In my last column I did my best to summarize a very disagreeable book. Today, I will be looking at another rather short book, which has an interesting and important central theme. That theme is that “warfare against civilians must never be answered in kind”1 – further, that such warfare is everywhere and always “self-defeating” and counterproductive. It is hard to disagree.

The book – more or less hot off the press – is Caleb Carr’s The Lessons of Terror.

The author grew up in the Beatnik milieu and, perhaps in reaction to that, became a military historian. He is best known, however, for his novels. Clearly, such a writer might defy conventional categorization.


Carr has a somewhat different view of Roman antiquity than that held by Mr. Kaplan, whose book I recently treated. Carr writes that Romans only fought “with relentless yet disciplined ferocity” and that, therefore, their wars tended to be total and destructive. Their indiscriminate warfare against an enemy’s entire society – the most notable case being the eradication of Carthage – and their “pronounced taste for revenge” against challengers or rebels became, in the end, “powerful enough to threaten the stability that the empire’s brilliant system of citizenship and manumission had made seem so unshakable.”2

There is a lesson here, and Carr has already drawn it for us: “we can detect in the example of Rome the most essential truth about warfare against civilians: that when waged without provocation it usually brings on retaliation in kind, and when turned to for retaliatory purposes it only perpetuates a cycle of revenge and outrage than can go on for generations.” Interestingly, the most effective and threatening opponents of Roman rule had, surprise, surprise, been trained by the Romans themselves. Carr concludes: “a nation must never think that it can use (and especially train) the agents of terror when convenient and then be rid of them when they are no longer needed.”3

With all the inflationary money floating around these days, perhaps some can be found for carving that last sentence in stone at the entrance to the US State Department. Carr gives some historical examples of his principle at work. But we must forge ahead.


I pass over Carr’s treatment of the Crusades in the interest of getting on to some other topics. He sees in the famous mercenary armies hired in quarrels between Renaissance Italian city-states the germ of what he calls “progressive war.”4 Unluckily, the mercenary captains’ code of conduct based on minimal bloodshed and destruction failed to win many friends. Despite its advantages, it seemed unvirtuous, un-martial, and even unpatriotic to many observers, including that ambitious fellow Nicolò Machiavelli.

The wars which followed upon the Reformation were, according to Carr, “particularly savage because of a deadly mixture of outdated military thinking and progressive military technology.”5 Cromwell, he argues, improved warfare by creating a disciplined army, which could follow orders to respect civilian lives and property, except – as Carr notices – in Ireland. On the Continent, French campaigns thrived on violence against society, and in a rather sweeping survey, Carr suggests that the weaknesses (and eventual downfall) of the Ottoman and Aztec empires owed much to their style of war and conquest.


Suddenly, Carr’s account touches that of Mr. Kaplan in an appreciation of Thomas Hobbes. Carr presents Hobbes as a serious fellow, who sought to find the foundations of order. There is room for disagreement, I think, about the value of Hobbes’ contributions – and certainly about their meaning.

But the real hero of the book is Frederick II of Prussia (“the Great”). In Carr’s view, this monarch “devised the most powerful statement and proof yet that wars were best fought for particular and realistic political goals by soldiers whose restrained behavior would limit the impact of conflict on civilians and thereby maintain or even win those citizens’ loyalty.”6 Frederick sought to avoid large-scale pitched battles of destruction, preferred maneuver, and forced his opponents to do likewise.

In 1758, Emmerich de Vattel, a Swiss jurist, theorized Frederick’s progressive warfare. He was more interested in how a war was conducted than in the justness of the cause of either side. On his principles, unjust conduct calls into question the cause of those undertaking such conduct. Carr notes that this would apply to terrorist actions against civilians7 – but equally well to the conduct of great powers.

Turks, Russians, and European colonists overseas come in for much criticism from Carr along these lines. Partisan warfare in the American Revolution – with its ideological dimension – often stepped over the line. But it was the French Revolution which let all Hell break loose.


Total war was born (or reborn) with the French Revolution and the campaigns of Napoleon. The latter’s “subordination of all other human activities to the needs of his army had an effect equal to any deliberate targeting of civilians.”8 This generated opposition and guerrilla movements against French rule.

And here we find what I see as one of the most important points in Carr’s book. Carr is able to distinguish in principle between guerrillas and terrorists. It all has to do with his central theme. The question is who they target. Attacks by guerrillas on enemy armed forces are one thing; attacks by them on civilians, another.9

On this basis, Carr can criticize terrorist groups along with states that practice total war. Since he has already shocked common sensibilities by attributing humane warfare to a Prussian monarch in the face of inherited Anglo-American superstitions about all things German, he can hardly shock readers much further by putting many Officially Good causes and leaders on the list of those who have practice, in effect, state terrorism.

Accordingly, Carr casts aspersions on British attacks on American civilians in the War of 1812, Lincoln’s use of total warriors like Sherman and Sheridan, the British starvation blockade of Germany in World War I, the German response of unrestricted submarine warfare, and the later career and tactics of the Irish Republican Army. Carl von Clausewitz, who theorized Napoleon’s style of warfare and not the Prussian tradition, comes in, finally, for some well-earned revision.10


There is room to disagree with some of Carr’s detailed allocations of blame. Much more serious is his set of policy recommendations at the end. These perhaps derive from his Hobbesian-Cromwellian-Frederician concern with discipline as the key to keeping wars “progressive” (roughly, “humane”). Certainly, the situation cries out for strong remedies.

Unfortunately, handing out even more money so as to train up a humane set of intelligence and other operatives sounds to me like a typically conformist-liberal notion. The schools don’t work? Spend more money! The rule of law has vanished? Train more lawyers! There’s inflation and unemployment simultaneously? Call Alan Greenspan! The military take an amoral view of attacking civilians? Retrain them!

The main “absence” in this very useful book is the US empire. It may be in there, a bit, but its existence gets little treatment as such, certainly not as a structural cause of many of our warlike adventures, and as something whose legitimacy could be debated. Sending the Generals, Colonels, and Captains to ethics seminars might be good; but redefining US foreign policy might take in more of the problems.

Like the abolition of failed or inherently criminal agencies, retreat from empire is not on Carr’s agenda. He accepts what is, and just wants to see its defenders behave better. Well, that is something, and it would be wrong to criticize overmuch a book whose central theme is that it is always wrong and ultimately futile to attack civilians and private property. You can forgive a lot for that one point.


  1. Caleb Carr, The Lessons of Terror (New York: Random House, 2002), p. 13.
  2. Ibid., pp. 18-20.
  3. Ibid., pp. 22-23.
  4. Ibid., pp. 56-57.
  5. Ibid., p. 58.
  6. Ibid., p. 85.
  7. Ibid., p. 94-95.
  8. Ibid., p. 121.
  9. Ibid., pp. 122-124.
  10. Ibid., pp. 126-130.