pursuing just such limited warfare in the current war. Every effort was made in Afghanistan to assure that civilians were not wantonly attacked. Types of weaponry with which Mr. Carr is enamored--like the AC-130 gunship and the RQ-1A Predator missile-equipped drone--are being used, and less discriminating weapons like nuclear bombs are not. If, as turned out to be the case in Afghanistan, we can destroy an enemy army and the terrorists they harbor with minimal damage to the surrounding society, then by all means we should do so. But as the war turns to other theaters, to Iraq and North Korea, maybe even to Palestine and Lebanon and Syria and Iran and Indonesia, we may not be able to achieve the same level of precision, yet this should not, indeed can not, deter us, if our goal is to forge a lasting peace between the West and the Islamic world.
The most salient example today of a situation where a Western nation may be forced to pursue unlimited war is Israel in its conflict with Palestine. Were it the case that all Israel faced was a discrete number of terrorists who were recognized even within their own society to have exceeded the bounds of tolerable behavior, then it might be possible for Israel to limit its response to going after those terrorists. But the situation in Palestine seems to have reached a point where the Palestinian population generally supports even the most heinous attacks on Jewish civilians. In this climate, it may well become necessary for Israel to wage an unlimited war against the Palestinian people. It may be that the only choice remaining to Israel is to destroy Palestine and kill many Palestinians or to accept continued murderous attacks on her own people. If this is the choice, then Mr. Carr's position, that intentionally inflicting civilian casualties is morally unacceptable, amounts to nothing more than a suicide pact, that may assuage some tender Western moral qualms but only at the expense of the discontinuation of the state of Israel. That is not a price that any responsible and morally serious person should be willing to pay.
-Caleb Carr Page (Barnes & Noble)
-BOOK PAGE : Lessons of Terror
-EXCERPT : Chapter One of Lessons of Terror
-EXCERPT & INTERVIEW : with Caleb Carr (MSNBC)
-EXCERPT & INTERVIEW : with Caleb Carr (TIME)
-REVIEW : of Water for Gotham : A History. By Gerard T. Koeppel (Caleb Carr, NY Times Book Review)
-AUDIO INTERVIEW : New York & Co interview with Caleb Carr (WNYC)
-AUDIO INTERVIEW : Dianne Rhiem interview with Caleb Carr (WAMU)
-ESSAY : The Art of Knowing the Enemy (Caleb Carr, December 21, 2001, NY Times)
-ESSAY : Americans Don't Understand That Their Heritage Is Itself a Threat (Caleb Carr, NY Times)
-INTERVIEW : The Salon Interview, Caleb Carr (Dwight Garner, Salon)
-INTERVIEW : with Caleb Carr (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
-INTERVIEW : On the Lower East Side with Caleb Carr, talking about a dark obsession (Laura Reynolds Adler, Book Page)
-INTERVIEW : Crime Time On-Line - interview - Caleb Carr
-CHAT TRANSCRIPT : Caleb Carr (11/03/99, TIME)
-CHAT TRANSCRIPT : 'Killing Time': Caleb Carr (USA Today)
-PROFILE : ON THE LOWER EAST SIDE WITH: Caleb Carr; Writing to Flee the Past (MATTHEW PURDY, NY Times)
-PROFILE : 'Killing Time' in the future : New book is not another 'Alienist,' says Caleb Carr (Adam Dunn, CNN)
-PROFILE : Caleb Carr tackles terrorism, and the lessons learned (Bob Minzesheimer, 1/27/2002, USA TODAY)
-Caleb Carr (Stop You're Killing Me)
-LETTER : Caleb Carr apologizes to women readers (Caleb Carr, 2/12/02, Salon)
-ARTICLE : Author Carr Apologizes for Letter (Hillel Italie, Associated Press, February 12, 2002)
-ARTICLE : Angry Author of Terrorism Book (Hillel Italie, Associated Press, February 8, 2002)
-LETTER : response to Laura Miller (Caleb Carr, 2/08/02, Salon)
-ESSAY : No Defense : Liberal opposition to missile defense in today's New York Times. (Rich Lowry, August 7, 2001, National Review)
-ARCHIVES : "caleb Carr" (Find Articles)
-ARCHIVES : "caleb Carr" (Mag Portal)
-REVIEW : of Lessons of Terror (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
-REVIEW : of Lessons of Terror by Caleb Carr (MICHAEL IGNATIEFF, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Lessons of Terror (Lorraine Adams, Washington Post)
-REVIEW : of Lessons of Terror (Peter I. Rose, CS Monitor)
-REVIEW : of Lessons of Terror (Laura Miller, Salon)
-REVIEW : of The Alienist (Twisted Web)
-REVIEW : Man possessed : Get spooked by "Alienist" author Caleb Carr, in his new book "The Angel of Darkness." (Sam Jemielity, NEWCITY CHICAGO)
-REVIEW : of THE ANGEL OF DARKNESS By Caleb Carr ( Ben Macintyre, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Killing Time (Daniel Zalewski, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Killing Time (Nicci Gerrard, Observer)
It seems like in the aftermath of 9/11 much of the United States went mad, spouting wishful, overwrought, "heartfelt" nonsense. Mister Carr's contribution is so clearly of this emotionally addled class of work, I wonder if it doesn't deserve polite and sympathetic silence instead of a reveiw at all. That same silence we accored the traumatized bereaved, the distraught widow who bawls, "he was a wonderful man," as her deceased husband, notoriously unwonderful, is lowered into the dirt.
One of terror's effects on the US civilian population resulted in this unfortunate book.
- May-12-2005, 14:07