The escalating tension of the coming clash with Iraq, North Korea’s nuclear revelations, the Moscow-theater nightmare, the atrocity in Bali, and other recent al Qaeda attacks — after months of relative quiet, the war on terrorism is heading into a new and dangerous phase.
Meanwhile, the water-torture horrors of the Washington-area sniper attacks — even assuming they had no foreign connection — only served to underscore the gravity of the international situation. President Bush, after all, declared recently, “We refuse to live in fear.” Well, the shooting spree gave us a taste — just a taste — of the reign of fear we must steel ourselves to prevent.
In the midst of all these roiling exigencies, it is useful, even necessary, to pause and take a longer view — to reflect deliberately, but with imaginations enlivened by the present crisis, on the true stakes of the larger war. For it is not too grandiose to suggest that, last September 11, history took a momentous and dreadful turn. Did everything change that blue-sky morning, as so many are so fond of saying? Yes, it did — but plus ça change …
Here is the gist of it: We find ourselves, once more, in that paradoxical vulnerability that our forebears suffered for more than 20 centuries. The old menace, long vanquished, has returned in new guise. We are threatened again by an enemy whose weaknesses in peace become strengths in war. Our civilization is exposed to ruin by the very sources of its greatness. After a long respite, the barbarians are at the gate again.
• In the seventh century B.C., horse peoples from the Central Asian steppe began to impinge upon the Assyrian Empire. First came the Cimmerians, who in 690 B.C. led cavalry raids that terrorized much of Asia Minor. Next followed the Scythians, who joined the military coalition of Medes and Babylonians that was challenging Assyrian power. The addition of the savage Scythian horsemen turned the tide, and in 612 B.C. Nineveh was sacked. The greatest empire the world had ever known was gone.
As military historian John Keegan notes, these events marked an inflection point in world history. A new and awful force had awakened, one that was to ravage and cripple civilization repeatedly for the next two millennia:
Thus the first Scythians who made their raid into Mesopotamia at the end of the seventh century BC were harbingers of what was to be a repetitive cycle of raiding, despoliation, slave-taking, killing and, sometimes, conquest that was to afflict the outer edge of civilization — in the Middle East, in India, in China and in Europe — for 2000 years. These persistent attacks on the outer edge of civilization of course had profoundly transforming effects on its inner nature, to such an extent that we may regard the steppe nomads as one of the most significant — and baleful — forces in military history.
In the ongoing encounters between steppe nomads and settled, agricultural societies, the nomads’ perennial advantage lay precisely in their primitivism. With only the crudest division of labor, virtually every man in the horde could be mobilized as a warrior. And with no fixed investments in farms or cities, the nomads could outmaneuver their opponents and then concentrate force with lethal effect. Civilization’s rootedness, the fountainhead of all its accomplishments, was likewise its Achilles’ heel. Agriculture and the elaborate specialization of city life made possible the accumulation of wealth, the advancement of learning, the refinement of the arts — but just as surely they imposed limits on the resources that could be turned to warmaking and the speed with which those resources could be deployed. When the right leadership emerged on the steppe and the conquering impulse was unleashed, civilization was a sitting duck.
Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane — these names are still synonymous with terror and devastation. Assaults from the steppe proved catastrophic or even fatal for one great civilization after another. A weakened Rome fell in the end to the Hunnic invasion. The struggles against the Mongols in the 13th and 14th centuries rigidified Chinese society, ultimately leading to its fateful inward turn and aborting what might have been an Industrial Revolution in the making. In the Muslim world, the influx of Turkish peoples beginning in the 11th century helped to feudalize what had been a thriving zone of commercial dynamism. And in 1258, the Mongols overthrew the Baghdad caliphate and dealt the cradle of civilization a blow from which it has never recovered.
Only with the development of small firearms in the 16th century did civilization regain the upper hand. As historian William McNeill relates:
Effective small arms were not generally available to civilized armies until after about 1550; but as they spread, nomad superiority in battle suffered its final erosion. Instead of being able to encroach on agricultural ground, as nomads had been able to do since about 800 B.C., peasants began to invade the cultivable portions of the Eurasian grasslands, making fields where pasture had previously prevailed. The eastward expansion of Russia and the westward expansion of China under the Manchus between 1644 and 1911 registered this reversal of human settlement patterns politically.
According to McNeill, the Chinese defeat of the Kalmuk confederation in 1757 “marked the coda to an era of world history — the last time civilized armies confronted a serious rival on the steppe.”
Throughout the modern era, the story of the interaction between advanced and simpler societies has been one in which former have held the unassailably dominant position. The Russian and Chinese partition of the steppe, the European settlement of the Americas and Australia, and the colonial subjugation of Asia and Africa — civilization, and particularly Western civilization, surged to globe-spanning hegemony. Backward countries have had their military successes — most notably, the nationalist uprisings after World War II that forced the European powers to relinquish their empires. But these victories have served only to set limits on advanced countries’ projection of power. Never has there been any serious threat that advanced-country homelands were vulnerable to attack from the periphery. The barbarians at the gate, once the recurring nightmare of the civilized world, became only a distant memory.
• The nightmare has returned.
On September 10, 2001, the United States stood at an apogee of power unmatched in human history — a combination of military, economic, and cultural dominance on a global scale, compared to which the storied empires of Persia, Alexander, Rome, and Great Britain seem pale and puny anticipations. Yet the next morning, a ragtag band of fanatics, headquartered in one of the world’s most pitiable and stagnant backwaters, succeeded in bloodying the American colossus. Thousands were slaughtered, icons of American greatness were battered and destroyed, and the air above the country’s largest and capital cities was fouled with the wafting remains of the disintegrated dead.
That morning, complacency and triumphalism gave way to grief and rage — and fear. The solid ground of security and comfort vanished beneath us, and we stared down into an abysmal vulnerability. We saw, with sickening clarity, that it was flatly impossible to defend every possible target, to anticipate every possible act of random destruction. We were not unnerved, far from it: The trial of September 11 has instead stirred American resolve and fortitude. But a shadow had fallen over our lives, and most of us knew that it would not recede for a long, long time.
We face, now and for the foreseeable future, the threat of a new barbarism. The new barbarians, like those of old, consist of groups in which every member is a potential warrior. Like their predecessors, the new barbarians rely on their ability to outmaneuver their civilized adversaries, to concentrate deadly force at vulnerable spots. But unlike the old steppe nomads, the new barbarians seek neither booty nor conquest. Our new barbarian adversaries pursue a strategy of pure and perfect nihilism: They seek destruction for destruction’s sake. Their strategy, in other words, is terrorism.