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Michael Roberts
“The Will to War”
Essay by Michael Roberts, “The Will to War: Anzac, Mujahid, Kamikaze, Tiger,” appears below.
To read the original essay, including footnotes, please click here.
Michael Roberts, historian and anthropologist, is a well-known political commentator and public intellectual. An authority on nationalism, terrorism and war, he is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Adelaide. For additional information about Michael Roberts, click here.
By the Author, Michael Roberts
Tamil Person and State

For ordering information,
please click here.

Roberts’ latest book is a collection of his recent essays, with Chapters on the following topics:

• Sacrificial symbolism
• Death & eternal life: contrasting sensibilities in the face of corpses
• Nationalism and sacrifice
• Killing Rajiv Gandhi
• Torture images on television
• Misrepresenting the Sri Lankan war

• “It was an adventure,” said an old Australian soldier to the camera during a TV sequence retelling tales of enlistment for war in the course of the massive media coverage leading up to Anzac day on 25th April 2015—100 years after the disastrous Australian participation in Allied operations against Turkey at Gallipoli.

• “Are you a terrorist?” asked the film-maker in the course of a relaxed interview with an Algerian migrant from Britain netted by the police in Frankfurt— before he and his colleagues embarked on a bomb-planting operation at the Christkindelsmärik beside Strasbourg Cathedral in 2000. “No, I am a mujahid” said the young man quietly in firm denial.

Enlistment for War: Australian Visions

One of the vignettes above highlights a thread in the motives that prompted Australian males to enlist in the Australian forces committed to support Britain in the First World War in 1914. One can surmise that some teenagers who bumped up their age in order to join the brigades—were inspired by a spirit of reckless adventure as they embarked on this deadly pursuit.

The Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF) aboard one of the Sydney ferries that took them to Cockatoo Island before departing for New Guinea. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial A03272

Such motifs were paraded in the media coverage in print, TV, You Tube and internet exchanges that consumed the Aussie peoples in the days leading up to 25th April 2015, Anzac Day in its one-hundredth reckoning — the day deemed to be the mark of Australian nationhood, and Australia’s National Day.

Why? Because the historical record demonstrates that the Australians went to war in support of Britain—in order to display their “manhood” by proving their worth in the baptism of fire. “Australia was a young nation [keen] to prove itself in a world where baptism by blood was a national ritual” (Paul Kelly, 2015).

Muscular Christianity was one of the background themes in both Britain and Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Self-reliant manliness was a virtue for both individual and collective. Some 417,000 men, thus “over half of the eligible white male population [of Australia], enlisted” in the Australian Imperial Force, the umbrella term encompassing its different services (Kelly 2015). They were all volunteers and the referendums on conscription in October 1916 and December 1917 were defeated.

In an ironic twist, however, in the months leading up to 25th April 2015, Australian media waves had also been bombarded with reportage

These events followed a series of scares in late 2014. Several raids in September 2014 netted a few suspects in Australian cities deemed to be plotting attacks.

The deaths arising from the lone wolf hostage crisis activated at the Lindt café in Martin Place, Sydney in December 2014 by Man Haron Monis, a man with a long history of manipulative litigation and psychotic tendencies, only deepened Australian concerns. He ordered some hostages to hold up a traditional Islamic black flag, with the shahādah in white Arabic letters (an Islamic creed declaring: “There is no God but Allah” and “Muhammad is the messenger of God”), in the window of the café.

A Challenging Question

Placed within this backdrop, the issue I raise for Australian reflection is this: were not, are not, some of these young Muslim men moved like the Anzacs by a similar spirit of reckless adventure in support of what they see as a worthy cause? …leavened and founded upon a patriotic commitment to their community — namely the Islamic Ummah?

Yes, they are Australian citizens. Yes, such forces as ISIS are murderous, horrid, thuggish forces. But I am asking readers to move beyond these motifs to comprehend the thinking of these men (and occasionally women). While nourished in Australia, some of these personnel may have been dual citizens; and, where they were not holding two passports, their hearts were Lebanese Muslim or Bosnian Muslim or Arabian Muslim.

Their commitment was/is towards the ummat al-Islamiyah or Ummah, namely, the collective community of Islamic peoples. Their patriotism and dedication was and is to the Ummah — especially the Ummah represented by contemporary forms of Salafi ideology propagated by, and embodied in, ISIS.

By adopting the title of “Caliphate” the ISIS insurgency has secured the commanding heights of the Islamic world. That title is a master stroke that encourages the faithful to think that here, now, and today, they have an agency that will restore the imbalances in the world order by challenging the condition of Jaliyah enshrined in the West—and raising the Islamic dispensation to the position of ethical supremacy.

The concept Jaliyah is a telling weapon referring to “ignorance of divine guidance” associated with the condition of primitivism in which the Arabs lived prior to the revelations of the Quran to Prophet Mohammed. It is a condemnatory description of USA in particular, and the West in general, presented by the Egyptian intellectual Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) on the basis of his experiences in America between 1948 and 1950. Qutb’s writings are widely associated with the thinking that drives leaders of Al Qaida and ISIS.

