This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
The actor Will Smith is no one's image of a suicide bomber. With his boyish face, he has often played comic roles. Even as the last man on earth in I Am Legend, he retains a wise-cracking, ironic demeanor. And yet, surrounded by a horde of hyperactive vampires at the end of that film, Smith clasps a live grenade to his chest and throws himself at the enemy in a final burst of heroic sacrifice.
Wait a second: surely that wasn't a suicide bombing. Will Smith wasn't reciting suras from the Koran. He wasn't sporting one of those rising sun headbands that the Japanese kamikaze wore for their suicide missions. He wasn't playing a religious fanatic or a political extremist. Will Smith was the hero of the film. So how could he be a suicide bomber? After all, he's one of us, isn't he?
As it happens, we have our suicide bombers too. "We" are the powerful, developed countries, the ones with an overriding concern for individual liberties and individual lives. "We" form a moral archipelago that encompasses the United States, Europe, Israel, present-day Japan, and occasionally Russia. Whether in real war stories or inspiring vignettes served up in fiction and movies, our lore is full of heroes who sacrifice themselves for motherland, democracy, or simply their band of brothers. Admittedly, these men weren't expecting 72 virgins in paradise and they didn't make film records of their last moments, but our suicidal heroes generally have received just as much praise and recognition as "their" martyrs.
The scholarly work on suicide bombers is large and growing. Most of these studies focus on why those other people do such terrible things, sometimes against their own compatriots but mainly against us. According to the popular view, Shiite or Tamil or Chechen suicide martyrs have a fundamentally different attitude toward life and death.
If, however, we have our own rich tradition of suicide bombers—and our own unfortunate tendency to kill civilians in our military campaigns—how different can these attitudes really be?
In America's first war against Islam, we were the ones who introduced the use of suicide bombers. Indeed, the American seamen who perished in the incident were among the U.S. military's first missing in action.
It was September 4, 1804. The United States was at war with the Barbary pirates along the North African coast. The U.S. Navy was desperate to penetrate the enemy defenses. Commodore Edward Preble, who headed up the Third Mediterranean Squadron, chose an unusual stratagem: sending a booby-trapped U.S.S. Intrepid into the bay at Tripoli, one of the Barbary states of the Ottoman empire, to blow up as many of the enemy's ships as possible. U.S. sailors packed 10,000 pounds of gunpowder into the boat along with 150 shells.
When Lieutenant Richard Sommers, who commanded the vessel, addressed his crew on the eve of the mission, a midshipman recorded his words:
"'No man need accompany him, who had not come to the resolution to blow himself up, rather than be captured; and that such was fully his own determination!' Three cheers was the only reply. The gallant crew rose, as a single man, with the resolution yielding up their lives, sooner than surrender to their enemies: while each stepped forth, and begged as a favor, that he might be permitted to apply the match!"
The crew of the boat then guided the Intrepid into the bay at night. So as not to be captured and lose so much valuable gunpowder to the enemy, they chose to blow themselves up with the boat. The explosion didn't do much damage—at most, one Tripolitan ship went down—but the crew was killed just as surely as the two men who plowed a ship piled high with explosives into the U.S.S. Cole in the Gulf of Aden nearly 200 years later.
Despite the failure of the mission, Preble received much praise for his strategies. "A few brave men have been sacrificed, but they could not have fallen in a better cause," opined a British navy commander. The Pope went further: "The American commander, with a small force and in a short space of time, has done more for the cause of Christianity than the most powerful nations of Christiandom have done for ages!"
Preble chose his tactic because his American forces were outgunned. It was a Hail Mary attempt to level the playing field. The bravery of his men and the reaction of his supporters could be easily transposed to the present day, when "fanatics" fighting against similar odds beg to sacrifice themselves for the cause of Islam and garner the praise of at least some of their religious leaders.
