Self-Immolation Tactics as Media Spin, Cultural Pretense and Strategic Initiative: Japanese and Jihadist Cases (A “companion reader” for Yuki Tanaka’s upcoming (Oct 10) Reischauer Institute lecture)
Next Monday (Oct 10), Professor Yuki Tanaka of the Hiroshima Peace Institute will be delivering a lecture at Harvard, under the auspices of the Reischauer Institute, titled “Japan’s Kamikaze Pilots and Contemporary Suicide Bombers: War and Terror”. Operating under the assumption (which may very well come back to bite me for a classic Roseanne Roseannadanna moment) that the content and main theses of Professor Tanaka’s lecture will be basically unchanged from his November 2005 Japan Focus article http://www.japanfocus.org/products/details/1606 of the same title, I would like to post here a piece I have written that should be considered not necessarily a rebuttal of the professor’s positions, but rather, a companion reader it is hoped will add some perspective to the lecture. Before moving on to my piece, I would like to take the opportunity to wish Professors Tanaka and (moderator) Andrew Gordon the best of success with the lecture, and to express my regret that I cannot attend in person to enjoy the talk and participate thereafter in the stimulating discussions that will no doubt follow. So, without further ado…
Self-Immolation Tactics as Media Spin, Cultural Pretense and Strategic Initiative: Japanese and Jihadist Cases
“THE AMERICANS LOVE PEPSI, WE LOVE DEATH”
“War is our best hobby,” a proud young mujahedin commander told British journalist David Blair in Peshawar, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. “The sound of guns firing is like music for us. We cannot live without war. We have no other way except jihad…The Americans love Pepsi-Cola, we love death”. What a stinging little Information Age soundbite that is, I recall thinking the first time I read it, as clouds of asbestos-laced concrete dust and atomized human remains were still settling over downtown Manhattan. “We love death”! What chance did the rest of the world stand against fighters possessing such awe-inspiring primal überwarrior mojo?
A few years after my first sobering encounter with the “Pepsi” quote, I came across the line once again in a wonderfully incisive book by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit titled – obviously with a tip of the hat (and perhaps a slight cock of the snoot) to the late Edward Said – Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies (New York: The Penguin Press, 2004). But what I experienced upon reading the quote this time around was not shock and awe at the mujahedin commander’s paradoxically nihilistic yet triumphant contempt for my bourgeois frailty; rather, thanks in part to Professors Buruma and Margalit and my own research of the kamikaze subculture of the Asia-Pacific War, it was a spark of realization that the remark could just as easily have come from the text of a Japanese admiral’s pre-attack send-off speech to kamikaze pilots in 1945 or a passage of Ernst Jünger or Oswald Spengler as from the mouth of a media-savvy jihadi in 2001. I found this notion somehow comforting – my bogeyman’s zeal rendered derivative and thus a bit pathetic now – but at the same time, it still disillusioned me; how many millions, I wondered, had marched (or sailed or flown) happily off to their deaths over the last century or two after having their heads filled with chauvinistic bunk like this, and how many other millions innocent of any such crusading fervor had been destroyed as “collateral damage” in the process? Would the carnage this century prove to be even worse?
Spin-doctoring self-annihilation with pie-in-the-sky rhetoric and posturing bluster is nothing new, of course, and is as old as the first religious war. But for the greater part of history, most wars – at least in the West – have been the preserve of comparatively small, professional military forces, fought with minimal civilian involvement. This all changed with the Industrial Revolution, however, when advances in transportation and weaponry lethality, the appearance of modern concepts of nationalism, and the advent of mass literacy combined to transform armed conflict into a high-volume human meat-grinder, necessitating the recruiting and maintenance of huge conscript armies of temporary citizen-soldiers in order to fight “total” wars not of lord-against-lord or even state-against-state but of population-against-population. Unlike previous eras of history, when soldiers fought for pay, pride, a lifestyle or simply the promise of full bellies, the new breed of literate citizen-soldier increasingly required inspiration in order to fight. Eventually, this triangular dynamic of technology-literacy-lethality reached a point of critical mass where humans began slaughtering each other not so much over concrete objectives or material needs as much as they did over abstract ideas with populist and emotional appeal – universal human rights; the preservation of cultural integrity against perceived “contamination”; class struggle; Aryan supremacy; capital “D” Democracy.
