The Terrors of Suicide Bombing

About this Episode

Guests
Jonathan Romaneski, Jeffrey Lewis, Corbin Williamson

Many consider suicide bombing an exclusively recent or even novel phenomenon, carried out by crazed individuals that defy all reason. But is this actually the case? When and why did suicide bombing begin? Are there similarities among Russian anarchists of the nineteenth century, kamikaze pilots, and today’s suicide bombers? How can the history inform policy decisions to try and prevent such acts? Join your hosts Leticia Wiggins and Patrick Potyondy who interview guests Corbin Williamson, Jonathan Romaneski, and Jeffrey Lewis as they tackle these and other tough questions on the terrors of suicide bombing.

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Cite this Site

Patrick R. Potyondy, Leticia R. Wiggins , "The Terrors of Suicide Bombing" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
June, 2014
https://origins.osu.edu/historytalk/terrors-suicide-bombing?language_content_entity=en.
June, 2014

Transcript

Patrick Potyondy

 Welcome to History Talk, the history podcast for everyone, produced by Origins: Current Events and Historical Perspective. This is your cohost, Patrick Potyondy.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

And this is your other cohost Leticia Wiggins. So for many around the world suicide bombing conjures up images of diluted or crazed individuals just as they hold an almost blurred fascination for their willingness to kill themselves while killing others. So certainly since September 2001, the suicide bomber has held a central place in the psyche of world affairs. Since the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraq has suffered some 1500 attacks.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And occasional bombing continues to capture headlines in 2013, however, the Middle East which experienced some 153 suicide attacks accounted for only 50% of worldwide attacks. Just as many individuals tend to think of suicide bombing as a recent or even novel phenomenon. This topic has a much more nuanced and tangled history than at first glance.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

And in this show, we explore the content background of suicide bombing with three guests.

 

Corbin Williamson 

Hi, I'm Corbin Williamson. I'm a PhD student in military history here at Ohio State. And my dissertation looks at cooperation between the western Navys and the post World War Two era.

 

Johnathan Romaneski 

My name is Jonathan Romaneski. I'm also a graduate student here, second year, in the Department of History, and I'm also a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

Jeffrey Lewis 

Hi, I'm Jeffrey Lewis. I'm a lecturer in the undergraduate International Studies Program here at Ohio State University. I'm the author of the book "The Business of Martyrdom, a History of Suicide Bombing", published by the Naval Institute Press in 2012.

 

Patrick Potyondy

Excellent. Thanks for joining us today. So first off, why is suicide bombing a modern phenomenon? When and why did it begin and we'll give Jeffrey this question first.

 

Jeffrey Lewis

I'd the to keep it simple. I'd say the bomb, the modern bomb, was what created the suicide bomber. The development of higher power explosives with more reliable means of ignition changed the role of individuals because they've been suicidal missions as long as we've had conflict. The difference between the suicide bomber and say the Spartans who fought to the death that Thermopylae, their mission depended on their skill and fighting. Death was perhaps anticipated but not necessary. In suicide bombing, the human being becomes literally just a control mechanism. Their death is both anticipated and necessary for the mission to be executed successfully.

 

Johnathan Romaneski 

Yeah, I think that Jeff's got a great definition in terms of putting it putting it in terms of technology, humans as smart guidance systems for a technological device, a weapon. You know, we can we can sort of boil down the concept of suicide bombing, to just self-sacrificial violence, and we can trace it all the way back. Even if we use the concept of technology. I mean, human beings forming, say, a phalanx in ancient Greece, that's still a technological system every bit as much. I think, I think one really useful characteristic of the concept of suicide bombing is the way that it's used strategically, the way it's leveraged in popular media, and the psychological and moral effects that it has.

 

Corbin Williamson 

And the human element in terms of the guidance system is an important point to bring out, in part because that's often seen as one of the attractive features of a suicide bomb; it can be targeted, there can be changes made in the target, even up to the moment of detonation. It's actually the accuracy and precision of the system that leads the US Navy after the Second World War because of his experience with kamikazes to develop guided missiles, because they were impressed with the accuracy of kamikaze attacks and the ability to change course and vector late into the attack.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Well, this is like a great segue to our next question and building upon what we've been looking at so far. We were wondering if there are differences or similarities in how suicide bombing works over time and place and, for example, is the suicide bombing of Russians in the 19 century similar to the Kamikaze bombers of Japan in  World War Two, to the more recent patterns that are emanating from the Middle East and Corbin, if you'd like to start us off with this question too.

