A Hard Case

Ralph Peters–longtime Fox News commentator–just published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post explaining “Why I left Fox News.”

I declined to renew my contract as Fox News’s strategic analyst because of the network’s propagandizing for the Trump administration. Today’s Fox prime-time lineup preaches paranoia, attacking processes and institutions vital to our republic and challenging the rule of law.

Peters’ break with Trumpists will gratify readers who’ve been struck by his unorthodox angles over the years. Fredric Smoler’s 2004 First review of Peters’ books suggests this self-made patriot was never likely to be a reliable voice for a reactionary propaganda machine. Smoler’s commentary, reposted here, not only provides back story for Peters’ apostasy, it makes a case for America that’s not unpunctual even in our dark time.

Beyond Baghdad: Postmodern War and Peace by Ralph Peters
Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World by Ralph Peters
Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph? by Ralph Peters
Flames of Heaven: A Novel of the End of the Soviet Union by Ralph Peters
The Perfect Soldier by Ralph Peters
The Devil’s Garden by Ralph Peters
Traitor by Ralph Peters
Faded Coat of Blue by Owen Parry

…the Cold War deformed American strategic thought and our applied values beyond recognition. From the amoral defender of Europe’s rotten empires, we descended to an immoral propping up of every soulless dictator who preferred our payments to those offered by Moscow. We utterly rejected our professed values, consistently struggling against genuine national liberation movements because we saw the hand of Moscow wherever a poor man reached out for food or asked for dignity. At our worst in the Middle East, we unreservedly supported–or enthroned–medieval despots who suppressed popular liberalization efforts, thus driving moderate dissidents into the arms of fanatics. From our diplomatic personnel held hostage in Iran a generation ago, to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on the United States, we have suffered for our support of repressive, “stable” regimes that radicalized their own impoverished citizens. In the interests of stability, we looked the other way while secret police tortured and shabby armies massacred their own people, from Iran to Guatemala. But the shah always falls.

Would that we could tattoo that on the back of every diplomat’s hand: The shah always falls.

Until recently, this sort of thing was branded sententious moralism from aging New Left academics, or from bien pensant editorialists, and a certain amount of it still appears in such places, and from such people. But the passage is in fact excerpted from an essay written on September 13, 2001, by a recently retired Lieutenant Colonel, a specialist in intelligence who has worked in more than fifty countries. Ralph Peters, who in his most demotic voice writes for the New York Post, was in this case writing in Parameters, a US Army War College quarterly. If you have absorbed the prejudices of the faculty dining room, it is initially a little startling to discover this sort of political temperament in an army officer.

But upon reflection, an enthusiasm for instability is at the present moment an imperfect guide to membership in our moral elect. After all, university-based critics of the Iraq war have now joined up with ‘liberal’ newspaper columnists — and with gentlemanly paleo-con alumni of the first Bush Administration — to deprecate what is dismissed as a neo-con enthusiasm for reordering the Middle East. ‘Wilsonian’ is again as ugly an epithet on the Left as it has always been in the mouth of Henry Kissinger. And this political shift takes in more rhetorical ground than one might suspect.

Any country or culture that suppresses half its population, excluding them from economic contribution and wasting energy keeping them out of the school and workplace is not going to perform…The point isn’t really the fear that women will steal jobs in Country X. Rather, it’s a fundamental fear of women — or of a cultural caricature of women as incapable, stupid, and worrisomely sexual…It is difficult for any human being to share power already possessed. Authority over their women is the only power many males will ever enjoy.

Again, Ralph Peters in Parameters, assessing leading indicators of political failure. A few years ago, this was Left-talk; in some quarters, it is now pilloried as Islamophobia. In its defense, one can say only that it seems to be true. In any case, it raises an interesting question: why have people who until recently swore by these truths never heard of Ralph Peters?


What do you expect me to think of that speech, Mr. Anderson?

I never expect a soldier to think, sir.

Burgoyne is boundlessly delighted by this retort, which almost reconciles him to the loss of America.

George Bernard Shaw, The Devil’s Disciple, Act III

The joke is now more than a hundred years old — Three Plays for Puritans was published in 1897 — and it continues to delight people, especially intellectuals, who run to vanity about their putative monopoly on serious thinking. It is tempting to say that one’s amusement at the gag may be inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of soldiers, but that probably isn’t true: Marine officers in Vietnam seem to have been great fans of Catch 22, and I get the impression that conscripts have always liked jokes about regulars, while people who’ve served a hitch in the regular army like jokes about people who make a career of it. On all the available evidence, the authoritarianism of military life abrades most people at least a little bit, with laughter at one’s tormentors a balm. In any event, General Haig cast a long shadow; the laughter has been more savage, and more widespread, since 1914. I first came across Shaw’s joke as a teenager, during the Vietnam War, and that may explain my initial rhapsody over it, but again, probably not: at least some of the émigrés in the 10th Mountain Division, who carried The Good Soldier Schweik into battle during WWII, knew and loved Shaw’s gibe. For quite a while, though, the joke has sounded exasperatingly smug when told by people with a lazy assumption about their own intellectual superiority, and now Ralph Peters has more or less ruined it for me.

