The War Nerd: "Martyrdom" -- What's the Payoff?

By Gary Brecher , written on November 16, 2014

From The War Desk


If you’re an American, you don’t like the whole idea of “martyrs” much. The first quote you’re likely to think of is George Patton’s great line rejecting the whole idea of martyrdom in war: “No son of a bitch ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making some other poor son of a bitch die for HIS country.”

It’s a great line. Is it true? If I had to give a simple yes-or-no answer, I’d have to come down on the “no” side. There have definitely been armies that have been a little too fond of dying, like the Imperial Japanese, especially after 1942.

But even in Patton’s kind of war—mid-twentieth century conventional wars—dying was an important part of your job as a soldier in some contexts. And the further you go from Patton’s kind of war, the less true his little quip dissing martyrdom seems to work.

It’s especially hard for us to cozy up to the idea of martyrdom, now that the whole concept has been monopolized by jihadists. Every damn day, Islamic State announces that another of its fighters has died “…in a martyrdom operation.” A suicide bombing, in other words. Nothing about Islamist fighters horrifies or disgusts people like these announcements. It seems completely alien to us, the whole notion of walking into a crowd and pulling a string to set off your explosive vest, or driving a car packed with explosives into a security checkpoint.

But it shouldn’t really be so hard to understand. Every tribe has a martyr tradition, including ours. You can start right at the top, with Jesus. That’s a martyrdom too far for most Muslims, who tend to be weirded out by the notion of a “crucified God.” Jesus died a lot harder than the average suicide bomber does. Crucifixion was designed to be a slow, horrible death; dying instantly in the explosion of a VBIED is easy by comparison. I used to sit in church looking at the cross above the altar, wondering if I could measure up — and a few seconds pressing my left thumbnail into my right palm as hard as I could was enough to convince me that I was not martyr material. Three days of that? Ugh. I couldn’t do it. And I didn’t even know yet about the real torment of crucifixion, the slow strangle as you try to lift your torso up so you can draw another breath.

Much better to be one of those saints who lucked into a nice quick death, like John the Baptist, who was beheaded. He got off easy, considering his high rank in the Church hierarchy -- had his head chopped off in one swing of a nice big sword. [as shown in the painting above]

The only quicker way to die is in an explosion, which happens to be how most contemporary suicide bombers die. If you’re driving a car loaded with HE, with one hand on the wheel and the other holding a dead-man switch, and you know you’re dead the instant you let go of that switch, what do you have to be afraid of? If you’re of these Wahhabi suicide bombers, you must figure you’ve got the whole afterlife thing tapes, so you don’t have to worry about that. And while you’re on this side of the Great Divide, you won’t have time to feel any pain between letting go of the switch and scattering yourself like a Jackson Pollack painting all over the checkpoint. So it doesn’t seem all that strange to me that there are so many volunteers for the job.

And all that talk about these guys wanting their 72 virgins in Paradise isn’t as important as it might seem. There have been plenty of atheist martyrs. Soviet soldiers who’d been drilled in atheism from birth charged across mine-fields, yelling “Oooo-raaaa!” without dreaming of any afterlife. They were way nobler martyrs than the idiots blowing themselves up in the Middle East right now.

But what about us Americans? The word martyr has a papist sound that made good southern WASPS like Patton growl at the back of their throats. But actually we have plenty of martyrs – you were probably raised on some American martyr’s story, even if they didn’t use the ‘m’ word about it.

Take Nathan Hale, Connecticut’s finest. Hale, who was hanged by the neck until dead (for damned good reason) by the British, stressed “country,” not “God,” in his last speech: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” Hale’s secular, Enlightenment martyrdom was good enough to get him declared the official State Hero of Connecticut. I was a little surprised to find out Connecticut had a hero, or even wanted one. If they did, you’d think they’d choose some bedridden rich lady who managed to read every issue of The New Yorker from cover to cover for 50 years, or the state’s most dedicated rose-grower, holding up a bleeding thumb, the red badge of CT courage.

Actually there’s something a little sly, very CT-like, in making Hale the state hero, because—let’s face it—Hale was a goddamn spy, caught red-handed by the Brits and deserving of a dangle from the tallest and best-trimmed oak in the CT suburbs. His one-liner shows that the idea of martyrdom was still out there, bouncing around in the be-wigged heads of Our Nation’s Founders. Even during that brief, blessed lull when Americans, for once in their goddamned history, weren’t talking about religion and Jesus all the time.

