As the daily toll of innocent dead in Iraq demonstrates, suicide bombing no longer shocks: it is a routine feature of modern conflicts. It thus must be treated as a strategic topic deserving careful analysis rather than as an occasional freakish expression of extremism. The similarity of these two books in both title and subject -- and some similarities in their conclusions -- means they are doomed to be reviewed together, although in both method and style they are quite different.
Both make the same historical references (to zealots, assassins, kamikazes) and follow with extensive research on contemporary campaigns. Pape has collected and analyzed the data meticulously, as the political science textbooks require. Bloom has gone into the field and sought to grasp the meaning of the campaigns on the ground, particularly those in the Palestinian territories, Sri Lanka, and Turkey. Pape has a lot to say on al Qaeda; Bloom much less, but she is better on the question of why some groups have not adopted the tactic of suicide bombing, and she examines in detail why women become bombers. Neither author believes that religious fervor, poverty, or low education alone explains the phenomenon. Both recognize the importance of the underlying strategic logic that animates the campaigns, of the behavior of the enemy that provides the targets, and of foreign occupation as a motivating factor.
Suicide bombing prospers because it has been seen to succeed (in forcing the U.S. and Israeli departures from Lebanon, for example). But aside from their morbid efficiency, suicide bombers are not all that different from other terrorists. They are going to be effective only if they can sustain a campaign over time -- which is likely only if they can draw on a strong sense of communal grievance. Pape successfully demonstrates that there is a strategic logic to such campaigns, but his conclusions on the nature of it are limited by the campaigns he studied; suicide bombing, he notes, is an evolving strategy, so it may well be used in quite different circumstances today than it was in the past quarter century. Bloom's analysis is more nuanced and her conclusions more complex -- although she might have been advised not to try to comment on quite so many immediate policy questions.
Get the best of Foreign Affairs' book reviews delivered to you.
More Reviews on Military, Scientific, and Technological From This Issue