Peters is the author of seventeen books, fourteen of them novels, three of them collections of essays and journalism. He enlisted in the Army as a private in 1976, serving in a mechanized infantry division, was commissioned in 1980 as a second lieutenant in military intelligence, and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel by 1998. Recently retired, a decision made to allow fuller criticism of American policy, he continues to publish those remarkable essays in Parameters, and has branched out into almost daily journalism. The essays published in Parameters, available on-line as well as in the collections, are some of the most radical writing published on what is known as the revolution in military affairs — the changes in warfare wrought by the synergy between a number of new technologies — and on strategy.

They also contain serial appraisals of the coming international environment, and Peters’ track record has been pretty good. In the immediate wake of the Soviet implosion, he was less optimistic than most about the likely future, and the essays, which began appearing in the early nineteen nineties, have for the most part proved eerily prescient: Peters was taking religion seriously for a decade before it became a respectable topic for strategists, and he foresaw something like 9/11 at a time when Dr. Pangloss seemed to be writing half of what was published on international relations, and Sax Rohmer the other half. Peters was neither a triumphalist nor a Sinophobe: he saw trouble coming from the Arab core of the Islamic world, more optimistic about Indonesia and Turkey, and cautious although not despairing about Pakistan — and in the near term, he was not optimistic about a lot of the rest of the planet, either. He was, however, optimistic about the United States. He wrote fascinating pieces on the likely evolution of urban warfare and armored forces, and on the probable political environment in a number of the post-Soviet successor states, (and in other Islamic polities), places where he had served as an intelligence office — although that category takes in a lot of ground; in addition to a job in the Pentagon, Peters has served, worked or traveled in something like sixty countries. His relative obscurity on the Left, and in the academy, has something to do with the fact that neither the Left nor the professors spent the ‘nineties reading intelligence officers publishing in service journals — in 1997, as in 1897, no-one expected a solider to think.

He remains relatively obscure in those quarters because people like us do not spend much time surfing the blogosphere, where Peters has a lot of fans. Neither group spends too much time reading Murdoch tabloids, for one of which Peters started writing after 9/11. When he appears on television, it is likely to be on Fox — probably strike three. But even if we had been reading him, the content of Peters’ thinking would probably put him beyond the pale in our circles, and that is a shame, because Peters fuses an authentic radicalism about foreign policy with a commitment to what remains a Left position on domestic policy and the meaning of American history.

The most depressing part of the current debate on 9/11 and the Iraq war is the Left’s conviction that in some sense, we had it coming: that 9/11 was the result of our enemies having legitimate grievances, and that they can be appeased. If you think this, Peters is an invaluable corrective, for he is eloquent on the multiple sources of irrational, murderous and probably unshakeable resentment of the United States. His feminism, his patriotism and his hawkishness fuse: he is passionately convinced that the unprecedented sexual egalitarianism of American society is not the least important cause of the furies we have roused. On his account, we are hated at least as much for our virtues as for our vices: our relative tolerance, our cultural fluidity, our innovativeness in the face of much of the world’s conservatism, and our dynamism in the face of much of the world’s stagnation, are at least as maddening as our position on the Kyoto accord and our support of Israel. On his account, our wealth, inexplicable other than as an example of spectacular and vicious predation, is a profound cause of the hatred we have aroused. And Peters sees an intimate relationship between our feminism and our wealth: he is struck by the remarkable correlation between our new sexual meritocracy and American economic performance over the last quarter century. Our wealth is rarely explained this way, even in our own society, but for Peters the correlation is overwhelming: in his words, we are running a wartime economy 365 days a year.

On Peters’ account, for many people in less successful (or failing) societies, the comparison to America is inevitable and shaming, so that the immense and intractable difficulties of parts of what was once too-optimistically known as “the developing world” make us simultaneously alluring and enraging, and if we abandon the Israelis, significant number of people are still going to want to kill us like flies. For Peters, the Palestinians deserve a state, but our troubles are unlikely to diminish much when they get one. The gap between our success and the achievements of those who hate and fear us is likely to keep growing: the demographic, military, technological, social and economic trends are mutually reinforcing, and all work in our favor. He thinks that even an Administration with a domestic policy he clearly deplores is unlikely to do much to slow the trends. Peters’ belief in our current and continuing success are possibly reasons for his obscurity in our circles: a significant section of the Left, like a good chunk of the Right, does not go in for relatively cheery assessments of this society.

But Peters probably can’t help it: he seems to have spent almost all of his adult life abroad, and he is apparently the first one in his family for six generations not to scrabble out a living in the Pennsylvania coal mines. He knows how a lot of the rest of the world lives and thinks, also how most of us used to live and think; compared to the competition, and to our own history, he thinks we’re looking pretty good. He is not a culture warrior, not least because he has trouble working up a sweat about even the silliest Eng. Lit. profs: in the scale of dangerous cultural authorities in comparative perspective, Eng. Lit. profs must surely rank near the bottom of the chart. He has trouble deploring a mass culture that puts cheap paperback editions of most of world literature in every Borders store and Barnes and Noble, because he remembers how hard it was to come by that range of good books in much of America only a generation ago. I suspect that our racial troubles look different if you have spent your life in an Army that has probably come closer to solving them than has any other part of the society, and in a profession that keeps tabs on what ethnic conflict looks like in Bosnia, Pakistan, Rwanda and Gujurat.

