Radical media, politics and culture.

Bob Black, "The Errorist Menace"

The Errorist Menace:

Caleb Carr's The Lessons of Terror

Reviewed by Bob Black

(From Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed
at: http://www.anarchymag.org/53/review_terrorist.html )

The Lessons of Terror:

A History of Warfare Against Civilians: Why It Has
Always Failed and Why It Will Fail Again

By Caleb Carr

(Random House, New
York, NY, 2002) 274 pp. $19.95 hardcover.

The ideas in this book the author first set forth (he says) in a 1996
article, but no one needs to guess why the book was rushed into print. (A
list of seven errata has been put into the middle of the book, and it is
incomplete.) He proposes to place contemporary terrorism in the context of
military history stretching back as far as the Roman Republic. In a book of
256 pages, this necessarily implies a romp through history with only cursory
analysis of examples taken out of their contexts.

The author's purpose is avowedly didactic: Carr is literally teaching "the
lessons of terror." It is his startling thesis that terrorism is a form of
warfare, but "a form that has never succeeded." A further startling thesis
is that "it has been one of the most ultimately self-defeating tactics in
military history-indeed, it would be difficult to think of one more inimical
to its various practitioners' causes."

As this review is rather critical, I should like to identify, up front, the
good things about the book. This will not take long. Most important is that
Carr uses a reasonable definition of terrorism which does not beg too many
questions: terrorism is "warfare deliberately waged against civilians with
the purpose of destroying either their will to support their leaders or
policies that the agents of such violence find objectionable." Notably Carr
does not deny by definition the reality of state terrorism, as many
definitions of terrorism do, and in fact most of his examples are instances
of state terrorism. He states early on that collateral damage is "quite
distinct" from terrorism, rousing the suspicion that he is an apologist for
America, but it turns out that he is a harsh critic of the prevalent US
military philosophy of unlimited or total war, which invariably results in
high civilian casualties, which is one of the worst features of terrorism
too. Also, he contends that contemporary terrorism, at least, should be
regarded as war, not crime. (The Cheney/Bush regime refuses to choose,
denying captured Afghans either the rights of prisoners of war or the rights
of accused criminals.) So much for the good things about the book.

Right from the get-go, Carr bungles his first case study, the Roman conquest
and destruction of Carthage. The Romans either slaughtered or enslaved all
the Carthaginians. But, by Carr's definition, this was not terrorism.
Terrorism is attacking civilians so as to influence their government. In
conquering Carthage, the Romans eliminated its government, so there was no
government to influence by attacks on civilians or in any other way. The
massacre obviously served other purposes, such as pillage, and above all the
utter extirpation of the only power which had ever posed a serious threat to
Rome. An ugly business, to be sure, but not terrorism. Genocide is not

Carr's next case study is still more irrelevant. He discusses the
annihilation of several Roman legions by Germans in 4 A.D. (Carr gives the
incorrect date of 9 A.D.) He says nothing, however, to suggest that this was
a reprisal for Roman terrorism against Germanic civilians. I have read all
the primary and secondary sources (very few) which appear in his
bibliography. None of them support this position. And I'd like to know where
he got the extensive quotations-in suspiciously colloquial
English-attributed to the German leader, Arminius (there are no footnotes in
the book). Carr suggests that the Romans should have arranged for the
assassination of Arminius. Incredibly, he is unaware that Arminius was
assassinated, although nobody knows if the Romans instigated it or if it was
just part of an internal power struggle.

Carr claims that the fall of the Roman Empire is attributable to its
terrorist policies. This will come as a surprise to all scholars in the
field. Any number of theories have been produced, including the theory that
holds that the Empire fell because of lead poisoning from the water system,
but Carr's stands alone for its combination of intrinsic absurdity with zero
supporting evidence. According to his argument, on the one hand, the
Germanic invaders nurtured centuries of resentment of ancient Roman
terrorism (for which there is no evidence-for either the terrorism or the
resentment), and on the other, the best and the brightest Romans refused to
defend the Empire from the apathy supposedly induced by the supposed chronic
barbarian threat supposedly caused by Roman atrocities committed centuries
earlier. Not only is there no evidence for either of these hypotheses, they
are self-evidently ridiculous. And if Germans were seething with hatred of
Rome why is it that for the next several centuries they enlisted in the
Roman army in ever-increasing numbers?

