Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Hypocritical View of Martyrdom

(This is an old English paper I wrote for college a few quarters back. I was struggling to reach the minimum length, so I admit I stretched the bit about America’s Christian origins a bit to match my argument. I never lied, but I am aware of a larger picture I didn’t represent here.)
      Martyrdom is the act of a person either sacrificing his or her life or enduring suffering for a higher purpose.  The practice can be seen in many separate cultures all over the world and it is a social phenomenon that is perpetuated through the ideologies held by the cultures.  In the culture of the United States of America, the prevailing views of martyrdom are affected by both the existing ideologies that were present when the country was formed and by acts of martyrdom perpetrated against the country as a form of aggressive action by its enemies.  After the suicide attacks of September 11, 2001, which were perpetrated by Islamic terrorist Osama bin Laden, the mainstream American culture has typically associated the subject of martyrdom with the hateful Islamic extremists, as well as to the comparable kamikaze attacks Japan perpetrated against the Allies in World War II.  While it is true that it is reasonable for members of American culture to disagree with ideologies that would encourage violence carried out against its people by martyrs, the mainstream American culture has a hypocritical stance of martyrdom in which martyrs who uphold American values are glorified as brave heroes, and martyrs considered enemies are cast as irrational and cowardly.

       The American culture has a long history of honoring individuals who would sacrifice themselves for the good of other Americans or to stand up for an ideological principle.  Patrick Henry, the first Governor of Virginia and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, has been immortalized for declaring to the invading British forces to “give [him] liberty or give [him] death!” Similarly, the Revolutionary War espionage agent Nathan Hale famously stated “I only regret that I have but one life to give my country” shortly before the British soldiers who captured him then executed him.  American soldiers who die in the defense of the country are honored as heroes.  In remembrance of the death tolls of the Vietnam War, three distinct sections of a war memorial were erected in Washington D.C to honor the Americans who died because of the conflict.  In a recent event only a few years ago during the American war in Iraq, a nineteen-year-old soldier named Ross McGinnis threw his body onto a live grenade to save four of his fellow soldiers.  This act is described in an article in the Washington Post, in which McGinnis’ act is described as a “stunning act of self-sacrifice” and McGinnis himself is described as a hero whose youth is emphasized ("With Iraq War Come Layers of Loss"). The article’s emphasis on McGinnis’ youth would seem to imply that the author believes that a younger person sacrificing his or her life for others is nobler than were an older individual who had more of an opportunity to experience life to have committed the same deed.
      In contrast, the American culture has viewed similar acts of self-sacrifice with disdain when perpetrated by American enemies as suicide attacks.  Rather than simply detesting the acts of aggression against the American people, the willingness to sacrifice oneself for a greater good not possible for the martyr to personally experience is seen as irrationally stupid or crazy.  In World War II the Japanese attacked Allied ships with kamikazes, airplanes carrying explosives that were flown directly into the ships to produce an explosion capable of destroying the entire ship.  A type of kamikaze plane was the Ohka, a Japanese word for cherry blossom, which the Americans referred to as baka, Japanese for foolish or crazy (Y’Blood). Ronald James Wren, an Allied naval officer present at the scene of a kamikaze attack, has described his thoughts at the time as of “idiots killing themselves” and says he has since realized that the issue is more complex than it first appeared to him during WWII (Axell).
      On September 11, 2001, attacks against the U.S. were carried out by Islamic terrorists in a manner very similar to the kamikaze pilots of Japan, albeit with the goal of killing civilians rather than military targets.  Hijacking commercial airplanes, the terrorists flew them into the World Trade Center twin towers and the Pentagon in a coordinated series of suicide attacks.  A third airplane was hijacked, but the entrapped passengers rebelled against the hijackers and caused the plane to crash before reaching its target.  In response to the terrorist attacks, George W. Bush, the then contemporary President of the United States, said, “Make no mistake, the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts” (Kranish).  However, whether or not the acts were cowardly is up to debate.  In an American magazine article published on the date of the attacks, the author argues that the terrorists had “courage and resolution in spades” and that they were instead insane (McGee).
