Dying to Fight – Two Thousand Years of Suicide Attackers

Japanese school children wave farewell to Kamikaze pilots.

Japanese school children wave farewell to Kamikaze pilots.

“As far back as ancient times, warring factions have turned to martyrs and fanatics to inflict mass casualties on their enemies, even if it means dying in the process.”

THE ISLAMIC STATE CONTINUES TO FIND NEW WAYS to horrify the world.

Just this past week, the now notorious militant organization launched a series of suicide attacks throughout Iraq. On Monday, an ISIS agent wearing an explosive vest blew himself up inside a Kurdish security command post; another at a busy market. Fifty-eight people perished in the blasts. The strikes followed another suicide bombing on Sunday near Baghdad that killed 45.

Meanwhile, the Arab news site Al Arabiya reports that operatives from the Islamic State may soon be heading to West Africa to deliberately infect themselves with Ebola in order to spread the lethal virus worldwide.

While such developments have grabbed headlines in recent days, the use of suicide attackers is hardly new in the annals of warfare. Although the current so-called War on Terror was launched in response to the staggering suicide attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as far back as ancient times, guerrilla groups, regular armies and even powerful empires have all turned to martyrs and fanatics to inflict mass casualties on their enemies — even if it means dying in the process. Here are some examples.

The fanatical Zealots famously gave their lives to resist the Roman occupation. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The fanatical Sicarii famously gave their lives to resist the Roman occupation of Judea. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Of Cloaks and Daggers

The anti-Roman Zealots of First Century Judea were certainly hard-core. In fact, the militant sect tirelessly advocated bloody rebellion against Emperor Nero’s rule over the Hebrew homeland. Yet even this extreme faction looked almost moderate when compared to the Sicarii or “dagger men”. The shadowy group achieved infamy for stalking and killing Roman officials in public using blades concealed in their cloaks. But after the collapse of the Great Jewish Revolt in 73 CE, nearly a thousand Sicarii stalwarts and their families barricaded themselves inside the ancient Hebrew mountaintop fortress known as Masada. The Roman army surrounded the insurgents, laying siege to the castle. Ultimately, the rebels committed mass suicide rather than give in. Even 2,000 years later, Israelis remain ambivalent about this fabled last stand. Were the “dagger men” heroes or misguided fanatics? It depends on whom you ask.

Viking "Berzerkers" charged into battle like wild animals. Sometimes without armour. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Viking “Berzerkers” charged into battle like wild animals. Sometimes without armour. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Going Berserk

Although Viking berserkers weren’t suicide soldiers per se, this uber-fanatical sect of Danish warriors were noted for their tendency to whip themselves up into a frenzy of bloodlust and then charge into battle with zero regard for their own survival. Those that weren’t struck down by enemy arrows would then mercilessly tear into their opponents. “[They] rushed forward without armour, as mad as dogs or wolves. They bit their shields and were strong as bears or wild oxen,” said one contemporary chronicler.” [1] Often, the manic Norsemen would don tunics made of animal skins while in their rages. They supposedly believed these shirts or serkrs helped channel the spirit of their god Odin.

Chinese nationalists had their own suicide brigade. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Chinese nationalists had their own suicide brigade. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Dare to Die Corps

Barely a decade into the 20th Century, China’s weakened Qing Dynasty was locked in a death struggle against an army of revolutionaries that sought to bring down the royal family. Radicals from across the fading empire flocked to the cause of toppling the wobbly monarchy of child potentate Aisin-Gioro Puyi. Known as the Kuomintang, the rebel faction had among its number scores of idealistic young students who pledged their very lives to the fight. Accordingly, they dubbed themselves the “Dare to Die Corps”. In October of 1911, hundreds of these would-be martyrs charged into action during the Guangzhou Uprising. Imperial guns cut down 72 of them during the battle. Eventually, the nationalists prevailed and in January of 1912 the Republic of China was founded. The graves of the fallen youths have since become a national shrine. And that wasn’t the end of the Dare to Die Corps. The unit would fight once more a generation later as Japanese troops invaded China in the 1930s.

