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article imageOp Ed: 'Go tell the Spartans:' The logic of suicide bombing

By John Rickman     Nov 11, 2007 in Politics
"Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie."
Marker on the grave of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.
The willingness to sacrifice oneself for the defense of the group is at the very core of most culture's notions of heroism.
Suicide bombings fill our news. Last week alone four anti-al-Qaida chieftains were killed in Iraq, another bombing incident claimed the lives of 59 children and five teachers in Afganistan, and an attack at the home of a Pakistan government minister killed at least four. Since 9/11 hundreds of bombs have killed thousands of people and there is no sign that such attacks will be ending anytime soon.
Since this tactic such an important part of modern warfare it is vital that we have some understanding of it and of those who are willing to use it to achieve their ends and why, despite its horror, so many people believe the actions of the human bombers to be heroic.
Just as it is not necessary for a Fireman to approve of the arsonists in order to study his methods and motivations, so too it is not necessary for the student of military history to approve of suicide bombing in order to see it for what it is, and eminently logical and highly successful tactic. In virtually all the wars where this tactic has been used it has won. If we ever hope to understand it we must be willing to lay aside comforting myths and ill informed generalizations.
The first myth we must get rid of is the notion that there something inherent in Islam that causes "religious fanatics" to carry out such attacks. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only does Islam condemn suicide, as well as the killing of innocents, in the strongest terms, but the sad fact is that the majority of suicide bombers are not Muslim, or even religious.
According to Dr. Robert A. Pape an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago, who has compiled a data base of all suicide bombings from the invention of the tactic in the 1970's to up to 2003, 57% of all such attacks are carried out by purely secular groups.
But that is not all. Even among the remaining 43% that were organized by religious groups, not all the bombers themselves were religious. Furthermore even those bombers who were religiously motivated were not all Muslims. During the Lebanese Civil War 70% of the human bomb attacks were carried out by Christians.
Nor is the tactic confined to the Middle East. The first human bombs of the 20th century were the Japanese Kamikaze pilots who deliberatly dove their planes onto the decks of US ships in order to destroy them. But these were not insurgents and so their numbers are not included in Pape's statistics.
The first known use of the tactic by insurgents was in Vietnam in the 1960's when Vietcong sympathizers used the method to attack US troops. It was the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, however, who perfected the tactic in the 1970's. They were soon followed by the Kurdish PKK who used it against Turkey the Sikhs in India, and the Palestinians against Israel.
Still the confronting myth of the wild eyed, irrational, Islamic fanatic persists. But even there the model falls apart. Nichole Argo, a doctoral candidate in political science at MIT, lived for two years in Israel studying the phenomena. She has concluded that far from being poor, illiterate, or suicidal, bombers are largely drawn from the secular and educated middle classes and do not show signs of sociopathy or depression. Also they are also, for the most part, volunteers rather than recruits and are "wholly, even altruistically invested in life."
It is allegiance to resistance to foreign invaders, rather than religion, that seems to be a key factor in prompting a person to strap on an explosive vest.
Now that we know who the next obvious question is why? The short answer is that it works. So far, in every war the tactic has been used it has forced the occupying countries to make concessions or retreat completely. The United States was forced to leave Lebanon; Israel withdrew from Lebanon and now parts of the West Bank; and Sri Lanka gave the Tamils their own semi-autonomous state. Soon, despite Bush's desperate attempts to hold on, the US will be forced to retreat from Iraq and most Americans already know it.
While many decry the loss of innocent life the US makes the exact same decisions to kill civilians as the human bombers do, the difference being that the US uses multi-million dollar aircraft to do it while the human bombers use themselves. According to Mark Garlasco, former head of "High Value Targeting" at the start of the Iraq war:
There is this macabre kind of calculus that the military goes through on every air strike where they try to figure out how many dead civilians is a dead bad guy worth. (On air interview "60 Minutes" 10/28/07)
The effects, however, are the same with the only difference being that most people in the region we are currently fighting in see the use of aircraft to be cowardly. Say what you will about the human bombers, cowardice is one thing they cannot be charged with.
So how do we deal with this tactic? So far the best answer seems to be that since occupation causes resistance America should "expeditiously" but not recklessly, withdraw troops from Iraq while also reducing its energy dependence on the Middle East. It should also not station troops in the Gulf States since this enrages the sentiments of the inhabitants of the occupied countries.
For more than two thousands the willing sacrifice of a handful of Spartans in order to resist the terrible might of the foreign invaders has been hailed in the West as one of the great triumphs of the human spirit. Like it or not the sacrifice of the human bombers of today in the face of occupiers is seen in the countries that are resisting foreign invaders in the same light.
(Note: Information by Robert A. Pape was taken from "Why do suicide bombers do it?
By Christopher Shea | Boston Globe July 3, 2005 at News. The Link was arrived at by Googling "secular suicide bombers" and was the sixth article from the top.
Additional information on Dr. Pape may be found by consulting his book "Dying to Win." or the Wikipedia article on the book at
I regret that the Boston Globe link seems to be dead.
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