Fighting Identity
Sacred War and World Change
by Michael Vlahos
December 2008, 260pp, 6 1/8x9 1/4
1 volume, Praeger

Hardcover: 978-0-313-34845-7
$83, £62, 72€, A113
Paperback: 978-1-4408-3613-8
$45, £34, 39€, A61
eBook Available: 978-0-313-34846-4
Please contact your preferred eBook vendor for pricing.

As globalization rips at old ways of life and forces disparate peoples to redefine their identities, many have found a common opponent in the United States. Vlahos examines these ongoing trends and suggests ways in which emerging adversaries may be successfully countered in their efforts to challenge the United States.

This work highlights a national ethos infused by a sacred narrative of divine mission. This deep association leads to a narrow approach to conflict relationships, built around an Us vs. Them distance from the enemy, in which their submission is achieved through kinetic effects and their subsequent redemption through our good works (reconstruction). Vlahos contends that America’s difficult engagement in the Muslim world demonstrates urgently that different operational approaches and tactics (like counterinsurgency) are not enough. Alternative paradigms of strategic engagement are needed, but their very consideration requires deeper cultural rethinking about how we assess world change and other cultures, and how our national ethos makes war.

Why are terrorists and insurgents we fight so formidable? Their strength – and our vulnerability – is in identity. Clausewitz knew that geist (spirit) was always stronger than the material: identity is power in war. But how can non-state actors face up to nation states? The answer is in globalization. This is the West’s 3rd globalization. Two centuries of intense mixing has torn down old ways of life and created a growing demand for new belonging. There is also a decline in US universalism. America’s vision as history’s anointed prophet and manager is now competing head-to-head with renewed universal visions. Like Late Antiquity and the High Middle Ages our globalization begins to subside. We may be in the later days of American modernity. We can see this worldwide, as emerging local communities within states and meta-movements find their voice – through conflict and war. Identities struggling for realization are always the most powerful. Add the diffusion of new technology and new practice, and even the poorest and seemingly most primitive group can now make war against those on high. They are successful because of a symbiotic fit between old states and new identities. Increasingly, old societies no longer find identity-celebration in war – while non-state identities embrace the struggle for realization. Hence non-state wars with America become a mythic narrative for them. Our engagement actually helps them realize identity – and we become the midwife. This book offers another path to deal with non-state challenges, one that does not further weaken us.

Michael Vlahos has spent his life thinking and writing about war and culture — from service in the Navy, CIA, State, and his thirty-year tie to The Johns Hopkins University: first as Director of Security Studies at the Nitze School, and then with the Applied Physics Laboratory, where he is now a Fellow and Principal. His nine earlier books and monographs include The BLUE Sword: The United States Navy and the American Mission 1919-1941 (1980), and Terror's Mask: Insurgency Within Islam (2003).


"What makes Vlahos essential reading is his perception, based on a profound personal and scholarly knowledge of the contemporary U.S. military as well as history ancient and modern, that while there may be technocratic strategists, there are no technocrat soldiers."—The American Conservative, April 6, 2009

"Vlahos is an innovative voice in strategic studies, with a distinguished career dating back 30 years at the US Navy, CIA, and State Department, as well as Johns Hopkins University, where he is currently senior fellow of national security analysis. In his novel, controversial, but often quite compelling attempt to unearth 'why we are losing our wars' . . . . Vlahos argues that the post-9/11 world reveals the extent to which the US nation-state has itself become a sacred identity, competing with other (in this case, Islamic) religious identities. . . . Vlahos's challenging style may feel overblown and inaccessible to some undergraduates, but the argument is worth the effort. . . . Recommended. Upper-level undergraduates and up."—Choice, July 1, 2009

"Vlahos (applied physics, Johns Hopkins U.) reflects on the conflict of the US with non-state actors by reframing war as society’s central ritual of identity and the sacred, and looking at the national narrative of the US alongside the sacred histories of her enemies. His perspectives include idea, identity, method, field work, them, us, and fit."—Reference & Research Book News, May 1, 2009

". . .original and thought-provoking. . ."—Survival, October 9, 2009

"Throughout the era that Michael Vlahos calls 'The 9/11 War,' he has been remarkable in always keeping sound judgment and always pointing toward broader connections and deeper historical-cultural roots in the challenges that Western democracies face. He has already earned public gratitude for his books and essays of the last decade. 'Fighting Identity' is another important and original contribution in helping Americans understand how their conscious and unconscious national beliefs affect their strengths, vulnerabilities, and possibilities in meeting this era's threats."—James Fallows National Correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly

"If history repeats itself, someone should tell the politicians. Fortunately, someone has-Michael Vlahos. It's obviously too late for some pols, of course. But others still have time to learn from the mistakes, and the successes, of the past. And the rest of us, too, can learn much from a book that illuminates the past to enlighten the future. Military history needs its own Gibbon, and it has found one in Vlahos."—James Pinkerton
Fellow with the New America Foundation
Contributor to the Fox News Network

"Michael Vlahos has written a bold, hard-hitting, thought-provoking book about the vitally important topic of the violent struggles that pit great powers against non-state actors. Written with verve and passion, this work is bound to provoke and attract attention."—Dr. John H. Maurer
Chair, Strategy and Policy Department Naval War College

"In this book Vlahos provides a disturbing analysis of why the U.S. is struggling in its war against terrorism. Identity, he argues, is the key driver both for the U.S. and for its new, non-state adversaries in a conflict widely misunderstood. While it is easy to believe we are doing better, his powerful analysis raises the spectra of what will happen when the next major terrorist attack hits us. This is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the new, dangerous world we are living in--and what to do about it."—A. Lawrence Chickering
Research Fellow, Hoover Institution
Co-author, Voice of the People: The Transpartisan Imperative in American Life

"This is a powerful study of the generative force of narrative in armed conflict. It might well change the way we look at warfare and the communities that engage in it."—Dr. Antulio Echevarria, Director of Research, U.S. Army War College
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