Suicide as a weapon of war

In the second week of the Iraq war, Ali Jaafar Nuamani pretended that his taxi had broken down. When American troops approached, Nuamani, a noncommissioned Iraqi officer, killed himself and four US soldiers by blowing up the vehicle.

The suicide blast was the top story of the day on TV, and Iraqi officials vowed more suicide attacks unless the US-led invasion stopped. Officials from the United States denounced the attack as terrorism.

In fact, the Iraqi promise of more attacks was a hollow threat in terms of a winning military strategy. And the American response overlooked history.

Suicide attacks by soldiers and civilians are common in wartime, and in World War II they were vital to the last-ditch strategy of the Japanese.

Yet attacks involving suicide are almost always a sign of desperation - not strength. They become important only when everything else has failed.

That first attack by Nuamani at a highway checkpoint in Iraq did little to slow the rapid descent of American troops on Baghdad. Nor did a subsequent suicide explosion that killed three US soldiers.

As Gen. George Patton reportedly once told his troops, the purpose of fighting a war is not to give your life for your country, but to make enemy soldiers give their lives for their country.

Desperation, however, can make suicide strategies look attractive. In the Second World War, Japanese soldiers battling Americans in New Guinea and Bougainville in the Pacific in 1944 found that their weapons - often 37mm guns - were ineffective against US medium tanks.

Down came the order from the Japanese Imperial General Staff that soldiers should turn themselves into "human bullets," recalls historian Edwin P. Hoyt. Japanese troops attached explosives to their bodies, and then hurled themselves under US tanks to stop them.

All this caused "scarcely ... a ripple in the tide of battle," Mr. Hoyt wrote in his history of that time, and the American military kept pushing steadily toward Japan.

Even American military men have been known to give their lives voluntarily when all else failed. During World War II, for example, wounded aviators would sometimes steer their damaged aircraft into enemy ships or other targets when all chances of survival seemed lost.

But the Japanese carried suicide warfare to new heights late in that war when they finally realized that their ships, planes, and aviators were no match for the growing prowess of the US and its allies.

For a while after Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941), it had seemed that the remnants of the US Pacific fleet would be destroyed, and the all-powerful Japanese Navy would soon be bombarding the coast of California.

By the autumn of 1942, the US still had only three aircraft carriers afloat in the Pacific. But the turnaround, thanks to America's unmatched industrial strength, was swift.

Only one year later, the American Navy had 50 carriers on the seas, and by the end of the war, that number rose to more than 100 carriers.

Using aerial attacks by its carriers, bombardment by its growing armada of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers, and its growing skill at amphibious landings, the US pushed back the Japanese military in every sector. For Japan, the outlook was bleak.

Thus was born the kamikaze (or "kami kaze" - heavenly wind), the suicide dive.

Japanese Vice Admiral Takajiro Onishi was a leading advocate for this final frantic effort to stop the Americans. As he explained: "If a pilot, facing a ship or a plane, exhausts all his resources, then he still has one left, the plane as a part of himself, a superb weapon. And what greater glory can there be for a warrior than to give his life for Emperor and country?"

The first wave of kamikaze attacks against a US fleet were surprisingly successful. The wooden decks of American carriers were particularly attractive targets, though the suicide dives were more effective against smaller ships.

Never were the kamikazes more dreaded than in the battle of Okinawa. The Japanese launched 1,900 suicide flights. While many were shot down, enough reached their targets to sink 26 allied ships and damage another 164. The US Navy had 9,700 casualties, including 4,300 deaths - making this the most costly single battle for the Navy in that conflict.

The war ended later that year. But the Kamikaze warriors remain a vivid memory for many Navy veterans. In his war chronicles, Sir Winston Churchill said of the suicide bomber:

"As an instrument of despair, it was still deadly; but it carried no hope of victory."

The same could be said of suicide bombers today in Iraq.

John Dillin, now retired, was managing editor and a correspondent for more than 40 years for the Monitor.

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