If you want American martyrs who combine God and Country, you can’t do better than a certain John Brown. You may remember him as the guy whose body “…lies a-moulderin’ in the grave” but whose “…soul goes marching on.” You can’t get much martyr-ier than that. In fact, Brown, with that wild jihadi beard, gaudy set of mental-health issues, and awkward way of being absolutely right in hindsight is a martyr’s martyr by any tribe’s standards. He could teach the goddamn Irish or Shi’ites about martyrdom, even if he was born a Baptist.

You can go down the list of posthumous winners of the Medal of Honor and find plenty of martyrs. But God doesn’t need to come into it at all. We have our own secular/military martyrs just like the Soviets, using “martyr” to mean “someone who does something in battle to help the cause, even though he knows he’ll die doing it.” Here’s a typical medal-winner’s martyrdom, from the early days of the Korean War:

  • Rank and organization: Corporal, U.S. Army, Company C, 27th Infantry Regiment.
  • Place and date: Near Chindong-ni, Korea, 19 September 1950.
  • Entered service at: Worthington, Ky.
  • O. No.: 86, 2 August 1951.
Citation: Cpl. Collier, Company C, distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action. While engaged in an assault on a strategic ridge strongly defended by a fanatical enemy, the leading elements of his company encountered intense automatic weapons and grenade fire. Cpl. Collier and 3 comrades volunteered and moved forward to neutralize an enemy machine gun position which was hampering the company's advance, but they were twice repulsed. On the third attempt, Cpl. Collier, despite heavy enemy fire and grenade barrages, moved to an exposed position ahead of his comrades, assaulted and destroyed the machine gun nest, killing at least 4 enemy soldiers. As he returned down the rocky, fire-swept hill and joined his squad, an enemy grenade landed in their midst. Shouting a warning to his comrades, he, selflessly and unhesitatingly, threw himself upon the grenade and smothered its explosion with his body. This intrepid action saved his comrades from death or injury. Cpl. Collier's supreme, personal bravery, consummate gallantry, and noble self-sacrifice reflect untold glory upon himself and uphold the honored traditions of the military service.

You could argue that, until Corporal Collier actually jumped on that grenade to save his friends, he was just being brave, not actually deciding to be a martyr. But if you jump on a grenade, you have officially entered martyr territory, and any thanks you get will be posthumous.

There’s another classic American example: The Alamo. Davy Crockett? Sam Bowie? None of those men expected any quarter. They were going to die. If that ain’t martyrdom, a lot of raccoons died in vain during the Disney era.

I won’t go into detail, because I don’t believe in encouraging Texans, but those Disney heroes’ decision to stay at the Alamo, delay Santa Ana’s army, and die, was totally reasonable—and it worked, giving a bigger Texan army time to gather and defeat Santa Ana at San Jacinto, making that one-legged egomaniac the first, but not the last man to mutter to himself, “Why the fuck did I ever go to this stinking sweat-marsh called Harris County?”

So the notion of martyrdom isn’t really as weird or alien as it might seem at first. War is a death exchange, and the question is how to get a good price for your life. Even in Patton’s kind of war—the classic WW II conventional ground warfare—martyrdom did lead to victory. The reason Patton didn’t see it was it had happened on the Eastern Front, where Soviet armies would send in the Penal Battalions first. Their job was to die, period, wear out the defenders, set off the mines.

After three years of martyrdom by those poor bastards, the Wehrmacht was so worn out that Patton could say that line about “…making some other poor bastard die for HIS country” with a straight face. He meant, among other things, “I’m not going to make YOU, my American soldiers, die like Soviet Penal Battalions”—which is always a nice thing to hear if you’re about to go into combat.

So Patton’s line makes sense as a motivational speech—but not as military policy, even in the “rational” wars of the 18th century. Consider the 1706 Siege of Turin, a campaign so Englightenmenty and rational that French military theorists were debating the principles of siege warfare in a live-fire experiment that cost them thousands of casualties. Even in the middle of this bloody feast of reason, there was room for one of the great military martyrs—or, if you prefer, “suicide bombers”—of history, a soldier named Pietro Micca.

