TCS Daily

Heroic Cycle

By James Pinkerton - March 13, 2003 12:00 AM

This is the Heroic Age for America, and that's glorious. But it's not the whole of the story, nor the end of the story.

Our heroes won't be the only heroes in the mix; the enemy will have his heroes, too.

Every action breeds at least some reaction-and no action gets more reaction than death. A month ago in this space I cited Camille Paglia's comparing Muslims of today to the early Christians of two millennia ago. That is, the more the Muslims get crushed, the more they might win, by finding reserves of strength in their faith-and, of course, having lots of children. That comparison struck some as absurd, even obscene-and yet one common thread, connecting ancient Christianity and contemporary Islam, is the scarlet letter "m," for martyrdom. That's a recurring lesson of history: the more martyrs, the more converts, the more warriors, the more heroes.

Indeed, martyrdom-secular as well as sacred-is the signature of many movements across time. Some we might admire, some we might loathe; some we might merely puzzle over, as they recede into obscurity.

At one time not so long ago, Germans revered the slain Nazi street fighter Horst Wessel, creating a song enshrining his memory. The first stanza seeks to use the death of Wessel as a galvanizing force: "Flag high, ranks closed/The S.A. marches with silent solid steps/Comrades shot by the red front and reaction/march in spirit with us in our ranks." And if the Nazis had somehow triumphed, millions, maybe billions, would be singing the Horst Wessel Lied-or else. At various other moments in the past century, the posthumous legends of figures such as John Birch and Che Guevara mobilized supporters on the right and on the left.

So even as the U.S. is at the threshold of a victory over Saddam Hussein, warning signs sit at the edge of the horizon. No matter how just the war, the Iraq conflict will produce martyrs. The Iraqis may well mostly be cowards for as long as they are fighting for Saddam-who wants to be the last man to die in his war. But after Saddam, if and when they are fighting for their vision of Iraq, or, even more likely, for their personal or tribal honor, a new kind of courage, even ferocity, might yet enter their hearts.

That's what has happened elsewhere in the Muslim world; in Algeria, a decade-long civil war between secularists and Islamists has claimed 100,000 lives. While outsiders might see tragedy and simple criminality, those on the inside of the fighting see martyrdom and heroism, all cycling around vengeance and powerlust.

Close to Iraq, another fight involving Muslims might further involve Americans. For almost four decades now, the Israelis have struggled to subdue Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Depending on one's point of view, there have been plenty of heroes and martyrs on both sides. And it looks like there will be more. On Sunday, the New York Times reported that the Bush administration had shelved plans to work within the Quartet (the United States, plus the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations) framework to seek a Palestinian state. "Let's face it, the road map is dead," a senior European diplomat told the Times. "This administration will never do anything opposed by Sharon." That may be a victory for the joint anti-terror vision of Bush and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, but it could also be a spur to more violence in the disputed territories.

Here, for example, is how Hamas described the cheering reaction among Palestinians after Mahmoud Hamdan Kwasma detonated a bomb in Haifa, killing 15 Israelis on March 5. As friends of the family came to visit Um Shadi, the mother of the bomber, "The women swarmed Um Shadi...they had come to praise her for the death of her son in the service of Allah." Whether one thinks of Palestinian suicide bombers as martyrs or murderers, it's hard to dispute that such a social system is, in effect, a factory for a certain kind of behavior. That "routinization of production" was confirmed by an opposite point of view, by the Israeli news service IMRA:

A senior Israeli security source emphasized that in the overwhelming majority of cases, parents of suicide bombers are supportive of the decision by their children to take part in suicide attacks. Mothers who send their sons off to perpetrate such acts gain recognition from organizations like Hamas, who give them the title "Hanas" -women who have attained a sacred level in Islam after (in the time of Mohammad the prophet) having sent four children to fight the infidels until death.

By any military reckoning, the Palestinians are losing their battle against Israel. Yet while Israelis and Americans can pile on the epithets-"terrorists," "homicide bombers"-against the Palestinians, they haven't yet found a way to take away the description that most Palestinians, and many Arabs, ascribe to such bombers. And what word is that? Shahid, which means martyr. The Palestinians may be losing, but so far they have figured out how to persuade many of their young men to die for their cause.

Looking elsewhere in the region, one can predict that images of the Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed will infect Iraq, and perhaps other places. If so, then some Iraqis might be "inspired" to take on the Americans along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates-if not soon, then eventually-as the American occupation stretches out. We can't say we haven't been warned; as the President himself says, "Our war on terror is well begun, but it is only begun. This campaign may not be finished on our watch."

To admiring Americans, the President himself is the exemplar not only of moral and strategic clarity, but also of heroism. Craig Stapleton, ambassador to the Czech Republic, told the Washington Post on Sunday, "This is his moment; this is his Omaha Beach. He knows exactly what to do."

A cynic might wonder how much stomach Americans have for more Omaha Beaches. After a time in Iraq, will the old phrase, "exit strategy," be heard once again? Many hawks might have thought that those words, redolent of post-Vietnam defeatism, had been banished forever from the American lexicon.

This generation of Americans will soon have its rendezvous with heroic destiny. And yes, our heroic course will likely lead to a collision with a counter-culture of heroes. We'll just have to be ready, that's all.

It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote, "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy." He had a point, but as Aristotle said, tragedy is the highest form of drama. And that's what's unfolding before us right now: the highest form of drama. Heroes will create martyrs, and martyrs will create heroes. And so the cycle continues.

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