TCS Daily


'To Die for the Emperor'

By Brian E. Finch - April 11, 2002 12:00 AM

It seems as though each time the news is updated from Israel, the "cycle of violence" is spinning ever faster and the commentary and public reaction accompanying it reflects a combination of grief, despair and helplessness. A significant reason for this despair, we are told, is because of the broad effects of the suicide bombers.

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times ominously warns us that we face a "whole new form of warfare," one in which suicide bombers are being successfully used to pursue a political agenda. Friedman says this tactic threatens more than just Israel, because if the Palestinians succeed others could turn around and do the same thing to the United States.

Meanwhile, Friedman's colleague Nicholas Kristof writes on how Israel's military actions only further encourage suicide bombers and that Palestinians joyfully celebrate each suicide attack, giving the impression of a new, undefeatable foe. And only by pushing forward with Palestinian statehood, Kristof argues, can we "sprinkle hope" and possibly emerge from the enormous shadow of despair that the suicide bombings cast.

There is a much simpler truth to the situation in the Middle East, however. While Thomas Friedman correctly notes that the Palestinian suicide bombers are as much of a political weapon as they are military weapon, he is drawing the wrong conclusion as to the extent of their threat. They are not a threat to "all of civilization." Instead they represent the realization by much of the Arab world that Israel cannot be destroyed through conventional means. They reflect the need on the part of Israel's foes to find a way to instill fear into Israel and shame into Israel's allies.

Moreover, it's important to remember that suicide bombers and the culture that foments them are nothing new. In fact, the idea of suicide warriors has been around for quite some time. This threat has been confronted and defeated before, and if the suicide bombers succeed it will only be because we have ignored history.

Historic Examples

Author Len Deighton tells us that in turn of the century Japan, school children would bow each morning in the direction of the Imperial Palace and respond to the question "What is your dearest ambition?" with "To die for the Emperor." This chant represented part of the Japanese indoctrination into Bushido, the way of the warrior. This system exalted loyalty, self-sacrifice for one's superior (the Emperor) and honor, and also produced the fanatical waves of suicide warriors American troops would face in the Pacific War.

We are all well acquainted with kamikaze attacks, where Japanese pilots would deliberately crash fully loaded warplanes into American ships. According to author Ronald Spector, the first kamikaze attacks were the brainchild of a Japanese admiral who believed that the Japanese military was so outnumbered and outclassed that the only hope for success was to create human missiles. Military leaders warmly embraced the idea, believing that the kamikaze pilots would boost morale at home and unnerve America.

And the suicide attack was not limited to airplanes. The Japanese military established other suicide units, including troops strapped with dynamite so that they could crawl under American tanks and blow themselves and the tank up. That particular tactic was considered to be a vital element in the planned defense of Japan against an American invasion.

In one sense, the kamikaze attacks worked. Many American ships were damaged or sunk by the attacks, and the U.S. Navy was forced to devote enormous resources to fight off such attacks.

But the suicide attacks did not ultimately succeed. While these attacks strained the U.S. military, they did not break morale. The military instead recognized the attacks for what they were -- the last ditch weapon of a desperate foe that had concluded it could not prevail in conventional warfare. The solution for America was simple: Roll forward and defeat the Japanese soundly, which it did.

The use of suicide warriors and terror tactics was not limited to the Japanese, either. Adolf Hitler essentially turned every unit he had into a suicide unit by virtue of his regular orders to hold to the last man. He orchestrated the creation of "Hitler Youth" units, whose fanatic devotion to fighting was the stuff of nightmares for allied troops.

The Soviets were not immune from using suicide tactics, either. According to Len Deighton, soldiers in Stalin's Red Army had two alternatives: fight or die. Units of enforcers roamed behind Soviet lines and shot men who did not advance or tried to retreat. Stalin considered captured Soviet troops criminals, and as punishment he had their families sent to certain death in slave-labor camps. Privates and Generals alike were forced to either succeed or to face the fatal consequences for failing to do so. Such tactics lead to Admiral Ernest J. King's famous comment that "It takes a brave man not to be a hero the Red Army."

History and Palestinian Suicide Bombers

How do kamikaze pilots, the Hitler Youth and Stalin's execution policies relate to Palestinian suicide attacks? Simply put, all reflect the actions of a nation that recognized defeat was at hand and had concluded that the only path to success was killing as many of their enemies as possible without regard for their own losses. The Palestinians, despite the unprecedented offers of land for peace made to them in the 1990s by the Israelis, have decided that the only way to achieve their goal is to make a continued Israeli presence unbearable -- to Israelis.

There is, it should be noted, another link in this chain. The suicide bombings are backed and encouraged in large part by Israel's Arab neighbors. The real goal of the Arab states who support the Palestinian terrorists, as Victor Davis Hanson and others have so accurately detailed in National Review, is not the creation of a Palestinian state but is the destruction of Israel. If Palestinian supporters were actually interested in a Palestinian state, they would have forced Arafat to accept previous land for peace deals. In truth, these states are only interested in seeing Israel wiped off the face of the map.

This goal, however, cannot be achieved through conventional means. Not only is the Israeli military too strong to be defeated in conventional warfare, but the United States would never stand by and watch Israel be pushed into the sea by Arab forces. Thus another, subtler, approach had to be adopted in order to achieve Israel's destruction. The suicide bombings appear to be the end result of this search.

History Lessons

But history tells us this method will likely fail. The Germans and Japanese were, of course, defeated outright, and Stalin's harsh tactics were offset only by German incompetence and allied assistance. The Palestinian suicide bombers, and their backers, will fail if Israel and others stay strong, just as the U.S. and its allies did. Israelis can do so by proceeding as they have - going into Palestinian territories and crushing the bases from which the suicide bombers operate. The Israelis and the media alike also need not go into a depression about unstoppable suicide bombers, as that only aides their cause.

The Israelis must also heed the example of the U.S. after World War II, namely treating its defeated foes with respect and magnanimity. Japan, Germany and Russia no longer promote suicide warrior values. Instead they are peaceful countries that co-exist with their former foes, and so too can Palestinians.

In order to get to that point however, Israel must first defeat its militant enemies, and the rest of the world must confront the Arab states that support terror and make clear that their encouragement of suicide attacks and the destruction of Israel through any means are unacceptable.
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