      Terrorists who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and others who threaten the Western world are often considered to have been insane by the American people.  However, evidence suggests that sociopathic individuals would not have the discipline and teamwork abilities necessary to conduct such suicide attack missions.  Terrorists are instead simply fanatics, rational individuals who have been subjected to ubiquitous indoctrination and are so convinced that their ideology is sound that they are willing to sacrifice their lives to aid their cause (Morgan).  When the American people are to dismiss terrorism as the act of lunatics, they are disrespecting the enemy by framing them as fundamentally unintelligent.  While the terrorists’ motives for their actions are based in extreme Islam that is not considered reasonable by the majority of the American culture, it is their ideology that stands as the reason these people would commit such acts of terrorism rather than an inability to think rationally.
      Despite the militaristic nature in which terrorists and kamikaze pilots end their lives, their acts of suicide are frequently confused with the kind of suicide an individual suffering from depression would commit in order to end his or her pain.  In Western cultures, suicide in this manner is considered abhorrent and not the act of a sane individual.  During World War II, this was suggested by American intelligence analysts as the reason the Japanese organized suicide attack units, suggesting that the Japanese lacked the same abhorrence and also viewed self-sacrifice as courageous and an act of patriotism (Axell).  In Islamic cultures, however, suicide as a personal act to end one’s own suffering is seen as sinful.  It is only the act of self-sacrifice that is promoted by the Qur’an and that is responsible for the motivations of Islamic terrorists to perpetrate suicide attacks (Burling).
      Islamic countries may actively promote their citizens giving up their lives in acts of sacrifice.  The Iranian government has, through their war with Iraq that spanned from 1980 to 1988, created a system in which martyrdom is promoted in the culture based on religious beliefs.  Citizens would go to war and become martyrs for their country should they die in battle with the Iraqi enemy.  The Iranian Republic inspired potential soldiers willing to give their lives to the cause by guaranteeing that martyrs would enjoy happiness in the afterlife and that their families would be taken care of by the state (Varzi).  This ideological promotion of martyrdom in the service of Islam extends to the practice of suicide bombing in acts of terrorism.  The Palestinian political organization Hamas teaches to children that suicide bombing is a noble act when the terrorists do so to kill Israeli citizens for the good of Palestine, which is commanded by God, and that these terrorists become martyrs when they die.  Hamas creates ubiquitous propaganda to fill Palestinian children with rage at the Jews of Israel and make them eager to martyr themselves in the Palestinian conflict with Israel (Levitt).
      The Islamic terrorist form of martyrdom is not one that is approved of in the American culture.  In the modern-day American culture, there is overall respect for the autonomy of individuals and the rights of safety being given to noncombatants.  Terrorists are not respected by any but the most radical minorities.  However, it is not only the harmful ideologies espoused by the Islamic terrorists that falls under such disdain from the American people but also the subject of martyrdom itself, which becomes associated with the hateful murder of innocent civilians.  This is hypocritical because the American culture has long been preoccupied with the glorification of people who would sacrifice themselves for a greater cause, just so long as the cause is one supported by the majority of the American people.  America’s own ideological support of martyrdom stems from the Christian religious morals held by the British colonists who became the country’s founders.  While the contemporary association of martyrdom with Islamic terrorists has made the subject of martyrdom unpopular, the ideology persists in other words that carry the same meaning and in purely Christian settings that distinguish Christian martyrs from terrorists ("Don’t call them martyrs").
      The English word martyr derives from the Greek word marturia, meaning a witness.  In Christian texts, marturia is used to refer to the “public attestation of one’s faith”.  In the modern usage of the term, it means “witness unto death” ("Martyrs Named and Nameless").  The Christian mythology contains examples of several martyrs, meaning people who died in the service of God at the hands of people who sought them ill.  A main example of one such martyr is the central figure of Christianity, the messiah figure Jesus Christ.  Jesus, the son and incarnation of God, is described in the New Testament as willingly enduring suffering under deliberate torture and his eventual execution in service of the greater purpose to free humanity.  Christian culture honors his sacrifice and holds it as an ideal for which all people must strive to be morally good.
