The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians

The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians

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by Caleb Carr

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In The Lessons of Terror, novelist and military historian Caleb Carr examines terrorism throughout history and the roots of our present crisis and reaches a provocative set of conclusions: the practice of targeting enemy civilians is as old as warfare itself; it has always failed as a military and political tactic; and despite the dramatic increases in its…  See more details below


In The Lessons of Terror, novelist and military historian Caleb Carr examines terrorism throughout history and the roots of our present crisis and reaches a provocative set of conclusions: the practice of targeting enemy civilians is as old as warfare itself; it has always failed as a military and political tactic; and despite the dramatic increases in its scope and range of weapons, it will continue to fail in the future.

International terrorism—the victimization of unarmed civilians in an attempt to affect their support for the government that leads them—is a phrase with which Americans have become all too familiar recently. Yet while at first glance terrorism seems a relatively modern phenomenon, Carr illustrates that it has been a constant of military history. In ancient times, warring armies raped and slaughtered civilians and gratuitously destroyed property, homes, and cities; in the Middle Ages, evangelical Muslims and Christian crusaders spread their faiths by the sword; and in the early modern era, such celebrated kings as Louis XIV revealed a taste for victimizing noncombatants for political purposes.

It was during the Civil War that Americans themselves first engaged in “total war,” the most egregious of the many euphemisms for the tactics of terror. Under the leadership of such generals as Stonewall Jackson, the forces of the South tried to systematize this horrifying practice; but it fell to a Union general, William Tecumseh Sherman, to achieve that dubious goal. Carr recounts Sherman’s declaration of war on every man, woman, and child in the South—a policy that he himself knew was badly flawed, had nothing to do with his military successes (indeed, it hampered them), and brought long-term unrest to the American South by giving birth to the Ku Klux Klan.

Carr’s exploration of terror reveals its consistently self-defeating nature. Far from prompting submission, Carr argues, terrorism stiffens enemy resolve: for this reason above all, terrorism has never achieved—nor will it ever achieve—long-term success, however physically destructive and psychologically debilitating it may become. With commanding authority and the storyteller’s gift for which he is renowned, Caleb Carr provides a critical historical context for understanding terrorist acts today, arguing that terrorism will be eradicated only when it is perceived as a tactic that brings nothing save defeat to its agents.

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Editorial Reviews
Military historian and bestselling author Caleb Carr weighs in on the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, claiming that terrorism should be seen as "a form of warfare" rather than as a crime, as was the common attitude. Carr, who wrote a controversial 1996 article on terrorism in the World Policy Journal espousing this viewpoint, now elaborates on his position in this "history of warfare against civilians." Carr's view is that the United States should be prepared to move forward unilaterally if necessary, rather than trying to assemble an international military coalition. By presenting historical evidence that war against civilians "has always failed," he brings his unique insights to bear on this most pressing of modern-day issues.

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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, antiquity’s greatest state provided a remarkably complete set of precedents for many later Western republics and empires.

The Romans knew only one way to fight—with relentless yet disciplined ferocity—but they eventually devised several ways to deal with the peace that ensued. The first and most successful was inclusive in nature: the peoples of conquered provinces could, if they agreed to abide by Roman authority and law, aspire to become citizens of the republic (and later the empire). Indeed, some new subjects, particularly merchants and other civic leaders, could achieve the status quite quickly. Even slaves could aspire to citizenship, for early on the Romans had devised a remarkable system of manumission, providing multiple avenues by which slaves could escape the hopelessness of unending bondage (and the tendency toward rebellion that hopelessness often breeds) by attempting to earn, buy, or be granted first freedom and then actual citizenship. Freedmen played an important part in Roman history (more than one emperor was saved by a loyal freedman); and on the whole, these complementary policies—granting citizenship to conquered peoples and offering slaves the hope of manumission—may safely be called the central foundation on which the near millennium of Roman hegemony rested.

But like so many empires and great powers that followed them, the Romans also engaged in more avaricious, less benevolent policies that many times came close to undoing all the security and stability built up by their genius. First among these was a pronounced taste for revenge against enemies who were perceived as intractable or treacherous—the most famous example of such mortal enemies being the Carthaginian empire of the late third century b.c. and its leader, Hannibal. The long years of struggle against Hannibal—whose raids and campaigns throughout Italy bred both bloodthirsty hatred and a powerful sense of vulnerability in his opponents—eventually led the Romans, when they finally did occupy Carthage more than fifty years later, to not only sack but utterly destroy the city. And although they soon built their own urban center atop the ruins, the experience gave apparent validation to an already unfortunate, even fatal, tendency in both the Roman military and its masters in the Senate.

