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Humans are hardwired to resist.

In 1962, I was 10 years old and commanded an impressive invading army. My 7-year-old brother and I collected toy soldiers and their weapons obsessively, waging wars that lasted several months. Each room of our home was a province and we had complex rules that allowed us to deploy knights, Civil War soldiers and World War II Marines on the same battlefields.

Being older, I was not only a better (more devious) strategist, but had also accumulated a much larger force, including some prized military miniatures. Finally, I cornered my brother’s diminished army. I convinced him and his primary ally – a neighbor boy – to make their last stand in a way that insured defeat.

I won. Then I started losing.

My brother Bruce was a lovely child (which I certainly was not), but he had the stubborn streak of a born resister. Shamed and outraged by the annihilation of his troops by my “hi-tech” bombing campaign, he became an insurgent – instinctively following the pattern of adults down countless centuries. And he resorted to terror.

Furtively, he kidnapped a number of my most valuable soldiers, beheaded and disfigured them, then “buried” them in drawers. He wasn’t pursuing a strategic objective now, but seeking vengeance, an elementary lust ignored by theorists.

When I, the superpower, stumbled onto the first atrocity victims, I “called the roll” and found others were missing. I tracked down most of the captives. They had been chopped to pieces. Instinctively, my “baby” brother had done what “powerless” insurgents routinely do: He avenged himself by mutilating the foe, a practice as old as humankind.

My all-American impulse was to retaliate massively and beat up my brother. But “world opinion,” in the form of my parents, wouldn’t stand for that. So, acting on my own instincts, I did what successful counterinsurgents had done for centuries: I “executed” his “terrorists” in large numbers, making it so painful for him he gave up. Broken, he didn’t want to play army anymore.

I read a lot of military history – back when publishers still produced serious books for children – and my brother knew some, too, but our knowledge of insurgencies was limited to a few tales of Cossack uprisings or Indian wars. Neither of us had a doctorate from Princeton, yet we fell, naturally, into the classic behaviors of insurgent and counterinsurgent. I won by applying superior resources remorselessly.

How was it that children got it right while generals get it wrong?

The answer is that the generals have been trained to deny the human condition. But people are hardwired for certain responses, like it or not. My brother and I didn’t hit on our behaviors by accident – we were programmed. Our behavior was ugly. And profoundly human.

As we Americans have grown accustomed to living in unprecedented safety (despite the embarrassment of 9/11), our worst national security folly has been to deny the existence of humanity’s dark sides. We blithely deny that humans might desire to do things of which we don’t approve. In three decades of publishing on military affairs, the point that drew the most horrified, outraged response was my observation that some human beings delight in harming others. We who study history might ask, “Who could deny that?” The answer is just about everyone with an Ivy League education and a Volvo.

The proper name for this fateful self-deception is, of course, “political correctness,” our totalitarian impulse to sanitize humanity. And when political correctness draws a blood sacrifice (in Afghanistan or at Fort Hood), our “intellectual elite” insists that our lack of consideration is the problem.

The elite don’t give blood anymore. They can afford their comforting delusions. The rest of us can’t.

A child could figure it out.

 Watch: Will we ever admit that terrorists love their work? Just as my brother delighted in mutilating my most valued soldiers?

 Crisis Watch Bottom Line: Think-tank “studies” can’t change human nature.


 Ralph Peters is a longtime member of the “Armchair General” team and the author of the new Civil War novel “Hell or Richmond.”

Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Armchair General.