Caleb Carr, The Lessons of Terror

The Lessons of Terror


Caleb Carr — author of 1994’s best-selling novel ”The Alienist” and a member of the editorial board of The Modern Library — is first and foremost a military historian, and if he were running the country, he’d get rid of the CIA. Not overhaul it, not investigate its recent lapses, and certainly not make a coherent argument as to why it should be expunged. He’d just abolish it and replace it with a new military special-forces division, a move that ”might could well be the most important single aspect of any revamping of the American military and national-security structure that is focused on the ability to fight limited wars that are strategically decisive.” You will discover this impenetrable concept if you can make it to the epilogue of Carr’s The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians: Why It Has Always Failed and Why It Will Fail Again — an overview of terrorism first drafted six years ago for ”The World Policy Journal” and, since Sept. 11, expanded for hardcovers.

Carr’s point seems to be, Terrorism always fails, therefore it always will. But it is difficult to follow his logic because, quite often, he doesn’t use any. His argument is nonsense on its own fundamental terms. Deploying emphatic italics, Carr defines terrorism as ”simply the contemporary name given to, and the modern permutation of, warfare deliberately waged against civilians with the purpose of destroying their will to support either leaders or policies that the agents of such violence find objectionable.” Thus, he counts William Tecumseh Sherman a ”terrorist” (along with Stonewall Jackson, Otto von Bismarck, and Richard Nixon), not caring that Sherman’s bloody March to the Sea yielded something other than ”eventual defeat,” which he elsewhere says all terrorism does.

Note that Carr defines terrorism as ”warfare deliberately waged against civilians”; by that standard, the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, would not be a terrorist act (though Carr, contradicting himself, calls it such), nor would the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole (which Carr doesn?t mention at all). And if all warfare ”deliberately waged against civilians” is terrorism, then isn’t Carr shorting his subject by dispensing with Hiroshima and Nagasaki in two paragraphs?

The author conveys his reasoning in misshapen prose, a sludge of redundancies, bad grammar, pointless asides, tin-eared diction, and more redundancies. He cannot stop repeating himself: ”What this study can claim…is that whenever and wherever [terrorist] tactics have been indulged, they have been and are still destined to ultimately fail,” he writes. ”Terrorism will be eradicated not when we come to some sort of accommodation with its agents, nor when we physically destroy them, but rather when it is perceived as a strategy and a behavior that yields nothing save eventual defeat for those causes that inspire it.” These clunky sentences appear respectively on pages 14 and 16, quite close to others that spin the same ideas around, and Carr indulges his fondness for reiteration throughout the book, whether discussing the Roman Empire or Oliver Cromwell.

The bulk of ”The Lessons of Terror” is devoted to historical examples meant to prop up the thesis that this broadly conceived terrorism never works. Carr hopscotches from Augustan Rome to the Ottoman Empire to Napoleonic France. He cruises through the political philosophies of Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and Emmerich de Vattel. The IRA and the PLO earn a few pages each in the last quarter of the 272-page volume. Despite the seeming abundance of information, hard facts are scarce, and in any event, it seems perverse to credit the scholarship of a military historian who, on page 7, inadvertently reveals that he doesn’t know what a ballistic missile is.

Early on in The Lessons of Terror, jostling to set himself apart from the Information Machine, Carr writes that ”the cacophony produced by media sensationalists and television talking heads, a continuous aspect of daily life since the attacks, has done nothing more than crystallize [this] basic question”: How could civilization come to this? But he’s got no clear answers himself, and the book is only one more squawk in the din.

The Lessons of Terror
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