Bloodlust – a natural by-product of a long war?

This is the 4th post in a series about some ways in which our Long War are changing us.

  1. How will the Long War affect America? Will it make us stronger or weaker? Crazy? Unleash our dark side?
  2. Why we fight. Causes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  3. Killing prisoners, our new tactic in the War on Terror?

Might there be a psychological basis for our wars?  Or might we suffer psychological damage from our long wars?  Perhaps they might warp our values, perhaps even awakening an atavistic bloodlust.  Already we can see signs of this in our newspapers and on television.  See Ralph Peters’ “Wishful Thinking and Indecisive Wars“, Journal of International Security Affairs, Spring 2009 — Excerpt:

The point of all this is simple: Win. In warfare, nothing else matters. If you cannot win clean, win dirty. But win. Our victories are ultimately in humanity’s interests, while our failures nourish monsters.

Much of Peter’s essay is IMO good sense.  Don Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired) discusses these aspects in a favorable review at his blog on 29 May 2009.

But there is an element to this Vandergriff does not discuss.  “Winning” is not enough for success.  Winning the wrong way in the wrong war can destroy a nation.  As describe in “Lt. Col. Ralph Peters on Journalists: ‘Kill Them All’“, Richard Silverstein, posted at Tikun Olam, 21 May 2009 — Excerpt:

He hasn’t the faintest notions that it is possible that our victory, if we win dirty and betray every principle of value, will turn us into monsters. Then we won’t really need an enemy. We will have become out own worst enemy.

Imagine the Civil War with Peters at the helm instead of Lincoln.  Massive civilian casualties instead of few.  Routine torture and killing of prisoners (he seems to advocate both, the latter more clearly).  A horrific war made ever more so.  Would reconciliation have been possible?

And that’s in a just war.  The delusional self-righteousness of Peters and others has involved us in what are effect crusades — bringing light to people living in darkness (as he sees it).

Much of the power of American and our military comes from our record of using it good causes (Not always.  We’re people, not angels).    As in the lyrics of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the nation’s sword should be drawn only in a valid cause.   The mad crusades advocated by Peters do not quality, in my opinion  Nor in the minds of most Americans, which is why the need to concoct fake reasons to fight.  Saddam’s WMD’s in Iraq; to prevent another 9-11 in Afghanistan.

So we have wars supported neither by Americans nor the people being “helped” (which involves killing many of them).   Both aspects lead to much whining by pro-war advocates, that Americans are too weak and the targets (of our weapons and help) are ungrateful.  To sensible people these are warning signs of evil in progress.

Peter’s is the mad face of America, for all the world to see.  Combined with the fact of our massive military — fighting almost constantly around the world — might encourage some foreigners to believe that our grand strategy is just killing.  Everyone that is a threat.  Everyone that might be a threat.  Everyone that appears a threat in our delusional nightmares.  And their neighbors and relatives.

The results of this will not be pretty for America.  It’s a game that almost inevitably will end badly for us.  Do you think this is overstated?  Read on.


  1. More advice from Ralph Peters
  2. War bloggers
  3. Serious and responsible discussion of the horrific realities of war
  4. A note about the different types of blogging about war
  5. For More Information

(1)  More advice from Ralph Peters

These are snippets from Peter’s massive body of work, much of which is first-rate.  Still, these are horrifying.

(a)  Don’t stop until Hamas is destroyed“, New York Post, 5 January 2009

Here’s the bitter truth: Israel can’t stop its own bleeding without drowning Hamas in blood. That’s Hamas’ choice, not Israel’s. No negotiations, no compromises, and no shuttle-diplomacy bargains will ever placate terrorists who believe their god wants tributes of Jewish blood.

Israel may never get another such chance as this to rip the heart out of Hamas. But Israel needs the fortitude to accept painful friendly casualties on the ground and to resist international pressure – which will be fierce.

