"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 30 October 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Them Against Fire


War is a social activity, and there are bad times to be reminded of this. In Normandy, for example, junior officers had the unfortunate experience of trying to assemble groups of paratroopers who had lost their own lieutenants and captains to enemy fire. An army analyst, conducting after-action interviews, detailed the result: "The men invariably stalled... If the leader got them to follow until they came in contact with the enemy, at that point they were more likely to fall away from him than to support him. They would assemble readily enough under a stranger and they would usually march under him, but they would not fight for him. There were very few exceptions to this rule."

After terrorists rode out to the U.S.S. Cole and detonated a bomb at the ship's side without first undertaking to get themselves out of the way, the people who have to comment on this sort of thing dragged the usual phrases out of the vault. Bill Clinton denounced the bombing as an act of terrible cowardice. This certainly raised a question, and it didn't go unvoiced: Interviewing retired U.S. Army General Norman Schwarzkopf a few days after the bombing, self-styled hardballer Chris Matthews demanded to know whether it really made sense to paint a yellow stripe down the back of a man who could willfully sacrifice his own life for a cause — particularly in light of the fact, testified to by eyewitnesses, that the bombers had greeted death while standing at the position of attention. Schwarzkopf took the question with an avuncular chuckle, and allowed as to how it probably depended, ho ho, on which side you're on.

And so here we have an exceptional example of an entire public conversation on a topic of clear importance that manages to skip cleanly off the surface of a large, deep, and extraordinarily accessible body of meticulously developed fact. Terrorists haven't tended, over the years, to be an especially reticent bunch; if the car bombers and village snipers of the world authored acts of violence with anywhere near the vigor they apply to the creation of snarky, teenage-earnest manifestos, we probably all would have been killed somewhere around 1950. We pretty much know what these big yellow cowards are thinking. Finally, though, it's better to recognize that terrorists are, like soldiers working for the state or file clerks working for a corporation or surly undergraduates working for Starbucks, just folks. They don't hatch from alien eggs, and they don't possess minds that differ significantly from those of actual people. And the study of what motivates ordinary people to rise to the act of organized killing, at the risk of death, has very much been done.

Several Russian advocates of the lobbed bomb have have been preternaturally longwinded on the first subject, leaving several self-conscious gifts to the discipline of social psychology. Gerasim Romanenko, a crotchety far-right contemporary of Lenin and Co., argued that terrorism was — as summarized by the writer Walter Laqueur — "not only effective, it was humanitarian. It cost infinitely fewer victims than a mass struggle... The blows of terrorism were directed against the main culprits." Compared to the wholesale slaughter of Iwo Jima or Gettysburg or Verdun, then, terrorists see their own attacks as "cost-effective." Not only that, Laqueur writes, but the terrorists of late-Czarist Russia believed that "it was wrong to regard systematic terror as immoral, since everything that contributed to the liberating revolution was a priori moral." If that still doesn't complete the picture of the sneak attack as a play straight out of Jesus Christ's personal playbook, some of the philosophers of the nighttime barracks attack have even argued that calculated, focused attacks on targets of repression serve as a "safety valve," preventing Mogadishu-style mob attacks (to update the argument) on convenient U.S. targets. Several philosophers of terrorist violence compete for the credit of having invented the term "propaganda by deed" to describe their work: It's like street theater, you understand, that steadies the nerves of the downtrodden poor folk and focuses them toward a useful political purpose.

Most significantly, terrorists don't often see themselves as practitioners of an underhanded art. If someone oppresses you politically and overmatches you in the ability to apply force, they've historically argued, does that mean you simply shrug and surrender to fate? American anarchists and socialists were, once upon a time, especially fond of this argument; one of the accused in the Haymarket affair, Albert Parsons, cheerfully described dynamite as a democratic tool. "As force was the law of the universe," Laqueur writes, "dynamite made all men equal and therefore free." And so if you face an enemy who possesses billion-dollar warships — and you can't afford that kind of luxury yourself — you cook up a batch of explosives in a rented apartment and drive them into sort-of-battle on the back of a zodiac. War is politics by other means, and terrorism is nothing more interesting than war by other means; it falls at a different point on the same line that everybody else walks. It wasn't an accident that Osama bin Laden called CNN and let them know that he was formally declaring war on the United States.

And so we're left with a picture of men who consider themselves simply as warriors, using the weapons at hand against a better-armed enemy toward what are largely meant to be psy-ops victories. And the question of what motivates soldiers in the course of fighting for a cause has been examined with rare and pleasing elegance. S.L.A. Marshall was an American who worked, at various points in his life, as both an infantryman and a journalist — which is, of course, a hell of a fine combination. Marshall commanded troops in the first world war, but had a very different role in the second: General Marshall was tasked with figuring out why men fight or fail when they know that their efforts might get them killed. He did his job; the book Marshall produced, Men Against Fire, is one of the weirdly beautiful works of non-fiction produced in the twentieth century, clean and careful and totally without institutional sentiment.

On June 12, 1944, Marshall tells us, a line of infantry was holding firm against enemy fire when a sergeant was struck with shrapnel and jumped up to run for the aid station; he didn't tell his squad where he was going, or why, and "they took up after him and the line broke," the whole line, all up and down it. In combat in the Pacific, an artillery observer had trouble with his radio while under fire, and fell back to the company command post to send a message; the infantry saw him leaving, and followed. "Precipitate motion in the wrong direction," Marshall concluded, "is an open invitation to disaster." And soldiers won't follow leaders they don't know; and stragglers from broken units won't join in combat when you throw them into another random unit on the battlefield; and headquarters troops, drafted into combat, almost never cohere usefully with soldiers who've occupied the line together; and "a band of men may go through a terrible engagement, and take its losses bravely, and then become wholly demoralized in the hour when it must bury its own dead." What Marshall announced, in case after case, is that men embrace death — causing it, or marching into it — as a decision made before an audience. They break from danger when they perceive a social permission to do so, as when seeing others run, and they launch unwaveringly into it when they believe that other men require it of them as a condition of respect. There is, then, "an inherent unwillingness of the soldier to risk danger on behalf of men with whom he has no social identity. When a soldier is unknown to the men who are around him he has relatively little reason to fear losing the one thing that he is likely to value more highly than life — his reputation as a man among other men."

This answers the question about two men standing at the position of attention next to a bomb they have just set to explode. The significant fact of organized violence is the fact of the organization. It is participatory and relational. The position of attention is the very opposite of a display of personal discipline or courage. It's a display of will-lessness, a posture of obedience to external control. It is a social pose, struck for eyewitnesses to see and report. It's like waving to your friends on the way off the planet. Whether that's a demonstration or courage or an act of cowardice is a point that could be argued, but it's also a point that isn't worth arguing — because what would the answer mean, or accomplish?

If you're looking for the clear act of cowardice around the bombing of the Cole, then, look to the effort to describe it to the countrymen of the murdered sailors. To suggest that an organized attack, brought off skillfully by members of what must be an extraordinarily cohesive organization, represents nothing more than some simpering spasm of pathetic hatred is to carefully miss the very large, very unpleasant point: People who destroy human life in this precise manner are not alone, and not disorganized, and very much not finished.


courtesy of Ambrose Beers


pictures Terry Colon

Ambrose Beers