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“The Shah Always Falls”
A soldier-historian looks at how the world has changed in the past decade and finds that America is both hostage to history and likely to be saved by it
March 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 1
Military historians sometimes write biographies of people they call military intellectuals. Such people are interesting because they can have a vast effect on history, and also because they combine in one career two modes of life normally considered incompatible, the life of thought and the life of action.
Lt. Col., Ret., Ralph Peters is a military intellectual, and his career makes surprising reading. He enlisted in the Army as a private in 1976 and served in a mechanized infantry division. He was commissioned in 1980 as a second lieutenant in military intelligence and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel by 1998. Along the way he took a master’s degree in international relations and published eight novels, typing out the first one while still a sergeant stationed in Germany. He also published a remarkable series of essays, many of which first appeared in Parameters, the theoretical journal of the U.S. Army War College. These essays are some of the most radical writing I have ever read on the recent revolution in military affairs. They began appearing at the start of the last decade, they are beautifully written and intellectually exciting, and they have proved startlingly (and sometimes grimly) prescient.
This prodigious intellectual and literary output began while he was pursuing a dramatic and varied set of military careers. Some of his assignments informed his novels: Red Army, a cult classic within the Army before the fall of the Soviet Union, describes a successful Soviet breakthrough on NATO’s central front and was inspired by a stint as chief intelligence analyst for the 1st Armored Division, as well as by a job as the chief of the Intelligence Production Section for III Corps. Other books grew out of assignments in Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and Panama. Some are set in the wreckage of the Soviet Union, in its successor states, and in Central Asia, all places where Peters has spent a great deal of time. These novels share a theme with many of his essays on strategy and international relations, the idea that a world ended between 1989 and 1991. Our new situation is chaotic, its politics were generally unforeseen, it is extremely dangerous, and in many ways it is extremely sad. However, the United States faces its new threats with historically unparalleled strengths. Over the course of his career, Peters served in or visited more than 50 countries, on every continent save Antarctica, and the experience has made him a patriot and an optimist.
In 1999 Peters retired from the Army to write full-time, and soon produced, beginning with Faded Coat of Blue, a series of highly acclaimed Civil War novels under the pen name Owen Parry. I interviewed Lieutenant Colonel Peters in his house in northern Virginia, surrounded by Russian and German books—he is at least trilingual—and a wonderful collection of contemporary Russian paintings. We spoke about his essays, two volumes of which have been collected and published—Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World and Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph?—and about what history, both recent and ancient, tells us of the challenges and possibilities America faces around the globe.
You’ve suggested that maintaining stability should rarely, if ever, be the goal of American foreign policy. This is, to say the least, out of keeping with what most of our strategic thinkers believe.
There are certainly times when we desire stability in international politics, but in the underdeveloped world an obsession with stability means preserving failure and worse. Overvaluing stability is a heritage of the Cold War, over the course of which we rationalized our support of some very cruel regimes and we deposed elected governments we didn’t like. You could justify it in terms of the greater struggle. But you can’t justify it now.
“Nowadays we underestimate the Spanish-American War, because we assume that important wars are bloody. This one wasn’t bloody, but it was the first time a non-European power destroyed a European empire.”
What I wrote was that the shah always falls in the end, Saddam always turns on you, and the Saudis always betray you. If we support evil, the longterm price is almost always too high. And now we don’t have to. Since 1989, or ‘91, depending on how you want to date it, we’ve been the only superpower. We haven’t thought about what we’ve been doing.
Am I hearing echoes of Woodrow Wilson?
Well, if you look at the 1990s, America has been defending the legacy of czars, emperors, kaisers, and kings. It’s ludicrous. The greatest democracy in history defends borders drawn by European imperialists in Berlin in 1884 and 1885 or at Versailles—and for that matter, some drawn at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. When we say that borders are inviolable, that we always respect sovereignty, we pretend that somehow humanity has achieved this magical state where existing borders are perfect. Well, they’re not perfect. For example, mightn’t it be better if there were border changes in Afghanistan, if its northern and western territories became part of a marginally greater Uzbekistan and Iran? These territories weren’t always Afghan. I’m not saying such changes would be for the better. I’m saying at least think about these options. In Washington, D.C., and the State Department especially, we won’t even think about them. It’s sheer inertia.