On Martyrdom, Evil, and the Value of Ideas

Libya rises up. A Libyan diplomat, Ahmad Jibreel, remarked on Gaddafi’s extensive use of violence — live ammunition, bomber runs, paid thugs — to battle protesters:

“Gaddafi’s guards started shooting people in the second day and they shot two people only,” he said.

“We had on that day in Al Bayda city only 300 protesters. When they killed two people, we had more than 5,000 at their funeral, and when they killed 15 people the next day, we had more than 50,000 the following day.

“This means that the more Gaddafi kills people, the more people go into the streets.”

There’s been a lot of discussion of nonviolent resistance and the sympathetic capital of martyrdom across the last half century. Examples of its successful implementation abound: the Civil Rights movement, Ghandi in India, Jesus in the Roman Empire, (to some extent) the Vietnam War, various defections from Soviet Bloc countries, more recently the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. Less successful implementations involve suicide bombers and hostage situations, such as might be seen in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the campaigns of Iraqi insurgents.

I cannot say it enough: we live in an astonishing age in human history. Mere centuries ago, the idea that combatants who refused to engage their foe in combat might be able to topple governments and change the tide of history across whole continents, even the world itself, would be unthinkable. I submit the paradigm of warfare has shifted; that, somewhere along the course of human history, war stopped being about killing.

Conflict is essentially the meeting of opposing wills. Once all is said and done, the defeated assumes the victor’s will, whether in part or in whole. Or, the defeated ceases to exist, thus muting the opposition. Historically, the easiest way to force a foe to assume your will (that is, submit to your demands) was to bring enough costs to bear on them and their assets, usually in the form of battle-related deaths, sinking morale, and infrastructural damage. When your foe’s will to uphold their own demands fell below their aversion to conflict and the costs it inflicts, they would submit.

Something curious has changed that equation. When costs are inflicted now — when we bomb neighborhoods, when we shoot or detain enemy combatants, when we destroy infrastructure — the defender’s will to power grows. They rally to their cause. This has confounded Western military commanders for a good century now. Only now, with General Patraeus’ anti-insurgency campaign that focuses on rebuilding infrastructure and developing communities and relations therein, are we seeing a high-level commander implement a battle plan that accounts for this paradigmatic revolution. At last, at least in part, we are realizing: war isn’t about killing. War is about life.

When we kill people, we offend the value our foes place on life. When we destroy schools, we spit on a people’s future. When we abuse our enemies, we insult their dignity, their humanity. They look up from their knees at this so-called victor and say, “I will never be like you.” From this, they draw strength. From our abuse, they draw unity. They refuse to submit because we have demonstrated, and with every offense continue to demonstrate, that we are precisely what they want to fight. In doing evil, we validate their resistance.

My grandfather Charles Thayer, a diplomat to Russia and half-colonel in Yugoslavia during WWII, wrote a treatise on guerrilla warfare, specifically on counter-insurgency operations. His three-point battle plan read something like the following:

  1. Rebuild civilian infrastructure.
  2. Keep civilians safe from insurgent violence.
  3. Do not abuse civilians.

Warfare, as the treatise implies, is won by he who can convince the citizenry that he is in their best interest. That means don’t shoot them. That means don’t blow up their roads. That means keep their water running. When you deny them these things, you demonstrate that you are not worthy of their consent. It doesn’t matter that you’re eliminating them numerically, because in doing evil, you guarantee there will be more. In a way, this is uplifting: the modern global citizen places a historically high value on their ideas and beliefs relative to the value of their own life. Life itself is unthinkably valuable, but to an individual, their life is worth precisely the ideas it lives to uphold. This is the strength of martyrs.

So, when Gaddafi shoots his people, he is demonstrating to them that he is unfit to rule. People may fear for their lives, and worry about dying to his madness, but they would rather stand for their beliefs than kneel in silence. This is incredible, and confounds any notion of self-preservation. We have documented in behavioral psychology (across many species) the miraculous phenomena of altruism, where an individual will risk his wellbeing for the wellbeing of others, but this is so far beyond that. It is a people standing in the line of fire for what they believe, because they know the ideals they live for will live beyond them.

I am no more than an arbiter of my beliefs, a vessel of ideas and ideologies. If I do not stand up for them, then I am empty, and when I die, I will have died for nothing.


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