The razing of Carthage had been that rarest of things in a nation’s experience: the utter eradication not only of the enemy’s home but of many if not most of his people as well: men,women, children, even the elderly. It was the epitome of destructive war, and the Romans not only revered the memory of it but attempted at various times to repeat it. In so doing, they planted at least a few of the seeds of their own eventual downfall: for, along with being rare, the destruction of Carthage would prove beyond replication. Yet the Roman taste for vicious destructive war that the Carthaginian experience sharpened grew stronger with each new generation, until it became powerful enough to threaten the stability that the empire’s brilliant system of citizenship and manumission had made seem so unshakable.

Throughout the remainder of its history, Rome was dominated by the tension between these two imperatives: on the one hand, the enlightened desire to be an inclusive empire built not on destructive war but on forceful economic and political expansion; and on the other, the violent compulsion—bred in the army but fed by romantic notions of war popular among all Roman citizens—to be a chauvinistic, plundering state that simply took whatever it wanted from whoever had it. Rome’s metamorphosis into an empire just before the birth of Christ tilted the scales alarmingly but inevitably in favor of the second of these two conceptions, despite the efforts of several perspicacious emperors to prevent such a shift. For, with the eclipse of the Senate as the critical arm of government, the numerous political factions vying for control of the state and balancing each other’s ambitions gave way to a very limited number of imperial factions; and when power was being contested by just a few people who were neither elected nor answerable to the citizenry, the army became the single most important force in the maintenance of power. And it was the army that had always looked to destructive war, first, as a means with which to set grim examples for politically rebellious subjects, second, to avenge any defeats and betrayals it sustained, and lastly, as a way to augment the comparatively meager pay that soldiers received and sate their appetites during campaigning.

It is not surprising, then, that Rome’s imperial centuries were characterized not only by more severe versions of the types of warfare against civilians that had been a hallmark of military activity during the republic, but by new and astoundingly savage—as well as often gratuitous—destructive tactics. It has, of course, been argued (not least by the Romans themselves) that the empire was fighting barbarian tribes, and that its forces needed to adopt the tactics of their enemies if they hoped to succeed. (Similar arguments have often been employed by various individuals and groups during the contemporary war against terrorism.) But quite apart from the fact that the Romans were fighting not only barbarian tribes but established, civilized societies such as the Jewish communities located throughout what we now call the Middle East, Roman leaders had already had ample time and experience to learn the speciousness of this reasoning. In the first place, punitive and destructive war against the nonwarrior members of any group that was not Roman (“barbarian” tribe or no) only led to the creation of generations of anti-Roman sentiment within that group. Then, too, Rome was rarely at war with entire tribes so much as with those charismatic leaders that occasionally surfaced to lead their peoples in rebellion—peoples who, again, had often been made restive by Roman crulety.

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. Rome’s 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.

