March 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 1
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
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.
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.
I’d like to see us go back to where it is possible, within the realistic limitations of geostrategy, to support plebiscites so that people can agree on whom they want to live with or who should be their leader. I would like to see us on the side of human rights. We talk about human rights very selectively. We beat up on Burma because we don’t have any trade with it, but Saudi Arabia’s abuses of human rights have been vastly worse, and we don’t say boo. Sometimes in the short term, as with Turkey, which is our big aircraft carrier in the Middle East, we have to go softly, but even with Turkey we could talk tougher behind the scenes. Human rights should always be one of the pillars of our foreign policy. I want America to be on the side of the downtrodden, the huddled masses, the tired and the poor. Why not?
You’ve argued that it’s been the business of the United States to destroy empires, that the United States has been the greatest of the anti-imperialist powers.
European imperialism is still hard to assess with a cold eye. We’re too close to it. When we look at the question in a few centuries, I suspect we’ll decide that the imperial powers did some good things, a lot of bad things, and many indifferent things. But in our time they’ve long since outlived their usefulness. They probably started to do so by the eighteenth century, certainly by the nineteenth and absolutely by the twentieth. The United States seems almost like an organic response to the problem of empire. If you look at our wars, even before we were a nation—for example, the series of conflicts leading up to the French and Indian War—we were fighting empires while being a part of one. We were under British suzerainty fighting against the French Empire.
The clash of civilizations is a great thesis, but it does not describe a new phenomenon. The history of the eastern Mediterranean in the twelfth century B.c. is the clash of civilizations, and so are the imperial wars of the eighteenth century. In the eighteenth century the French and Indian War is crucial, and the colonial militia is decisive. On the Plains of Abraham, we prove that modern empires can fall. We show that it’s possible. Well, we fight the greatest empire of that age, the British Empire, twice, once to kick it out, and once to confirm it’s got to stay out. Our next war is against the Mexican Empire. The first phase of our struggle against empires climaxes with the Civil War, when we destroy the imperial legacies of human bondage and a landed aristocracy. That first phase ends with Seward’s purchase of Alaska, and it roughly defines American territory as we know it, except for Hawaii.
What’s the second phase?
In 1898 phase two kicks in, and America starts looking outward. 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. The Spanish Empire was decrepit, archaic, and bankrupt, but it was an empire, and we reached out and broke it, and we began becoming a new form of empire in the process. The Japanese saw that the Europeans didn’t all gang up on the Americans for destroying a European empire, so a half-dozen years later they took on the other decrepit empire in the Far East, the empire of the czars, and destroyed part of it. In the First World War we were fighting alongside empires but also against them, and we destroyed the decrepit Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires and the upstart Second Reich. In the Second World War we destroyed the Italian empire, the Japanese empire, and the German Third Reich. By the end of the Cold War we’d destroyed the last great surviving European empire, the Soviet incarnation of the Russian Empire of the czars, and in some respects become an empire ourselves, although a new kind.
This process was layered and complex. In Indochina we were an anti-imperial power fighting imperial wars against anti-imperialists backed by imperial powers. Communism was an imperial force, the last great wave of European imperialism. But at the same time, the Vietnamese and Cambodians were fighting their own anti-imperial struggle against us. By the nineties we’d directly or indirectly been involved in the destruction of almost every European empire. Even the Dutch in Indonesia had to leave back in 1949 because America basically said, “You’ve got to go home.” The Belgians pretty much withered on their own. The Portuguese mostly withered on their own too, but sad to say, we apparently gave Indonesia a green light to kick them out of East Timor, which we came to regret less than a quarter of a century later. Finally, in the course of restructuring empires we’ve gotten a legacy of behaving like a new sort of imperial power. I want us to continue to be this new sort of enlightened imperial power. It’s the moral, right, and wise thing to do.
Is the Chinese empire the last one that you think America will destroy?
I don’t see China as an empire. It’s got some imperial possessions, but it’s not an empire in the European sense. I think the greatest threat to the Chinese is internal fissuring. There might be a period of warring states. There have been such periods throughout Chinese history. Whether we’ll see a division between the rich east coast and the poor interior, whether we will see a Chinese democracy or a renewal of dictatorship, perhaps of a grotesque and monstrous form, nobody knows. China is the great wild card for the twenty-first century. It’s important that we avoid the American arrogance of imagining we can have a decisive effect on a power like China. We’re not even going to have a decisive effect on Indonesia, but if we engage there, we can make a difference. With China, we’re playing on the margins. Patience is the one great virtue Americans lack. It’s true in our personal lives, it’s true in our consumer habits, and it’s certainly true in geostrategy.
