literature · synopses
themes literature agenda archive anthology calendar links profile

Caleb Carr

The Lessons of Terror

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

Caleb Carr:
The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians: Why It Has Always Failed and Why It Will Fail Again.
New York: Randome House, 2002.
272 pages
ISBN 0-375-50843-0
book cover
Randome House:
external linkWebsite

With a look at contemporary terrorism, this book attempts to bring historic military knowledge closer to the reader in an easily comprehensible way. For Carr, terrorism is politically motivated violence against civilians, this simple definition effortlessly reaching all the way from ancient Rome to the third millennium. With well-chosen examples Carr shows that violence against civilians always leads to yet more violence and that terrorism ultimately never aids the realisation of political goals. His differentiation between reactionary and progressive war strategies is based on whether military actions are meant to target civilians or soldiers, if there are specific objectives to be reached, or if simply people are to be killed.

This essentially moralising depiction, which actually speaks about Japan having been »punished« with the atomic bomb, emerges as a botch already early on, although the author does manage to draw logical conclusions with fallacious assumptions. However, no effort is made to critically highlight the author's own ideas or to consider possible consequences. With Carr explicitly not including collateral damage to civilians in his definition of terrorism, he strips his theory also of its superficial validity. After all, the 9/11 terrorists did not attack residential premises but targets that by all means can be considered – both in the narrower and broader sense – military targets. The NATO too destroyed electricity plants, radio towers and bridges in Serbia. And, in any case, the number of civilian victims from attacks on Afghanistan or during the two Iraq wars exceeds the number of those who died on September 11th by far.

The conclusion drawn from the confusion caused by terrorism – into which regular armies are thrown like minute splinter groups – is that terror is best fought with preventative military actions against terrorists and the particular states supporting the terrorists. The whole argument becomes completely absurd when Carr starts to rave about drones, i.e. unmanned aerial vehicles, which could specifically pick out terrorists in crowds of people.

Despite all of this, this book also contains some truly interesting parts, especially the sections in which Carr points to the counter-productivity of massive air attacks over large areas and also the chapter on the CIA, in which the author really gets himself into a rage. Many good points of departure can be found and it is without doubt that Carr has extensive knowledge about the military. However, just about anything proceeding beyond historical fact becomes jarringly painful.

Georg Maißer

Translation from the German by Marlies Gabriele Prinzl.

polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 5 (2004).
Online: http://lit.polylog.org/5/sccmg-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
Author: Georg Maißer, Vienna (Austria)
© 2004 Author & polylog e.V.
themes literature agenda archive anthology calendar links profile