The Magazine

The Counterrevolution
in Military Affairs

Fashionable thinking about defense ignores the great threats of our time.

Feb 6, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 20 • By RALPH PETERS
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One of the most consistently disheartening experiences an adult can have today is to listen to the endless attempts by our intellectuals and intelligence professionals to explain religious terrorism in clinical terms, assigning rational motives to men who have moved irrevocably beyond reason. We suffer under layers of intellectual asymmetries that hinder us from an intuitive recognition of our enemies. Our rear-guard rationalists range from those convinced that every security problem has a technological solution, if only it can be found, to those who insist that members of al Qaeda and its affiliates are motivated by finite, comprehensible, and logical ambitions that, if satisfied, would make our problems disappear.

Living in unprecedented safety within our borders and lacking firsthand knowledge of the decay beyond, honorable men and women have convinced themselves that Osama bin Laden's professed goals of driving the United States from the Middle East and removing corrupt regional governments are what global terror is all about. They gloss over his ambition of reestablishing the caliphate and his calls for the destruction of Israel as rhetorical effects--when they address them at all. Yet, Islamist fanatics are more deeply committed to their maximalist goals than to their lesser ones--and their unspoken ambitions soar beyond logic's realm. Religious terrorists are committed to an apocalypse they sense within striking distance. Their longing for union with god is inseparable from their impulse toward annihilation. They seek their god in carnage, and will go on slaughtering until he appears to pat them on the back.

A dangerous asymmetry exists in the type of minds working the problem of Islamist terrorism in our government and society. On average, the "experts" to whom we are conditioned to listen have a secular mentality (even if they go to church or synagogue from habit). And it is a very rare secular mind that can comprehend religious passion--it's like asking a blind man to describe the colors of fire. One suspects that our own fiercest believers are best equipped to penetrate the mentality--the souls--of our Islamist enemies, although those believers may not be as articulate as the secular intellectuals who anxiously dismiss all possibilities that lie outside their theoretical constructs.

Those who feel no vital faith cannot comprehend faith's power. A man or woman who has never been intoxicated by belief will default to mirror-imaging when asked to describe terror's roots. He who has never experienced a soul-shaking glimpse of the divine inevitably explains religion-driven suicide bombers in terms of a lack of economic opportunity or social humiliation. But the enemies we face are burning with belief, on fire with their vision of an immanent, angry god. Our intelligentsia is less equipped to understand such men than our satellites are to find them.

All of our technologies and comforting theories are confounded by the strength of the soul ablaze with faith. Our struggle with Islamist terror (other religious terrors may haunt our descendants) has almost nothing to do with our actions in the Middle East. It's about a failing civilization's embrace of a furious god.

We are not (yet) at war with Islam, but the extreme believers within Islam are convinced that they are soldiers in a religious war against us. Despite their rhetoric, they are the crusaders. Even our conceptions of the struggle are asymmetrical. Despite the horrors we have witnessed, we have yet to take religious terrorists seriously on their own self-evident terms. We invaded a succession of their tormented countries, but haven't come close to penetrating their souls. The hermetic universe of the Islamist terrorist is immune to our reality (if not to our bullets), but our intellectuals appear equally incapable of accepting the religious extremist's reality.

We have no tools of persuasion effective against a millenarian belief. What logic can we wield against the soul fortified by faith and barricaded beyond argument? Even if we understood every nuance of our enemy's culture, the suicide bomber's intense faith and the terror chieftain's visions have burned through native cultural restraints. We are told, rather smugly, that the Koran forbids suicide. But our enemies are not concerned with how we read their faith. Religions are living things, and ultra-extremists are improvising a new and savage cult within Islam--even as they proclaim their return to a purified faith.

Security-wise, we have placed our faith in things, in bright (and expensive) material objects. But the counterrevolution in military affairs is based on the brilliant intuition that our military can be sidestepped often enough to challenge its potency. Certainly, we inflict casualties on our enemies--and gain real advantages from doing so--but we not only face an enemy who, as observed above, views death as a promotion, but also one who believes he has won even when he loses. If the suicide bomber completes his mission, he has won. But even if he is killed or dies short of his target, he has conquered a place in paradise. Which well-intentioned information operation of ours can compete with the conviction that a martyr's death leads to eternal joy?

