Is It Stupid for Iraqis to Throw Stones at U.S. Tanks?





Mr. Palaima is a professor of classics and Mr. Friend is a graduate student in ancient history at the University of Texas at Austin.

You've seen the photographs, the most current version appearing in newspapers from Fallouja, "the epicenter of anti-American hatred in Iraq." Several boys cluster together. One of them cocks his right arm, his body torqued and ready to throw.

In another setting, he could be a Little Leaguer dreaming he is Nomar Garciaparra throwing to first base for the final out against the Yankees. Here, he is throwing a stone. His target is a monstrous American armored personnel carrier he won't even nick. He obviously has other dreams.

What do these Iraqi boys think they are doing? A simple answer is that these boys are reenacting rituals of stupidity in times of war. Stupid like the Polish cavalry fighting on foot with rifles against the Wehrmacht in 1939. Stupid like the 320,000 British soldiers dead or wounded during their summer on the Somme in 1916. Stupid like the 4,000 Zulus advancing again and again against 139 British soldiers dug in behind the depot barricades at Rorke's Drift in 1879.

But in all these cases, trained adult warriors were doing what their ideological and enculturating myths made them able and willing to do: to die fighting enemies who possessed terrifying weaponry. The Iraqi boys, however, have other historical precedents and sources of inspiration.

According to the Roman poet-philosopher Lucretius' anthropology of primitive times, man's first weapons were fists, nails and teeth, stones and crude wooden clubs. His vision is just one stage removed from the famous ape scene in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Our bet is that Kubrick got it wrong: Those apes first threw stones.

Piles of stones for throwing or slinging are regular excavation finds from the 7th millennium BCE onward. But by 2500 BCE, the finest instruments for killing in war had moved well beyond stones and slings. A monument known as the "Vulture stele" commemorates the victory of the king of Lagash over the king of Umma, both in Iraq. The Lagash warriors wear protective helmets and wield long spears and battle-axes, and they attack behind a literal moving wall of overlapping large rectangular shields.

Every leap forward in military technology has changed the codes of warrior conduct for the elites who monopolize state-of-the-art equipment. The poorest and weakest, those feeling most oppressed - these are often the youngest - resort to slinging and rock-throwing.

The Greek historian Thucydides recounts how hated Theban troops occupying inveterate enemy Plataea in 431 BCE are set upon by women and slaves who "yelled and screamed from their houses and pelted them with stones and tiles," the first step in their eventual rout and slaughter.

In Homer's Iliad, spears used by armored aristocratic warrior chieftains are the primary weapons of honor. When Homeric warriors use stones, they are massive helmet-crushing boulders befitting their heroic status. Only once does a hero hurl a fist-sized stone, as our Iraqi boys do.

Patroclus, Achilles' friend and fighting surrogate, has used up all of his aristocratic battle prowess in a killing spree with sword and spear. The Trojan champion Hector approaches in a chariot. Patroclus grabs and throws a "jagged, glittering stone." He misses Hector but hits the charioteer, Cebriones, right between the eyes: The sharp stone crushes both brows and both eyes burst from their sockets.

The scene reveals two things. Stone-hurling, whether with hands or slings, can be effective, even deadly. Ask Goliath. Ask veterans of riot control in Belfast or the Gaza Strip. Second, stones and sling bullets are weapons of last resort for warriors with access to better killing devices. But for the young, poor and powerless, they are weapons of necessity.

Ancient tacticians like Arrian recommended that armies train poor citizens as hurlers and slingers. Plato recommended that young men preparing for war compete at throwing stones both with their bare hands and with slings.

The wisdom of such advice was demonstrated in 425 BCE. A contingent of Spartan soldiers surrendered for the first time in more than 300 years of distinguished military actions. They were victims of bad luck in the strategic circumstances of the war they were fighting. But they were also worn out by the nearly constant harassment of Athenians who, being otherwise unarmed, resorted to the simple act of throwing stones.


This article first appeared in the LA Times and is reprinted with permission of the authors.


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first Last - 1/18/2010

what happened when you aren't allowed to hold a weapon in your hand and the only weason you can see or hold is a stone on the ground??? Think.


John - 1/7/2004

The boys in Iraq are not trying to make a public statement but rather to aid in fighting against the coallition forces. But like I said in another comment, they pose no threat. None. If they want to try and hurt the US forces they should try another tactic


John - 1/6/2004

four or five boys throwing stones at an american tank is ridiculous. These are not the Roman times, this is a new age of weaponry where stones have no place. When one round from the tank can send scores of people at once into the air, and automatic rifles can blast more rounds, with a harder impact then stones, the boys do not pose a threat. Also, the chance of a stone fataly hurting a soldiers is lessened by the chance and incredibly lucky shot in the face, which in itselfe is not mortally damaging.


Jonathan Dresner - 12/7/2003

Ms. Kryadji,

I would certainly agree that the PR value of stone-throwing is something that plays a larger role in military success or failure than we might want to admit. But that begs the question of whether or not the stone-throwing is intended as a statement or a provocation or an actual military tactic. The likely result of stone-throwing under these circumstances is death to the thrower. In both military and PR terms, you have to wonder if death is worth it?

