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Nationalism Trumps Theology

06.27.2005 | BOOKS

Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism
By Robert Pape
Random House, 352 pages, $25.95

In a previous article I had discussed the 'logic' of a renewed Intifada in relation to other modes of logic and rationale concerning the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. In general terms I recognized that a renewed Intifada, along with its associated suicide bombings, could be, under the circumstances, a rationale act. This was supported by Michael Neumann from Trent University who stated in part, "continuing the attacks is certainly not stupid or suicidal, and therefore cannot be dismissed as fanaticism. Even if fanatics are behind the attacks, ordinary rational Palestinians would have good if not decisive reasons to adopt such a strategy." Both of these concepts, the rationality of the attacks and the support of ordinary rational Palestinians are well supported by Robert Pape's new work on suicide terrorism, Dying to Win.

The book is essentially divided into three parts (as are the clear majority of all his arguments and qualifications): a short introduction, the explorations of suicide terrorism, and a brief conclusion. Both the introduction and the conclusion display much of the on-going spin of the American government position towards the Middle East and terrorism in general. Fortunately, although somewhat repetitive from a reader's point of view, the essentially sociological explanation of the rationale and circumstances behind suicide attacks is well supported by statistical analysis and clear headed thinking. The main message is very clear: suicide attackers are not the impoverished brain-washed religious fundamentalist fanatics as depicted by much of the regular media following the government spin, but are rationale individuals from mainly middle class or working backgrounds and, most surprisingly for the western media pundits, mainly secular in beliefs.

Pape's analysis of terrorism and terrorists is strong, but his introduction puts a different interpretation to terrorism, one more similar to Walter Laqueur's "World of Terror" article in the National Geographic in which he saw terrorism equally narrowly: "In the past the typical victim of terrorism was an emperor or a king, a president, a general, or at least a government official." Pape's view is that "Terrorism involves the use of violence by an organization other than a national government to intimidate or frighten a target audience." He continues on to say in a longer footnote that terrorism is "violent acts against innocents that are committed by nongovernmental actors." This of course denies the governmental terror of mass carpet bombing as in Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam (politely described as "coercion"), the bombing of civilian structures and targets in Serbia, the use of nuclear weapons on citizens of Japan, and the current terror inflicted on civilians in Iraq who are not given a body count until it serves the new command structures' purposes -- and further denies the terror of having one's house demolished, fields taken away, travel restricted, and civilians killed in Israeli-occupied Palestine.

That is not new, and surprisingly, does not overtly affect Pape's analysis of the terrorist attackers themselves or the context they find themselves in. It is almost as if he is saying, okay I have provided the conventional spin on terror, now let's look at the real problem.

And the real problem, outlined very clearly, is the presence of foreign troops acting as occupiers to an indigenous population. Pape looks at as many suicide attacks as possible, from Kashmir through Sri Lanka and India to Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq. The military is the one over-riding basis that creates the conditions for suicide attacks. His definition of occupation is much more tenable than that of terrorist, being defined simply as "the exertion of political control over territory by an outside group. The critical requirement is that...control must depend on employing coercive assets...controlled from outside the occupied territory." In short, all of the Middle East could be considered under occupation as the coercive effect of a foreign power's presence is to some degree or other present in all states. Al-Qaeda, a movement not based in any country, still fits into all this as it is seen as a "cross-national military alliance of national liberation movements working together against what they see as a common imperial threat." From his discussion of al-Qaeda Pape says "this means that the American military policy in the Persian Gulf was most likely the pivotal factor leading to September 11."

There are other supporting parameters beyond occupation of territory.

First is a religious difference. In all cases where suicide attacks have taken place, there has been a strong religious divide between occupier and native people. When not, a guerrilla campaign may have been on going with a variety of attack mechanisms, but without the suicide attacks. This is more a cultural phenomenon than a religious one, as most of the attackers as indicated above were secular in nature, many of them coming form socialist or marxist groups within the communities, and if they were involved with fundamentalist religious groups, were mostly recent 'walk-in' converts willing to use their lives as a weapon against a militarily powerful occupier.

Another parameter is the social acceptance and high level of prestige of the suicide attackers. The social acceptance was helped by the religious divide as it made it easier to overcome the very strong taboos against suicide that is part of Islamic teachings (and Pape indicates that this is somewhat stronger than with Christianity). The martyrs as they then become are celebrated by the community and not derided or avoided; they are reassured that the giving of their lives is truly an altruistic act that will benefit and be remembered by their people.

