The vulnerability of post-heroic societies

by Hans Bachofner. Bachofner, born in 1931, received his doctorate in law from the University of Zurich. As a career army officer, he ultimately became Chief of Staff of Operational Training with the rank of Major General and was a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He died in 2012. This article was published in 2006 in German in “Schweizer Monat“, a Swiss political, economic, and cultural magazine. We are grateful to be permitted to exclusively publish this translated version (translated by We hope it will contribute to our discussion about Europe’s weakness (read also “The Geopolitical Crisis” by Sid Lukkassen and “America Has Itself to Blame for Europe’s Weakness” by Nick Ottens).

Heroic societies are held together by honour and sacrifice. Based on experience, they are more successful and robust in violent disputes than post-heroic societies, which are characterised by law, trading, pursuit of prosperity, and peacefulness. This constitutes a fundamental threat to peaceful civil societies.

Hercules. Gilded bronze, Roman artwork, 2nd century BC.

Hercules. Gilded bronze, Roman artwork, 2nd century BC.

Post-heroic societies can be identified by the disappearance of the fighter who acquires honour through great willingness to make sacrifices. There is no doubt that Americans and Europeans, including the Swiss, are among the post-heroic societies. They have high regard for the trader, not the hero, according to a distinction made by Werner Sombart. Post-heroic societies have overcome interstate war for the purpose of dispute resolution; patriotic sacrifice and endurance of suffering have been eroded and are only maintained in rhetoric and rituals. Their soldiers are peacekeepers on humanitarian missions; if they fight, they do so without loss to their own side. Their governments assert again and again that they never want to endanger the lives of their own soldiers. Their playing fields are peacekeeping and asymmetric war from a position of strength. Their tools are the satellite-guided cruise missile, the missile submarine, and bombing from high altitudes. The opportunities to kill and to die are distributed completely unevenly. Technologically superior weapons replace the readiness to die. Military tasks that were once typical are outsourced. Private military companies acting in lawless spaces, mercenaries, “green card-soldiers” (foreigners who are permitted to acquire citizenship after a few years of military service), and volunteers of all kinds replace citizen soldiers. The mentality of buying freedom: you pay and let others shoot. The personal weapon in the closet of free and responsible citizens becomes a nightmare.

Two experiences led us to this post-heroic stage: the monstrous sacrifice of mass heroism in World War I, and the misuse of the terms “honour” and “sacrifice” driven by totalitarian regimes in World War II. There is also demographic development. One-child families have a very different relationship to the loss of sons in the service of a nation than families with six or more children and a high child mortality rate.

Self-destruction and de-heroisation in the wake of the two world wars have had a lasting effect. We are happy to put peace above everything, to consider human life as the supreme good, and to strive for prosperity in globalised openness. We have a huge learning process behind us. Going back is not an option. The best case, the expansion of the European desire for peace in the whole world, has not occurred. The most likely scenarios of possible development all contain an abundance of rivalries, power struggles, armed conflicts, and wars. A particularly bad case is the emergence of an enemy that thwarts the technological superiority and overcomes the peaceful, life-loving societies of the West. The question we fear is: can post-heroic societies survive colliding with heroic groups? Is the new terrorism an indication of the beginning of a worst case scenario?

The partisan, who was once the typical representative of asymmetric weakness, is now the terrorist, in particular the suicide bomber. Guerrilla war was defensive, the war of terror is offensive. It takes place on the enemy’s territory. It does not need the support of the population. It uses the complex and slightly vulnerable infrastructure of the enemy and carries out a real war of devastation. The new terrorism does not target individuals, politicians, business leaders, and law enforcement agencies; instead it targets public opinion, the psychological structure of society. Highly symbolic buildings, suburban trains, holiday hotels, buses: the randomness of the victim selection is intended to spread worldwide fear and terror (hence “terrorism”) with the help of the sensation-obsessed media, create uncertainty, destroy confidence in the future, tire and wear people down. The murdered people are not the target, rather the survivors are, every one of us. It is a sign of ignorance of modern terror when it is alleged that, for example, the Swiss people are not a target. Our self-confidence, our sense of security, our psyche, even our security portfolios are also in the sights when attacks are perpetrated abroad. Today, the Internet is the most popular means for recruiting, leading, and training terrorists.