Once the front edge of human technological development entered what McLuhan calls the Electric Age, it was probably only a matter of time before someone pushed the “total war” formula of requirements for ever-improving combat effectiveness multiplied by ever-shriller and more effective ideological drum-thumping to its limits and came up with the idea of turning human bodies into munitions. Credit for setting this unhappy historical precedent must go to the Imperial Japanese Navy, which approved the development of special guided missile-like weapons starting in early 1944. Unfortunately for some 6,000 young Japanese men, this decision was made several decades before the advent of the silicon chip, a technological innovation that might have otherwise negated the need to employ the brains and bodies of humans as onboard guidance systems in flying bombs or manned torpedoes in lieu of computer technology yet to be invented. One wonders how many Yasukuni Shrine pilgrims see the bitter irony in this – if they even think of it at all – as they pay their respects to the souls of the kamikaze (hereafter tokkō) dead, and if they do, how this colors the prevalent Japanese belief that, regardless of whether or not it was a flawed tactic used in a just or unjust war, tokkō can somehow serve as proof of the survival of “Japanese spirit” or yamato damashii – some primal, sacrosanct, immortal essence of Japanese masculinity – into the modern era.
SUICIDE TACTICS AS CULTURAL PRETENSE
One direction of historical discourse that tokkō hagiographers are less than eager to entertain is discussion of similarities between the Japanese tactic and modern day Jihadist suicide bombing (JSB) – a topic raised on Japan Focus last November with a very thought-provoking article by Professor Yuki Tanaka. While, as I will explain below, the military/strategic circumstances of their respective conflicts, rules of engagement (if JSB can be said to have any) and emotional motivations are entirely different, the two campaigns have important ideological parallels.
One such parallel has been the tendency in both cases for the causes championed by the suicide bombers to be portrayed as Manichean struggles of romantic, underdog heroes against the forces of spiritually desolate, materialistic modernity – a definition resting on an unshakable conviction that “right” is stronger than “might” in a universe limned not by “what is” but by “what should be”. This mindset affords its adherents a kind of Gott mit uns faith that the spiritual momentum in their chosen conflict is favoring their side because of their professed (and dramatically demonstrated) willingness to destroy other human beings — and equally or perhaps even more important, destroy themselves as well in the process — in the pursuit of their noble cause. Unfortunately for the other residents of this planet who do not adhere to such beliefs, these qualities make this worldview relatively immune both to reason and compromise.
Conversely, the materialistic enemy’s very openness to and eagerness for parley – his predilection for logic, self-interest and self-preservation – is perceived as an Achilles heel and as proof of the spiritual bankruptcy not only of his cause but of his entire culture – even of the intellectual tradition of objective rationalism itself. The suicide bomber, on the other hand, sees his own eagerness to die in violent conflict – relishing the sting and frisson of combat more as blessing and birthright than as duty – as clear and incontrovertible evidence of his spiritual superiority and cultural vigor.
Dialogue along such lines was pervasive in Japanese military, academic, literary and even religious (both Shinto and Buddhist) circles in the thirty-odd years between the Russo-Japanese War and the Asia-Pacific War, and it is thus not surprising that it eventually reached the nation’s educational policy as well. Whether Japanese thinkers of the era were prescient (or deluded) enough to foresee a need for self-immolation volunteers in the nation’s future military ventures is uncertain, but it is clear that their influence laid the intellectual and ideological groundwork vital to eventual popular acceptance of such tactics when the time to use them finally arrived in 1944. After decades of literary, artistic, cinematic and pedagogical treatments of the beauty of death in battle and the innate fighting spirit of the native son Japanese soldier – the yamato danji imbued with yamato damashii – it may not have been that challenging a conceptual leap for either the military rank-and-file or the general populace when the regime and mass media began talking more about joyously seeking death in battle than about merely facing it bravely (or, preferably, inflicting it upon the enemy).
It is of interest – and probably far from coincidental – that since organized suicide bombing’s debut in modern warfare with tokkō, the tactic has been embraced most enthusiastically (if not exclusively) within cultural contexts in which dissent and cynicism towards authority have been traditionally held in low esteem. In such cultures, where gullibility and innocence are seen less as character faults than as indicators of a pure and virtuous heart, the “doubting Thomas” who asks to be convinced of the wisdom of a course of action before committing to it is not seen as someone exercising common sense but as a blasphemer, a harmony-disrupting troublemaker, or simply a cowardly ingrate to be excoriated by – if not altogether expelled from – the community.
