Book review: Endless War


Counterinsurgency evangelist Ralph Peters is not well known in these parts. This is a pity, as he is a vocal, if somewhat strident, on the subject. Fortunately for those wishing to read him, the Internet brings a solution and many of his missives can be sourced and read online.

A retired US Army lieutenant colonel, Peters often writes for military history magazine, Armchair General, military journals such as Parameters, Military Review, and Armed Forces Journal, and mainstream media outlets such USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Newsweek, and the New York Post. He has also appeared as a commentator on PBS, Fox News, CNN and other US networks.

Endless War, released this year, is a collection of essays and reports written for these various publications, some of which are not readily available here in Africa. They are opinionated and partisan – and interesting. Policy makers and military professionals will do well to read Peters and better to discuss and debate his points-of view. Politically correct he is not. Indeed,he says “those who deny history die of myth.”
“History isn’t comforting, and herein lies its public relations problem. Recent bursts of violence notwithstanding, we Americans have been blessed to live in such deep peace, prosperity and comfort so long that we find humankinds’s record unbearable: we want no part of it. For the man or woman whose notion of tragedy is a cancelled vacation, the mad butchery splashing history with blood is socially unacceptable. But we’re a species that fights when sufficiently frustrated. And under the brutal pressures of globalisation, human frustration will increase throughout our lifetimes. We face an era of endless war, relieved only by interludes of exhaustion. We may wish it otherwise – and I do – but history insists that we’re murderous animals, and the worst among us feel most alive when inflicting pain on others.
“Yesteryear’s fairy tales warned us not to trust the wolves, but today’s well-brought up children are expected to consider the wolf’s needs and discontents.” Sometimes, though, the wolf needs to be killed.

Does it need to be added that the lessons of counterinsurgency are particularly applicable to peace enforcement and more assertive forms of peacekeeping as seen in the Congo under Dutch Major General Patrick Cammaert.

To give the defenceWeb reader a feel for Peters, and why you should buy this book, I place below links to some of the essays in Endless War and include a memorable quote or two.

When Muslim Armies Won, Armed Forces Journal, September 2008: “We’re the masters of conventional logistics. Our enemies reject the conventions and pick up whatever they need at the local bazaar.”

Dream Warriors, Armed Forces Journal, May/June 2007: “Until we are willing to confront the mentality — the soul — of our enemies honestly, we can’t and won’t defeat them. We seek a logical understanding of mass violence, but war and civil strife rarely explode because of rational grievances. Complaints about oppression, poverty or injustice may serve as superficial catalysts, but few wars can be traced to objective decision-making by the dispassionate leaders of cool-headed populations. War is an act of passion, not of policy…”

The Halfway War, Armchair General online, January 22, 2009: “Life isn’t fair, and neither is war—especially the challenge of fighting faith-fueled terrorists. To win, we have to kill enough of them to destroy their organization and break the will of any survivors. The terrorists only need to survive in sufficient numbers to pop back up and thumb their noses. Yet, the necessity of killing terrorist leadership cadres in large numbers is a lesson Western states … have difficulty absorbing and remembering. … A half-fought war—that bizarre vice of democracies—doesn’t save lives in the long run, but guarantees a future round of violence—probably with higher stakes and definitely with greater ferocity. In stopping short of its essential goals, Israel broke a fundamental rule of all warfare: He who is unwilling to pay the butcher’s bill promptly will pay it with compound interest in the end.”

Taliban from outer space, New York Post, February 3, 2009: “In my years as an intelligence officer, I saw colleagues make the same blunder over and over: They rushed to stress the ways in which the Russians, the Chinese or the Iranians were ‘just like us.’ It’s the differences that kill you, though.”

Wanted: Occupation Doctrine, Armed Forces Journal, April 2007: “Army leaders have yet to grasp two vital points: First, the refusal to prepare for a given mission is not an effective means of avoiding the mission.”

Learning to lose, The American Interest, July/August 2007: “What do Shakespeare’s polar opposite characters have to do with the education of the officer corps of the US Armed Forces … Only this: Our military needs Henrys, yet for half a century it’s been hellbent and determined to turn out Hamlets…”

Bribing troops to quit, New York Post, October 6,2007: “Contractors are looting our military – while wrapping themselves in the flag.”
Dishonest doctrine, Armed Forces Journal, December 2007: “A year after its publication, the Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual remains deeply disturbing, both for the practical dangers it creates and for the dishonest approach employed to craft it.”

Fighting words, Armed Forces Journal, October 2008: “We desperately want our enemies to be reasonable, to operate from motives we can nail down neatly and explain without too much discomfort. But religious extremists are, by definition, not reasonable. The fanatic is driven by faith in a greater reality than that which our senses identify in our waking hours. … Nonetheless, various US government outlets and agencies … have been discouraged or forbidden outright from bringing religion into their analysis of our enemies, or from using terms such as ‘Islamist terrorist,’ because we would rather avoid giving the least offence than accurately describe the ambitious murderers we face. It’s a bit like banning the word ‘Nazi’ when describing Hitler.”

The damage done, Armed Forces Journal: “The quickest way to discredit a good idea is to execute it incompetently. Human nature will blame the idea along with those who botched it. The presidential administration of George W. Bush came to power with a number of sound, even crucial, military and strategic concepts in mind, such as regime change, pre-emptive attacks, punitive expeditions and decapitation strikes. Unfortunately, the implementation of such strategic endeavours was entrusted to a cadre of inexperienced, stunningly arrogant pseudo-academics who were, at best, close-minded and naive.”

12 Myths of twenty-first century war, The American Legion Magazine: “Myth No. 1: War doesn’t change anything. This campus slogan contradicts all of human history. … No one believes that war is a good thing, but it is sometimes necessary. We need not agree in our politics or on the manner in which a given war is prosecuted, but we can’t pretend that if only we laid down our arms all others would do the same. Wars, in fact, often change everything. Who would argue that the American Revolution, our Civil War or World War II changed nothing? Would the world be better today if we had been pacifists in the face of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan? Certainly, not all of the changes warfare has wrought through the centuries have been positive.”

Assessing the surge, Armed Forces Journal, October 2007: “…counterinsurgency warfare is about killing those who need killing, helping those who need help — and knowing the difference between the two.”

War’s irrational motivators, Armed Forces Journal, August 2008: “The fundamental dictum guiding our diplomats and analysts has been that states and human collectives act in their own rational self-interest. This is utterly wrong…”

Wishful thinking and indecisive wars, The Journal of National Security Affair, Spring 2009: “The most troubling aspect of international security for the United States is not the killing power of our immediate enemies, which remains modest in historical terms, but our increasingly effete view of warfare. The greatest advantage our opponents enjoy is an uncompromising strength of will, their readiness to ‘pay any price and bear any burden’ to hurt and humble us. As our enemies’ view of what is permissible in war expands apocalyptically, our self-limiting definitions of allowable targets and acceptable casualties—hostile, civilian and our own—continue to narrow fatefully.”

Endless War

Ralph Peters

Stackpole Books