Micca was part of the Turin garrison, assigned to counter-tunneling in the network of “mines”—tunnels dug by the French invaders, and counter-tunnels by the defenders. Micca and another soldier were on guard when a party of French grenadiers, crack troops, snuck in under cover of the smoke from a bonfire set to burn the corpses of the days’ dead—one of those little details that give you a nice touch of what fun life in a besieged city can be. If the French broke into the defenders’ tunnels, they’d be under the heart of the city’s fortifications. Micca decided to die to keep that from happening. He locked the door leading to the lower-level tunnels, suavely told his fellow sentry to get out while he could, and when his friend hemmed and hawed about fleeing, Micca came up with one of the great hero’s-last-words ever spoken: “What are you waiting for? You’re slower than a year of famine!”

His friend left, probably dazzled with the sheer martyr-ish beauty of that quip, and Micca calmly lit the fuse on several barrels of gunpowder, while the French started smashing in the door he’d locked. It is not known if Micca actually said, at this point, “Say hello to my little friend” in an Al-Pacino pseudo-Cubano accent, but the results were much like those you remember from Scarface: huge explosion, enemies blown back, tunnels collapsed, city saved.

Micca’s death was perhaps the best example of sane martyrdom in conventional warfare. “Sane” in the sense that by sacrificing his life, he prevented the defeat and sacking of Turin, which would have cost thousands of lives. Which is why there’s a statue of Micca in Turin, holding his fuse and pointing his giant moustache defiantly at the hated French invader.


Micca is the best-case scenario for military martyrs: One life spent to save thousands. It’s simple arithmetic, even if it’s not as easy to do as it is to carry out. But as you move away from conventional war toward irregular/asymmetrical weirdness, the notion of “martyr” isn’t so easy to reduce to math. Guerrilla martyrdom is a very strange phenomenon, shading off into religion and tribal memory as much as any purely military considerations.

In this kind of war, defeat and mass death can be a good, effective opening move. You start a rebellion, knowing everyone who marches out with you will die; you all get wiped out; and a few years later, your successors march into the fortifications of the occupying power.

That’s not a fantasy. It actually happened, more than once—though almost all the examples are recent ones, because this strategy depends on a certain squeamishness in the occupying army, and armies didn’t get squeamish until very recently.

As far as I can tell, nobody saw this two-stage pattern until I spotted it, and goddamn it, I want a little credit for once. Not money, because I know by now that you D.C. schmoozers would sooner die than throw a quarter my way—but a little credit, at least. I’ve had enough of you ripping my stuff off, using me as a natural resource, playing whalefall to your hagfish. So listen up, hagfish: What follows is the Brecher Two-Stage Martyr/Killer Theory of Insurgency, and if you don’t mention me when you get your six-figure, three-letter agency grant to research it, I’ll give you a sample of stage two, if it takes my last wheezing breath.

The example that led me to this pattern (and which consumed a miserable decade of my life) is early 20th century Ireland. Imagine George Patton repeating his line, “No son of a bitch ever won a war by dying for his country” to the handful of literary weirdos, sentimental Celticists, and assorted other freaks who had occupied downtown Dublin in the name of “…a 32-county, Irish-speaking Republic” on Easter Monday 1916.

What kind of response would Patton’s bad-ass pragmatism have gotten from the eager martyrs holding out in Dublin, waiting for the inevitable retaliation by the British Army? They were a strange group, but then most Europeans were a little insane around 1916, and this lot had decided it would be better to die in Dublin, which they actually knew and liked, than in some unpronounceable Flemish town on the Western Front. As Yeats said, “They…decided, ‘We will sell our lives at a better market” than the one run by the German machine guns and artillery.

So they sold their lives, as planned. The British Army, not in any mood to fuck around with this home-front insurgency in the middle of the fight of its life, shelled the occupied buildings, shot the survivors, and declared the matter closed.

So far, this looked like the worst debacle among debac-ulous Irish rebellions, which is saying something. But that’s where it gets interesting; that’s where the notion of effective martyrdom via tactical debacle starts to play itself out. Because, weirdly enough, these guys won. Nobody had managed to leave the British Empire by force since America did it in 1783, but Ireland did (26 counties’ worth, anyway) in 1922, just six years after those freaks got themselves killed in downtown Dublin.

And it was martyrdom that won, the whole cult of martyrdom. At first, Dubliners cursed and jeered the survivors of the Easter Rising—I mean, you’d be mad too if a handful of nutters had brought the world’s most powerful army’s revenge down on your home town. But then the songs started—and if you know the Irish, you know it’s all over once they start singing. Soon there were a half-dozen songs celebrating every martyr who died in 1916.