(b)  The Audacity of Rope — Crush all the Pirates — Now“, New York Post, 14 April 2009 — Excerpt:

Attack their harbors with land, sea and air power. Kill pirates, sink their vessels (including those dual-use fishing boats) and wreck their support infrastructure. The clans behind the pirates must feel sufficient pain to rein in their young thugs. The price for piracy should be stunning. And we don’t need to stay to rebuild Somalia. End the fix-it fetish now. We need to leave while their boats are still burning down to the waterline.

For a more realistic look at piracy, see the FM posts here and here.

(2)  War bloggers

Peters’ views are mirrored across the Internet on the sites of the warbloggers.  Somalia pirates, Hezbollah, the Taliban — for some people the answer is often to “kill them all.”  Somewhat like Ralph Peters, without Peter’s great knowledge and brilliance.

Why do these people get so much attention?  Perhaps they offer us simplistic and satisfying recommendations.  Mil-junk for the mind.  More interesting is why they are treated so respectfully (or ignored) by others outside their circle.

Here are excerpts from one site, Herschel Smith writing at The Captain’s Journal.  He’s IMO among the most knowledgeable and insightful of the war-bloggers, making these views more striking (I cited his excellent technical analysis in One telling similarity between the the Wehrmacht and the US Military).  As above, these are snippets from a large body of work.

But like so many of them — perhaps caught up in war-fever —  they’re blind to the strategic basis of what we’re doing.  (Andrew Exum might be another example, in a different way)

(a)  From “Financing the Taliban“, 15 August 2008 (Italic emphasis in the original):

“It isn’t about the poppy, marble or financiers from the house of Saud. It’s about the religious radicals practicing jihad because of their belief system, who would fight to the death to destroy the West. There is no solution except to kill them.”

(b)  Pirates in the Gulf of Aden”, 1 October 2008 — Excerpt:

“This is easy. We tell the LOAC and ROE lawyers that they’re special and that they should go to their rooms and write high-sounding platitudes about compassion in war so that they’re out of the way, we land the Marines on the ship, and we kill every last pirate. Then we hunt down his domiciles in Somali and destroy them, and then we find his financiers and buyers and kill them.”

For more examples of this see here and here.  As above, for a more realistic look at piracy see the FM posts here and here.

(c)   U.S. Marines versus Hezbollah: A Modest Proposal”, 12 August 2006 — Excerpt:

“So when will payback occur? Why not unleash the U.S. Marines on Hezbollah. Let’s watch payback happen “Marines-style!” The war will be dramatic and over very quickly. And Hezbollah will be no more. Problem gone.”

(3)  Serious and responsible discussion of the horrific realities of war

This kind of war-fever is a common but not inevitable effect of war.  The realities of war can be discussed in a responsible and useful manner.  Here are two examples.

(4)  A note about the different types of blogging about war

War blogs are written by a range of authors (serving, veterans, others), and often focus on the wider war.

I use the definition of “milblogs” given by Major Elizabeth Robbins (US Army) in “Muddy Boots 10:  the rise of Soldier blogs“, Military Review, September-October 2007:

Military web logs, known as blogs or milblogs, are small websites that Soldiers maintain as informal journals for personal comments, images, and links to other websites.

Milblogs are a subset of the larger category of ”war blogs”, providing what Swiger calls a “grunt level” view.  I recommend reading Major Robbins article, which shows the new and unique contribution of milblogs in explaining modern wars to the people back home.

There is a third category of  war blogger:  journalists.  First person reporting form the front lines.  Like Bill Roggio (at the Long War Journal), Michael Totten, and Michael Yon.