Accordingly, there would seem to be a positive correlation between the extent to which a given society will be intolerant of dissent by individuals or minority factions and the extent to which said society/culture will be collectively tolerant of incompetent leadership. Decision-makers in such societies have the luxury of being able to demand and expect sacrifices from their constituents with an impunity unthinkable in more individualistic or cynically-inclined societies, requiring not much more to maintain the loyalty of these constituents than effective propaganda and careful provision for the warm, comforting glow of communal belonging. Within communities thus delineated, there is no worse fate to suffer than that of the outcast, and it is fear of just such a fate – much more than simple coercion or fear of punishment – in deadly combination with the aforementioned “cultural pretense” that can make the acceptance of an abomination like organized suicide bombing possible on a societal level. This concept is key to explaining why suicide bombing can emerge from – and enjoy wide support in – some societies or cultures and not in others. Many modern day commentators on suicide bombing – Noam Chomsky and the late Susan Sontag soon come to mind – see the phenomenon as a reaction to oppression, marginalization and poverty inflicted upon the developing world through the policies of the industrialized powers. But if this motivational model were valid, how would it account for the conceptualization of suicide tactics by the Japan of 1944-1945 – itself a highly literate, industrialized, imperialistic world-class power that, although temporarily rocked back on its heels and backed into a strategic corner at the time, was still a society and culture far from anyone’s definition of “oppressed” or “marginalized”? Moreover, if oppression, marginalization and poverty were sine qua non motives for suicide bombers, does it not seem likely that the world – particularly in developing (and mercilessly exploited) areas such as Latin America, Africa and South/Southeast Asia – would have long since been awash with angry people strapping on explosives and blowing themselves up? That such global chaos has not come to pass – at least not yet – is indicative that something other than socio-economic or political factors is at work in creating and psychologically sustaining the phenomenon of suicide bombing, and I am tempted to point the finger of blame at bad ideology.
SUICIDE BOMBING AS ASSYMETRICAL WARFARE
Another factor that makes suicide bombing possible – and very attractive to the military commander or insurgent leader possessing such operational capability – is the unfortunate fact that it works. The tactic is extremely effective, not only because it is difficult to defend against, but also because it is terrifying from the perspective of the targeted population, particularly so if its collective worldview is structured around cultural values by which something like suicide bombing would otherwise be unthinkable. These two factors – operational effectiveness and the sustained psychological burden of stark, revulsed terror on the part of the target – make a suicide bombing campaign potentially winnable by the side willing to resort (or stoop) to such horrific means to an end. Japan’s high command gambled a nation’s survival on as much in 1945, hoping that tokkō would demonstrate Japanese resolve to its enemies and convince them of the futility of attempting to invade and occupy the home islands, thus preserving the kokutai polity and saving, it was hoped, millions with the sacrifice of thousands. Emperor Hirohito’s personal intervention in the form of his decision for Japan to surrender to the Allies brought an end to the experiment before the theory could be tested to its limits.
Today’s Jihadists are also staking the future of their movement on the concept of the winnable suicide campaign, aiming to cow the West into concession after concession until the balance of first regional and then global power is tipped to make possible the establishment of a putative Dar al Islam Caliphate. Though these wagers may seem like rash long shots, there is method in the madness: recent history presents the example of a suicide bombing insurgency winning considerable political gains for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority a few years back, and it could be argued as well that suicide bombing was the decisive factor in compelling Israel to cede the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority in 2005. In any case, the lesson is clear: all that is required for a victorious suicide bombing campaign are the willpower to initiate and stay the course, a steady supply of volunteers for attacks, quavering will to resist on the part of the opponent, and a basic understanding and appreciation of the fundamentals of asymmetrical warfare.
If the JSB vs. U.S.-led Dar al Harb (a.k.a. “the West”) contest is superficially viewed as a David and Goliath match-up with one side armed with rocks and homemade bombs and the other with F-16s and spy satellites, one might be tempted to call the fight unfair, and, if unfettered by partisan allegiance or squeamish disposition, even cheer for the apparent underdog. After all, no one can argue that an Islamic Jihad commander’s Mercedes sedan or a Fallujah carbomb factory stand much of a chance against Hellfire missiles fired from American-built attack helicopters. But then again, what chance do Jerusalem (or London) bus commuters or waiting lines of Baghdad police recruits stand against backpacks stuffed with Semtex and rusty nails, or skyscrapers full of office workers against hijacked airliners turned into guided missiles? In asymmetrical warfare – of which the current JSB phenomenon is a textbook example – relative technological advantage or the size of an opposing force is largely irrelevant, and as every successful insurgency from the American Revolution to the Vietnam War has shown, strategic initiative almost always lies with the more operationally fluid and flexible combatant unencumbered by the stodgy organization and logistical baggage attendant to conventional warfare.
Japan’s unwieldy wartime bureaucracy was not particularly well-suited to this type of campaign; right to the bitter end, its stodgy institutional orientation rendered its military a force that, with the notable exception of its use of suicide tactics, was every bit as “conventional” as its Allied enemy, and thus unable to explore its assymetrical warfare options fully. But JSB operations such as the Palestinian Intifada and Al Qaeda’s campaign in Iraq suffer no such organizational hindrances. In these latter conflicts, the options of the conventionally stronger side – due largely to moral and political factors (i.e. simply bombing flat the area from which the offending attackers operate is an untenable option) – are limited to tit-for-tat reactions to attacks perpetrated at the time and place of the suicide bombers’ choosing. For the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy of 1944-45, lack of sufficient conventional military means to continue resisting the Allies was a weakness that necessitated the use of suicide tactics; in the case of the JSB cause, however, a similar lack of conventional military means to resist the enemy in open battle is not a handicap, but rather, a strategic advantage.