This file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 7, 2014 shows a convoy of vehicles and ISIS fighters in Iraq's Anbar Province. With pictures like this - and also with the horrible video of the murder of James Wright Foley - ISIS, like other terrorist groups, target the people through the possibilities of modern communication.

This file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 7, 2014 shows a convoy of vehicles and ISIS fighters in Iraq’s Anbar Province. With pictures like this – and also with the horrible video of the murder of James Wright Foley – ISIS, like other terrorist groups, target the people through the possibilities of modern communication.

The asymmetrically weak person, the terrorist, has a very different relationship with time and space than the opponent, who is looking for a defined territory to dominate (Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon), and is in a hurry. The costs of war are enormous for the opponent, the patience of his own population is limited; without rapid victory, the legitimacy of political and military leaders quickly fades. The asymmetrically fighting weak person knows no defined territory. He is omnipresent as a network. He is no longer based in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan, in the capitals of the Western world, in the Islamic arc of crisis from Morocco to Indonesia. He has time and does not need much money, he makes pinpricks and evades every decision. Acceleration and deceleration of processes indicate on which side the advantages and disadvantages are and which way the decision tends towards. These wars do not end with compromises and peace treaties. Military forces have to learn the hard lesson that they can win all the battles as the technologically superior party in every respect and yet still lose the war. As we have known at the latest since Vietnam, it does not depend on tactical and operational successes, but instead on reaching strategic goals.

In the worst case scenario, the terrorist threat may become parallel with the rapid development of missile technology and the slow end of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Strategic precautions now require thinking about the time after the NPT regime. We are on the way to a multi-polar world disorder with numerous large, small, and very small owners of weapons of mass destruction. The nuclear structure of the five nuclear powers and Security Council members, which was stable for decades, is decaying. North Korea, Iran, Israel, India, and Pakistan are the centre of attention. The list of contenders with their own nuclear weapons is long. Among them are also rogue states, non-state actors, and terrorist organisations. Mutual deterrence due to possible counter attacks and the guarantee of stability of the bipolar symmetric cold war is becoming untenable. The strategic masterminds are just now starting to deal with this new world; politics and diplomacy are falling far behind, and even the military is more concerned with problems on this side of the backstop. We need new regional monitoring systems, missile defences, preparations for evacuating densely populated urban centres, a dense, well-equipped network for measuring radiation, shelters, well-trained civil defence organisations, prepared medical services, a new arms control, and above all, we need respect for this new type of threat – and expert knowledge of it. We do not need alarmism and artificial fear psychosis, but sober education and a lot of practical exercise in using all state funds for precautions and aftercare, as well as material readiness.

Preparedness: The soldiers of Company F "Blues Platoon," 3rd Assault Helicopter Battalion, move forward, almost shoulder to shoulder, with live ammo while practicing team movement drills at an Advanced Close Quarters Marksmanship (ACQM) course at Camp Beuhring, Kuwait, May 13, 2009. The ACQM course was meant to sharpen the Soldiers skills before moving north to support Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Preparedness: The soldiers of Company F “Blues Platoon,” 3rd Assault Helicopter Battalion, move forward, almost shoulder to shoulder, with live ammo while practicing team movement drills at an Advanced Close Quarters Marksmanship (ACQM) course at Camp Beuhring, Kuwait, May 13, 2009. The ACQM course was meant to sharpen the Soldiers skills before moving north to support Operation Iraqi Freedom.

We do not yet have a secure [strategic] missile defence. After years of expensive research and development, a Pentagon employee recently [(as of: 2006)] had to declare: “There is simply not much we can do against missiles except for controlling the launch area or going to the bunker.” The Lebanon war was also a missile war. The imprecise Hezbollah short-range missiles were ridiculed unjustly. They did exactly what they were supposed to do. They were not intended to hit point-targets, but instead uninvolved civilians who happened to be there (see also Jassem Al Salami, “Rockets and Iron Dome, the Case of Lebanon“,, 05.08.2014). The mental state of Israel was hit, as well as – via the consciously controlled media – the whole world. Europe needs to wake up. North Korea is far away, but the Iranian missiles are on our doorsteps. Trade in missile technology must be strictly prevented.