Again, our intelligentsia falls woefully short. The most secularized element of our society--educated to avoid faith (or, at the very least, to shun enthusiastic, vigorous, proud, and public faith)--our professional thinkers have lost any sense of a literal paradise beyond the grave. But our enemies enjoy a faith as vivid as did our ancestors, for whom devils lurked in the undergrowth and paradise was an idealized representation of that which mortals knew. We are taught that we should never underestimate our enemies--yet, we underestimate the power of his faith, his most potent weapon.

Nor should we assume that Islamist extremists will remain the only god-haunted terrorists attacking established orders. This century may prove to be one of multi-sided struggles over the interpretation of god's will, between believers and unbelievers, between the varieties of the faithful, between monotheists and polytheists, between master faiths and secessionist movements, between the hollow worshippers of science and those swollen with the ecstasy of belief.

Naturally, we view the cardinal struggle as between the West and extremists within the Islamic world; yet, the bloodiest religious warfare of the coming decades may be between Sunni and Shia Muslims, or between African Muslims and the new, sub-Saharan Church Militant. Hindu extremists gnaw inward from the epidermis of Indian society, while even Buddhist monks have engaged in organized violence in favor of their ostensibly peaceable faith. In a bewildering world where every traditional society is under assault from the forces of global change, only religion seems to provide a reliable refuge. And each god seems increasingly a jealous god.

Faith is the great strategic factor that unbelieving faculties and bureaucracies ignore. It may be the crucial issue of this century. And we cannot even speak about it honestly. Give me a warrior drunk with faith, and I will show you a weapon beyond the dreams of any laboratory. Our guided bombs may kill individual terrorists, but the terrorist knows that our weapons can't kill his god.

Even in preparing for "big wars," we refuse to take the enemy into account. Increasingly, our military is designed for breathtaking sprints, yet a war with China--were one forced upon us by events--would be a miserable, long march. For all the rhetoric expended and the innumerable wargames played, the best metaphor for a serious struggle with Beijing--perhaps of Homeric length--comes from that inexhaustible little book, Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, with its pathetic image of a Western gunboat lobbing shells uselessly into a continent.

Given the comprehensive commitment and devastation required to defeat strategically and structurally weaker enemies such as Japan and Germany, how dare we pretend that we could drive China to sue for peace by fighting a well-mannered war with a small military whose shallow stocks of ammunition would be drained swiftly and could not be replaced in meaningful quantities? Would we try Shock and Awe, Part II, over Beijing, hoping to convince China's leaders to surrender at the sight of our special effects? Or would our quantitative incompetence soon force us onto the defensive?

We must be realistic about the military requirements of a war with China, but we also need to grasp that, for such an enemy, the military sphere would be only one field of warfare--and not the decisive one. What would it take to create an atmosphere of defeat in a sprawling nation of over one billion people? A ruthless economic blockade, on the seas, in the air, and on land, would be an essential component of any serious war plan, but the Chinese capability for sheer endurance might surprise us. Could we win against China without inflicting extensive devastation on Chinese cities? Would even that be enough? Without mirror-imaging again, can we identify any incentive China's leaders would have to surrender?

The Chinese version of the counterrevolution in military affairs puts less stress on a head-to-head military confrontation (although that matters, of course) and more on defeating the nation behind our military. Despite the importance Beijing attaches to a strong military, China won't fall into the trap that snared the Soviets--the attempt to compete with our military expenditures. Why fight battles you'll lose, when you can wage war directly against the American population by attacking its digital and physical infrastructure, its confidence and morale? In a war of mutual suffering, which population would be better equipped, practically and psychologically, to endure massive power outages, food-chain disruptions, the obliteration of databases, and even epidemic disease?

Plenty of Americans are tougher than we're credited with being, but what about the now-decisive intelligentsia? What about those conditioned to levels of comfort unimaginable to the generation that fought World War II (or even Vietnam)? Would 21st-century suburban Americans accept rationing without protests? Whenever I encounter Chinese abroad I am astonished by their chauvinism. Their confidence is reminiscent of Americans' a half century ago. Should we pretend that Chinese opinion-makers, such as they are, would feel inclined to attack their government as our journalists attack Washington? A war with China would be a massive contest of wills, and China might need to break the will of only a tiny fraction of our population. It only takes a few hundred men and women in Washington to decide that a war is lost.