“EXISTENTIAL THREAT”: JUSTIFICATION FOR SUICIDE BOMBING?
Unlike the case of JSB’s enemies today, there were no moral, political or tactical limitations on Japan’s enemies as the Asia-Pacific War entered its endgame phase in 1945 (the dropping of the atomic bombs shows us that much). The commanders of the Allied forces drawing a noose around Japan’s neck were contemplating – and in the case of strategists like Curtis LeMay and Chester Nimitz, actually taking concrete steps toward – the physical annihilation of the Japanese state (if not the nation itself). The Japanese, in turn, understandably fearing the worst, responded with a desperation not entirely disproportionate to the threat they were facing, considering their inability at this point to stop the Allied advance through conventional means and, just as critically, considering their inability/unwillingness to surrender. A resort to suicide tactics under such circumstances, while still an abhorrent option, should at least be understandable as an absolute last-ditch measure undertaken through a tragic concatenation of factors, namely, a long ideological gestation period, obstinacy and bureaucratic incompetence (i.e. inability to reverse a course of action once taken) at high command levels, and mass hysteria fueled by the collective dread of impending extinction.
That said, one wonders if JSB’s promoters and apologists can legitimately claim that their campaign is, like tokkō, an act of defense: is there any “existential threat” today posed by the West vis-à-vis modern Islam – the world’s fastest growing religion – or for that matter, even by Israel vis-à-vis the Arabic-speaking community currently residing in the Palestinian Authority territories, whose population is increasing with vigorous fecundity, and for whom obesity is a chronic public health crisis? If so, where are all the starving, besieged Palestinians, Saudis, Syrians or Jordanians, or the carpetbombed and firestorm-ravaged Muslim cities whose nightly obliteration under some merciless Western juggernaut – as in 1945 Japan – might provide at least some semblance of understandable rationale for suicide bombing? The absence of such threats suggests that JSB is not the collective burnt offering of a desperate community fighting a rear guard action and preparing for a worst-case scenario of collective suicide. Rather, it is obvious that the operant motivation is a hot/cold mélange of ressentiment-inflamed desire to inflict pain on a hated cultural Other, and a cleverly crafted and calculated political manipulation of these emotions on the part of its strategists, i.e., the Jihadist ideologues who have been rallying the disaffected faithful of the Islamic world and stage managing the West’s nightmares for the last five years.
Unlike tokkō, JSB is not a tactic of panic and desperation, but one of vengeance, spite and lest we forget, self-aggrandizement (or, if the reader prefers, self-empowerment). Unlike the uniformed tokkō pilot, told by superiors that he could not expect to survive the war in any case and that he might as well make his death meaningful in the defense of his homeland, the civilian JSB volunteer is under no legal or military obligation to die for or even to take up the cause, and can walk away from his or her personal jihad to return to the mundane safety of non-combatant obscurity anytime he or she pleases. Yet despite this tempting and reasonable opportunity to “choose life”, the Jihadist movement is nevertheless capable of annually fielding hundreds or even thousands of volunteers for JSB (e.g. foreign suicide bombers in Iraq) happily forfeiting not only that safe (if not very romantic) self-preservationist option, but also foregoing what should otherwise for “resistance fighters” be the more logical traditional tactic (as used by “conventional” Iraqi insurgents) of “plan, strike, run away, live to fight another day.” Why? Because JSB is not an act of soberly yet resolutely approached duty undertaken in the defense of homeland and loved ones, nor is it a “resistance” to anything – it is a grand gesture of self-apotheosizing passion experienced within the giddy thrill of attacks carried out in a quest for both mortal and afterlife glory. The difference between this motivational package and that of the young Japanese men recruited for tokkō units sixty year ago could not be greater.
In my view, the most salient difference between tokkō and JSB is that the former, while plainly misguided and horrific, was at least carried out with the intent of ending a war and saving a nation; the latter, on the other hand, has from its inception been a campaign of pure aggression that has created and continues to foment and expand a (possibly endless) conflict where none previously existed. This crucial dichotomy (and the moral implications thereof) makes it difficult to equate tokkō and JSB beyond the most general conceptual commonalities, and beyond the historical notion that both phenomena have been the consequences of disastrous responses to the challenges and compromises necessary for peaceful co-existence on this increasingly small and crowded planet.
M.G. SHEFTALL is an associate professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the Graduate School of the Faculty of Informatics of Shizuoka University in Hamamatsu, Japan and a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University. He has been researching tokkō culture and wartime operations and postwar tokkō memorialization since 2001, and is the author of Blossoms in the Wind: Human Legacies of the Kamikaze (New York: NAL Caliber, 2005).