Even stones can be used more carefully and effectively than throwing them from a distance at armored vehicles or at armed soldiers in daylight....


Sophia Kyradji - 12/7/2003

Is it stupid to throw stones at your enemy or oppressor?

Why should it be stupid when this is almost the only weapon you can afford to have? Which then poses the question why these people throw stones, in this case against the Americans and their allies. Indeed why? The answer is, simply because Iraq belongs to the Iraqis. Like America belongs to the Americans! People would always defend their homeland even when they can only do it with stone throwing.
We discuss here the possible stupidity of stone throwing but we forget that this is broadcasted all over the world. The comparisons make the viewer/listener think and ask and sympathise with the stone-thrower. Simply because it reminds of David and Goliath and the injustice done on a powerless people. So is it stupid? For this and many other questions I think it is not stupid.

And why should any people suffer the brutality of modern war for one hated dictator that could be removed otherwise and with less casualties and destruction!?


Cram - 12/1/2003

Are you being sarcastic, or do you really believe that "The U.S. (indirectly, of course) is probably behind the stone throwing"? I honestly can't tell.


Josh Greenland - 12/1/2003

"There are two relevant models for Iraqi stone-throwing: South Africa and Palestine. Let's discuss those, shall we?"

I'm surprised that the article's author never once mentioned the Intifada. That's the closest analogy. While a brief history of militarily effective stone-throwing is somewhat interesting, it isn't relevant to throwing rocks at a tank.


Cram - 11/30/2003

Aight then! :)

So, there we are.


Steve Brody - 11/29/2003



I knew it all along :-)


Cram - 11/29/2003

Steve,
I cannot disagree with what you have said. My point was only to suggest why thrwoing stones was stupid from the perspective of achieving their objectives. Presumambly, the objectives of the stone throwers is to get the US to leave Iraq. Towards that end, throwing stones does nothing.

As for some of the other points,
1) "Cram, the problem with this idea is that according to the latest polls, most Iraqi’s DO want us there."

Most do, but not all. For those that don't, they would capture far more support internationally if they conducted themselves peacefully rather than inciting violence and stone throwing by Iraqi youths.

2) "Cram, only another college professor could possibly believe this. Are you in education?"

Uh... uh... no comment :)


Steve Brody - 11/28/2003


“ I truely believe that one Iraqi telling Americans clearly and intelligently that they are not wanted there plain and simple will garner a greater reaction..”

Cram, the problem with this idea is that according to the latest polls, most Iraqi’s DO want us there.


“..whereas an Iraqi college professor would be taken much more seriously.”

Cram, only another college professor could possibly believe this. Are you in education? :-)

“If these people spent their time organizing demonstrations, peace marches, or public relations efforts to mobilize support, I speculate that they would be far more successful..”

Actually, this would be a positive development. It would demonstrate that the Iraqi people are beginning to understand, accept, and practice democracy. Which is why we’re there. Bush has said as much, when asked about the few peaceful Iraqi demonstrations that have taken place.



Cram - 11/28/2003

To answer the question of the title, I believe that yes, throwing stones at US tanks is stupid, and for the following reasons:

1) It forces the military to either withdraw, do nothing, or retaliate. Since they will not withdraw and they will do nothing until the stones become a genuine problem, they will most likely retaliate and these young boys will have given their lives (or limbs) for essentially nothing.

2) It reinforces to themselves and to other Iraqis that anger and violence are the only response to occupation. If these people spent their time organizing demonstrations, peace marches, or public relations efforts to mobilize support, I speculate that they would be far more successful in ending the occupation then random expressions of outrage. This is to say nothing of civil disobedience... I understand not every society can produce a Ghandi or a MLK.

3) American sympathy tends to be turned off by stone throwing, even by children, because of its symbolic implication of violent rebellion, which scares nations into overreaction. As I said above, I truely believe that one Iraqi telling Americans clearly and intelligently that they are not wanted there plain and simple will garner a greater reaction than 100 Iraqis throwing stones, which will garner contempt. Why? Because stone throwers tend to be dismissed as not really knowing what is going on, whereas an Iraqi college professor would be taken much more seriously.


Radical Equivocator - 11/27/2003

At least that's what their undemocratic governments tell them.


Hammond Rye - 11/27/2003

The whole thing strikes me as a planted piece. The U.S. (indirectly, of course) is probably behind the stone throwing. Lots of bennies from a story like this...all arguably inure to the benefit of the unelected fraud occupying the WH, while blacks, Mexicans, and white trash are over in Eye Rack trying to salvage the attempted theft of Iraq's national assets.

No "real" story here, folks. Just another PR piece. Probably from H&Knowlton.


Tom - 11/27/2003

And why? Because of american imperialism.


