Permissible Arms

“They Must Fear Us More Than They Hate Us”: Becoming the Enemy in a Counter-Insurgency World

Posted in counterinsurgency, terrorism by ericdcummings on 5 July 2010

by Eric C of On Violence

To defeat your enemy, you have to become him. It’s one of the oldest artistic cliches. Take Aldo Raine, in that trailer-famous, terribly-accented monologue from Inglorious Basterds, he explains the philosophy:

“Members of the National Socialist party conquered Europe through murder, torture, intimidation and terror. And that’s exactly what we will do to them.

We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are. And they will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, and disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us. And the German won’t not be able to help themselves but to imagine the cruelty their brothers endured at our hands, and our boot heels, and the edge of our knives. And the German will be sickened by us, and the German will talk about us, and the German will fear us.”

In the fantastic graphic novel series Fables, the Big Bad Wolf (just go with it) explains his strategy to his arch-enemy, the hegemonic Adversary:

“Every time you hurt us we’re going to damage you much worse in return. It will always happen. Always… And keep this in mind. You have a huge Empire to protect. Guard the ten million most likely targets and there will still be a hundred million ripe, unprotected targets we can hit.”

Yet even today, in the era of religious fanaticism, some people want us to inspire the same fear. A Colonel in Nathaniel Fick’s One Bullet Away tells his men, “Go after them gentleman…until they fear us more than they hate us.”

Fear. Make the enemy fear you. Surprisingly, Marcus Luttrell in Lone Survivor understands exactly what this turns you into: a terrorist. “There is no other way to beat a terrorist. You must fight like him, or he will surely kill you…Because, in the end, your enemy must fear you, understand your supremacy.”

The point of terrorism is very simple: inspire fear. Make the population afraid. Each of the above speakers is advocating some form of terrorism. Commit terrible acts, and the population will submit.

Of course, we’re not really willing to do this. I’m sure we could carpet bomb villages, rape women and kill children, and I’m sure we would scare the bejeezus out of Afghans and Iraqis. I went to a forum where someone mentioned that Hitler was great at quashing insurgencies. But is that really how we want to win these wars? The obvious answer is no.

Inspiring fear is a pre-counter-insurgency philosophy, the notion that you can bomb your way to victory. But on the modern battlefield, it doesn’t really apply. First, you can’t cleanly kill your enemies–no matter how smart your bombs are–without affecting the population. Second, as McChrystal said in the Rolling Stone article from last week, the Russians tried a scorched earth policy in Afghanistan and it failed miserably.

That doesn’t really matter though. Morality trumps practicality. Fear based warfare is immoral. As Professor Nagl argues, the first pillar of counter-insurgency is “protect the population” for a reason, “The doctrine is doctrinaire about the first pillar for a reason; a representative democracy cannot adopt the Roman method of destroying the province to save it.”


Eric Cummings writes for On Violence, a blog on military and foreign affairs, art, and violence, written by two brothers–one a soldier and the other a pacifist.


3 Responses

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  1. Michael C said, on 5 July 2010 at 19:37

    I love the quote that concludes the article. Movies often play the fear theme, but Nagl succinctly points out how silly a fear-based philosophy is. Eric C does a great job of pointing out how silly those philosophies are.

  2. Karaka said, on 8 July 2010 at 09:14

    I would note too that the fear is paired with conquering warfare, where the ultimate point is to subsume territory–and populations–to a larger empire. But no one really conquers any more. At most, what the US is doing in Afghanistan-Pakistan might be called martial stewardship, where the ethos of fear propagation could never truly work.

    Thanks, Eric and Michael, for your great posts over the last week!

    • Eric C said, on 8 July 2010 at 14:19

      It was our pleasure. We’re happy to host you as well.

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