To a great extent, Carr's thesis is meaningless because it is not
falsifiable. As he makes clear, almost every state has engaged in terrorism,
and sooner or later, almost every state falls. Especially when the interval
is measured in centuries, as with the supposed German revenge against Rome
and there is no evidence for a connection, the mere sequence proves nothing.
Thus Carr attributes the fall of the Ottoman Empire to terrorism against its
Christian subjects in the 14th to 16th centuries. But the large Christian
population of the empire was completely quiescent for 300 years, and in fact
some Christians, especially Greeks, occupied prominent political positions,
and were even installed as the ruling class of what is now Romania. And we
all know the Ottoman state was not overthrown by rebellious Christian
subjects-by then, almost its only Christian subjects were Armenians, and the
Turks exterminated most of them-it collapsed in the wake of military defeat
in World War I.

Much the same might be said of another of Carr's snapshot examples, the
Mughals. Carr states: "The range of tortures, slow deaths, and persecutions
devised by the new guardians of Islam for many unbelievers, as well as for
Muslims of rival factions, became widespread and infamous enough to ensure
that both the Ottoman and the Mughal empires would be forever plagued by
fractiousness and, occasionally, outright rebellion." All empires are
plagued by fractiousness and occasionally outright rebellion, at least if
they last for 400 or 500 years, like the Mughal empire. And "tortures, slow
deaths, and persecutions" are not the same thing as terrorism, although they
are among the possible methods of terrorism. It might be amusing-in fact, I'
m sure it would be amusing-if Carr applied these notions to the Spanish
Inquisition. If it was terrorist, then it is yet another example of
terrorism as a resounding success, as it completely eliminated Protestants,
heretics, crypto-Jews and crypto-Muslims from Spain.

For a military historian, Carr is remarkably ignorant of another of his
topics, war in the Middle Ages. He erroneously ascribes the origins of
nationalism to this period. His entire ignorance of social history accounts
for such howlers as "the rural peasant [as opposed to, what-the urban
peasant?] that the Church had always held up as the supreme example of the
pastoral noncombatant," etc. Peasants raise crops; pastoralists herd
animals. Pastoralists like the Turks and the Mongols have been extremely
violent and aggressive. Since Carr adduces no examples of medieval terrorism
(although there are some), you have to wonder why he doesn't just skip over
the Middle Ages. It was routine practice then to devastate the lands and
homes of the peasants who were paying rents to the enemy-as one English king
put it, "Fire is to war as mustard is to sausage." The purpose was not to
get the peasants to call for a change in government policy, because nobody
cared what, if anything, peasants thought about policy. The purpose was to
destroy the enemy's economic base. It wasn't terrorism, but that
clarification would have made no difference to the afflicted peasants.

The same objection applies to most of Carr's cases prior to the 20th
century. He taxes Louis XIV as a terrorist, for instance, for creating a
cordon sanitaire around the borders of France-buffer zones from which the
foreign population was driven out. (Israel did something similar in
Lebanon.) Obviously this was done for what we now call national security,
not to influence foreign governments. Similarly, when 18th century armies
lived off the land, i.e., satisfied some of their requirements for
provisions by pillaging the peasants of the territory they were passing
through, the purpose was not to demoralize the peasants or spur them to
lobby their governments for policy changes, the purpose was simply to rip
them off.

It is 78 pages into the book before Carr produces an example of terrorism
that may actually satisfy his own definition. That would be the routine
practice of Americans, from colonial times till the end of the Indian wars,
of devastating Indian settlements and crops, and not infrequently killing
Indian noncombatants. Even there, though, the intention was not solely to
demoralize Indian enemies and perhaps set an example to other Indians. The
immediate purpose was to destroy the economic infrastructure of those
Indians who were at war with the Americans. That was why General Sullivan
destroyed most of the Iroquois towns during the American Revolution
(grateful New Yorkers named a county after him, a county carved out of
Iroquois territory). It was exactly the same thing as the US Air Force
bombing Serbian bridges, factories, television stations, etc. Carr condemns
those bombings, but he does not characterize them as terrorism.