 

Corbin Williamson 

Well, certainly in terms of, since the question References kamikazes. In terms of aircraft, the use of piloted aircraft against other aircraft or against ground targets or naval targets extends back to the First World War. We have instances of pilots using their planes to ram other planes when they felt that they couldn't win in a combat situation. On the first day of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. There are over 100 instances of Soviet pilots ramming German aircraft because they didn't feel that their equipment was capable of performing adequately against German aircraft. In the Pacific, there's examples even as early as 1942 of American and British pilots, once their plane is damaged, crashing into the ship that they were targeting, aware that they wouldn't survive a return flight. But the widespread use of aircraft as suicide vehicles doesn't come until 1944 October, when the Japanese begin to use aircraft in this role on a large scale, and it's primarily born out of desperation; the inability to effectively target American ships leads to the use of kamikazes. You actually see the same thing in the European Theater. The Germans in 1945, developed a group of aircraft or a squadron that is specifically tasked to ram allied bombers, because their air defenses have been so ineffective. They know that this will be ineffective, and the group does fly several missions towards the end of the war with several successful ramblings.

 

Johnathan Romaneski 

I think that the kamikaze attacks in World War Two, there's a critical difference between them and modern day. And by that I mean contemporary incidents of suicide bombings in the Middle East, especially. The critical difference is that the the Japanese kamikaze pilots were still members of the Japanese armed forces. They were in uniform they had military vehicle recognizable by the parameters of the Geneva Conventions. I guess, today, what we're looking at in the Middle East, and especially in the Wars of Iraq and Afghanistan is combatants who use civilian status to basically as camouflage. And it just to me that highlights the way that suicide bombings can be used as a tactic only within a larger strategy.

 

Jeffrey Lewis 

Let's say, on the one hand, there's a similarity which is how the people are used that goes back to that functional definition of suicide bomber is the, you know, guidance system, whether it's a state, whether it's a non-state actor, that's the common denominator. With Imperial Russia, the key differences is it was a very haphazard, improvised use of suicide bombing, it was not organizationally mediated. Basically, groups like The People's Will started wanting to use dynamite and found out the hard way that it was terribly unreliable, so they switched from large and placed bombs to smaller bombs, it could throw by hand about five, six pounds. The problem was you had to be actually fairly close to your target. And so even if the explosion didn't kill you that you would certainly be arrested. So the decision to even undertake this type of an assassination attempt meant that you basically had come to the realization that your life was forfeit. And so it was just a small leap from throwing the bomb and understanding that you were going to be arrested and executed to getting even closer and throwing the bomb so close that it affected you. So that's the key, it was kind of an improvised form of attack. They never developed an organizational mechanism for making the bombs, selecting targets and then exploiting the media potential after, That's the key difference that we see with all these and whether it's Japan, whether it's Hezbollah, these other organizational components are there. Somebody else builds the bomb, somebody else builds or requires the delivery vehicle, somebody else ascertains the target. Often you have people escorting the individual to the point of attack. Once the individual is dead, their image is managed by the organization in order to extract maximum propaganda value. So with that, then the last point, yes, suicide bombing varies from organization to organization. Some are very rigid, Japan very, very strict hierarchical control. Global jihadism, much more fluid mechanisms of control. You know, they use small arms and indirect fire weapons differently as well.

 

Patrick Potyondy

So a lot of people I think, have a hard time wrapping their head around suicide bombing, right? And why someone would do this quote, unquote. It seems like people maybe are able to view maybe the Kamikaze bomber as more rational than someone taking part in a more fluid sort of suicide bombing attempt.

 

Jeffrey Lewis

Yes. What I'd say there with the Kamikaze, the organizational component is pretty straightforward. Part of the Japanese military with the suicide bombing that we've seen in recent years, it's much easier, I think, just see the bomber and see that as the sum total, so-

 

Patrick Potyondy

Is it harder to understand then?

 

Jeffrey Lewis

I think so.