We lack patience, but you believe Americans have virtues that increase our edge against possible competitors. What are they?
I believe that perhaps our greatest advantage is a tradition that grew up over centuries, that we inherited from England. This is our tradition of openness to new information, of respect for empirical data, and of resistance to theoretical constructs other than those generated within the scientific community. Theoretical constructs did fantastic damage to Europe in the twentieth century, and much of the rest of the world lives in a fantasy land. They do not have our ingrained, hard-learned ability to separate fact from fiction. We have our myths, but we’re not paralyzed by them, and we question them. There are many ways you can divide the world, but I think one of the more useful ways is between factualizing societies and mythologizing societies. Listen to our enemies’ rhetoric. They’re in love with their myths of themselves, both old myths and relatively recent ones, and they’re myths of self-justification.
The other crucial American advantage is the fact that over the past 150 years American women have fought their way into the workplace and the educational system. This means that today America operates on a wartime basis every single day in terms of our utilization of human capital. Rosie the Riveter is in the boardroom, she’s on campus, she’s flying jets off carriers. The numbers aren’t hard to understand. This is grade-school math. Because of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, because of Susan B. Anthony—and the Pankhursts in England—the American economy is booming. Greenspan’s done a good job, but it was really the feminists who put us over the top.
Look at our tremendous openness to the utilization of human capital, the multiple revolutions that have occurred in our lifetimes and are still developing, the opening of our society to women, to minorities, to old people. Traditionally the role of old people in societies has been to consume resources, mind the kids, and die. Yes, they’re romanticized as imparting wisdom, but in fact they’re drooling in the soup. In America today they’re healthier and they’re active. My father-in-law is one of my heroes. A former marine, a Korean War vet, a workingman, he worked hard all his life, built a good life for himself and his family. His wife worked too. Now he’s formally retired, but he works with Habitat for Humanity, he drives a volunteer ambulance, and he still works part-time for his company when it needs him. He’s about 70 and still contributing. This is happening at a time when in Europe if you lose your job at age 50, you’re probably not going to get another one.
Of course we’re pretty much focused on the Islamic world now. What does history suggest about how things will play out there?
Having gone out and seen much of the world—more than 50 countries—I find it clear that some cultures are better structured than others for success in the postmodern world. I’m most pessimistic about the Arab heartlands of Islam. I think the Indonesians have a fighting chance. Persia may surprise us all and turn out to be the first modern market economy and democracy in that part of the world. The average Iranian desperately wants to re-embrace the West and America in particular. So I’m hopeful about Iran—Persian civilization is amazingly robust—and I’m hopeful about Turkey.
In countries where there’s a struggle going on for the soul and future of Islam, the jury’s still out. I’m actually increasingly optimistic. But I do believe the last couple of centuries demonstrate that cultures that oppress women, that don’t have freedom of information, that don’t value secular education, that have one dominant religion that infects the state and has power over the state, and whose basic unit of social organization is a clan, tribe, or extended family are just not going to compete with the West and especially with the United States. So I’m extremely pessimistic about the old Islamic heartland.
I personally feel that we’ve made a grotesque mistake aligning ourselves with the most oppressive of the Arabs, with the Arab world’s Beverly Hillbillies. Other Arabs built Damascus, Córdoba, Baghdad, Cairo. The Saudis never built anything. The fact that they came into their oil wealth was a disaster, not for us but for the Arab world, because it gave these malevolent hicks raw economic power over the populations of poor Islamic states, such as Egypt. The line about Al Qaeda that’s absolutely true is that Saudis supplied the money and Egyptians supplied the brains. So Saudi money, spent to support their gro tesquely repressive version of one of the world’s great religions, has been a disaster for the Arab world.
What do you see as the historical origins of our strength?
Freedom of information originates in two things, the movable type printing press and the Protestant Reformation. The latter benefits everybody, irrespective of his or her religion, because it breaks down the idea of there being just one path to the truth. The printing press makes the Reformation possible, because suddenly the one true church can no longer contain heretical movements. Information travels faster than it can be suppressed. And the Protestant Reformation is the seminal event in the rise of the West. It opens the door for the last great Western religion, the secular religion of science. Without that fissure, without that breakdown in the one path to the truth, you can’t have science.