Moving on

So, we see two visions of commitment to a just war in two different contexts. These brief ‘takes,’ of course, simplify. The motivations to enlist in a war or insurgency usually involves several inspirations and encompasses many threads. One must be alive to cultural nuances within each nation state or nation-state-in-the-making.

The Australian public of 2015 was exposed to many threads spurring men and women to volunteer for military service in 1914/15. The spirit of adventure motivating individuals was matched by the sense of duty and spirit of patriotism. Both volunteer fighters and Australian statesmen of that day were determined to prove to their British kith and kin that they were a nation of people equal to the task of serving a just cause. “Patriotism”—to the Australian community-become-Federation (1900)—was an overwhelming theme.

Likewise — but also with attention to different cultural variations — we would do well to reflect upon three other instances of dedication to sacrifice in war-for-cause:

(A) the Japanese who volunteered to fight for their state in the 1930s and 1940s and took the further step of becoming kamikaze pilots or kamikaze submariners;

(B) the Palestinian and other Islamic men and women who committed themselves to suicide missions of assassination or bombing attack in step with the outstanding example of the truck bomb attacks on US and French army barracks in Beirut on 23rd October 1983 by a group calling itself “Islamic Jihad” — blasts that killed 254 American servicemen and 58 French;

(C) the LTTE’s adoption of the example set in 1974 by Ponnudurai Sivakumāran in swallowing cyanide when faced with capture after a botched assassination attempt—as a model of dedication enjoined upon every trained fighter in their cause of Thamilīlam.

Bushido, Samurai, Kamikaze

Albeit founded upon different incentives and cultural groundings, personnel within these Organizations were prepared to become precision bombs, high-cost weapons in the instance of kamikaze pilots, but mostly low-cost tools of trade in the other instances. Here, then, was the ultimate sacrifice—embodiment of dedication to cause.

Chiran high school girls wave farewell with cherry blossom branches to departing kamikaze pilot

Kiyoshi Ogawa
, who flew his aircraft into the USS Bunker Hill during a kamikaze mission on 11 May 1945

USS Bunker Hill was hit bykamikazes piloted by Ensign Kiyoshi Ogawa (photo above) and Lieutenant Junior Grade Seizō Yasunori on 11 May 1945. 389 personnel were killed or missing and 264 wounded from a crew of 2,600

Integral to the Japanese state’s imperial enterprise in the 1930s and the role of the kamikaze was the bushido culture of medieval Japan — with the Zen traditions serving as a medium nourishing these practices. In this philosophical tradition-become-practice, dying for a cause was a virtue.

Elaborate theories and practices were directed towards training in martial arts that sought to maximize strength through a fusion of body and mind. The concepts of mushin (no thought, extinguished self) and zanshin (following through) were key ingredients in the training of samurai and thus integral to bushido culture.

Samurai warriors were trained to cultivate an attitude of indifference to life and death—while “focusing completely on the present” task. Such training not only instilled precision, but also embodied the notion of mono no aware, recognition of life’s impermanence.

Do not be misled. The trained samurai warrior was not merely a robotic killing machine. The best samurai were rounded individuals. Zen masters were multi-skilled individuals trained in swordsmanship, medicine, poetry, painting, and calligraphy. Calligraphy was one facet of Zen training highlighting the degree to which precision was central to mental and bodily empowerment.

Tamil Tiger Fighters

Among the Sri Lankan Tamil liberation forces, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam went further. Commitment to death for cause was de riguer and an integral part of induction into the fighting force. The oath at passing our parades ran thus:

“Our revolutionary organisation’s purified aim
is for a free society to achieve Tamil Eelam
My life and soul and all this I sacrifice to
our organisation’s leader, our brother, Mr Prabhakaran
We fully accept that for him we will be very faithful and trustworthy
The aim of the Tigers – Tamils’ freedom.”

It is important to note that the act of suicide was initially adopted by the LTTE as a defensive tool to protect the organization from leaking information after capture. It was a mark of dedication to the Tamil liberation cause, and thus a method of drawing popular admiration.

It was not till 5 July 1987 that it was deployed as a low cost precision weapon when Miller (a nom de guerre) drove a truck bomb into a Sri Lankan Army encampment at Nelliyadi. This was but one instance of uyirayutham — “life as weapon” … a novel coinage by the LTTE propaganda arm which expanded the Tamil lexicon in ways that captivated its people.

Integral to this notion and act was the Tamil concept of arppa Nippu, meaning “the performance of dedication as well as that which is dedicated.” When I brought this term into our conversation in Adelaide, a Christian Tamil octogenarian’s eyes gleamed with appreciation: the “devotion that the Tigers showed was unmatched.”

