Why good countries fight dirty wars

Caleb Carr is visiting professor of military studies at Bard College. He is the author of "The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians."

THE DISCOVERY of an alleged mass murder of Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines in Haditha in November and the more recent rape-murder case in Mahmoudiya that led to charges against five men of the 101st Airborne Division stand in stark contrast to the traditional portrait of the behavior of U.S. armed forces abroad.

Since the time of our own revolution, we have been taught to expect such savage behavior from the inheritors of Attila and Tamerlane, be they Barbary pirates or Nazi Germans -- but not from the armies of democratic nations, the philosophical descendants of ancient Greece and Rome.

The citizen-soldiers sent into the field by the United States or any other Western popular government are expected, by virtue of not so long ago having been free civilians themselves, to be more empathetic with the plight of the noncombatants with whom they come into contact. Certainly, brutal incidents like the My Lai massacre or the Abu Ghraib scandal occur from time to time, but they are widely viewed as cultural aberrations.

This interpretation, however, is as simplistic as it is misleading. All too often the armies of modern democracies have tolerated and even initiated outrages against civilians, in manners uneasily close to those of their totalitarian and terrorist enemies. Israeli troops are currently demonstrating this fact in their response to the Hezbollah rocket offensive -- a response most of the world community, according to recent polls, believes is taking an unacceptably disproportionate toll on Lebanese civilians. And there have been times when democratic leaders have been even more open about their brutal intentions: Speaking of the Allied bombing campaign during World War II that culminated in that consummate act of state terrorism, the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, Winston Churchill flatly stated that the objective was “to make the enemy burn and bleed in every way.”

Any examination of why this record of behavior on the part of democracies exists -- and why it has been so carefully distorted -- requires a look back over thousands of years of military history, as well as a willingness to dispense with long-cherished but false historical narratives.


Many of the ancient cultures that provided the philosophical inspiration for the modern West in general, and especially for our founders -- the Roman republic most particularly -- believed in allowing their troops to enslave, rape and impoverish enemy civilians as a matter of reward and routine.

The romantic narrative of chivalric medieval knights, in which noble warriors supposedly rallied their followers to champion the helpless against exploitation, is similarly mythical, created late in the medieval game to conceal the ruthlessness with which those knights and their troops preyed upon merchants and peasants -- a situation that became so ugly and anarchic that, late in the 11th century, Pope Urban II was forced to devise the ingeniously enduring scheme of dispatching murderous, plundering European nobles and their followers to the Holy Land to defend Jerusalem against Islam.

When we hear of such conflicts as the “Peasants’ Revolt” in Europe during the early 16th century, we don’t tend to think of hideous massacres of civilians by their formerly oppressed equals, but such in fact occurred. And the phrase “wars of religious liberation” does not suggest that those seeking the right to worship as they pleased would commit the same sins as did the often-brutal Catholic Church from which they wished to separate, yet they did.

All this confusion and bloodshed meant that by the early to mid-17th century, Europe was one massive battlefield, with few if any leaders who could really claim to have the interests of noncombatants at heart.

Systematic relief for civilians from such ravages finally began to take shape near the end of the Thirty Years’ War in the mid-1600s; but it was not budding democracy that supplied it, nor lofty philosophers seeking to define what constituted “just war.” When real reform occurred, it came from some of the most reactionary leaders and rulers of the era.

During the English Civil War (1642-49), for instance, Puritan rebel officers led by that country’s future and only military dictator, Oliver Cromwell, discovered that keeping an army under control vis-a-vis civilians had a pragmatic as well as a moral side: It tended to gain the local population’s loyalty far faster and more effectively than either threats or long philosophical and political harangues.

Through such simple steps as the strict use of distinctive uniforms (to discourage soldiers from the popular practice of deserting once armed and creating civil mayhem) and the institution of public and severe punishment for anyone caught molesting noncombatants in any way, Cromwell’s “New Model Army” solidified popular support more than any other military unit in the war.

At about the same time, perceptive continental monarchs and generals also began to turn toward the reform of war and the disciplining of troops as a pragmatic, rather than moral, consideration. The greatest of these, ultimately, was Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, who became notorious for imposing disciplinary regulations on his soldiers that were almost inhuman but that turned his minor kingdom into one of the most consistently victorious and, finally, powerful nations on the continent -- and himself into one of the most popular monarchs of the 18th century.