The dialogue of international law lags behind development. The arsenal of missiles (air-to-air, air-to-ground, ground-to-air, ground-to-ground, mobile on trucks and ships, long-, medium-, and short-range missiles, warheads with conventional charges or weapons of mass destruction, multiple warheads, guided missiles, high-speed drones, and much more) is large and varied and so widespread that the armed forces would do well to adapt their doctrine, organisation, and equipment. Military airfields and logistics centres are missile targets; the civilian population is even more vulnerable.

There is no cause for despair when dealing with the worst possible cases. The current strategic worst cases are still more harmless than what we have behind us. In an extensive nuclear war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, 160 to 180 million people would have been killed within 24 hours (the numbers are from Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was at the source at the time). The chance of falling victim to a terrorist attack is vanishingly small. The main danger is the loss of faith in the future, of self-certainty, of the joy of participation. Strategic considerations for the worst case are not forecasts, but thinking aids for taking precautions.

For four years I was responsible for coordinating the U.S. response in the event of a nuclear attack. And I can assure you that a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union on a comprehensive scale would have killed 160 to 180 million people within 24 hours. No terrorist threat is comparable to that in the foreseeable future. Moreover, terrorism is essentially a technique of killing people and not the enemy as such. If one wages war on an invisible, unidentifiable phantom, one gets into a state of mind that virtually promotes dangerous exaggerations and distortions of reality. — Zbigniew Brzezinski cited in Hans Hoyng and Georg Mascolo, “SPIEGEL Interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski: ‘Victory Would be a Fata Morgana’“, Spiegel, 12.09.2006.

Even post-heroic societies need a basic foundation of heroic values. Without willingness to sacrifice, without heroes, such systems, which are used to purchasing services with money, do not survive either. The Swiss-style militia soldier supports this idea, in as do the police, fire, and civil defence. People care about him. His reward is not his wages, but the recognition and attention. With the ability to defend, we [(Switzerland)] lose the ability to survive as a small state. Affiliation with majorities, alliances, large anonymous organisations is tempting at any time, but wrong. People think they are trading freedom for security, but they are drawn into the adventures of others. NATO in Afghanistan, the EU in the Congo, the UN in Sudan: if you look behind the curtain, you’ll see abysses. The mania for also sending a few non-combatant Swiss soldiers everywhere does not lead to more prestige, but to contempt.

With the new images of war, the radically altered strategic situation also calls for a new image of soldiers. There are growing signs that more “real soldiers” (Ehud Olmert) are required again. The “miles protector” must be replaced with the “miles pugnator,” the fighter. Even the civilian citizens must change. They must know that they are the target of the attacks, rarely physically, but always psychologically. They must acquire great composure; a “heroic composure,” as it was called following the London bombings. Attacks are not worth it if citizens react coolly and calmly, if the economy cannot be intimidated, and the media remain moderate. The physical damage can be reduced by judicious precautions, through structural measures, surveillance, decentralisation, redundancy, and delegation of responsibility. Well-managed companies, organisations, and governments are prepared for attacks.

We [(Switzerland)] need composure, determination, special forces with adequate equipment and a high level of training, and decision-makers in the federal government, in the cantons, and in the municipalities who know their duties and powers jointly. The danger of missile wars and weapons of mass destruction must be reasoned out, played through in exercises, illustrated to those in positions of responsibility and to citizens in all sobriety and then tackled. Only passive protection is currently possible for the small state. If it does not have this, confidence will be shaken at the first incident. The question posed at the beginning regarding the ability of post-heroic societies to survive clashing with heroic groups can be answered: yes, they will survive – if they are able to sacrifice, if they stay calm and decisive, if they prepare and take precautions, if they do not lose the will to self-affirmation, freedom, and independence.


This entry was posted in English, International, Security Policy, Switzerland, Terrorism.

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