As for our military technologies, how, exactly, would an F/A-22 destroy the Chinese will to endure and prevail? How would it counteract a hostile media? If we should worry about any strategic differences with China, they are the greater simplicity and robustness of China's less developed (hence, less fragile) infrastructure, and a greater will to win in Beijing. No matter how well our military might perform, sufficient pain inflicted on the American people could lead a weak national leadership to a capitulation thinly disguised as a compromise. Addicted to trade with China, many in America's business community would push for a rapid end to any conflict, no matter the cost to our nation as a whole. (When Chinese fighters forced down a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft on Hainan Island several years ago, American-business lobbyists rushed to Capitol Hill to plead for patience with China--they had no interest in our aircrew or our national good.)

The Chinese know they cannot defeat our military. So they intend to circumvent it, as surely as Islamist terrorists seek to do, if in more complex ways. For example, China's navy cannot guarantee its merchant vessels access to sea lanes in the Indian Ocean--routes that carry the oil on which modern China runs. So Beijing is working to build a web of formal and informal client relationships in the region that would deny the U.S. Navy port facilities, challenge the United States in global and regional forums, and secure alternate routes and sources of supply. China's next great strategic initiative is going to be an attempt to woo India, the region's key power, away from a closer relationship with the United States. Beijing may fail, but its strategists are thinking in terms of the out-years, while our horizon barely reaches from one Quadrennial Defense Review to the next.

Even in Latin America, China labors to develop capabilities to frustrate American purposes, weaken hemispheric ties, and divert our strategic resources during a Sino-American crisis. We dream of knock-out blows, while Beijing prepares the death of a thousand cuts. The Chinese are the ultimate heirs of B.H. Liddell Hart and his indirect approach: They would have difficulty conquering Taiwan militarily, but believe they could push us into an asymmetrical defeat through economic, diplomatic, and media campaigns in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and Latin America--while crippling the lifestyle of America's citizens.

It's become another cliché to observe how much of our manufacturing capability has moved to China while we tolerate, at our own business community's behest, Beijing's cynical undervaluation of its currency. If you don't think this matters, try to go a single week without buying or using a product made in China. A conflict with Beijing might be lost on the empty shelves of Wal-Mart. Indeed, Beijing's most effective international allies are American corporations. In the Second World War we famously converted our consumer industries into producers of wartime materiel. Will a future president find himself trapped by our defense industry's inability to produce consumer goods in wartime?

A war with China would be a total war, waged in spheres where our military is legally forbidden to engage, from data banks to shopping malls. How many readers of this magazine have participated in a wargame that addressed crippling consumer shortages as a conflict with China dragged on for years? Instead, we obsess about the fate of a pair of aircraft carriers. For that matter, how about a scenario that realistically portrayed the global media as siding overwhelmingly with China? The metastasizing power of the media is a true strategic revolution of our time--one to which our narrow revolution in military affairs has no reply.

Oh, by the way: Could we win a war with China without killing hundreds of millions of Chinese?

Many of us have struggled to grasp the unreasonable, even fanatical anti-Americanism in the global media--including the hostility in many news outlets and entertainment forums here at home. How can educated men and women, whether they speak Arabic, Spanish, French, or English, condemn America's every move, while glossing over the abuses of dictators and the savagery of terrorists? Why is America blamed even when American involvement is minimal or even nonexistent? How has the most beneficial great power in history been transformed by the international media into a villain of relentless malevolence?

There's a straightforward answer: In their secular way, the world's media elites are as unable to accept the reality confronting them as are Islamist fundamentalists. They hate the world in which they are forced to live, and America has shaped that world.

It isn't that the American-wrought world is so very bad for the global intelligentsia: The freedom they exploit to condemn the United States has been won, preserved, and expanded by American sacrifices and America's example. The problem is that they wanted a different world, the utopia promised by socialist and Marxist theorists, an impossible heaven on earth that captured their imagination as surely as visions of paradise enrapture suicide bombers.

The global media may skew secular, but that doesn't protect them against alternative forms of faith. Europeans, for example, have discarded a belief in God as beneath their sophistication--yet they still need a Satan to explain their own failures, just as their ancestors required devils to explain why the milk soured or the herd sickened. Today, America has replaced the horned, cloven-footed Lucifer of Europe's past; behind their smug assumption of superiority, contemporary Europeans are as superstitious and irrational as any of their ancestors: They simply believe in other demons.