By the end of Frederick’s reign, the way forward to the real and generally accepted reform of war’s negative effect on civilians seemed clear and feasible: “limited war,” in which professional armies -- distinctly uniformed, highly disciplined and tightly controlled -- fought each other according to strict rules of engagement.

But this enlightened progress was soon slowed and then stopped by a pesky new philosophical and political movement: liberal democracy.

Why should democracy, which gave common people a voice in the conduct of their nation’s affairs, interfere with military developments that were increasingly offering protection to those same common people? Precisely because democracy called for the involvement of all citizens in every aspect of national life -- including war. This was an idea diametrically opposed to the notion of highly trained professional armies deciding the fates of nations without heavily affecting civilian populations.

The result was “popular war” -- the concept that we in the U.S. quickly came to associate with noble backwoods civilians setting aside their plows and taking up their long rifles to battle wicked British professional soldiers. In truth, it was almost indistinguishable from what we now call “total war”: conflicts in which all citizens, whether uniformed or civilian, are considered to be involved in the fight.

During the American Revolution, for instance, rebel forces committed plunder, murder and other outrages against civilians even suspected of being loyal to the British homeland, particularly in the Hudson Valley and the Southern states. And even if some such crimes were reprisals against similar British acts, they demonstrated the true and escalating nature of total war.

They also demonstrated that the romantic narrative of the revolution, in which rebel citizen-soldiers “cleanly” baffled and defeated British professionals, was developed in no small part out of the need to cover the many ugly truths of the conflict, which were perhaps best summed up, so far as the colonial side, went, by the rebels’ finest battlefield commander, Nathanael Greene: “Nothing has been more destructive to the true interest of this country, than the mode adopted for its defence.”

The French Revolution, even more than the American Revolution, dealt the effective death blow to the cause of limited war. When France’s revolutionaries found themselves surrounded by autocratic enemies who were determined to stamp out the spreading fire of liberal democracy in Europe, they stretched the notion of popular war to its very limits.

The famous Article One of the French National Convention’s conscription order in 1793 specifically detailed the role to be played in the national war machine by every French civilian, including children and the elderly. The French labeled this true, universal patriotism, but it really amounted to a return to wholly indiscriminate combat.

From that time on, all hope of limiting war according to the pragmatic rules worked out during the 17th and 18th centuries faded. Certain aspects of limited war, such as basic training and uniforms, remained, but the severest forms of punishment for abusing civilians gradually disappeared. Victory through any means became identified with success, and whole populations were targeted along with their armed forces in the majority of wars from the Napoleonic wars through World War II.

Not so ironically, only the reactionary Germans tried to adapt limited war to the Industrial Age, through such means as blitzkrieg, which relied for success on panicking enemy armies through swift maneuver, thus making mass bombardment of noncombatants unnecessary and reducing the probability of civilian resistance.

The U.S. would revive the concept of blitzkrieg, with slight variations, during the opening stages of both the Afghan and the Iraqi campaigns, and those demonstrations should remind us that the military forces of democratic nations retain at least the capacity for limited, discriminatory warfare. The U.S. Army still does have officers who have decried such nondiscriminatory notions as “overwhelming force” and “shock and awe.”

But what happens when a democratic army faces an opponent whose command-and-control structure, as well as its fighting units, is intimately woven into the fabric of civilian society? Is there any solution to the problem of such insurgencies? There is, but it involves the same kind of thinking that pragmatic commanders throughout the modern age have turned to: increased and innovative discipline.

Right now, there are senior U.S. commanders in Iraq (notably Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli) who are urging new and strict training to teach American troops the cultural, political and military methods necessary to fight this kind of war, steps that could be as revolutionary in reforming how the U.S. projects its power as the more primitive but equally critical reforms instituted by Cromwell and Frederick the Great were for their nations.

If support for such steps among top Pentagon and White House leaders continues to be as halfhearted as it has proved to date, however, the beast inside America’s armed forces will remain alive, and America’s own noncombatants will suffer for it along with the nation’s soldiers, as an active desire for revenge on the part of increasing numbers of foreign civilians steadily mounts.