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***The Lessons of Terror

A History of Warfare Against Civilians

Why It Has Always Failed and Why It Will Fail Again

by Caleb Carr

Reviewed March 22, 2002.
Random House, 2002.  272 pages.

This is an important book.  My initial reaction to the destruction of the World Trade Center was the idea that wouldn’t it be nice if this could be dealt with in the criminal courts.  However, Caleb Carr convinced me once and for all that it was an act of war and should be treated as an act of war.

Caleb Carr’s defines terrorism as “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.”  As such, he talks about terrorism in the context of military history, not political science or sociology.  Caleb Carr is a contributing editor of MHQ:  The Quarterly Journal of Military History.  I found his arguments well-informed and convincing.  He says that one reason we want to think of terrorists as criminals is that we don’t want to dignify them with the term “soldiers.”  However, he makes a strong case that that is exactly what they are, fighting in a long, if misguided, military tradition.

According to his definition of terrorism, many countries, including the United States, have been guilty of acting as terrorists down through the years.  The author shows us many examples, but also includes evidence that warfare against civilians does not achieve its goals and is never a good strategy.  He believes that it is important never to respond to terrorism with further terrorism, or any moral advantage will be lost.  He also gives examples of “limited and progressive war,” which minimized loss of life but effectively accomplished military objectives.

I have never been interested in military history, and would dearly love to delude myself that there is always an alternative to war.  However, I found this book enlightening and thought-provoking.  What does make a just war?  Can we keep the moral high ground in the “war on terrorism”?  I hope that our leaders will pay attention to this book, and recommend it to anyone who likes to grapple with tough questions.

 Copyright © 2003 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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