Suicide charges by Japanese troops were common in the Pacific War. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Suicide charges by Japanese troops were common in the Pacific War. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Banzai!

Japan famously employed its own suicide units during the Second World War — on land, at sea and in the air. Throughout the Pacific War, Hirohito’s soldiers commonly launched Banzai charges (short for Tennouheika Banzai Or “long live the Emperor”) against Allied troops. While such attacks took place during the fighting on Makin Island, Guadalcanal and Attu, the largest of these onslaughts occurred on Saipan in 1944. That’s when as many as 4,300 imperial infantrymen launched the war’s single greatest mass suicide attack – and quite possibly the largest in history. Although the whole force was utterly annihilated by American machine gunners, the U.S. marines took more than 600 casualties repelling the hoard. Elsewhere, explosive-laden Shinyo suicide speedboats sank more than half a dozen Allied landing craft in the last year of the war, while Fukuryu frogmen attempted to blow up enemy warships using wearable undersea demolition charges. Japan’s most famous suicide attackers, the Kamikaze or “divine wind,” succeeded in damaging or destroying more than 350 ships, including a number of escort carriers. As many as 4,000 volunteer pilots took part in the fatal missions; more than 85 percent of the doomed fliers missed their targets or were blown from the skies by anti-aircraft gunners.

A manned version of the German V-1 rocket was designed for late-war suicide attacks. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A manned version of the German V-1 rocket was designed for late-war suicide attacks. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Hitler’s ‘Kamikaze’

Japan wasn’t the only Axis power to employ suicide pilots in World War Two. As reported just recently on MilitaryHistoryNow.com, the collapsing Third Reich marshalled up to 70 volunteers to fly “self-sacrifice missions” against Allied ships or bridgeheads using manned versions of the V-1 flying bomb known as Fi-103R Reichenbergs. The unit was dubbed the Leonidas Squadron after the famous Spartan king who died defending Thermopylae from a Persian onslaught. It’s unclear how many sorties the group actually flew. The Nazis also raised he Sonderkommando Elbe, a unit tasked with ramming their Bf-109 Messerschmitt fighters into Allied bombers. Fewer than eight American aircraft were destroyed before the project was abandoned in 1945.

Children as young as 12 were invited to join the Basij -- Iran's suicide army.

Children as young as 12 were invited to join the Basij — Iran’s suicide army.

The Basij

Facing deadlock in its gruelling eight-year war against Iraq, the revolutionary regime in Iran resorted to human wave-style assaults to break the impasse. Amazingly, it was devoutly fanatical civilians (not soldiers) who volunteered for these frontline suicide squads. The units fell under the command of the Basij, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s ultra-orthadox “Organization for Mobilization of the Oppressed”. Throughout the 1980s, recruiters scoured high schools to drum up willing participants — some as young as 12 years of age joined up. New inductees were paraded before television cameras and treated like national celebrities. Later, these same volunteers were ordered into foolhardy frontal assaults against Iraqi machine gun positions. Others were callously marched across enemy minefields to clear the way for the regular soldiers. Basij fighters often ran into battle completely unarmed but wearing plastic keys that were supposed to symbolically unlock the doors to the afterlife for them. As many as 800,000 Iranians signed up to die for the Basij. The force still exists today as a network of faith-based militias.

The Black Widows

Chechen rebels famously employed suicide bombers in their breakaway republic’s two wars against Russia. Among the strangest of these was the all-female Shahidka brigade or the “Black Widows”. Between 2000 and 2013, as many as 50 Chechen women, mostly wives of fallen militants, were trained in the use of suicide vests. The group carried out more than a dozen attacks in more than ten years of operations. Perhaps their most famous assault took place during the 2002 Moscow theatre standoff in which insurgents stormed a movie house and took more than 800 hostages. The crisis ended when Russian special forces flooded the cinema with poison gas. More than 130 captives were asphyxiated before commandos mounted a rescue. Moscow later feared that Black Widow bombers had plans to disrupt the 2014 Sochi games.

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