The American Indian example alone is enough to refute Carr's extreme thesis
that terrorism is always self-defeating. After the Revolution, the Iroquois
never again posed a military threat, not even when most of their land was
extorted from them. When in 1636 the Puritans exterminated the Pequot
noncombatants when the warriors were away, that was a complete success, and
to the Puritans, further proof that God was on their side. By 1890 and
Wounded Knee, American terrorism against Native Americans, if that's what it
was, was a complete success, not self-defeating at all.

Before resuming his cavalcade of history Carr, for no apparent reason,
digresses to discuss Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes, he relates, wrote Leviathan
originally to justify Charles I's claim to absolute rule, but he
disappointed Hobbes by not measuring up to the job, so Hobbes rewrote his
book to argue a more abstract case. Wrong, all wrong. Hobbes was not
"writing in England during that nation's civil war," he fled to France even
before the outbreak of civil war in 1640. Charles was executed in 1649,
Leviathan was published in 1651. Charles I never claimed to be by right an
absolute monarch. Carr misunderstands Hobbes' famous reference to a way of
life which is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Carr says that,
for Hobbes, political power struggles "ensure that most people's lives" are
like that. No way. Hobbes was positing an abstract state of nature as a
philosophical ideal type or model, not making any empirical claim. Hobbes
admitted, "It may peradventure be thought, there was never such a time, nor
condition of warre as this; and I believe it was never generally so, all
over the world," although he thought it actually occurred at certain times
and places.

Just why is Carr mentioning Hobbes (whom he obviously knows only by
reputation) at all? Because he thinks Hobbes provides support for his belief
that well-trained, well-disciplined armies not only do not practice
terrorism, they are the best means to defeat terrorism-a dubious
proposition, but in any case one which finds no support in Hobbes, who wrote
nothing about military training or discipline, and to whom the modern
concept of terrorism would have meant nothing.

According to Carr, the French (and the Indians) lost the French and Indian
War because the French countenanced Indian terrorism. The reality is that,
in its terrorist dimension, the Indians were very successful. They rolled
back the line of American settlement in New York and Pennsylvania by several
hundred miles. The war was not decided on the frontier, where the British
and the Americans (such as George Washington) were always defeated. It was
decided in Canada in conventional warfare between a professional French army
and a professional British army.

Even more curious, Carr explains the outcomes of both wars between Britain
and America as the consequence of misguided terrorist tactics. The American
Revolution was needlessly prolonged, he relates; by the Americans'
"repeated" insistence on "unconditional surrender." You will not find this
expression, or any other words with the same meaning, in any sources from
the period. It is ridiculous to assert that the Americans demanded the
"unconditional surrender" of Great Britain (presumably to be followed, as
when Germany and Japan acceded to these harsh terms at the end of World War
II, by American military occupation?) All the Americans wanted was British
recognition of American independence. And even if Carr were right, it would
be beside the point, because, as he himself "repeatedly" asserts, terrorism
is not about military goals, it is about the means of accomplishing military
goals. There was some American revolutionary terrorism, such as the
aforementioned chastening of the Iroquois, and against Loyalists (3% of the
population was driven out of the country), but again, it was a success.

In the War of 1812, the British, claims Carr, engaged in much violence
against civilians, although I do not recall that from what I have read about
that war. His only specific example is the torching of the public buildings
of Washington, DC in 1814. I fail to see why, in wartime, destroying public
buildings in the enemy's capital is terrorist. The United States did the
same thing in Libya, Iraq and Serbia, and undoubtedly in Afghanistan as
well. Once again Carr is unable to distinguish terrorism (whose intended
effect is indirect) from what the anarchists call direct action, that is,
activity intended not to influence the enemy but to damage or destroy him.
This is an aspect of war which should be familiar to any military historian,
but which Carr ignores in his zeal to make a case for a specific policy
prescription for the current American war against terrorism. As usual, Carr
offers no evidence, and as usual, there is none, to suggest that British
tactics were counterproductive. America didn't win this war, after all, it
merely managed not to lose it because the British, having defeated Napoleon,
lost interest in it.