      The figure of Jesus Christ has had a profound effect on American culture through its Christian inhabitants.  Many of America’s Founding Fathers were Christian, and America has had a long history of endorsement of Christian beliefs.  Each of the United States’ individual state constitutions, formed out of the contemporary notion that each state would function as its own country, describes God in a manner as to suggest certain belief in the existence of such an entity.  The state constitution of Virginia includes the specific endorsement of Christianity with the statement that “it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other” (Virginia 14).  It was not until the 1878 Supreme Court case of Reynolds v. United States, in which American citizen George Reynolds cited the American Bill of Rights’ freedom of religion as a defense to allow him to practice polygamy, that Thomas Jefferson’s discussion of the separation of church and state entered popular political discussion ("REYNOLDS V. UNITED STATES, 98 U. S. 145 (1878)").  In the year 1954, the United States’ Pledge of Allegiance was amended to include the phrase “under God” in the sentence “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” after Reverend George Docherty gave a sermon before President Dwight D. Eisenhower in which he criticized the Pledge of Allegiance for not expressing what he believed to be part of the innate American spirit, comparing it to a pledge that might be taken by the atheistic Russian Communists.  As the Russians were at the time great enemies of America, President Eisenhower took the steps to officially change the Pledge of Allegiance to reflect the perceived critical difference between the American spirit and that of the Russians (Gibb).  It should be clear that American culture is heavily saturated with Christian ideology and that the American government is based around the religion of its people, which only further influences the American culture.
      As with the American culture deriving its belief structures from Christian ideologies, so do most Middle Eastern countries derive their belief structures from Islam.  Islamic mythology is similar to Christianity and includes some of the same religious figures, such as Samson from the Old Testament.  Samson is a Herculean figure that is credited with the destruction of a Philistine temple by destroying the pillars with divine strength and killing himself along with his enemies.  Samson is regarded as a hero, a viewpoint shared amongst each of the Abrahamic religions (Trickey).  Originating from the same beliefs about martyrdom, the Islam religion went on to gain beliefs holding that martyrs may be actively aggressive.  While Jesus never behaves expressly in an aggressive manner, the Islamic prophet Muhammad is a militaristic figure who leads troops into battles and encourages death on the battlefield.  For this reason, the concept of martyrdom obtained through specific acts of aggression is more prevalent in Islam than in Christianity (Cook 23).
      Martyrdom on the battlefield was also a principle held by the Japanese culture during World War II.  The Japanese government took the ancient bushido code of the samurai and distorted it as a way to encourage soldiers to want to give their lives for their country.  In addition to the popularly known kamikaze suicide planes, Japan also had suicide boats that echoed the fire ships of early naval warfare, manned suicide torpedoes, and suicide frogmen.  Japanese men volunteered by the tens of thousands to be in the suicide attack units, motivated by national pride and the desire to drive the Americans from their homeland.  Japan’s strategic leaders functioned on the belief that by demonstrating the Japanese willingness to die, the Americans would be terrified and make a hasty retreat.  Though the attacks were effective often enough, the Americans were not scared off, and they just retaliated with more effective warfare until the war met its climax with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Thomas).  Since the end of World War II, relations between Japan and America have improved enormously, and American perception of the kamikaze has evolved to a point where they are more respected for their attack power, but the kamikazes are still largely seen as an inane product of desperation (Joyce).