(5)  For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts about torture:

  1. Something every American should read, 25 March 2009
  2. So many Americans approve of torture; what does this tell us about America?, 30 April 2009
  3. We close our eyes to torture by our government. The Brits are stronger., 9 April 2009
  4. Dispatches from the front lines in the war for America’s soul, 11 May 2009
  5. Quote of the Day, 20 May 2009

Some posts about grand strategy:

  1. The Myth of Grand Strategy , 31 January 2006
  2. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy , 1 March 2006
  3. The Fate of Israel , 28 July 2006
  4. Why We Lose at 4GW , 4 January 2007
  5. America takes another step towards the “Long War” , 24 July 2007
  6. One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy? , 28 October 2007
  7. ABCDs for today: About Blitzkrieg, COIN, and Diplomacy , 21 February 2008
  8. America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past , 30 June 2008  – chapter 1 in a series of notes
  9. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris , 1 July 2008 – chapter 2
  10. America’s grand strategy, now in shambles , 2 July 2008 — chapter 3
  11. America’s grand strategy, insanity at work , 7 July 2008 — chapter 4
  12. Justifying the use of force, a key to success in 4GW , 8 July 2008 – chapter 5
  13. A lesson in war-mongering: “Maritime Strategy in an Age of Blood and Belief” , 8 July 2008 — chapter 6
  14. Geopolitical analysis need not be war-mongering , 9 July 2008 — chapter 7
  15. The world seen through the lens of 4GW (this gives a clearer picture) , (10 July 2008 — chapter 8
  16. The King of Brobdingnag comments on America’s grand strategy, 18 November 2008
  17. “A shattering moment in America’s fall from power”, 19 November 2008
  18. Is America a destabilizing force in the world?, 23 January 2009
  19. The US Army brings us back to the future, returning to WWI’s “cult of the offense”, 13 February 2009

12 thoughts on “Bloodlust – a natural by-product of a long war?”

  1. Fabius,

    Great column, you should mention, though I complimented Ralph Peters in that piece in May, I am a big fan of Andy Bacevich, which just wrote another great piece about how foolish the war in Afghanistan is, and I agree {“The War We Can’t Win – Afghanistan & the Limits of American Power“, Commonweal, 14 August 2009}. No one has proven yet in the beltway the value of being there except to root out the terror bases. Our foreign police is based on greed and the failure of our political leaders to find alternative ways to support our lavish lifestyle other than the facade of demorcracy everywhere in disquise our real empire.


  2. The people who make these kinds of arguments always seem to be making two basic assumptions

    First, the rather Calvinist notion that America is on the side of good through divine provenance or innate moral superiority rather than America is on the side of good because it strives to be good.

    Second, they’re operating under what Matthew Yglesias rather wonderfully called “The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics”. The idea that all of Americas failures result from insufficient ‘will’ or specifically willingness to kill.

    The fact that your analysis is proceeding from these to axioms doesn’t make you incapable of intelligent analysis in other areas. They don’t even mean you can’t reach the same conclusions as people who don’t share your worldview. The Somali pirates are a good example Gwynne Dyer and Ralph Peters reach similar conclusions although Peters is, as ever, more bloodthirsty. {See Dyer’s “Pirates: An Excellent Start“, 12 April 2009}

    The two problems are that one, these two axioms lead you into all kinds of strategic and tactical pitfalls. Second, that once these ideas become accepted by a large part of a nation’s leadership and population I doubt there’s anything that can shake them out of it barring a truly catastrophic war.
    FM Note: The Green Lantern theory of Geopolitics is one of the The best geopolitical webposts, ever.

  3. Robert Petersen

    Perhaps this bloodlust and wish for genocide (well – lets call it by the right name) has something to do with the fact that the enemy is so weak. I recall van Creveld once wrote about it, but it seems like he might have got something wrong when he thought the weakness of our enemy would make us weak instead.

    Instead of questioning ourself and ask whether we are doing the right thing our fury seems to grow exactly because the weak enemy actually manages to strike back and hurt us. I think there is even a doctrine for it called the Ledeen doctrine. According to Jonah Goldberg Michael Ledeen said in an early 1990s speech: “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business,”

    The point is that this is hardly possible to do with a great power like China or Russia, even though some might wish for it. But is possible against small and weak countries – or Somali pirates.

