As a follow-on from our 2019 Geopolitical Reading List, in this piece we review Iain Overton’s “The Price of Paradise; How the Suicide Bomber Shaped the Modern Age“, a phenomenal book that explores both the motivations of the men and women who are willing to die for their cause, and more importantly the consequences of their actions.
At least a quarter of a million people have been killed or injured by suicide attacks since Tsar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated in arguably the first planned suicidal explosion in 1881. Taken as a whole, this number is striking, but taken as a yearly average – around 1,800 globally – it could be described as comparatively insignificant. It’s a third of the estimated number of people killed by lightning each year. Of course, we know this is true of all forms of terror: nobody has ever been statistically likely to be killed in a suicide blast, and yet the subject still fascinates. These attacks are, by definition, terrifying. They ruin the lives of survivors and the families of the dead. They foster inter-group hatred perhaps in ways that nothing else can. They change the course of wars. And, as Iain Overton’s new book argues, they have shaped the modern world to a surprisingly significant degree.
The Price of Paradise is a monumental work that explores what leads a person to blow themselves up in the pursuit of political, military, religious, or even economic goals. But in a much grander sense, it is a sweeping history of the consequences of these detonations.
It takes the reader on a tour from the French Enlightenment and imperial Russia, to the smoke-filled skies above the Japanese Pacific, to revolutionary Iran and war-torn Lebanon, over to Sri Lanka and India, and then back into half a dozen countries of the Middle East. Its narrative begins in 1881 with arguably the very first suicide bombing on the streets of St Petersburg, and ends elliptically in the bloody aftermath of the all-too-familiar strikes by Islamic State. Along its path, it provides provocative insights into the disturbingly relatable fears of would-be suicide bombers, and presents an ambitious thesis about their importance in modern history.
As Overton writes, suicide bombers “helped create the conditions that caused the Russian Revolution; they were in the forefront of the minds of men who created a nuclear epoch and, unwittingly, the Cold War that followed; they were there at the beginning of the War on Terror…and they have helped drag the Middle East into the quagmire that it is today. In so doing, they have fueled fears about migrants and refugees the world over, they have challenged the UN to its very core, and they have fed off conspiracy theories, post-truth propaganda and a view that the world is witnessing a millenarian clash of civilisations that heralds the end of days”. These are bold claims, but ultimately well-argued.
In fact, when it comes to analysing explosives, Overton is among the best-placed, most authoritative voices writing in the English language today. He is an award-winning journalist and academic in his own right, but is best known as the Director of Action On Armed Violence (AOAV), a charity that has monitored the use of explosive weaponry on a global scale since 2010. Last year alone, AOAV recorded 32,110 casualties of explosive violence, and indeed the organisation’s data focus comes through in Overton’s own writing as well. His historical narratives are peppered with fascinating statistics – alluding to grand patterns that could never be illuminated in any kind of purely qualitative approach. Four of the five most lethal suicide attacks have been committed by Lebanese Shi’a; the emergence of frequent suicide attacks in Lebanon increased the rate of PTSD among Israeli troops five fold; eight of the twenty five Iranian public holidays are related to martyrdom. These little additions will intrigue even the more learned readers, and will no doubt ignite new fascinations for newcomers to military history.
While the work is impressive in both style and scale, it also provides ample ammunition for critics of what is often called technological determinism: ascribing too much agency to man-made objects in the complex, sweeping developments of human history. His arguments make for compelling reading, absolutely, but they cannot be presented in a vacuum. Indeed, much like an explosion itself, a suicide bomber needs the fuel and oxygen of social, economic, and ideological forces to detonate. Overton’s arguments are certainly novel and provide new perspectives on the turning points of the twentieth century, but they should only be understood as facilitating the study of ultimately more powerful forces in the human story: political decision-making, environment and resources, financial pressures, and of course religious zeal.
That said, disruptive narratives such as Overton’s should be strongly encouraged in academic circles, in order to keep our field as dynamic as it should be. Coming from a journalist and something of a statistician, the ambition of Overton’s contributions echoes that of other non-historians before him. Adrian Raine’s brilliant The Anatomy of Violence stands out here – a challenging work that delves right into the neurological causes of the violent urges that, from one perspective, helped shape the modern era (although that was not Raine’s intention). Regarding suicidal violence, for example, we should understand the roles and vulnerabilities of different parts of the human brain – the pre-frontal cortex in particular – and emphasise the genetic, chemical and anatomical forces at play. None of these narratives stand up on their own, of course, but taken as mutual complements they strongly enhance our understanding of one of the most terrible aspects of modern war.
Or do they? When reading The Price of Paradise, or indeed some of the other works that address terrorism more broadly, one cannot help but think: how can any ‘right-minded’ scholar, any military tactician, any soldier, any politician – any neurologist even – possibly fathom the power of a fundamental religious belief in redemptive suicide? Overton does incredibly well in exposing the more material motivations of suicide bombers – perhaps most fascinatingly in the economic context he provides during his chapter on revolutionary Iran. But when it comes to the millenarian, suicidal fury of the likes of Islamic State, for instance, there are other works that should be considered to supplement Overton’s work. Ed Husain’s The House of Islam and Shiraz Maher’s recently published Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea fill much of that gap, but one suspects that, like the soul itself, this may be an issue – a problem, a threat – that we can never fully understand.
Encyclopedia Geopolitica was kindly provided with a review copy of “The Price of Paradise” by Quercus Books. Quercus is an international publisher that issues a wide range of fiction and non-fiction titles. Readers may also be interested in the upcoming History book, Our Man In New York: The British Battle to Bring America Into the Second World War.
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John Scott is a Scottish security analyst with expertise in counter-narcotics and non-state groups. John has degrees in Political Science from St Andrews and Glasgow University, and recently completed a NATO Military Security course in Lithuania. He has contributed policy research for a political group in the Central African Republic and organised crime analysis for Intelligence Fusion, and now works in political risk for a leading intelligence firm in London.
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Photo credit: United States Marine Corps photo ID 110818-M-AU542-016