In Islam the historical symmetry is chilling. Within 10 years of Gutenberg’s invention of movable type, a prince, astronomer, mathematician, and poet, Ulûgh Beg of Samarqand, built a great observatory. He was a genius, their Galileo, but the mullahs murdered him, and I take that moment as the point at which it all started calcifying. There are myriad factors in the Islamic decline, but the decline itself has been irreversible. Muslims never turn it around; they never have their reformation that breaks down the one true path. You’re either Sunni or Shiah, or perhaps a Sufi offshoot cult. And the reason Indonesia has a chance is that it’s never signed up for one path.
You’ve argued that nineteenth-century concepts of international relations may be outmoded. In fact, aren’t you pretty skeptical about national sovereignty, international organizations, and international law?
The idea of absolute state sovereignty is relatively new, and it derives from agreements among kings, emperors, kaisers, and czars for their mutual benefit. What we’re left with from the state making of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe is a legacy that tells us we cannot intervene in states as they slaughter their own citizens because they’re sovereign. By that logic, Hitler would have been perfectly legitimate as long as he killed only German Jews. It’s patently flawed logic. Any state that benefits only a dictatorship, oligarchy, or clique, that oppresses, brutalizes, and even massacres elements of its own citizenry, has no legitimate claim on sovereignty—period. Sovereignty is fine for contemporary Japan, the European states, or, for that matter, India. Mexico is now coming along and trying very hard. But states like Iraq, Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, and a number of African thugocracies have no legitimate claim on sovereignty.
This is part of your pushing for a revolution in American military ethics. One of your most controversial points is that it is wrong for us to refuse to assassinate the leaders of enemy forces.
Yes, we have a prohibition against assassination. We tend to trace it to CIA excesses, but it’s an older tradition, and it again goes back to the mutual agreements of kings not to hurt one another: “We’re in a fight, and we’ll take Burgundy, we’ll take Flanders, but we’re not going to depose you, we’re not going to kill you, because then you might kill us.” It was a gentleman’s agreement. Today it should be obvious that if the problem is Saddam, the solution isn’t targeting the Iraqi people, who are suffering far worse than we are. The solution is targeting Saddam and his clique. Again, you have the limits of inherited language. Assassination is a loaded word, and we don’t have a better one. What we’re starting to have is the technology to leap over intervening armies and go after the sponsors. Wouldn’t that be far more moral than plowing our way through the conscripts who don’t want to be there in the first place?
Ten years ago you were far more skeptical about U.S. military intervention in the developing world. Why the change of heart?
I was wrong, and I learned. The key experience was my peripheral—very peripheral—involvement in the first Balkan crisis, in 1992. Yugoslavia was initially a small cancer, but we let it metastasize. At the time, the American armed forces were shrinking. We had a very small military for our global responsibilities. The Europeans were bragging that they didn’t need the United States any more; the Soviet Union was gone, and they could do it themselves. And I thought, great, let the French and the Germans and the Brits do the Balkans. They certainly have the manpower and the money. I still think Europe had the power to do it, but I deluded myself about its will. With the benefit of hindsight, I see that the only hope for avoiding the bloodbath was early and decisive U.S. involvement. I will always be ashamed that I took the Europeans at their word and that I raised my minor voice against the intervention in Yugoslavia back in 1992.
After Vietnam, where the leadership left it hanging out to dry, our military has been extremely wary of intervention. But there are times when we are our brother’s keeper. We know when the human rights violations are intolerable, when genocide is going on. There are times when you must go, times when the price is right and you should go, and other times when it’s impossible, when you’re foolish to go. But you need a granular understanding, a tactile feel for foreign cultures, to be able to judge objectively and wisely. That’s why we need better intelligence. You can’t intervene everywhere. You have to choose the ones that are doable.
Somalia was a mistake, for instance. It was one of those cases where we needed to get food in and then leave. Mission creep is often used as an excuse for not doing something, but in Somalia, where we stayed too long and tried to do too much, mission creep was a valid complaint.
