This book starts with a tantalising promise: the study of the human body as a weapon of war.
Man”s ingenuity enables him to turn almost anything into a weapon. Famine and disease have been used as weapons of war as have the sermons of holy men and the charms of beautiful women.
Cyrus the Great used camels as weapons against Babylon. Hannibal turned elephants into weapons against Rome. In the Koran Allah deploys the mythical birds ababil against Abyssinian invaders of Arabia.
Even natural elements have been used as weapons, notably fire and man-made floods.
In the past few decades the human body has been used as a sort of weapon, first by the Japanese kamikazes in the Second World, then by Buddhist monks during the Vietnam War, and , later , by Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka. Islamist extremists learned and used the technique in the 1980s in Lebanon and Iran. In Iran suicide killings were used by the Mujahedin KHalq against the ruling mullahs between 1981 and 1983. In Lebanon Islamist militants, recruited and trained by Iran, carried out suicide attacks against American and French troops and diplomats. Suicide-killing was used by terrorists in the Palestinian territories and Israel and Algeria, and is now a favourite tactic of Islamists in Iraq.
On its own, a human body, however, cannot be a weapon.
It must be combined with something else, for example the poisoned dagger of the hashasheen (Assassins) in medieval Islam or the bayonets of Allied and German troops in Verdun and Flanders during the First World War. Or, the planes piloted by the Japanese kamikazes in the Second World War, the belts of explosives worn by Palestinian suicide-bombers, and the cutters used by Al Qaeda hijackers on 11 September 2001.
Even then, what German journalist Christopher Reuter calls the "ultimate weapon" cannot be understood in isolation.
Suicide-killing is never an individual decision. The idea that the suicide-bomber is a frustrated individual who, outraged by some grievance, decided to blow himself up along with others, it too naïve to merit analysis. The suicide-killers who attacked in London last July or who struck in Amman, the Jordanian capital, last week were not outraged individuals but the products of an ideology, a leadership network, and years of brainwashing.
Suicide-killing also needs a context of real or imagined war. It needs recruitment, training, information, espionage, surveillance, logistics, materiel, propaganda, and, of course, financial resources.
It also needs political leaders who order suicide-killings in the context of specific strategies.
In other words it becomes like any other weapon. When first used it is strengthened by an element of surprise. In time, however, war-planners learn to factor it in, to overcome the initial shock, and to assess its place in the broader arsenal of warfare.
Reuter”s initial approach to the problem is original and promising.
He shows how some leaders see the human body as just another weapon that is subject to the same cost-benefit analysis as other arms.
Reuter, however, does not pursue his initial plan.
He assesses the effects of this type of weapon in a few instances but then drops the subject.
The use of the human body as a weapon raises two questions of immediate importance that apply to any other form of armament:
How efficient is this weapon in terms of achieving war objectives?
What are the means of countering this weapon or, at least, reducing its efficiency?
But to raise and answer these questions one must forget that the weapon in question is a human being.
Reuter”s inability to do so puts him on a trajectory of explanations that leads into a romantic paranoia of reading meaning into everything.
He seems oblivious of the law of Ockham”s razor under which one must limit one”s analysis of phenomena to primary reasons so that they are not multiplied beyond strict causal necessity.
Because his focus is on Islamist suicide-killers, Reuter assembles the usual "causes" for "the humiliation felt by Muslims" that is supposed to encourage suicide-killings.
He tells us that Muslims are humiliated and angry because they have lost many lands, including parts of Spain, Italy and France, not to mention Palestine. They are also angry because of the Crusades, and, more recently, the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan and of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Anyone who reads Reuter”s book might assume that large numbers of Muslims are ready to become suicide-killers. Reuter finds that Hezballah militants love the film Titanic and concludes that this is because Shi”ism exults suffering and martyrdom. Citing no evidence, he asserts that Muslims suffer from the"Werther" syndrome, meaning that they dream of suicide, although suicide is regarded as an "unforgivable sin" in Islam.
But the evidence shows the opposite.
After the first chapter this book develops into a series of unconnected travelogues, journalistic pub talk, feuilltons, mini-essays, and impressionistic reportages.
Two of the nine chapters are based on anecdotes from an unknown Lebanese hack and a Turkish officer with the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon.
Nevertheless, Reuter”s book is full of pertinent observations and nuggets of useful information.
The problem is that he seems not to trust his own judgement. At one point he notes that most studies show little popular Islamic support for suicide-killings. But two pages later he claims that "the overwhelming majority of Muslims" approve of the terrorists.
He quotes Sheikh Abelaziz Al-Sheikh and Sheikh Muahmmad al-Tantawi, the two leading Arab clerics of Sunni Islam, in forthright condemnations of suicide-killings. But then he dismisses them because of their links, respectively, with the Saudi and Egyptian governments.
Instead, Reuter sides with Yussuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian television preacher who works for the government of Qatar.
The reason Reuter prefers Qaradawi is that the Qatar-based sheikh approves of suicide-bombings and says that even unborn Israeli babies can be killed because, if born, they could grow up to become soldiers in the Israeli army. Needless to say few Muslim theologians would endorse such a position. Qaradawi’s rule could be applied anywhere in the world. In Egypt, too, the state has a monopoly of military power. So does it mean that its opponents would be right to kill unborn Egyptian babies who may one day join the army? A similar argument could be made in the case of European states that now host large numbers of Muslims. Should Muslims who disagree with this or that aspect of Britain’s policy, for example, have the right to kill people at random because the British government is, after all, the representative of the British electorate?
Reuter offers a memorable portrayal of an Iranian mother who is grieving on the tomb of her son, who was killed in a suicide-attack on Iraqi positions during the Iran-Iraq war. She simply cannot understand how religion could be used to justify so heinous a crime.
At times Reuter”s Lebanese and Palestinian "sources" sell him a bill of goods.
One Hamas source, for example, tells him that a volunteer for suicide-killing must spend 48 hours in an open grave alongside a dead body as a test of endurance before he or she is recruited. Reuter does not know that under Islamic rules a dead person must be buried before the sunset of the day of his/her death and thus cannot be kept in an open grave for two days with or without a living companion.
The real issue is whether or not those targeted by suicide-killings are prepared to retaliate with a higher degree of violence that would reverse the cost-benefit ratio in their favour and thus persuade their foes to abandon the human body as a weapon.
Reuter poses this crucial question in an intelligent way. But he provides no answer.