Although right at the beginning Carr announced that his topic is
"international terrorism (as distinct from domestic terrorism, which falls
outside the scope of this study)," he cannot resist an occasional foray into
domestic terrorism when he thinks it supports his thesis. Sherman's March
through Georgia, for instance, is a domestic example of state terrorism.
Both Carr and General Sherman himself agree that most of the destruction
wrought by Sherman's troops (Sherman's estimate was 80%) was of Confederate
infrastructure, not terrorism. The other 20%, the seizure or destruction of
civilian property ‡ la Gone With the Wind, may qualify as terrorism under
Carr's definition, although even that is not quite clear, as it might just
be another example of denying resources-any resources-to the enemy, rather
than an attempt to exert political influence on enemy civilians.

Carr attributes the failure of Reconstruction to Sherman's March through
Georgia. It is charitable to consider this contention simplistic. The
defeated South had other and stronger reasons to enact Black Codes and
unleash the night-riders of the Ku Klux Klan. 25% of the Southern white male
population perished in the Civil War. The abolition of slavery liquidated
four billion dollars worth of human property, and a billion dollars bought a
lot back then. The bestowal on the former slaves of citizenship by the 14th
Amendment and voting rights by the 15th Amendment, especially at a time when
many of the Confederate elite were disenfranchised for their involvement in
the rebellion, overturned the traditional political order and gave blacks
previously unimaginable political power. Surely white Southerners would have
resisted Reconstruction even if Sherman had never marched through Georgia.
Carr might have been prudent not to even mention the Ku Klux Klan, as it is
an irrefutable counterexample to his notion that terrorism never works and
is always counterproductive. Klan terrorism was completely successful. By
1876, all Southern state governments were, by force or fraud, back in the
hands of white racist "Redeemers."

I take personal offence at Carr's slovenly, defamatory treatment of the
anarchists. There is a substantial body of respectable historical
scholarship on anarchism, but the only source in Carr's bibliography is one
book of sensationalizing pop-history trash. The anarchists of the 19th and
early 20th centuries pursued a variety of tactics. Even in the brief heyday
of the notorious bomb-throwing anarchists, most anarchists preferred
propaganda, worker organizing, and occasionally direct action against
capitalists or the state (which is not terrorism by Carr's definition).
Whatever tactics they employed, the anarchists were always out to abolish
the state, not to influence it.

While it is no surprise to find a military historian committed to statism,
this cannot excuse Carr's mindless reiteration of long-discredited myths.
Sergei Necheyev, for instance, was not an anarchist, much less an anarchist
theorist of the stature of Bakunin and Kropotkin, as Carr presents him. Leon
Czolgosz, the assassin of President McKinley, was not, as Carr implies, ever
a member of any anarchist group. Alexander Berkman's assassination attempt
on industrialist Henry Clay Frick, which Carr holds up as exemplary, was not
terrorism by Carr's definition. Frick, a lieutenant of Andrew Carnegie,
directed the bloody suppression of the Homestead strike. Berkman's attentat
was retribution pure and simple. And even if Berkman was trying to influence
anyone (his Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist make clear that he was not), he
could only have been trying to influence anti-labor industrialists, not the

Since Carr's argument is passionately present-minded-he sincerely wants to
influence current United States anti-terrorist policy-one might expect, or
at least hope, that by the time he arrives at the 20th century, his examples
might become more cogent. He might address terrorism in modern contexts
which might possibly be relevant to the contemporary terrorist situation.
But he doesn't.

His 20th century examples are as defective, and in the same ways, as his
earlier ones. There is the recurrent problem of militant groups which
employed terrorism as only one of the tactics in their repertoire. Often
these groups also engaged in direct armed struggle against the enemy state,
including the targeting of the enemy military and the enemy's political
officials, which Carr correctly says is not terrorism. Carr continues to use
a nonfalsifiable and therefore meaningless argument. When terrorists lose,
it must be because of their terrorism. When terrorists win, Carr always says
that this was in spite of, not because of, their terrorism. Counterfactual
historical arguments are always problematic, even when they are supported by
substantial and specific evidence in every particular case. From Carr we get
only self-serving conclusions.

Actually, Carr does not identify any self-defeating, purely terrorist groups
or states in the 20th century, although there were a few (such as the
Symbionese Liberation Army, whose annihilation is, however, more plausibly
assignable to the fact that they were only a handful of people). Instead he
has to discuss successful groups with mixed tactics, like the original Irish
Republican Army, or Zionist terrorists like the Irgun and the Stern Gang.
Some such groups such as the Vietcong, or the "ters" who turned Rhodesia
into Zimbabwe, he does not discuss seriously (the VC) or does not discuss at
all (the ters). The Palestine Liberation Organization-a partial success (so
far)-he discusses but only to exhibit it as a poster boy for his
heads-I-win, tails-you-lose analysis of mixed-tactics groups.

