Thursday, April 27, 2006

Suicide Bombers and the Achillies Heel

This is Part I of a two part piece on the issue of suicide bombing.

There has been a lot of discussion about suicide bombers and not being able to understand the mentality of someone who would kill themselves in a battle or how they could possibly see themselves as just in their actions. You don't have to study the Muslim culture to understand these notions. One only needs to look at the foundations of our own history to understand. While we now go by the motto attributed to Gen. Patton

Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.

It has not always been the case. For millennia, the western soldier has gone into battle knowing that eventual death was a near certainty. The life of a warrior was one of eventual early death but also of glory.

There is a long history of death by war and the glory that death on the battle field brings with it in western society. This goes back to the foundations of western culture, the Greeks. In Homer's Iliad, there is the tail of two warrior heroes among many. The great Achilles, and the Noble Hector. Both knew they would die in battle, yet they still held strong to the "warrior code" that death was better than life in shame.

Achilles was the worlds greatest hero of his time. He was invincible except of one minor flaw. He was vulnerable at one specific point. That point has been of debate. It was not until later writings that the notion of the Achilles heel became his vulnerability. Previous writings point to his pride as his eventual down fall. But what Achilles knew was that if he lived the life of a warrior, he would die on the battlefield. That was foretold in prophecy and was no secret to him.

Achilles, who was sitting out the fight before the death of his (rumored gay lover) Patroclus, is also sitting out the glory that awaits him in battle, but yet certain death. Homer explains through the warrior king that "death waits in many forms" and emphasizes the glory one will achieve by dying in battle.

"Ah my friend, if we could escape this war,
and live forever, without growing old,
if we were ageless, then I'd not fight on
in the foremost ranks, nor would I send you
to those wars where men win glory. But now,
a thousand shapes of fatal death confront us,
which no mortal man can flee from or avoid.
So let's go forward, to give the glory
to another man or win it for ourselves." (12.347)

Homer also contrasts the heroes who die on the battle field to those who die an insignificant death of old age. Since death was certain, securing glory in ones death was most important.

"When a young man dies in war,
lying there murdered by sharp bronze, that's all right.
Though dead, he shows us his nobility.
But when the dogs disfigure shamefully
an old man, chewing his gray head, his beard,
his sexual organs, that's the saddest thing
we wretched mortals see." (22.90)

The warrior fights so that his life might have meaning and the warrior will earn the respect in death that he cannot be granted by growing old.

Patroclus' ghost reiterates Achilles fate if Achilles is to stay and fight, but that does not deter the noble Achilles.

nay, you too Achilles, peer of gods, are doomed to die beneath the wall of the noble Trojans.

Again, Homer delves into the issue of death on the battle field when Nestor comments that Agamemnon and Achilles are lesser warriors than those who have given their life in battle. Those that have died were nobler than those who survived. Martyrdom was the pinnacle of glory.

The other "Warrior Hero" in the Iliad is Hector. Hector fights with all the validity of a true leader and hero until he is confronted by Achilles outside the gates of Troy. After Hector kills Patroclus, Achilles urges Hector to come out and fight like a man. In such a battle, it is undoubtedly that one of the two will die. At that moment, he flees the death that is before him and Achilles chases Hector three times around Troy. Finally, Hector is able to recover his senses and returns to the warrior code and stands, fights, and dies a heroes death at the hands of Achilles. It is better to die as a warrior than to live as a coward. Why does Hector accept almost certain death? Because the thought of his wife and children being enslaved are too much for him to bear. He would rather die fighting, knowing that he has at least attempted to save his family, thus, in Homeric form, dies a heroes death. It is better to fight and die than not fight at all.

For me it would be a great deal better
to meet Achilles man to man, kill him,
and go home, or get killed before the city,
dying in glory. (22.122)

Hector and Achilles are not the only ones who know of their certain death in battle. The Achaean Euchenor is told that he has the choice to either go to Troy and die in battle or stay home and die in old age of sickness. He chooses battle.

Homer not only depicts the value of the warrior martyr, but also describes how King Agamemnon scarifices his own daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods in order for them to bring the winds needed to sail his fleet to Troy. Giving ones own children for a "greater good" (whether we see it that way or not) played a pivitol role in the sacking of Troy. The sacrifice of ones own blood in order to pursue greater goals was necessary and in Agamemnon's mind, acceptable.

Of course glory can only be achieved in the presence of others. Glory cannot be achieved without the acknowledgement of other and being part of a larger group of individuals. Without being part of something bigger, glory is not possible. One must be part of an army or community of soldiers. Otherwise glory cannot be achieved.

Now, contrast this to the suicide bomber. The suicide bomber seeks individual recognition of his sacrifice for the group. Whether he does it solely for the glory of dying a martyr or because he or she believes that it is in the protection of his or her community, the suicide bomber sees themselves as heroic warriors not all that much different than the heroic martyrs of Homer's Iliad. And, the suicide bomber has something that no Greek believed that they ever had to look forward to, a glorious afterlife.

In essence, the same warrior code has played an equal role in both of our societies. If we did not share the same view of warrior martyrdom that the suicide bomber has, we would not be proud of the U.S. soldiers who die in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting for us. If we did not give value to the warrior martyr, we would not have war memorials. If we did not share the same views of heroics, we would grant fallen soldiers honors and medals for their ultimate sacrifice. We do not have to accept, nor condone the actions of suicide "martyrs" merely because the mentality has been part of our own history. But the understanding of it can be found in your library in one of our cultures most cherished pieces of literature.

In part two, I will contrast and compare the similarities and differences of the two cultures idea of battle and enemy.

The Iliad


Linnet said...

Those same ideas have been echoed in Shakespeare several times. Especially in Henry V, act IV, scene IV; King Henry V's famous speech before the battle of Agincourt:
"If we are marked to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, not one man more!"
and at the end of that speech,
"And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."

Something taught in schools across America today is espousing dying for honour (and hoping to do so)... and being embarrassed that you didn't fight in battle. And we all know how venerated Shakespeare is in our culture.

Sigmund, Carl and Alfred said...


Food for thought- though I'm not sure equating medievel literature and today's headlines is the best way to go.