The blowing up of the Intrepid was not the only act of suicidal heroism in U.S. military history. We routinely celebrate the brave sacrifices of soldiers who knowingly give up their lives in order to save their unit or achieve a larger military mission. We commemorate the sacrifice of the defenders of the Alamo, who could have, after all, slunk away to save themselves and fight another day. The poetry of the Civil War is rich in the language of sacrifice. In Phoebe Cary's poem "Ready" from 1861, a black sailor, "no slavish soul had he," volunteers for certain death to push a boat to safety.
The heroic sacrifices of the twentieth century are, of course, commemorated in film. Today, you can buy several videos devoted to the "suicide missions" of American soldiers.
Our World War II propaganda films—er, wartime entertainments—often featured brave soldiers facing certain death. In Flying Tigers (1942), for example, pilot Woody Jason anticipates the Japanese kamikaze by several years by flying a plane into a bridge to prevent a cargo train from reaching the enemy. In Bataan (1943), Robert Taylor leads a crew of 13 men in what they know will be the suicidal defense of a critical position against the Japanese. With remarkable sangfroid, the soldiers keep up the fight as they are picked off one by one until only Taylor is left. The film ends with him manning a machine gun against wave upon wave of oncoming Japanese.
Our warrior culture continues to celebrate the heroism of these larger-than-life figures from World War II by taking real-life stories and turning them into Hollywood-style entertainments. For his series of "war stories" on Fox News, for instance, Oliver North narrates an episode on the Doolittle raid, an all-volunteer mission to bomb Tokyo shortly after Pearl Harbor. Since the bombers didn't have enough fuel to return to their bases, the 80 pilots committed to what they expected to be a suicide mission. Most of them survived, miraculously, but they had been prepared for the ultimate sacrifice—and that is how they are billed today. "These are the men who restored the confidence of a shaken nation and changed the course of the Second World War," the promotional material for the episode rather grandly reports. Tokyo had the same hopes for its kamikaze pilots a few years later.
Why Suicide Missions?
America did not, of course, dream up suicide missions. They form a rich vein in the Western tradition. In the Bible, Samson sacrificed himself in bringing down the temple on the Philistine leadership, killing more through his death than he did during his life. The Spartans, at Thermopylae, faced down the Persians, knowing that the doomed effort would nevertheless delay the invading army long enough to give the Athenians time to prepare Greek defenses. In the first century AD in the Roman province of Judea, Jewish Zealots and Sicarians ("dagger men") launched suicide missions, mostly against Jewish moderates, to provoke an uprising against Roman rule.
Later, suicide missions played a key role in European history. "Books written in the post-9/11 period tend to place suicide bombings only in the context of Eastern history and limit them to the exotic rebels against modernism," writes Niccolo Caldararo in an essay on suicide bombers. "A study of the late 19th century and early 20th would provide a spate of examples of suicide bombers and assassins in the heart of Europe." These included various European nationalists, Russian anarchists, and other early practitioners of terrorism.
Given the plethora of suicide missions in the Western tradition, it should be difficult to argue that the tactic is unique to Islam or to fundamentalists. Yet some scholars enjoy constructing a restrictive genealogy for such missions that connects the Assassin sect (which went after the great sultan Saladin in the Levant in the twelfth century) to Muslim suicide guerrillas of the Philippines (first against the Spanish and then, in the early twentieth century, against Americans). They take this genealogy all the way up to more recent suicide campaigns by Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaeda, and Islamic rebels in the Russian province of Chechnya. The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, who used suicide bombers in a profligate fashion, are ordinarily the only major non-Muslim outlier included in this series.
Uniting our suicide attackers and theirs, however, are the reasons behind the missions. Three salient common factors stand out. First, suicidal attacks, including suicide bombings, are a "weapon of the weak," designed to level the playing field. Second, they are usually used against an occupying force. And third, they are cheap and often brutally effective.
We commonly associate suicide missions with terrorists. But states and their armies, when outnumbered, will also launch such missions against their enemies, as Preble did against Tripoli or the Japanese attempted near the end of World War II. To make up for its technological disadvantages, the Iranian regime sent waves of young volunteers, some unarmed and some reportedly as young as nine years old, against the then-U.S.-backed Iraqi army in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.