  4. Burke G Sheppard

    I suspect that a major miltary campaign against the Somali pirates would soon morph into long term nation building/counterinsurgency/occupation, because of the need to deal with their bases ashore. I’d rather not go there. At the moment, it seems better to provide escort, respond to indivdual attacks at sea as needed, and to encourage ships in the area to take prudent security measures. for now, the pirates aren’t inflicting enough losses to merit more of a military response than this.

    One other comment about Somalia occurs to me. I’ve heard it claimed that killing some of them will quickly discourage the others. I’m skeptical. The rewards of successful piracy are enough to motivate men to take serious risks, and I doubt these fellows can look forward to careers in tech field in Silicon valley if they decide to go straight.

  5. I recently finished Martin Van Creveld’s The Changing Face of War, where he talks about two ways to win a COIN campaign: The Northern Ireland model, or The Hama, Syria model. Briefly, that’s either patience with an emphasis on preventing death on all sides as in Northern Ireland, or total, brutal, focused violence carried out essentially face to face as the Assad brothers did at Hama in 1982. Hama worked for Assad because it was so brutal and complete that it only needed to be done that once, and so averted a civil war. The United States has never been able to move quickly enough nor have we the political stomach to pull off a Hama style massacre, and this is one more reason why what Peters and these others advocate isn’t worth our time.

  6. FM, you like to throw ‘delusional’ around at all who disagree with you; and you like to ask for facts. I think the second is fine, but the first is weak.

    You state: “Winning the wrong way in the wrong war can destroy a nation.”

    Since WW II, or since you’ve been alive, do you have a single example? Your hypothetical (delusional?) about Peters instead of Lincoln is hardly serious — but, if that was what you were thinking, is indicative of a weak, straw man argument.

    The increased bloodlust desire in a war is a serious issue. I remember my grandmother wanting to: nuke Hanoi, mine Haiphong harbor. As a lesson from Vietnam, in retrospect, I think it would have better to do so, and WIN, than to follow the FACTS about the actions we did follow, including withdrawal, Peace Treaty, cut off of possibility to enforce Peace Treaty, reduction in financial support to our S. Viet allies; followed by successful N. Viet commie attack (in violation of treaty), S. Viet surrender, successful mass executions (tens, hundreds? of thousands murdered in ‘peace’), hundreds of thousands of boat people, successful commie takeover and genocide in Cambodia.

    Do you dispute any of my facts above? I notice you carefully ignore them, allowing commenters to claim that the US is responsible — despite having left.

    Perhaps the Khmer Rhouge won the wrong way? But being Cambodian, they could hardly be said to have won the wrong war…

    In comparison to the numbers of S. Viet & Cambodians who WERE, in fact, killed by the US losing, I believe that mining of Haiphong and ‘intense enough to win’ bombing of Hanoi, up to and including a nuke, would have been far better for those thousands and millions of Viet people and Cambodian people who were murdered after the US left. Yes, it would have been worse for those N. Viet and their allies who were killed (not murdered — no peace treaty).
    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not share your fascination with re-fighting the Vietnam War. We lost due to inherent, predictable (and predicted) geopolitical weaknesses in our strategy — largely that the US had little at stake, while the war was critical to N. Vietnam. Hence we were likely to give up first. Your riffs on that just support this clear view. Except for fun, I have little interest in counterfactuals (“what if”), as events usually took their given course for sufficient reasons.

    I do overuse “delusional”, due to limitations of time and writing skill. It fits several of the themes described here. Also, it is shorter and more interesting than repeatedly saying “I disagree with the writer’s views.”

    As for winning wrong wars, the wrong way, history offers many examples. My favorite is the Third Punic War, with its horrific consequences on Rome’s internal balance. Here’s another: President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris.

  7. FM repy to #6: “I do overuse “delusional”, due to limitations of time and writing skill. It fits several of the themes described here. Also, it is shorter and more interesting than repeatedly saying ‘I disagree with the writer’s views.’”

    Personally I like “Coocoo for Cocoa-Puffs”, “Wack”, and “Dumber than a box ‘o rocks”. But I can understand that that isn’t really your style.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree, those are all superior characterizations. But they don’t suit the faux-gravitas stype of this site.

