Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph. Robert E. Howard

(The following essay is excerpted from “Our New Old Enemies”; by Col. Ralph Peters. From Parameters, Summer 1999, pp. 22-37.)

In our own Western cultural history, the fiercest military brutalities and the most savage wars were fought over faith, whether the Crusades or defensive wars against Muslims, campaigns of suppression against dissenting Christians, the great religious wars of the 16th and, especially, 17th centuries, or the 20th century’s world wars between secular religions.

Now our history is playing out in other flesh. When Indonesian rioters murder Chinese merchants, or when the Sudanese Muslims who hold power butcher and enslave the Christians in their country’s south, their behavior is not inhuman. On the contrary, it is timelessly human.

Beware of any enemy motivated by supernatural convictions or great moral schemes. Even when he is less skilled and ill-equipped, his fervor may simply wear you down. Our military posture could not be more skewed. We build two-billion-dollar bombers, but we cannot cope with bare-handed belief.

…if we want to understand the warriors of the world and the fury that drives them, we had better open our minds to the power of belief; and the power of barbaric hatred.

Consider the Iliad. Read that great poem one more time, without the prejudices we have learned. You will find that the triumphant Greeks were the devious, the barbarous, the murderous. The Trojans were the urban, civilized, and tolerant. Troy stood for learning, piety, and decency. Its mistake was to humiliate implacable barbarians, without the will to destroy them. The Trojans fought to be left alone in their comfortable world. The Greeks fought for revenge, spoils, and the pleasure of slaughter.  The defeated Trojan monarch, King Priam, was a decent man who watched the war from behind his walls and had to beg for the return of his son’s mangled body. He was presidential in his dignity.

The Greeks won.

We are not Trojans. We are far mightier. But we have not learned to understand, much less rule, minds and hearts and souls. The only moral we need to cull from the Iliad is that it is foolish to underestimate the complexity and determination of the killers from the other shore.

From that heritage we Americans have developed our historical belief that all men want peace, that all conflict can be resolved through compromise and understanding. It leads to the diplomatic equivalent of Sunday-night snake-handling–faith in the power of negotiations to allay hatred.

Because we are privileged and reasonably content with our corner of the planet, we find peace desirable. There is nothing wrong with this. The problem arises when we assume that all other men, no matter how discontented, jealous, disenfranchised, and insulted, want peace as well. Our faith in man is truly a blind faith. Many human beings have no stake in peace. They draw no advantage from the status quo.

We even see this in our own fortunate country. A disproportionate share of crime is committed by those with the least stake in society–the excluded and marginalized with little or nothing to lose.


Of all the notions I have advanced over the years, the only one that has met with consistent rejection is my statement that men like to kill. I do not believe that all men like to kill. At the extreme, there are those saintly beings who would sacrifice their own lives before taking the life of another. The average man will kill if compelled to, in uniform in a war, or in self-defense, but has no evident taste for it.

Men react differently to the experience of killing. Some are traumatized. Others simply move on with their lives. But there is at least a minority of human beings–mostly male–who enjoy killing. That minority may be small, but it does not take many enthusiastic killers to trigger the destruction of a fragile society. Revolutions, pogroms, genocides, and civil wars are not made by majorities, but by minorities with the acquiescence of the majority. The majority may gloat, or loot, but the killing minority drives history.

Violence is addictive. Police know this. That’s where the phrase “the usual suspects” comes from. In our society, the overwhelming majority of violent acts are committed by repeat offenders. Statistics would make us a violent nation; in fact, we are a peaceable people until aroused. The numbers are skewed because we have failed to deter recidivists. Spouse- and child-abusers do not do it once, they repeat. Sex offenders–and all sex crimes are crimes of violence–are notorious repeat offenders. Most barroom brawls are begun by the same old troublemakers.

Even in combat, when mortal violence is legal, most enemy combatants killed in close fighting appear to be killed by a small number of “high performers” in our ranks. Throughout history, many a combat hero has had difficulty adjusting to peace. We reject the evidence of the human enthusiasm for violence because it troubles us and undercuts the image we have created of perfectible Man. But violence has an undeniable appeal. Certainly for the otherwise disenfranchised, it is the only response left. Perhaps the psychologists are right that much violence is a cry for help. But what both of those arguments really say is that violence, however motivated, is gratifying and empowering.


The rest of the world is not like us.

For all of our lingering prejudices, we have done a remarkable job of subduing our hatreds. Perhaps it is only the effect of wealth bounded by law that makes us such a powerful exception to history, but our lack of domestic faction is a miracle nonetheless. We are indescribably fortunate, but our good fortune has lulled us into our primary military and diplomatic weakness: we do not understand the delicious appeal of hatred.

We cannot understand how Serbs and Kosovar Albanians, Croats and Bosnian Muslims could do that to each other. We cannot understand how Hutus and Tutsis could do that to each other. We do not understand how the Chinese could do that to the Tibetans. We do not understand how the Armenians and Azeris could do that to each other. We do not understand how the tribes of Sierra Leone or Liberia could do that to each other. We do not understand how India’s Hindus and Muslims could do that to each other. We do not understand how the Russians and Chechens could do that to each other. We do not understand how Haitians, Somalis, Colombians, Mexicans, Indonesians, Sri Lankans, Congolese, Burundians, or Irish could do that to each other . . . .

Over the years, I have written about “warriors”–the non-soldiers from guerrillas to narco-traffickers–whom we encounter and fight. In the past I stressed the importance of recognizing five types of warriors: the scum of the earth, the average Joe who is drawn into the conflict as it drags on, demobilized military men, opportunists, and true believers. Now I worry about only two of these sources of conflict: the opportunists and the believers, the gangsters and the godly, the men unrestrained by morals and those whose iron morality is implacable. They are the centers of gravity. The others are swept along by the tide.

Our enemies of the future will be enemies out of the past. As the US armed forces put their faith and funding behind ever more sophisticated combat systems designed to remove human contact from warfare, mankind circles back to the misbehaviors of yesteryear.

Technologies come and go, but the primitive endures.

For the complete essay, Our New Old Enemies, by Col. Ralph Peters, go here.



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