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The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Terrific book for every student of bioterrorism preparedness and business ethics. The bottom line is a caveat: if you use terrorist tactics, the same tactics will be used against you. Whether you are in the battlefield or corporate field don't alienate, annihilate, or intentionally cause collateral damage. War must be focused, limited, and achieve PEACE not victory. These goals apply to those in uniforms and those in suits.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although I enjoyed reading this book, it suffers from logical flaws. At times, the book contradicts its thesis, arguing inconsistent positions. It is almost as if material was added after it was written in order to become more relevant. Aside from the logical errors, it is a good read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While I concur with Mr. Carr's ideas that we should treat Terrorism as an act of war rather than a crime and that the killing of civilians ultimately leads to failure, I believe his historical references leave much to be desired. The historical examples he cites inconsistantly support his thesis and some are misleading or inaccurate. For example, regarding the Irgun's bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, Mr. Carr fails to mention the Irgun phoned in a warning to evacuate the building which the British ignored and over 90 people died as a result. Including such a detail is not only important but doesn't support his theory. If Mr. Carr is going to give history, he needs to give the whole history, not that which only supports his ideas. Also his assertions regarding Palestine are also misleading at best. If one were to read only Mr. Carr's account one would believe that Jews NEVER lived in the area known as Palestine, that is was only occupied by Arab peoples. Historically wrong. Jews and Arabs have lived in the region for thousands of years. Those are just two examples which stood out as inaccurate. I wonder how many other inaccuracies there are? Do not mistake this for an historical reference, this is merely an elongated opinion piece. Mr. Carr perhaps should either get his facts correct or confine his opinion pieces to the Historical Journals.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Did anyone in the White House read this book before last week?!!!! Yes we need to deal with threats to our national security aggressively and preemptively, but let us not repeat the mistakes of the past (many of them our own) by waging total war against civilian populations in response to threats-----strategic bombing included! history has proven that such terrorist---yes, terrorist--- tactics have only strenghtened the enemy's resolve and weakened the justification for military action in the first place! Not to mention the escalation in acts of reprisal. Carr is by no means a pacifist but sees successes only in the implementaion of limited war with tools such as the drone fighters (taking out selective targets) and tactical special forces in addition to improved collection of intelligence. His thoughts on Iraq and the Gulf War give one pause now that we are at war again. Is this the proper means to the elimination of Hussein? I am less sure now having read this. Very important book. Why aren't policy makers required to study history?
Guest More than 1 year ago
Extremely informative and very interesting. A must in the library of any military and/or history buff. Maybe author Carr should run for military advisor of the country. I highly recommend this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
sacchareen More than 1 year ago
A thorough and accurate look at ancient and modern terrorism and why it fails as policy. Some reviews that mention inaccuracies or misplaced examples of historical terror may want to consider that events rarely occur in a vacuum, and while not every historical event listed is a cookie cutter example of terrorism, they all share commonalities that make the book as a whole thought provoking, and timely, given the attacks in 2001, and the subsequent military engagements since then.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
In The Lessons of Terror, Caleb Carr artificially separates international terrorism from domestic terrorism. Terrorism does not know borders and has disciples almost everywhere. Carr, however, is right to depict terrorists not as ordinary criminals but as warriors who deliberately target civilians with the purpose of undermining their determination to support either leaders or policies that these warriors oppose. Carr uses historical precedents that aim at showing that terrorism is a spectacularly failed tactic, what is not always true or proves to be correct only a few centuries after the facts. Some victimized civilian populations such as the survivors of Carthage after the Third Punic War, the Amerindians at the end of the 19th century or the civilians of the Axis Powers after WWII had no longer the capacity and/or willingness to retaliate. Other victimized civilian populations such as the direct witnesses of the atrocities of the Roman Empire or Crusaders were long dead before their nemeses were finally defeated. Furthermore, the victors could have shielded their own terrorists from justice because they were perceived as patriots and heroes, not as criminals. In these circumstances, perpetrators of these atrocities against civilians have been answerable for their crimes only after their own death. Unlike Carr, Victor Hanson in Carnage and Culture clearly shows that the real atrocity for the Westerner is not the number of corps, but the manner in which soldiers and civilians died and the protocols under which they were killed. The West believes that only war waged through open and direct assault is fair, regardless of the frightful losses inflicted on the adversary. The West has never accepted the logic of far fewer killed through ambush, terrorism, or the execution of prisoners and noncombatants as the current situation in Iraq convincingly demonstrates. However, Carr has a point that the West has not always practiced what it has been preaching on this subject. The Nazis and their allies come prominently to mind in their systematic disregard of the rules of Western civilization that did not save them from ultimate defeat. Although Carr praises the military campaign that the U.S. launched against Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11, he is very negative in his appraisal of domestic efforts to prevent a repetition of this tragedy. Carr also harshly criticizes the Bush Junior administration for asking Americans to go about their lives and business as usual. Carr apparently does not want to acknowledge that a capitalist, democratic society is by definition an open society that thrives on exchanges within its borders and with the rest of the world. Vigilance and awareness rather than paranoia are required. Otherwise, one plays the game of terrorists and turn one¿s life into a prison. Interestingly, Carr wrote his book before the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Carr states that fighting terrorism requires at times force against terrorists and the states protecting them, at other times diplomacy conducted with the states that are willing to mend their ways. Ultimately, Carr correctly pushes for the adoption of an international convention that should outlaw terrorism after the model of previous conventions banning for example piracy, slavery and genocide. Carr, however, wrongly downplays the importance of the political dimension of terrorism. No one can vanquish terrorism as long as its breeding ground is not drained. Bombarding a swamp can kill a few mosquitoes, but not their capacity to be born again and haunt their future victims. Although Carr scores some points in describing some shortcomings of the DOD, the CIA and the NSC, he does not seem to acknowledge the difficulty of their task. Whoever has ever been involved in intelligence gathering and assessment knows that sometimes it can be extremely difficult to get a complete picture of an existing or potential threat. Intelli
Guest More than 1 year ago
Very readable and well-organized book that has a timely message. In fact the editors and author seem to have raced to get this in print without having anyone actually 'in the know' review it for its claims. Holding up Oliver Cromwell, for instance, as a practitioner of limited war because his men wore uniforms is ridiculous when we realize that Carr doesn't tell his reader that OC butcher thousands of civilians in Ireland. This contradicts his entire argument! Someone else needs to do a better job with this thesis. Perhaps Carr ough to go back to writing (boring) fiction.