We got into the middle of clan fights that were all about food and power and tribal turf, and because we couldn’t stop them, we shouldn’t have tried to. We had a Mr. Micawber foreign policy, hoping something would turn up, hoping they’d see the light and there’d be a magic solution. There are never magic solutions in devastated, war-torn states. After the Battle of Mogadishu, which we won overwhelmingly, we made things worse by cutting and running. The failure of nerve of the Clinton administration encouraged our enemies to believe that whenever you kill a few Americans, they’ll run away. Osama bin Laden talked a lot about Somalia.
But you’ve argued that American military dominance in conventional warfare is about to become overwhelming, that nobody will fight us on our terms. So won’t the future mostly be Somalias?
Any dictator or regime happy to take on the U.S. military in conventional war is an idiot, but there are always idiots. Wiser enemies will take an asymmetrical tack. The operation on September 11, detestable though it was, was brilliantly executed: complex, well imagined, and amazingly well conducted. They did seriously underestimate our strength and our response, so the lesson all around is never to underestimate your opponents. This lesson is broadly applicable. Radical regimes or nonstate entities can take imaginative, incisive, asymmetrical approaches, but we also have to worry about opposing major powers. It’s not even constructive to name names.
You’ve pointed to nasty consequences of the comparative success of America, suggesting that this new century may be quite a dark one because of it.
Jealousy is a powerful human emotion. Hatred is a tremendous emotional release. Blame is cathartic. At this time in history, the United States is humane, free, rich, and powerful. The Arab Islamic world is just the opposite. Our success is infuriating to people who value their own culture, who love their traditions even though they no longer work, and who look at our enormous success with inchoate envy.
Ten years ago, when I tried to talk about the role of religious belief and the power of religion, it was not considered a serious strategic factor. People talked about economics and demographics, about political structures and development theory. Since September 11, people are perfectly happy to talk about religion. In the future we’ll get around to recognizing the neuroses, if not psychoses, that are far too prevalent within the Arabian heartland of the Islamic world. I believe that a primeval terror of female sexuality is a significant strategic factor, one we’ve failed to examine. Males in these traditional cultures see the pictures of Pamela Anderson or replay Sharon Stone movies, and they want a piece of the action. But they don’t want their daughters and wives to turn into Pamela Anderson, or Britney Spears, or, for that matter, Emmylou Harris. They’re mesmerized by the sexual component in our culture, which our media grossly exaggerate and which they misread.
They don’t understand that most Americans lead surprisingly moral lives, that we work, we go to church, and we’re not constantly lascivious. We have a good time when we’re in college and when we’re young; then we mostly get it out of our systems. But that doesn’t work in a culture that sees female virginity as the ultimate good to be traded to your familial or clan advantage. We’ve outgrown that view, although it took us a long time. In the West the great revolution of the twentieth century was the birth control pill. The transition from women as property to women as full participants in society has been the greatest revolution in human history, and its reverberations will be felt for centuries. Repressive cultures are horrified by it because it calls into question their most fundamental biological, sociological, and religious ideas. However, the oppression of women anywhere is not only a human rights violation, it’s a suicide pact with the future.
You’ve written that the inability to imagine that American wealth actually came from work is another reason our enemies can’t understand us.
I’m a great believer in America and the American dream, but in my case it took about five generations. I’m descended from coal miners on both sides. Before me, my people coughed up their lungs, went hungry during strikes, and lived in company houses with 12 to 15 people in two tiny bedrooms until tuberculosis reduced the body count. So it took America a long time. We worked long and hard, and we suffered and struggled and fought our internal battles and fell by the wayside and died in civil wars. The Gilded Age wasn’t very gilded for most Americans. People from developing countries see only the wealth, not the long struggle to create that wealth, and they make the comforting assumption that Americans are rich because they have stolen it.
I wish more people read old books, especially some of those that are now allegedly discredited. Weber’s Protestant ethic has been dismissed by revisionists. Maybe we should partially rehabilitate it, because work ethics matter, and not every culture has one. Another writer who’s due for a bit of rehabilitation is Sigmund Freud, because terror of female sexuality is a real and crippling phenomenon. And William James. Read The Varieties of Religious Experience, and you’ll get closer to Al Qaeda than you will with any of those instant books on Osama bin Laden. Another one is Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium. It’s the best single volume in any language on the roots of religious fanaticism. If you look at my strategic writings—for want of a better term—they’re clearly influenced by experience and direct observation but also by reading. Any observation without reading is almost as bad as reading without observation. When we think about the evidence that’s available for formulating American grand strategy in the years to come, the study of history is most of what we’ve got.