The Lessons of Terror, Caleb Carr

Random House, 2002, 272 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 0-375-50843-0

The events of September 11, 2001 had such a deep impact, in part, because they were a relatively new phenomenon. Isolated from the rest of the world by two oceans, America had seldom known the reality of terrorism. After a brief period in the seventies when airliner hijackings were the rage, terrorists seemed on their way to become an amusing shorthand for action movie villains. But surely not an actual threat, right?

That notion collapsed along with the World Trade Center. Suddenly, Americans started to ponder important questions: Why did this happen? How do you ensure that this doesn’t happen again? In The Lessons of Terror, Caleb Carr defines terrorism, takes a look at the history of the concept and suggests a way out of terror.

You’ve heard his name before: Among other things, Carr wrote two well-received historical thrillers (The Alienist and a follow-up, The Angel of Darkness) and one science-fiction novel (Killing Time)… which wasn’t so well-received. But Carr’s first advocation was military history and so The Lessons of Terror is a bit of a professional book for him, an historical exploration of past events in order to better understand the mechanics of terrorism.

Far from being limited to the stereotypical bomb-packing religious fundamentalists, terrorism -according to Carr— is nothing less than the use of violence against civilian populations in order to exert pressure on a political entity. As he demonstrates, terrorism defined as such has a long history, one that has an intricate relationship with more traditional military history. The Roman empire, for instance, waged war against enemy garrisons, but then often extended the benefits of Roman citizenship to the conquered populations. When it lost sight of this good treatment of civilians, well, Carthage burned and the empire later fell, victimized by internal rebellions and stuck in a cycle of attacks and counter-attacks.

The Lessons of Terror is largely a treatise on the history of war and its impact on civilians. It stems from terror, but touches upon subjects like the justification for war, the innocence of civilian populations, military discipline and guerrilla warfare. Carr’s (oft-repeated) main theory is that terror never succeeds: Through more than two thousand years of military history, everyone who has resorted to terror tactics has inevitably been defeated, sooner or later. It’s an encouraging statement when applied to enemies (given that the only rational solution to terrorism is to make it obvious that it’s a self-defeating tactic) but also a troubling one considering any response to terrorism; in fighting against it, the worst method is to adopt its tactics -something well worth remembering these days.

The Lessons of Terror is billed as a military history book, but I suspect that it’s closer to a mass-market vulgarization than to a serious treatise: while the depth of Carr’s knowledge of history is impressive to laymen, the argumentation, at times, seems to rely a lot on definitive adjectives rather than a complete train of thought. For us dumb readers, it’s easy to be swayed by repetitions of “terror never works”, but not as obvious to find the crucial missing information that may argue against his thesis. One suspects that, in some ways, this is “the feel-good military history book of the year!”

At the same time, there is no doubt that this is a book that aims for controversy. While I was rather distressed by Carr’s constant put-down of all things French at first, I felt much better when it became obvious that he’s an equal-opportunity agent provocateur: His casual inclusion of key American figures (Sherman, Jackson, Kissinger, Nixon, etc.) in his gallery of terrorists is a nice little tweak to just about everyone out there, and his sceptical view of American foreign policy is bound to get a rise from most quarters. Not to mention his badly-integrated screed against the American intelligence community.

While I’d be ill-informed to say whether The Lessons of Terror are truly those derived by Carr, there’s no doubt that this is an entertaining, detailed and argumentative treatise well worth reading. A short book packed with a steady stream of provocative ideas, it’s as infuriating as it is fascinating. At a time where too many knee-jerk reaction to terror are being treated as sane threat responses, it’s heartening to find that someone, at least, is willing to take a longer view of the situation. When current events serve us an unexpected curve-ball, it’s reassuring to think that, on some level, it’s merely another repetition of history. There is nothing new; just unfamiliar combinations.

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