Among the most successful groups employing mixed tactics is the United
States of America. The Indian wars, the suppression of the Filipino
insurrection at the turn of the century; so-called strategic bombing in
World War II; Operation Phoenix as well as less structured atrocities in
Vietnam, the US-sponsored contras in Nicaragua, the embargo against Iraq
which has killed over a million civilians-these are all American (and
all-American) state terrorism, and Carr, to his credit, says so. But he
cannot explain away why they were never, with the possible exception of
Vietnam, self-defeating. They were often followed by victory. A practice
cannot even be accused of being self-defeating unless its practitioner is

Carr contends that the universal consequence of terrorism is, in his
oft-repeated word, to "steel" the resistance of the terrorized. There is no
denying that this happens. The airborne terror of the Germans against
Britain and of the Allies against Germany by all accounts bolstered both
civilian and military resolve. American terrorism in Vietnam had the same
result. But this is not the inevitable consequence. Perhaps a theory could
be constructed which explains when and why terrorism succeeds and when and
why it fails. That would be of immense value not only as theory but as a
guide to policy. But Carr cannot undertake this analysis, because he decided
a priori that circumstances are irrelevant, which is tantamount to saying
that history is irrelevant, for history is the science of the particular.

Really all of Carr's shallow and tendentious historical excursions are
window dressing. What really matters to him are his policy recommendations
for the conduct of the post-9/11 jihad against international terrorism.
There is here a journal article trapped in the body of a book. It is not so
much state terrorism as it is the American state's persistent preference for
total or unlimited war to which he objects. (And also to the covert
operations of inept and irresponsible civilian CIA cowboys.) State terrorism
is only one aspect, though an important aspect, of this historically rooted
mindset. Carr is frustrated because the United States has usually won its
wars by methods completely contrary to his counsel. Carr calls for
professionally conducted wars emphasizing mobility and surprise and
calculated to minimize civilian casualties. He thinks the wars waged by
Frederick the Great and planned by Helmuth von Moltke confirm the viability
of this strategy. Perhaps they do, but not as a strategy applicable to all
times and places.

This is a claim not easy to assess objectively by someone like myself who
does not want the United States to win the wars against Islam of which
Afghanistan is, we are told, only the first. A better course might be to
satisfy the most serious and justified Muslim terrorist grievances-which are
shared by most of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims-such as withdrawal of
American troops from the sacred soil (or sand) of Saudi Arabia, where they
serve no purpose, and above all, the termination of unconditional support of
Israel. Except for the United States, all the world supports Palestinian
statehood without supposed security guarantees for Israel which no other
state has or needs and which would vitiate the sovereignty which is the
definition of a truly independent state. It will happen sooner or later, and
a change in American policy would make it happen sooner, and get it over
with, and that single change (which costs us nothing) would do more to
undercut international terrorism than any number of interventionist military
rampages, whose charm will soon wear off for the American people as the
bills and the body bags come in.

Perhaps the decisive refutation of Carr's extreme thesis is the very
prolixity of his examples. He claims that terrorism is never successful, it
is always self-defeating, and that these truths have been obvious from the
historical record for over 2,000 years. If so, why have states and
oppositional movements regularly resorted to terrorism throughout history
and right up to the present day? Is it likely that Carr is right and all of
them are wrong?

Carr's own evidence, such as it is, suggests a more modest thesis. Terrorism
is one among several tactical modalities. It is neither a sure thing nor an
always self-defeating blunder. States or groups contemplating a terrorist
policy should consider that, on the one hand, terrorism is not necessarily a
shortcut to their objectives, but on the other hand, it has often succeeded.
They should not succumb to the romantic allure of some terrorism, but they
should not rule out terrorism for moralistic reasons, or moralistic reasons
dressed up as pseudo-historical reasons such as Carr advances.

Carr says that the debate about what to do about contemporary terrorism is
lacking in the perspectives provided by military history. It is surely
lacking in more than that. But if Carr's book is military history, military
history is to history as military music is to music.

C.A.L. Press

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