One of the most perverse aspects of anti-Americanism in the global media and among the international intelligentsia is that it's presented as a progressive, liberal movement, when it's bitterly reactionary, a spiteful, elitist revolt against the empowerment of the common man and woman (the core ethos of the United States). Despite their outward differences, intellectuals are the logical allies of Islamist extremists--who are equally opposed to social progress and mass freedom. Of course, the terrorists have the comfort of religious faith, while the global intelligentsia, faced with the death of Marxism and the triumph of capitalism, has only its rage.

Human beings are hard-wired for faith. Deprived of a god, they seek an alternative creed. For a time, nationalism, socialism, Marxism, and a number of other-isms appeared to have a chance of working--as long as secular intellectuals rejected the evidence of Stalin's crimes or Mao's savagery (much as they overlook the brutalities of Islamist terrorists today). The intellectuals who staff the global media experienced the American-made destruction of their secular belief systems, slowly during the Cold War, then jarringly from 1989 to 1991. The experience has been as disorienting and infuriating to them as if we had proved to Muslim fanatics that their god does not exist.

America's triumph shames the Middle East and Europe alike, and has long dented the pride of Latin America. But the brotherhood of Islamist terrorists and the tribe of global intellectuals who dominate the media are the two groups who feel the most fury toward America. The terrorists dream of a paradise beyond the grave; intellectuals fantasized about utopias on earth. Neither can stomach the practical success of the American way of life, with its insistence on individual performance and its resistance to unearned privilege. For the Islamists, America's power threatens the promises of their faith. For world-intellectuals, America is the murderer of their most precious fantasies.

Is it any wonder that these two superficially different groups have drifted into collusion?

The suicide bomber may be the weapon of genius of our time, but the crucial new strategic factor is the rise of a global information culture that pretends to reflect reality, but in fact creates it. Iraq is only the most flagrant example of the disconnect between empirical reality and the redesigned, politically inflected alternative reality delivered by the media. This phenomenon matters far more than the profiteers of the revolution in military affairs can accept--the global information sphere is now a decisive battleground. Image and idea are as powerful as the finest military technologies.

We have reached the point (as evidenced by the first battle of Falluja) where the global media can overturn the verdict of the battlefield. We will not be defeated by suicide bombers in Iraq, but a chance remains that the international media may defeat us. Engaged with enemies to our front, we try to ignore the enemies at our back--enemies at whom we cannot return fire. Indeed, if anything must be profoundly reevaluated, it's our handling of the media in wartime. We have no obligation to open our accounts to proven enemies, yet we allow ourselves to be paralyzed by platitudes.

This doesn't mean that all of the media are evil or dishonest. It means we need to have the common sense and courage to discriminate between media outlets that attempt to report fairly (and don't compromise wartime secrets) and those whose track records demonstrate their hostility to our national purposes or their outright support for terrorists.

We got it right in World War II, but today we cannot count on patriotism among journalists, let alone their acceptance of censorship boards. Our own reporters pretend to be "citizens of the world" with "higher loyalties," and many view patriotism as decidedly down-market. Obsessed with defending their privileges, they refuse to accept that they also have responsibilities as citizens. But after journalistic irresponsibility kills a sufficient number of Americans, reality will force us to question the media's claim that "the public has a right to know" every secret our government holds in wartime.

The media may constitute the decisive element in the global counterrevolution in military affairs, and the video camera--that insatiable accomplice of the terrorist--the cheap negation of our military technology. (And beware the growing capability of digital technology to create American "atrocities" from scratch.) We are proud of our ability to put steel precisely on target anywhere in the world, but guided bombs don't work against faith or an unchallenged flood of lies. We have fallen in love with wind-up dolls and forgotten the preeminence of the soul.

We need to break the mental chains that bind us to a technology-über-alles dream of warfare--a fantasy as absurd and dated as the Marxist dreams of Europe's intellectuals. Certainly, military technologies have their place and can provide our troops with useful tools. But technologies are not paramount. In warfare, flesh and blood are still the supreme currency. And strength of will remains the ultimate weapon. Welcome to the counterrevolution.

Ralph Peters, a retired Army officer, is the author of 21 books, including New Glory: Expanding America's Global Supremacy and the forthcoming Never Quit the Fight.