 

Patrick Potyondy

I guess that's partly what I’m asking

 

Jeffrey Lewis

It doesn't make sense as an individual psychological phenomenon. Unless you understand the bigger organizational context. Now it's quite possible some suicide bombers do have psychological motivations and issues that aren't necessarily rational, don't necessarily make sense. But the organization, on the other hand, has different motivations and can make use of that individual. An eyewitness to the 1983 suicide bombing in the Marine barracks in Beirut, the famous story was that the bomber drove past a marine checkpoint, the bomber was smiling as he was going to his death, which was really a horrifying thing to contemplate. One of the marine guards later said, you know, there might have been a fanatic driving that truck but I guarantee you there was a cold calculating rational mind behind that. And I think with contemporary suicide bombing, we've got this lurid fascination we look at the bomber, we look at the carnage and we see nothing more than that.

 

Patrick Potyondy

So moving explicitly into the practical policy arena, what can we learn from looking at earlier patterns of suicide bombing about why people act this way, and maybe even more importantly, how we can prevent such activities in the future?

 

Jeffrey Lewis

Suicide bombing is most effective for organizations when you get both tactical and strategic benefit. Tactical, you get ammunition that's interactively guided by human   intelligence up to the point of definitions, its a precision guided munition. I mean, basically. But strategically, what the organizations do is they exploit the willingness of the individual to die, they often use terms like martyr. And that can resonate with their community. I mean, suicide bombing, we may not realize, but it's directed, usually toward the reference community as much as the adversary that's meant to be inspirational. But when that organizational role becomes too clear, suicide bombing seems less like martyrdom, and more like you're just using up young men and young women for your own purpose. And we've got evidence that there have been what we call remote control martyrs, people blown up by remote control, they didn't even know it. Well, that's not inspirational. And so the point of all of this is that in previous instances of suicide bombing, most cases, communities have played a strong role in determining whether or not suicide bombing will be sustainable. They either support the endeavor, or they reject it. There's exceptions, the global jihadis really don't speak for anybody. You don't have a constituency. They use suicide bombing indiscriminately. Most other groups, Hezbollah, Hamas, others are trying to reach a group. They're trying to represent a group. So I would guess for policy, the thing that we have to be careful in noting is that suicide bombing functions best tactically and strategically, when there is a community that supports it. And if we can separate the bombers and communities, from that organism or from that society, we're likely to take a big step toward damping the whole thing down.

 

Johnathan Romaneski 

That point speaks well, I think to what I was thinking earlier, which was that you know, talking about how difficult it is to comprehend the concept of a suicide attack, we think that, if we think that the 9/11 hijackers, for example, were nothing short of insane Islamic fundamentalists or radicals and that they were brainwashed. But when we think about it in terms of dying for a higher cause, it's not so foreign and alien. I mean, in our own society, we are rightly so very reverent of those who, in our opinions, have died for freedom, and the same concept is sort of at play here. Suicide attackers believe that they're dying for a higher cause, something larger than themselves. So the way you undercut that is by exposing the inherent contradictions and what they're doing. When I was in Iraq, for example, we had a day when we were getting briefed on significant activities over the last 24 hours and we had learned that a Sunni faction had strapped a suicide vest, not even appropriately called the suicide vest anymore because it was more like a murder vest, but they strapped this bomb to a mentally handicapped woman, directed, pointed her into a crowded market and remote detonated her and, you know that's the sort of thing that is you know, it's still humans using other humans as Jeff has said for, as a weapon. But then it's up to us on the other side of that  to exploit that in the propaganda fight which is really the larger issue.

 

Corbin Williamson 

I think there's also something to be said for correctly understanding the historical background that suicide bombing draw, or so often draws upon. And the Japanese case you know, they're attempting to replicate these typhoons that destroyed invading fleets that attacked Japan. You can look at militaries across the world, all of them, they'll often have last stand that they memorialize, whether it's Thermopylae, or the Alamo. I think sometimes making those last stands or those historical references more complicated, less romanticized, can be a useful way to separate the, or to reduce the ability to draw upon a historical analogy.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And a great way to make history relevant, right, to today. So excellent.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Yeah, and I mean, these are all really great examples. And we're guessing for a lot of our listeners, when the topic of suicide bombing does come up, they might think of the Middle East initially. We know as we hear today, there's a lot of other examples we can look at, aren't there. And so we kind of want to learn more about this larger process by comparing these different examples. And by taking some of the focus off the Middle East. Should we do that and how might be a good way to discuss this?