These pub songs were the social media of rural Ireland, circa 1920, and they were very effective. They inspired a whole generation of saner, smarter, more cold-blooded and effective revolutionaries thinking about how to try another rebellion—one that could actually succeed. A guy named Michael Collins came up with the concept of urban-guerrilla warfare, focusing on killing spies before going after soldiers, and next thing you know, Ireland’s independent, the first country to exit the Empire against the Empire’s will in over a century.

And this pattern is being repeated, right now, across the planet: A first-wave insurgency that seems insanely quixotic, totally doomed, useless…which then inspires a second insurgency, more effective, more cold-blooded, more interested in killing than in dying.

You can see the pattern in the weird differences between the first and second Intifadas against Israeli rule. The First Intifada, from 1987-1993, was mainly about Palestinians dying, often by choice, at the hands of much-better armed Israeli forces. Casualties were typically lopsided: 160 Israelis killed vs. more than 2000 Palestinian dead.

The image this first Intifada tried to engrave on the world media’s eyeball was of Palestinians, unarmed or with nothing but rocks, getting mowed down by expensive military vehicles. Again—it looked crazy, but it wasn’t. It was a typical first-stage sacrifice.

The Second Intifada, or “Al-Aqsa Intifada,” starting in 2000, involved armed Palestinians not just dying but killing. Casualties for this rebellion were much more evenly distributed: 1008 Israelis killed vs. 3034 Palestinians.

That’s a ratio of 3:1 (almost precisely 3:1, in fact), and though it may seem to favor the Israelis, it actually terrified them, because the better-armed occupying force expects something more like the 13:1 Palestinian/Israeli KIA of the First Intifada.

This two-stage formula is playing out right now, in parts of the world most people don’t pay much attention to—like the slow-burning Muslim/Malay insurgency in Southern Thailand. In the Southern Thai town of Su So in 2004, a Muslim insurgency announced itself in a way that made the Easter Rising look cunning and practical by comparison: the local men and boys simply stood around outside the Thai National police stations waving machetes and yelling until they were shot down.

Crazy, right? Not really. The insurgency is burning very well in that part of Thailand now, and the hundred-odd men who were mown down in that apparently pointless, suicidal demonstration outside the cop-shops knew exactly what they were doing. They were offering themselves as kindling, to get something bigger, colder, more effective started.

So — Sorry, General Patton, sir, and I admit I’d never have the courage to tell you this to your face -- but the fact is, you CAN win a war by dying. There are several ways you can do that: in conventional war.

And in irregular wars—where martyrdom really comes into its own—you can start a huge conflagration by burning yourself and your comrades up in a martyrdom operation, even these crazy-seeming first-stage mass sacrifices like Dublin 1916, or the First Intifada of 1987-1993, or the obscure massacre of Su So in 2004.

Irregular wars depend on group cohesion and morale, and in that kind of war, the worse the martyrdom of the first stage, the more effective the revenge of the second-stage fighters. The whole point is to focus the hatred of the occupied people, bring it to combustion level, and then direct it toward a second stage devoted to revenge.

The biggest weakness of this sort of two-stage campaign is that you absolutely must control the propaganda war, or the sacrifice is useless. The First Intifada was a very good example of controlling the media war; Palestinians were now seen as victims, rather than dangerous “terrorists,” by most world media, and I’d bet that on a more local level, the Malay men who stood around outside Thai police stations in Su So a decade ago are now celebrated by local song and story as saints, heroes, men too good for this dirty world.

But, as Bill Murray once reminded us, “Don’t cross the streams.”

-- don’t mix your second-stage revenge-insurgency with your first-stage martyrdom-demonstration. If you do — and it’s an easy thing to do, when you’re carrying the whole burden of revenge by some angry tribe on your shoulders — you end up wasting the magical power of martyrdom, the cleansing effect it offers to your fighters, and just seeming like another gang of bloodthirsty thugs.

And that is where Islamic State has gone very badly wrong. In the first place, most of their ‘martyrs’ aren’t even local, so the notion that they are the designated avengers of eastern Syria or western Iraq probably doesn’t have much resonance with the locals. And the propaganda they’ve been disseminating via social media, aimed at two contradictory audiences – a Sunni crowd eager for revenge at all costs and a world media hesitating about what storyline to take – has tilted way too far toward gore and sex slavery. So you can win by dying, but the lesson of military martyrdom shows that, like everything else in this damned world, a good death is not as easy as it seems.

[image via Wikimedia Commons]