The Myth of the Suicide Bomber
August 4th, 2006

Americans as a rule have a remarkably short span of collective memory. Thus when terrorists seize aircraft to plunge themselves into skyscrapers in New York we are doubly aghast. What must be the motivation behind such desperate acts?

Similarly, the Middle East is rife with suicide attacks in which solitary bombers (usually, but not exclusively, impressionable young men) drive themselves and their destructive cargoes into buildings, neighborhoods, shopping centers and the like attempting to take as many innocent civilians as possible into oblivion with them. Nor is this phenomenon now limited to just the Middle East – as witness, Madrid, London, Beslan, Moscow, and, as was previously mentioned, New York City and Washington DC.

In the ensuing furor, pain, and accompanying disbelief, it is only natural to assume that this is a new, remarkable phenomenon in the human experience. These vicious, sacrificial attacks must mark a new passion, a desperation hitherto unknown to civilization. Nothing, however could be further from the truth.

The deliberate, premeditated sacrifice of an individual or a small group of individuals is a long established and well-documented phenomenon. This is not, as some would have you believe, a revolutionary development which endows Islamic radicals with a zeal or vision unshared by others. In truth, this latest round of suicide attacks, if anything, is a demeaning and ultimate devaluation of the cause for which they are ostensibly launched.

History is replete with examples, most exceptionally well-documented, and some having achieved near-mythical status in the societies which ultimately benefitted from them. Just to demonstrate the validity of this argument one can easily refer to the valiant defense of the pass at Thermopylae by King Leonidas and his Spartan Army, who threw themselves in the path of Xerxes’ onrushing Persian horde. As the various Greek city states squabbled among themselves to determine how best to confront the Persian monarch bent on subjugating the Peloponnesus, Leonidas, knowing full well that they would not survive the engagement, deployed his Spartan defenders in the path of Xerxes and his feared Immortals. In a brutal engagement, the small Greek force was annihilated but their actions bought the rest of the Greek city-states enough time to assemble a coherent military force and ultimately throw back the Persian invaders.

In medieval Europe, we have the Song of Roland which immortalizes the acts of desperate and knowingly suicidal Frankish forces defending Christian Europe from the onslaught of an expanding Muslim Empire. According to the most accepted versions of the legend, in 778 AD the French monarch Charlemagne entered into negotiations with Muslim leader Marsile in an attempt to end seven years of fighting. The negotiations however were part of a ruse designed by Masile to deceive the French and, as Charlemagne’s army withdrew from the contested areas, the Saracen forces of some 100,000 troops fell on the 20,000 strong French rearguard in the pass at Roncevaux.

In a desperate attempt to allow the rest of the French army to withdraw the rearguard under the leadership of Roland fought to the death against overwhelming numbers. While the details recorded are historically suspect (it is highly likely that the assault on the Frankish rearguard was launched by Basques and not Muslims) the ideal of self-sacrifice for a greater cause was stamped indelibly on the European consciousness. The threat of Muslim expansion throughout the period in which the Chanson de Roland was most popular was a very real concern. However suspect the facts of the engagement, the concept of self-sacrifice for a larger cause became a cause celebre for most of Christian Europe.

In our own experience there are few schoolchildren, especially in Texas, who are not familiar with the phrase “Remember the Alamo!” When in 1836 Mexican strongman General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana attempted to suppress a rebellion among settlers in Texas, large numbers of independent Texians determined to resist. General Santa Ana assembled a large army to crush his rebellious subjects and by February of 1836 that army was cutting a swathe through the Texas countryside. Barricading themselves in the adobe mission of San Antonio de Behar a small force of Americans and independent minded Tejanos determined to hold out against Santa Ana’s onrushing army.

Despite Sam Houston’s entreaties to abandon the small mission, the Alamo’s defenders under the leadership of Colonels Travis and Bowie, and the famous frontiersman David Crockett determined that Houston needed time to build an army. Knowing full well that their actions were doomed the garrison of the Alamo prepared to resist the Mexican advance to the last extremity. Santa Ana’s siege of the Alamo lasted 13 days and left not a single defender alive. It was a deliberately suicidal defense and the basis of an American legend.

Later in that same century American Indians such as the Cheyenne would revere men who belonged to the Dog Soldier warrior sect. The Dog Soldiers were known to wear a long sash which in times of greatest peril they would peg to the earth vowing to die where they stood in the defense of their colleagues. At the Battle of the Little Bighorn it is now believed that a small group of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors who called themselves “The Suicide Boys” were the decisive force in the fight. The chief historian at the Little Bighorn now believes that it was the desperate charge by these warriors who had pledged to die in the battle who finally broke the last resistance among Custer’s beleaguered 7th Cavalry.

Even in the 20th century, the suicide attack is not unknown and countless Americans of the World War II generation understand that first hand. It was a desperate Japanese Empire and a firm belief in the sanctity of the Emperor that spawned thousands of suicidal assaults by Japanese army and naval units against the onslaught of Allied forces in the Pacific theater. Disastrous banzai charges were launched against Allied positions on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, and others. The attackers knew full well, and expected that survival was impossible, even undesirable.

Hundreds of young airmen, wearing ceremonial headbands, some even carrying samurai swords, climbed into the cockpits of explosive-laden aircraft and hurled them and themselves headlong into Allied warships. The actions of the kamikaze (or Divine Wind) were absolutely incredible to Western sensibilities and yet they were perfectly rational to the Japanese philosophy.

The suicide attack is by no means a new tactic or philosophy. What does, however, set the current trend of Islamic suicide bombers apart from their predecessors is the nature of the targets. In the past, throughout most of history, suicidal attacks were launched against opposing military forces. They were not directed against civilians.

In the annals of the suicidal attack or defense there is scant, nearly non-existent evidence of the deliberate targeting of defenseless civilians – the young, the elderly, the infirm, clerics, places of worship, or non-combatant agencies such as the Red Cross or Red Crescent. Thus in only one particular is the employment of the suicide attacker or suicide squad revolutionary in the hands of today’s Islamic radicals. For people such as Osama Bin Laden, or the late, unlamented Abu Masoud Al-Zarqawi and Shamil Basayev – architect of the Beslan school massacre— contemporary masters of the suicide attack, there are no innocents, no non-combatants. This may well be a key to understanding their motivations and ultimate goals. They may well be undone by their own tactics.

Frederick J. Chiaventone, award-winning novelist and screenwriter is a retired Army officer who taught counter-terrorism at the U.S. Army’s Command & General Staff College.

Frederick J. Chiaventone