 

Johnathan Romaneski 

Well, I think that an appropriate place to start is by looking at ourselves. And as I alluded to earlier, I think that there is a larger theme here of dying for something higher, something  that is greater than you, dying for a cause, in other words, and we can look at our own violent past here in the United States. The wars that we have done, and in some cases, the atrocities that we have committed, although those go hand in hand with, I guess the righteous moral crusades that we're familiar with, whether it's the Civil War, or World War Two. Pervading all of these incidents, we have this theme of dying for a sacred cause. And I've recently studied and written on this, this idea that in the American Civil War, Americans were fighting for a higher cause, almost with a religious zeal, literally, with a religious zeal, in fact, and they had the constellation of heaven when they died, and that helped motivate them to lay their lives down. And there are many societal factors that went into this. There was sort of a culture of death before the Civil War started. So identifying forces processes like that, I think help understand that the dynamics behind self-sacrificial violence.

 

Jeffrey Lewis 

I would say, the best way to understand as a more generalizable phenomenon is to recognize the organizational character. I've argued that it basically is an alternative technology. When you look at the decision making from the perspective of the organization, it's usually done to redress an imbalance in forces or capabilities. Whether that was the, you know, kind of improvised bombing of imperial Russia, the Kamikaze and the Second World War, Hezbollah versus the United States and Israel and so on and so forth. It's organizations utilizing the available resources to the best of their ability to create a weapon that they can deploy against their adversary. And one reason then why we would say that there's a lot of suicide bombing in the Middle East is because we've got high tech militaries, the American and the Israelis active in the Middle East. If we're gonna be active in other parts of the world, I would imagine we might see suicide bombing elsewhere. Ask the Sri Lankan army about suicide bombing, they fought one of the most ferocious gorilla organizations for 30 years, the Tamil Tigers. The Tamil Tigers made extensive use of suicide bombers, not just bombers, but small naval vehicles piloted by suicide pilots, or I don't know if you'd call them suicide captains? So, I think that the best way of just decoupling it from a specific region and a specific culture is to understand it as a kind of a technology, understand it is organizations using individual human beings to a specific end.

 

Corbin Williamson 

In terms of two non Middle Eastern examples, two come to mind. First is the in a Western military context, one of the earliest suicide missions was when, in the early modern era, an army would surround a fort or a castle, and if at any point the army decided to storm, to try to take the castle by force instead of waiting it out by siege. The initial group of soldiers that would go through a breach in the wall, the Dutch called them the verloren hoop, which is where we get the term forlorn hope. Something that is not you're not, there's not a good outcome expected from that, because so often that group of soldiers would die. So that's certainly a good example of a non Middle Eastern use of soldiers in a suicide role to open up an area for further soldiers to move into. And I suppose the second would be, since we're addressing kamikaze pilots, often, people want to know, why did kamikaze pilots wear helmets? And that's often a question that you get, and there actually is a good reason. Sometimes, because the pilots who were engaged in kamikaze attacks often had very little flight training. Even simple maneuvers, like texting on the runway and taking off were sometimes beyond their ability, and quite often kamikaze pilots would crash on takeoff. So the idea was that the helmet would enable them to survive that crash such that they could, you know, get into a different aircraft and to continue to perform the mission.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Any final thoughts before we wrap up?

 

Jeffrey Lewis 

I guess it's related to that, it's pretty clear that the willingness to sacrifice oneself on behalf of community is a noble human value that shared by all cultures. Suicide bombing is really kind of unpleasant, I think, one thing I know we always articulate it, but it's because it's the use of something so noble for what is often a pretty dreadful end. So just to recognize that it's not just the use of the human being, but the use of the values that that human being is trying to represent.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Well, this has been a really enlightening discussion. And we finally like to thank Jonathan Romaneski, Corbin Williams, and Jeffrey Lewis for joining us today.

 

Johnathan Romaneski 

Thank you.

 

Jeffrey Lewis 

Thank you.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

This edition of the Origins podcast History Talk was brought to you by the Public History Initiative and the Goldberg Center in the history department at The Ohio State University. Our main editors are Steve Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio editors and cohosts are Patrick Potyondy, and Leticia Wiggins. Find our podcasts and more at our website Origins.osu.edu and you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. Thank you for listening.

 

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