  8. People like Ralph Peters, and more specifically, the respect such views are given in the mainstream of society, to me, are classic symptoms of “fighting the weak.” We’ve seen it on a tactical and operational level in Israeli and U.S. soldiers, and this is it on a society-wide level. In classic 4GW style we are being torn apart on the moral level, losing cohesion as more and more extreme views exert a centrifugal force on the body politic. Not a good sign, of course.

  9. #6: An example of a nation destroying (or at least profoundly damaging) itself by winning the wrong war in the wrong way is Israel, both in the Six Day War and the First Lebanon War. I’m not arguing the Six Day War wasn’t a war Israel had to fight, but the occupation and settlement of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and (until Camp David) The Sinai Peninsula has slowly corroded both their moral standing in the world, and the reputation of their armed forces. The 1982 Lebanon War lead directly to the rise of Hezbollah, the only military force in the region to have successfully opposed the IDF.

    The blowback from both wars is still being played out, but Israel’s moral standing in the world has never been at a lower ebb, and it’s military, once viewed as nigh invincible has been stalemated in open battle by Hezbollah militiamen.

    As to your (inevitable) suggestion that Israel simply commit genocide or ethnic cleansing to secure it’s control of the captured territories, remember how much of it’s moral standing in the world and in America in particular Israel derives from being founded by Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The problems they’ve had thus far with the territory they’ve occupied would be nothing compared to the domestic political turmoil and international isolation Israel would face if they followed the suggestion from the extreme right to kill or expel the Palestinians from the occupied territories.
    Fabius Maximus replies: That’s a powerful example. Imagine if after their victory, they adopted America’s post-WWII strategy of building up the folks they defeated — esp on the West Bank. Nobody knows, but I believe this would have worked out much better for them than their attempt to occupy the West Bank. For a look at Israel’s future, see The Fate of Israel, 28 July 2006.

  10. The argument can be made that Israel would have been far better off annexing all of it in 1967, including the Sinai, not returning any part of the Golan to Syria and creating the one state solution. The various proposals being put forward now are all prescriptions that will end in ethnic cleansing. As for Lebanon withdrawal from the Litani was an error,allowing the Syrians to create their Hizbullah proxy. Before you go off writing in a froth about Jews and imperialim, I understand all of the downsides. There is no really good solution but the worst would have been creating a Palestinian state, which neither Syria or Egypt would or will ever accept. There are two Iron Rules in the Near East: 1. The Jews are not permitted to win. 2. Without Israel, no Palestine, ever. The Allon Plan was the wisest but Israeli pols were too chicken to do anything sensible which is why the Russians snookered them in ’73. But annexation of the entire territory a new Republican constitution that recognizes reality — one person, one vote is not on — is the only basis for any hope. Faint at best, but what we have on offer now from all sides are just blueprints for further mayhem and murder.

  11. This is a topic that should be discussed far and wide in the USA. I am convinced that our servicemen and women, are succumbing to some degree to this problem of blood-lust. It must be incredibly difficult to avoid after multiple tours of duty operating under often farcical rules of engagement. Lengthy time in combat zones must create a certain amount of dehumanization of the enemy, to allow soldiers to function.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The various forms of psychological damage from combat are discussed elsewhere; see the FM reference page An Army near the Breaking Point – studies & reports. This series looks at effects of the war on Americans, the overall society.

  12. Have our readers forgotten what the United States did in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos? Iraq and Afghanistan are models of composed behavior compared with Vietnam. I am not defending any of these wars which have benefited the security and wellbeing of the American people, not one bit. Sadly, our brutality in Vietnam won us the respect and attention of all the worst people on the planet, many of whom migrated here. Our capacity for viciousness cannot be doubted,given our history of conquest and slavery. But there is another streak in our heritage that is braided together with this which tempers that tendency, militates against institutionalized brutality. It is a constant struggle. And we cannot ever allow ourselves to succumb to the lunacy of the neomarxist left who wish us to disarm and surrender to everyone.

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