Ever since Sept. 11, politicians, professors, and other pundits have filled the airwaves and print media with their reactions to the attack, their assumptions about the perpetrators and the motives for their actions, and their opinions about short- and long-term ways to prepare for future challenges to our national security. Most of those who have been making public pronouncements about the situation have given the impression that such infamous acts are unprecedented. In his timely book, military historian Caleb Carr disabuses us of any such idea.
While the techniques and technologies of the violence are new, Carr notes that organized terrorism, which he defines as "warfare deliberately waged against civilians with the purpose of destroying their will," is as old as recorded history. And, from ancient times onward, "whether inspired by hatred, revenge, greed, or political and psychological insecurity," Carr claims "it has been one of the most ultimately self-defeating tactics in all of military history."
This conclusion, boldly stated in the Prologue, offers cold comfort for, as the author himself shows in chapter after chapter, along the roads to their many "failures," terrorists have wreaked devastating calamity on their enemies for more than two millenniums.
The catalogue of historic examples begins with a commentary on the savage "punitive wars" waged by the Romans against particular people (Christians, Jews, "barbarians") and particular places (like Carthage). Referring to Roman policies as the basis for an "amoral tradition," Carr continues on his chronological retrospective of legitimized mayhem against real enemies and scapegoats. He writes of the brutal Crusades organized and condoned by the Christian church and carried out by mercenaries against those claimed to be infidels; the actions of Iberian monarchs and their lackeys in the days of the Inquisitions; the deadly deeds of Muslim fundamentalists against their rivals as far back as the Middle Ages; the brutal treatment of innocents during the Thirty Years' War; the spread of piracy that threatened the freedom of the seas; the Terror in France during their Revolution; and the more recent case studies of terrorism against opponents and outsiders within borders of sovereign states and between them during the 20th century.
Throughout Carr's narrative, two intertwined questions are posed: What might have been done in the past, and what can be done in the future to stop international terrorism?
Long before the attacks of September, Carr had been arguing that the only proper way for governments to fight terrorism is a no-holds-barred use of military force, including preemptive strikes and sustained actions powerful enough to force antagonists to understand that no matter how devious and destructive their methods, they will pay the heavier price and that, in the end, they are doomed to fail. In many quarters, he was seen as both too single-minded and too trigger-happy. But after the deadly attacks against the US, many Americans now may view Carr's earlier arguments as prescient and his approach as the only one that has a chance of working.
"The Lessons of Terror" is fascinating to read and provocative in the best sense of the word. However, in an era of global threats of furtive warfare waged by transnational networks of terrorists like Al Qaeda, Carr's reliance on military power, no matter how well coordinated and how sophisticated the weaponry, might not be enough. Answering war with war, in the manner Carr advises, could well have unintended and counterproductive consequences, not least costly and quixotic adventures driven by the political agendas of various interest groups in this country and those of other threatened nations.
Peter I. Rose is a professor of sociology at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.