Democracy is also shown to be a factor as democratic governments are much more susceptible to making concessions than an autocratic or dictatorial government that may just as well decide to completely obliviate their opponents. The U.S. and France withdrew from Lebanon after successful attacks by Hezbollah; a cease fire accord was reached by the Tamil and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka; and various groups have withdrawn from Iraq after perceiving the possibility of, or being attacked by suicide attackers, the Spanish being the strongest democratic action of that particular war. Perhaps the corollary would hold true -- those still embroiled in an occupation and fighting against suicide attackers are not democratic countries, implicating both the United States and Israel as not being particularly democratic entities.

In both Lebanon with the Hezbollah and in Israel with Hamas, there is strong support in the community for the suicide attackers. There is also a strong social safety net supplied by both these groups in their particular areas to counter some of the adverse affects of the continuing occupation as per Israel, and the disorganized government structures as per Lebanon. As before, the attackers themselves are often not originally members of the group but are 'walk-ins' willing to support the overall social enterprise to be rid of the occupation.

And as Pape postulates, "support for the Islamist groups is more likely an effect of the rising popularity of suicide terrorism than a cause of it." The growth of popular support has not come from rising fundamentalism, "but simply the intensified rebellion itself or increased Israeli use of force against the rebellion" (although 'rebellion' is a word with a strong occupational spin) and "65 per cent of Palestinians who supported suicide operations cited as a main reason Israeli military incursions." Current events supports the popularity of both groups as Hamas and Hezbollah have strong followings in their respective territories: with Hezbollah still proving politically strong and popular in Southern Lebanon after the withdrawal of both the Israeli's and the Syrians; and Hamas proving popular in local councils and other governmental elections in Gaza and the West Bank during the current cease-fire.

Pape is clear with his reasons for the occupations in the Middle East in a diffident, off-handed, casual sort of way - it is "the world's interest in Persian Gulf oil" and "the United States recognized [prior to 1990] that access to Persian Gulf oil was crucial to the world's economy." Unfortunately it is not the "world's" problem as many other countries have been able and willing to negotiate for oil without having to send in the heavy artillery and the infantry to control it. Yes, oil is the problem in the Middle East, but mainly as an American problem to control a resource that is vital to its continuing affluence and hegemonic control of other parts of the globe. There are other obvious problems that Pape does not address.

He argues that their should be "no American combat troops stationed on the ground" but that the U.S. should maintain "the current structure of military bases in the region." This seems to me to be a contradiction of terms, but perhaps my militarily untrained mind simply cannot grasp this. Pape does not address the issues of U.S. containment for Russia and its spheres of influence, nor does he address China and India's increasing demand for fossil fuels. The issue of American support of regional dictators and puppet governments is not addressed, a large issue that covers the whole region from western Africa through to Pakistan. There is no discussion of the nuclear threat from Israel and its remaining outside the law of the Non-proliferation Treaty, although he does recognize that Iran, even with nuclear arms, would probably not be interested in any "reckless" use of those weapons.

There is little mention of American support for Israel and its occupation of Palestine, nor of the religious differences that combine to create the suicide attackers in the first place, nor of American religious support for Israeli occupation. Both countries see the occupied territories as necessities to their survival put in whatever rhetorical terms they can to give it a positive spin to their home constituencies. Again, how can I understand a solution that does not include probably the largest problem -- at least before the Iraqi occupation -- that of occupied Palestine?

It may or may not bear repetition, but I leave that to the discretion of the editors:

There are certainly other strategies, but they require the cooperation and economic and political force from outside parties. Is it rational to expect all the settlements to be "unsettled", and as reparations, simply handed over intact to the Palestinians? It would seem so to me. Is it rational to have the fence stopped and removed, to have the Israelis pull back to the Green Line of the 1967 war? Is it rational to have the Israelis disarmed under the context of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty that the Americans uphold strongly in the context of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, and ignore in the context of Pakistan, India, and Israel? Would it be rational for the U.S. to stop supporting Israel economically to the tune of three billions of dollars a year and create a true "free market" economy in the region; or conversely to support the Palestinians to the same amount, to restore an equilibrium to the region? Is economic and social support, combined with economic and political disincentives a better means of achieving goals than by sending in the soldiers? All would be rational outcomes to some truly rational thinking about the Palestinian problem -- or more correctly, the Israeli problem.

It is there that the book is weakest, by ignoring many of the over-riding issues of the problem while unquestioningly accepting other ideas that are contradictory or merely spin. The analysis of the suicide attackers themselves is original and refreshing and debunks many myths used to help the American fear factor about its supposedly fanatical enemies. "This survey shows that the profile of the suicide attackers is nearly the opposite of what many now assume." The simplified look at solutions does not help much at all. Pape's work, all considered, should be a required read for those government personnel and media pundits that continue to espouse the 'evil' nature of their own problem self-created through occupation.

Reprinted with permission from

About the Author
Jim Miles is a Canadian educator.
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