      In contemporary times, Japan increasingly has been viewing kamikaze pilots romantically, a fact that has worried some members of the Western world.  Far right Japanese politician Shintarō Ishihara, who has been the Governor of Tokyo since the year 1999, wrote the screenplay for the movie Ore wa, Kimi no tame ni koso Shini ni iku (I Go to Die for You), which portrays the kamikaze pilots as heroes of Japan who nobly gave their lives in service of the country.  The movie has come under fire by Western people, who feel that the growing nostalgia is unhealthy for future peaceful relations between Japan and other countries.  It is worth noting that Shintarō Ishihara denies the existence of the Nanking Massacre, a horrifically bloody slaughter of Chinese citizens perpetrated by Japanese war criminals of the Second Sino-Japanese War.  Expecting criticism regarding the movie, Shintarō Ishihara made the statement that “it’s not a glorification of the kamikaze, it’s an ensemble youth drama with an antiwar message. There are those foreigners who confuse the kamikaze with suicide bombers, but I want them to know that they are completely different” (Brown).  A British newspaper article covering the production of the film does little to hide its bias, and makes use of scare quotes to get across its opinions regarding the Japanese by imbuing quoted statements with an implication of dishonesty or untrustworthiness.  The title of the piece is “Japanese film to show nostalgia for 'bravery' of kamikaze pilots”, in which scare quotes indicate that kamikaze pilots were not brave at all, recalling the idea that suicide attackers are comparable with those who commit suicide as a form of escape from depression, and that they should be considered more cowardly than other soldiers (Joyce).  In truth, kamikaze pilots acted out of aggressive patriotism and made their suicide attacks in order to drive the American invaders from their homeland.  Whether or not the American military was provoked, they were invading Japan.  Although cultures of the world may differ in their ideologies, some things are simply the product of human nature.  One of the universal human experiences is the desire to defend one’s family from enemies who would seek to harm them.
      Every country’s culture contains its own ideologies that are considered by an overwhelming majority of the country’s population to be the undeniable truth.  During a time of war, it is these ideologies that form the basis for the conflict between the warring nations.  Enemy combatants themselves are often vilified and dehumanized as a means of strengthening unity among allies.  While the Japanese of World War II considered Americans to be akin to devils, the Americans popularized the racist caricature of the “dirty Jap”.  Likewise, while the present-day Islamic terrorists consider Americans to be evil hedonistic heretics who are to be despised, the American soldiers have the equally dehumanizing “towel head” caricature of their Muslim enemies.  Aggressive patriotism is a general characteristic of all of humanity and is not limited to the enemies of America.  Even martyrdom performed expressly as a suicide attack has its place in the American spirit.  The patriotic 1996 American film Independence Day, about America fighting off an alien invasion on the titular holiday, reaches its climax when an American pilot flies his airplane into an enemy warship and destroys it.  This act of martyrdom, extremely similar to the Japanese kamikaze of World War II, is glorified within the movie and the pilot is treated as a patriot.  Similarly, the 2001 American film Pearl Harbor contains a line by the dramatized figure of General Jimmy Doolittle, who declares that should his crew need to bail out of his airplane, “I’d find the sweetest military target I could and drive my plane right smack into the middle of it and kill as many of those bastards as I possibly could.”  It makes sense for him to do so because suicide attacks can be effective.  The association of suicide attackers with cowardice or insanity vanishes when the suicide attacker is immediately identifiable by the American people.
      In conclusion, the subject of martyrdom is regarded by the American people in a hypocritical manner.  There are frequent condemnations of suicide attackers as insane, stupid, or cowardly, but this only exists as an element of the vilification of enemy combatants, specifically the Japanese of World War II or the Islamic terrorists of the present day.  Martyrdom is deeply entrenched in American ideology and is a fundamental part of American patriotism.  Martyrdom in the context of suicide attacks can also be seen under heroic glorification by the American people if framed as serving in the defense of the American people, which is essentially the same as that which influenced the Japanese to crash their airplanes into the ships of their enemies.  The notion that martyrdom is expressly the act of stupid, crazy, or cowardly people is total nonsense, manufactured only as a means to allow the American people to feel superior to their enemies.  As an American, I feel that if we are to promote peace among the nations of the world we must acknowledge our own hypocrisy and work to overcome it.
Works Cited
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