The expansion (and contraction) of great empires has long been driven by tactical and strategic “asymmetries” in the conduct of war. Norman archers overcame sword- and spear-wielding Anglo-Saxons at Hastings in 1066. Musket- and rifle-bearing Europeans slaughtered Native Americans opposing them with bows and arrows. And vast fleets of heavy bombers laid both Japan and Germany waste as they struggled to supply the armies and navies with which they opposed invasions of their homelands.
Typically, these asymmetries have taken the form of mastering distance through speed. The bowmen at Hastings could pick off their opponents at a distance of a hundred yards using arrows that flew far faster than even the fleetest spearman could cover the distance required to place his target within his range. The bullets Europeans fired at Native Americans were so fast they couldn’t even be seen in flight, as arrows usually could. And bombers from England arrived over Hamburg from farther away than an interceptor could fly and dropped their lethal loads from altitudes well above the accurate range of the opposing FlaK guns below.
Remote-control devastation arrived theoretically some 40 years ago with the intercontinental ballistic missile, but as yet none of the thousands built and emplaced has been used, at least not with the nuclear warheads with which most are armed. It moved palpably closer with the deployment of cruise missiles, with range and speed such that they could be delivered, with no practical prospect of interdiction, upon targets in landlocked Afghanistan from ships at sea many hundreds of miles from the targets. And no attacking human came any closer than those ships to the people who were killed and injured by these missiles.
The Predator and other unmanned warplanes perfect the remote-control milieu in that the launching (and controlled) aircraft returns, typically undetected and unscathed, to its launchers, unlike the cruise missile, which was expended on its first use. With the drone, remote-control devastation has become not only safe and impossible to oppose, but cheap as well—an industrial triumph of sorts: world domination mass-produced.
This, it might be said, constitutes the “high ground” of lethal confrontation: a technician sitting at a console in California directs a drone, and its missile(s), 10,000 miles away in Pakistan against a target (admittedly, one about whom the technician possesses limited knowledge) who is unable even to detect the imminent threat facing him. As with the German V-2s that hit England, death and destruction come to the target completely unannounced, but with far greater precision, at least in a geospatial sense, than was the case in 1945. Life for such people is lived entirely “on the edge.”
The tactical and moral counterpoint to such remote-control slaughter is the suicide bomber. Suicide attacks have been possible at least since the first time one person hit another over the head with a stick, but with the development of portable explosives, it became possible for the suicide attacker to kill his enemies and himself through his own single act. Japan’s kamikaze pilots may have been the first conspicuous appearance of such attackers in the consciousness of Americans, though at least Japan and Germany had developed and deployed manned torpedoes whose pilots stood little, if any, chance of surviving the attacks they carried out. The (last) crew of the CSS Hunley, the Confederate submarine, may have led this category into the hereafter in 1864 off Charleston, S.C., though theirs was not known in advance to be a suicide mission.
But some suicide bombers eschew vehicles and mingle on an up-close-and-personal basis with their victims, crowds in marketplaces, stadiums, or even buses. If they wanted to kiss any of their victims before killing them, they could (and vice-versa). However it is that they are moved to their deeds, their commitment to their mayhem is total—the exact opposite to that of the technician in California, who could be eating a sandwich as he drives his attack home, and whose shift in any case ends at 0800 sharp. Unlike the suicide bomber, the drone pilot is likely to enjoy pension benefits from his employment guiding tons of explosives to kill dozens of people he has never laid eyes on other than (possibly) through a television camera thousands of miles away from him. (Like many warriors “killed in action,” suicide bombers enjoy benefits bestowed upon their designated beneficiaries, a reward provided for fighters on both sides of today’s deathly contests.)
The asymmetry in struggles going on in several parts of the world today (and potentially everywhere in the world that two human beings find themselves in conflict) reflects many other asymmetries: resources, desperation, alternatives, devotion, indoctrination, bribery, blackmail, and so on. But the asymmetry itself has become quite as stark as can be imagined.
If the United States were materially poor and ravaged by invading armies of rich, gibberish-spouting, light-skinned infidels sowing death and fear indiscriminately among the populace, would fresh-faced, idealistic suicide bombers step forward from our ranks? I think so, and they would, except of course for our own children, do so with our approval and appreciation. They would be our most potent, and most precious, weapons—making the ultimate sacrifice, not only for the “weapon” him/herself, but for parents, siblings, and children.
As it is, the propaganda we spread among ourselves demonizes those who devote themselves totally to various causes unpopular among us and serves to “prove” the savagery regnant among those billions of radicals our institutions urge us to detest.
Suicide is the bottom line—the one that’s under every other “bottom line” ever so described. To dismiss its profound significance with ethnocentric platitudes is to demean the value of human life itself.