Life in America can be sad and cruel, but these do not seem to be its most salient characteristics for someone who spent the better part of a decade in the wreckage of the Soviet Union, where some of Peters’ best novels are set. Similarly, while Peters is steeped in European high culture — he translates German Romantic novels for pleasure, and collects Russian paintings — Europe has none of the startling allure that it has for Americans who are inner émigrés in Bush’s America. This is probably because Peters lived in Europe for decades, speaks the languages (he is trilingual in German, English and Russian, and gets around in a lot of other languages), and has watched the moral acuity of Western Europe in action, in contexts like Srebenica, or in the Germany that saw skinheads cut out the tongues of Vietnamese guest workers after the wall came down.

It is instructive to look at the historical novels Peters publishes under the name of Owen Parry. Peters dislikes aristocratic cultures, he is indeed not much enraptured by social or cultural hierarchies of any sort, and he sees the Civil War as our decisive break with a hierarchical society. The Owen Parry novels are genre fiction, mysteries set during the American Civil War, and what is initially astonishing about these novels is their depiction of the brutality and irresponsibility of American elites. To a remarkable extent, Peter’s 19th century patricians and industrialists look as if they had wandered into his books from the pages of Howard Zinn. In correspondence, Peters argued that there is no contradiction between the America of his historical novels and his striking patriotism: we are in his view an unprecedentedly open society now because of a couple of centuries of political struggle. Our racism, our cruelty, the savagery and greed of our elites, were beaten down by mass movements in the course of a very long fight.

As Peters sees it, we now have a chance to help out others in comparable struggles, and while the odds of failure are real, he is not always averse to our taking a chance. While not universally enthusiastic about American intervention in other people’s fights, he knows too much about the truly hideous cruelty of the state of affairs in much of the world to recite cheap pieties about our hubris. He was one of the people who initially advised against intervention in the Yugoslavian succession crisis, and now thinks that he was very wrong to have done so. Intervention in Iraq may looks less hubristic if you have known people who had the sublime arrogance to tell the citizens of Sarajevo — and subsequently the Tutsi — that their hope of rescue was a utopian fantasy. Peters is unimpressed by the new rhapsody over multi-lateralism, by what he takes to crocodile tears accompanying de facto (and appalling) cynicism, and by the insistence that the Administration could have readily forged a broad alliance to liquidate fascism in Iraq:

We must accept, from today onward, that America shall often need to act alone or with a handful of courageous allies. Increasingly, we will need to do that which we recognize as strategically and morally necessary, disregarding those states, in Europe and elsewhere, that weep so readily for the dead while caring so little for the living.

And Peters is eloquent on the moral and strategic idiocy of making stability the cornerstone of our foreign policy, when in the wake of the Iraq war worship of the virtues of stability is becoming the conventional wisdom at both ends of our political spectrum, and in portions closer to the middle, too:

…the consistent, pervasive goal of Washington’s foreign policy is stability. America’s finest values are sacrificed to keep bad governments in place, dysfunctional borders intact, and oppressed human beings well-behaved. In one of the greatest acts of self-betrayal in history, the nation that long was the catalyst of global change and which remains the beneficiary of international upheaval has made stability its diplomatic god. Our insistence on stability above all stands against the tides of history, and that is always a losing proposition. Nonetheless, our efforts might be understandable were they in our national interest. But they are not…

We are entering a campaign season in which some Democrats look set to run on the absurd pretence that there was an obvious third choice between war and leaving Saddam in place, others on the shameful program that the fate of the Iraqis was none of our business. Simultaneously, some Republicans look set to run on the promise that overturning what remains of the New Deal is the answer to our troubles, others with the implication that we need to return to a social order Islamic fundamentalists would in fact find more congenial. At such a time, Peters makes for interesting reading, not least in his attempt to find an idiom for explaining the true complexities of modern war and international politics to people who take the bus to work, and are paid by the week, while simultaneously writing for his fellow professionals (in different places). The general combination of bleakness and confidence is remarkable, and brave. I think it was Camus who said that we all need the courage to imagine the real, and in imagining some deeply dispiriting political realities, as well as in writing about former and perhaps future employers, Peters is genuinely fearless. He has a splendid contempt for the bounds of respectable discourse, and for the prejudices and sensibilities of the allies of the moment. In the middle of the Iraq war, he was writing the most savage criticism of Rumsfeld that saw the light of day outside the ghetto of the hard-line anti-war camp. In contemporary America, some of the soldiers seem to be thinking all the time. That, I fear, is more than you can say for their employers, or their newly-solicitous friends on the editorial and Op Ed pages.

“It is a significant point that in America, where Burgoyne was an enemy and an invader, he was admired and praised. The climate there is no doubt more favorable to intellectual vivacity.” From Shaw’s notes to The Devil’s Disciple, 1897