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Asymmetric warfare

Suicide: an ‘act’ of aggression

Three men held without charges in Guantánamo Bay have hanged themselves, using nooses made out of their clothes and bedding. How to characterize such an event? For Rear Admiral Harry Harris, commander of Joint Task Force Guantánamo, it’s obvious:

“I believe this was not an act of desperation, rather an act of asymmetric warfare waged against us.”

Here is what it says in Unspeak about the term “asymmetric warfare”:

‘Asymmetric warfare’ is the term employed by the US military for fighting people who don’t line up properly to be shot at: on the one side you have battalions of American infantry, marines, tanks and aircraft; and on the other you have terrorists, or guerrillas, or militants, or insurgents. But the more revealing asymmetry lies in the giving of names in the ‘war on terror’. We are soldiers; you are terrorists. Asymmetric warfare means: we are fighting a war; but you are not. And so when we capture you, do not expect to be a prisoner of war. You will be a terrorist suspect, an illegal combatant, a ghost detainee. And so the deliberate blurring of categories in the phrase ‘war on terror’ led straight to Abu Ghraib. (p 162)

Now, it appears, we must add people who hang themselves in prison cells to the list of forces arrayed against the US military machine . . .

It might seem like a bit of a stretch for Harris to speak of an “act of asymmetric warfare” in this instance, even if we take at face value his loaded description of the men as “committed jihadists captured on the battlefield”. Suicide has long been an effective tactic of warfare, but only if you manage to take some of the enemy with you, as did the prototypical suicide warrior, Samson, when he brought down the temple.

Suicide might, alternatively, be an act of protest, as for the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, who burned himself to death in a Saigon street in 1963 to protest against the South Vietnam government’s anti-Buddhist policies. It is said that the only part of his body that would not burn was his heart. Some Buddhist scholars consider that his death does not count as suicide, but rather as an extraordinary act of will in solidarity with his people. It is said to be “constructive” rather than “destructive”.

Possibly the men who killed themselves at Guantánamo hoped that their deaths would have a comparable PR effect, attracting such negative publicity to the prison that it would eventually have to be closed down. Perhaps Harris means that in this sense they have attempted a coup in the field of what the US calls “public diplomacy”, and what others call propaganda. Harris claims, indeed, that there was a “mystical belief” among the prisoners that three prisoners had to die for Guantánamo to be shut down. Reportedly the three men left suicide notes in Arabic, the text of which has not yet been released. Still, as long as “warfare” is generally understood to mean killing other people, you might consider that killing yourself and no one else is the opposite of warfare rather than a continuation of it.

There is also a theatrical connotation contained in the term “act” of asymmetric warfare, which was also evident in the official US Army report that in 2003 there were “350 acts of self-harm” among the prison population at Guantánamo, including 120 “hanging gestures”. “Hanging gestures” might make you think of melancholic mime artists: these people were play-acting, they didn’t really mean it. Reframing attempted suicide as performance is creative if not convincing.

George W Bush has expressed “serious concern” over the incident, and said he wanted the incident handled “humanely”: “The remains of the deceased detainees are being treated with the utmost respect.” That is reassuring. Of course, it costs nothing to call for “humane” treatment of dead people. Currently, on the other hand, in arguments over the wording of a proposed new Army Field Manual on interrogation, the administration is fighting to exclude the Geneva standard of humane treatment for people who are still alive.

The official motto of the US operation at Guantánamo is “Honor bound to defend freedom”. Might suicide itself be an expression, if only in a negative sense, of “freedom”? The asymmetric war of official rhetoric dissuades us from asking such questions. 

  1. 1  sw  November 30, -0001, 12:00 am 

    The suicides have already been dubbed a “PR move”.

  2. 2  Steven Poole  June 12, 2006, 1:23 am 

    By, no less, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for “Public Diplomacy” – or, as you might like to call it, PR.

  3. 3  no one  June 21, 2006, 6:14 pm 

    I watched the movie ‘cache/hidden’ by Michael Haneke a couple of days ago–have you seen it? One of the surprising responses I’ve had in discussing it with other is how some people saw the act of majid (sorry if I’m spoiling this for others) as an ‘attack’ on george. Whereas for me I saw majid’s act as the last free move he could make.

  4. 4  JR  July 10, 2006, 6:57 pm 

    This business about Samson being a suicide warrior – apparently a jab at the Israelis, along the lines of “you did it first” – ignores the details of the Samson story entirely. Samson was a prisoner in chains. His eyes had been put out and he was made to do donkey’s work, turning grist mill. He had no expectation other than to continue to be tortured and beaten and worked to death. By bringing down the banquet hall where he was on exhibit for the entertainment of his captors, he was killing the specific individuals who were responsible for his condition. He has nothing in common with the modern suicide bombers who, out the wide range of life choices available to them, decide to blow up innocent men, women and children.

  5. 5  Steven Poole  July 10, 2006, 8:17 pm 

    apparently a jab at the Israelis


    How about if we say Samson was a kamikaze?

  6. 6  Nicholas Gruen  July 13, 2006, 2:05 pm 

    Great post Steven.

  7. 7  anon  September 14, 2006, 10:28 am 

    What a moronic post by the zionazi:
    “Samson was a prisoner in chains”.
    Read the Bible Judges16 onwards. This guy was a psycopathic mass murderer! (much like his ‘countrymen’ today)
    He marries a Palestinian woman, then kills 30 Palestinians just to pinch some garments from them! Remember that during this period, the Palestinians ruled over the Hebrews. He then burns the grains & olive groves (sound familiar?) of the Palestinians & kills many “with great slaughter”. They retaliate by burning his Pal. wife & her father. They order the Hebrews to surrender the terrorist Samson to them & they dutifully obeyed. But he again massacres a thousand Pals.

    The zionazi in the above post justifies samsons mass murder: “…he was killing the specific individuals who were responsible for his condition. He has nothing in common with the modern suicide bombers who, out the wide range of life choices available to them, decide to blow up innocent men, women and children.”

    Wrong again! The bible says: ‘Now the house was full of men and women..” and no doubt many children & babies too. 3000 people on the roof alone.

    And what “life choices” do todays Palestinians have in order to free themselves from Israeli Tyranny? I can only see the ‘Samson Option’ (see Hirsh’s old book) available to them. Bring down the whole house to end their miseries!

  8. 8  SP  September 14, 2006, 10:53 am 

    If you read more around this blog, you might hesitate to use the term “Zionazi” again.

  9. 9  anon  September 15, 2006, 5:30 pm 

    Sorry SP. My rant was directed to comment no.4 by JR, who was defending Samson’s suicide mass murder of innocent men, women & children.

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