Suicide War

Could there ever be an American suicide bomber?

The idea rankles. It contradicts both positive and negative stereotypes about Americans. Occidentalists depict the American as the antithesis of the suicide bomber, the anti-martyr devoted to pleasure and afraid of death. And suicide bombing has been so intensively linked to culture, religion and tradition, and linked to a cult of death, even though it has been used by the secular and the faithful (swap you Kurdish communists and Tamil Leninists for the 9/11 hijackers).

This week I was off at a conference in Oxford, where I had the great pleasure to meet Professor Hugh Gusterson, an academic anthropologist with a speciality in the cultural history of American militarism.

Hugh told me about an article he wrote earlier this year in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:

I once interviewed a former special-forces officer who was trained to hike behind enemy lines with a tactical nuclear weapon on his back and place it near an important target. Although the weapon had a timer, he expected to die at ground zero.

If such men were the elite nuclear suicide bombers whose mission was prepared but never carried out, the Cold War turned the whole country into a suicide bomber rehearsing obsessively for the moment when we would “push the button” and take down millions of our enemies with us. Seen in this light, Americans trained for the biggest suicide bombing mission of all.

Following Hugh’s argument, I admit to a longstanding view of suicide bombing not as an abhorrent cultural abomination, but as a practical tool of war that can be used to commit atrocity or legitimate violence, however these things are defined. In this respect, it is not different morally from a conventional bomber except that the attacker definitely dies.

And it has compelling advantages for a population occupied by a stronger military power: cheap, stealthy, no escape or rescue plans needed, no possibility of interrogation, and psychologically demoralising.

A suicide bomber could strike a military target and an unmanned aerial vehicle or bomber could kill a bus full of civilians. Its not clear why suicide rather than choice of target is the moral distinction.

But the most interesting aspect is the actual example of an American suicide bomber, a nuclear one at that. Westerners under attractive conditions can develop these techniques, and is it that hard to imagine under foreign occupation a move to this method?

In the last days of the Reich, Adolf Hitler created a suicide squadron of fighter planes that would ram bridges to slow the Red Army invasion.  The name? Leonidas Squadron. Westerners have mytho-historical examples of suicidal self-sacrifice too, and can deploy them under pressure.

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