|LESSONS OF TERROR|
April 1, 2002
RAY SUAREZ: The book is "The Lessons of Terror: A history of warfare against civilians-- why it has always failed and why it will again." The author is Caleb Carr, novelist and military historian. He's a contributing editor of the Quarterly Journal of Military History, and is the series editor of the Modern Library War Series.
Well, tell us a little bit about how you got started on spinning out this thesis. Was this something that was already sort of rattling around in your head before September 11?
CALEB CARR: It was. I had started to study military history. That was what my training was in school. And then about 20 years ago, 15 years ago, I started to focus in on terrorism a little more specifically. Then in '96 I wrote a piece for the World Policy Journal called "Terrorism as Warfare: The Lessons of Military History," in which I put forward the idea that terrorism was a military problem, not a criminal problem, and that by dealing with it as a criminal problem, we were limiting our range of responses to defensive and reactive, and that we really needed to go after terrorists preemptively and militarily, and that if we didn't, we were letting ourselves in for what was likely going to be a fairly devastating attack.
RAY SUAREZ: You take the attacks on New York and Washington and don't, as so many commentators have, sort of remove them from history and say that they're something new. You root them deeply in the last 2,000 years of warfare. Why?
CALEB CARR: Well, I define... we throw the word terrorism around a lot without defining it -- a lot of people do. I define terrorism as warfare that is deliberately waged against civilians with the purpose of affecting their loyalty to either their political leaders or the policies of those leaders. And if you define these acts as terrorism and use that definition, those kind of actions are a consistent factor of warfare since warfare has existed. I only go back as far as the ancient Romans because it's a good, useful place to start in terms of historical parallels to what we're going through today. We begin to see specific kinds of behavior that we can parallel to today in the ancient Romans.
RAY SUAREZ: In your title, "Why it Has Always Failed And Why it Will Fail Again," I started to sort of riffle through the rolodex of my head and try to think of times where, at least in the short term, it seems to have worked. You conquer a country, you dominate a people, you win a war and get to dictate the terms of peace. Why do you say that it always fails? Is this in the long run, you mean?
CALEB CARR: These kinds of conflicts that involve warfare against... deliberate warfare against civilians tend to be generational in duration. You can win a campaign, you can win a battle, as effectively the terrorists did on September 11-- they rocked the country back on its heels-- you're seldom going to win a war or maintain the occupation of a country through terrorist tactics. It almost never works. Eventually you will be ejected, and your side will be defeated. And the central cause of that is that terrorism is supposed to break the will of civilians to resist. That's the goal.
But we find by studying so much of history, 2,000 years of history, that more often than not it actually stiffens the will of people to resist, so that you have, whether it's the case of German tribes fighting the ancient Romans or the British during the Second World War suffering the London blitz or people in New York after September 11, you find that the will of the people is actually steeled by this kind of behavior. And in the long run, it's the people who reach for this tactic first who are defeated.
RAY SUAREZ: You've identified several times periodically throughout history when authorities, voices of authority in cultures, say, "wait, we've got to have rules. Certain people are legitimate targets and others aren't." Do those ever stick?
CALEB CARR: It's a minor theme throughout this subject is that someone is always trying to come along since ancient times-- originally it was religious figures-- trying to say, we've got to have... we've got to have boundaries for this kind of behavior. But what we discover is that it never worked when it was purely on moral terms. When people tried to say, "you've got to do this because it's the better thing to do."
The people who found that they could make these rules work were people who said, "not only will conducting warfare in more limited and more progressive ways be better for the populous, it will actually be better for your national political interests." The great example of that that you come upon not surprisingly is in the 18th century with Emmerich de Vatel, the Swiss jurist, and Frederic the Great, the King of Prussia. Both of them instituting these policies, which said essentially that every side believes that its cause is just in a war.
We need to look to something else to decide who in a given conflict has true justness. And they looked to the means themselves used, and especially Vatel in his famous book "The Law of Nations," said, if a side turns to means that are inherently unjust, that side loses any validity in the argument. And if you apply that, what I call, Vatel's law to something like our situation with Islamic fundamentalism, where you have a side that has certain just grievances, yet when they reach for terrorism, for warfare against civilians, if you go that far, you lose your validity. And we've decided this with a number of behaviors: Piracy, genocide, slavery. These are all things that we finally said, no matter what your cause, if you reach for that weapon, that policy, you've lost it. You've lost the argument.
RAY SUAREZ: Apropos exactly of that, one quote caught my eye:
"The organizers, sponsors, and foot soldiers of every terrorist group involved in the September 11 attacks have unwittingly ensured that their extremist cause will be discredited among many of their sympathizers, disowned by most of their former sponsors, and finally defeated their enemies. 2,000 years of the lessons of terror dictate that this is the ultimate fate that awaits the attackers no matter how many noncombatants they manage to kill along the way."
But instead of ending it there, you then throw the ball back in the American court and say, "here's where the decision has to be made."
Well, what does America have to do in response?
CALEB CARR: Because the second and most... the second most important lesson of terror is it must never be answered in kind. And America unfortunately has had its own record of turning to warfare against civilians in certain situations, in many military situations.
RAY SUAREZ: Like?
CALEB CARR: Beginning with warfare during the colonial period, against native Americans, going through the civil war, when both sides devise schemes for attacking civilian populations to undercut the armies in the field -- General Sherman being the most elaborate and successful... nominally successful example. But it goes right through then to the strategic bombing of Germany and Japan. These are all things that show America has been willing to attack civilians at various points.
We must now... and the thing that is so radical about this new war in Afghanistan is for the first time, the United States has really been willing to make a concerted effort to distinguish between civilians and non-civilians, to put men, Special Forces on the ground early to contact civilians to try to determine who we should and should not be attacking, who we should and should not be targeting. That's the first time that we really made so concerted an effort to do that. In the past it's been tremendous. So I think we really need to keep the second half of this answer is, yes, defeat the terrorists.
We must defeat the terrorists in the field, but then we must review our own policies so that more of them do not spring up and they're not inspired to attack us, because that was the legacy of the Clinton Administration, was lobbing bombs and cruise missiles blindly at countries where you think terrorists are hiding, without going in and discriminating among the population who is and isn't a target is not the answer and is only going to breed new terrorism.
RAY SUAREZ: "The Lessons of Terror," Caleb Carr, thanks a lot.
CALEB CARR: Thank you.