May 22, 2005 — -- Why would the insurgents in Iraq hold out any hope that war by suicide bomb can win them anything?
Because it has worked before.
The history of suicide bombing is filled with success stories, according to Robert Pape, author of a forthcoming book on suicide bombers, "Dying to Win."
"Over the past 20 years, there have been 13 suicide terrorist campaigns that have started and finished," Pape said. "Surprisingly, seven of those 13 campaigns have produced concessions for the terrorist's political cause -- more than many people realize."
In one of those campaigns in 1983, the United States had forces in Lebanon as peacekeepers. And then, on a single day, 241 Marines were killed by a suicide bomber driving a truck. Those who sent him got exactly what they wanted.
"Ronald Reagan, no pacifist … withdrew all our military forces from Lebanon and virtually abandoned the country," Pape said. "Doing that sent a clear message to terrorists, suicide terrorism pays."
It's not just the United States' actions in Lebanon. Israel also made concessions at various times under pressure of suicide attacks by Lebanese and Palestinians.
In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers, a non-Muslim nationalist group that has used suicide tactics regularly since the 1980s, has brought its opponents to the negotiating table, although those talks later broke down.
Success only half the time may not sound like much, but the fact that groups so weak in a conventional military sense have any success at all may attest to the strange potency of a weapon that is comprised mostly of a person willing to kill himself for a cause.
"It makes us feel that our enemies are so committed to their cause that they're willing to do this seemingly irrational thing," said Jessica Stern, a lecturer at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and the author of "Terror in the Name of God."
"They are willing to lose their lives because they feel so strongly that they are right and we are wrong."
There is a formula the suicide bomber counts on: The right explosives are powerful, portable and concealable in a car or on a bomber's body. The right targets are civilians — the more, the better and preferably unsuspecting until the bomb goes off. Finally, the right reaction is shock, horror and terror. That's what the killer wants to plant in the hearts of his enemies so he can break that enemy's will.
So, there is a method to what looks like the madness in Iraq.
"They would like to force out the occupiers," Stern said. "Their goal is to impose such heavy costs on the United States that we just can't stand it anymore."
Suicide bombers were a rare thing in Iraq until U.S. forces came.
"In stationing large numbers of troops in the country for what appears to be years to come," Pape said, "what we've done is we've given suicide terrorism a new lease on life."
The American people, 6,000 miles from where most of this violence is taking place, are meant to be the psychological targets of the terrorism taking place in Iraq. The public is meant to grow weary, to put political pressure on the government, and ultimately to demand that the United States leave Iraq.
But the strategy can backfire. The Japanese crossed a line by sending suicide pilots, the kamikazes, crashing into U.S. ships toward the end of World War II. But their self-sacrifice only stiffened the U.S. resolve for all-out victory.
Success may seem far off for the insurgents in Iraq, as well. It's been only six months since the re-election of the president who put the United States in Iraq despite disapproval, then and now, by more than half the country in how he's handling that war.