Tamil Tigers unit being imducted to LTTE –BBC s documentary, 1991

This response mirrored the broad admiration for the boys of the LTTE among the Sri Lankan Tamil peoples from the 1980s onwards. It gave the Tigers an edge in the competition with the other armed Tamil forces for the leadership of the liberation struggle. It enabled them to anchor in and consolidate their monopoly of violence within the Tamil populace — violence proclaimed to be on behalf of the people of Thamilīlam. Such patriotic dedication aided the LTTE in overcoming the revulsion to their atrocities in circumstances where the ordinary Tamil people were placed in the anvil between two juggernauts (note Bavinck 2015).

The Australian Jihadists

It is in the light of these comparative excursions that I ask Australians to address the instances of Muslim Australians who have recently joined the Islamic insurgencies in the Middle East (see the striking pictorial list prepared by The Australian). As we know only too well, such individuals as Mohammad Ali Baryalei, Neil Prakash aka Abu Khalid al Cambodi and Abu Nour al-Iraq, have extended their reach backwards and worldwide: using social media and video to exhort like-minded faithful to strike a violent blow for Islamic jihad within the metropolitan heartlands of Australia. This is “leaderless remote-control terror “– incendiary inspirations that can initiate individual or small unit strikes by committed activists anywhere (Kilcullen 2014).

Abdul Numan Haider’s repeated stabbing of a police officer outside a police station at Melbourne in September 2014 was one instance where an actual act of “terror” occurred; but authorities insist that several others have been nipped in the bud.

It is likely that many Australians regard these Muslim personnel as “fanatics” or “terrorists” beyond the pale, just mindless killers. This is too facile. My goal is directed towards consciousness-raising. I do so here by aligning the dedication of these Aussie jihadists in with that displayed by the Anzacs. Reckless adventurism and commitment to a just cause were among the inspirations stimulating both sets of warriors.

The community that the jihadists are serving, of course, is different. As vitally — and fearfully — their Ummah is aligned in deeply hostile ways to the West and Australia. These jihadists of today are motivated by the thinking embodied within overlapping ideological strands known as “Salafi” and “Wahhabi.”

Salafi in Arabic refers to “predecessors,” namely, the earliest Islamic ancestors. Salafism is a movement within Sunni Islam seeking to re-institute the original Islamic dispensation. It is, therefore, literalist, puritanical and strict (even assailing such common practices as polytheism (shirk) and tawassul of religious figures, the veneration of the graves of Islamic saints, and the use of amulets in aid of protection).

But Salafi puritanism does not entail a monastic withdrawal from the world. On the contrary, it advocates offensive jihad against those deemed to be enemies of Islam. USA and Western materialism are its favored targets.

As indicated earlier, Sayyid Qutb has been one of the intellectuals propagating Salafi thinking in the mid-20th century. Though his life was cut short (executed by Nasser in 1966), his thinking was disseminated by his brother Mohammed Qutb, and personnel such as Ayman al-Zawahari. The latter was/is a leading light in Al-Qaida.

Osama bin Laden may have adopted the managerial practices of modern corporations into the organization of his outfit, but Islamic devotion also threaded its ‘corridors’. Dwell on the preparatory practices enjoined on the commando team that carried out the 9/11 attacks in such devastating fashion.

These instructions were laid down in a document known as “The Last Night,” and were probably drafted by Mohammed Atta, the operational commander. The first injunction runs thus: “Mutual swearing of the oath unto death and renewal of [one’s] intention. Shave excess hair from the body and apply cologne. Shower.”

Again, injunction No. 7: “Purify your heart and cleanse it from all uncleanliness. Forget and become oblivious to that thing called ‘this world.’ The time for play is over and the appointed time for seriousness has come.” Other injunctions advocate prayer, divination (jafr), and specific devotional homilies.

Underpinning this preparation for an act of war was the conviction that faith would enable them to transcend the security precautions at US airports. The Islamic faithful everywhere (whether Salafi or not) can now affirm that Atta’s devotional code worked.

In their minds, therefore, the Al-Qaida personnel responsible for the 9/11 mass killings were crusaders for the Ummah and striking at an evil power. Mutatis mutandis, the Australians who have committed to the Islamic cause in the Middle East, or responded to the terror strikes on security personnel or high-profile civilian centers in Australian cities, have been inspired by these Salafi threads of religio-political fervour.

Here, then, is a fundamental difference between the personnel enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force in 1914-18 and those joining or participating at one remove in the present jihadist enterprises: the Aussies of that day were sailing forth to protect the existing British-led dispensation in the world order; in contrast today’s Australian jihadists are participating in the millenarian goals of ISIS or Al-Qaida.

The latter project involves the re-arrangement of the power-relations in the world writ large—to establish a glorious recreation of the Islamic past. This “just cause” in jihadist eyes makes death in such endeavors an act of martyrdom. Unlike the initial Australian conscripts in 1914/15 who do not seem to have dwelt on the pain and death they would encounter in the battlefields of Europe, several young Islamic Aussies seem to be in search of glorious death for Allah.

In a few instances, moreover, this patriotic fervour seems to be tinged with hate for the very ‘womb’ in which they had been raised: Australia. Abdul Numan Haider’s facial expressions in images that have entered the media waves suggest an intensity of HATE in his very being. Here, then, was a demotic Muslim warrior for the Islamic cause.