Derek Catsam - 11/27/2003

I want to second Jonathan's comments. I have written a number of pieces, in particular on HNN, and the response is often virulent way out of proportion to what I have actually suggested. See my Africa piece this week and the responses to it as an example. Of course I always rise to the bait, and usually the gloves come off in the posts, but it is understandable why an author would be frustrated and angry when he or she puts a lot of time and effort into writing a piece, and then someone anonymously calls you an idiot, or "not a thinker" or says you are "not a historian" or calls you fascist or a Nazi or a comsymp or a leftist idiot or whwtever other ad hominem you can come up with. The anonymity bugs me more than anything -- I find it gutless to get so personal with someone who at least made the effort to write something when you wil not even put your name out there for scrutiny. people who disagree with you (not you Mr. Palaima,. but the more general "you") are not eveiul, and one would wish that there would be atleast a modicum of respect. i've said this before, gotten criticized, but I'll say it again -- a lot of people say things in such a tone and such a way that if they did the same in public, they'd end up spitting blood. That's why most people moderate their tone face to face. It's too bad that HNN and similar forums seem to draw the gutless and mean in such proportions. I have had more than my fair share of bordering on uncivil (ok, uncivil) run ins with Bill heuisler, but at least he and I have sort of gotten to know one another, and at least part of that is that we have attached names to our opinions, we have learned to respect each other as bright, if in our views misguided, and also as genuine -- I do not for one second doubt his beliefs or integrity or earnestness.That he may be wrong is not even the most important thing -- I too may be wrong. In some ways, the process of disagreement is itself valuable, as you have to defend and think through your position. And as is clear from my record, i am not afraid to take off the gloves -- within reason. But to write something that clearly requires thought and then have somebody write "clearly you are not a thinking man" and to have them do so under the cover of anonymity is really frustrating. Everyone has the right to their opinmion. Everyone does not have the right to have that opinion published anonymously, especially when it is an opinion that impugns others.


Jonathan Dresner - 11/26/2003

Prof. Palaima,

As a fellow op-ed writer, I'd have to say that your experience is entirely typical. The vast majority of your readers, who can and will read the entire piece and take it at more or less face value, will never speak up. Admirers, even, will rarely speak up unless doing so advances some agenda of their own (I got some very nice letters from a gentleman in jail who wanted help getting his writings published....). Knee-jerk political reactions are very common as well; if you think it over and decide their objections have no merit, forget it and move on. But you might want to reconsider using the word "stupid" in public pronouncements....

As for me, I think the differences between then and now are too great -- particularly in the technological differential -- and that more appropriate historical analogies are much closer to the present.


Tom Palaima - 11/26/2003

I am very grateful that hnn posted this op ed. It was commissioned by a military veteran at the LA Times who thought, based on my other articles, reviews and op eds on warfare, ancient and modern, that we could write a piece on the history of stone throwing in times of violence and war that would give some insight into the position and menatlity of the srone-thrower, through the ages.

I received two violently negative reactions. One from a thrice-anonymous caller who said that the entire piece was the most pretentious thing he had witnessed since a Siegfried and Roy show in Las Vegas. and who also thought that citing the Iliad in respect to actual warfare showed how I could be educated but stupid.

The second was from a pro-Polish journal editor who took exception to paragraph two's reference to the Polish cavalry as stupid...and stopped reading right then, but criticized away.

I even received a form letter from a Polish Anti-Defamation League asking me to trace the roots of my anti-Polish prejudice and hostility on a checklist which would then be sent to the US Department of Justice.


The caller, of course, hung up after blasting off. The editor sent an e-mail to which I could reply at length.

I am Polish-Lithuanian and I used paragarph 2 in order to lay out and then partially rebut (in paragraph 3) a flat opinion I had heard expressed when up at West Point USMA lecturing in October.

The Iliad was the chief enculturating text for the ancient Greeks and the song was used to teach youths all aspects of war. It has now been used to great effect by psychiatrist Jonathan Shay in *Achilles in Vietnam* and *Odysseus in America* and British arcaheomedical expert Robert Arnott has exmained the accounts of trauma and wounding and shown that they are accurate.

In any case what concerns me is the extremely factionalized responses to the piece which did not even read it through or bother to think what it was saying, but immediately launched into virulent criticisms.

ANY COMMENTS?



Tom Palaima - 11/26/2003

I am very grateful that hnn posted this op ed. It was commissioned by a military veteran at the LA Times who thought, based on my other articles, reviews and op eds on warfare, ancient and modern, that we could write a piece on the history of stone throwing in times of violence and war that would give some insight into the position and menatlity of the srone-thrower, through the ages.

I received two violently negative reactions. One from a thrice-anonymous caller who said that the entire piece was the most pretentious thing he had witnessed since a Siegfried and Roy show in Las Vegas. and who also thought that citing the Iliad in respect to actual warfare showed how I could be educated but stupid.

The second was from a pro-Polish journal editor who took exception to paragraph two's reference to the Polish cavalry as stupid...and stopped reading right then, but criticized away.

I even received a form letter from a Polish Anti-Defamation League asking me to trace the roots of my anti-Polish prejudice and hostility on a checklist which would then be sent to the US Department of Justice.


The caller, of course, hung up after blasting off. The editor sent an e-mail to which I could reply at length.

I am Polish-Lithuanian and I used paragarph 2 in order to lay out and then partially rebut (in paragraph 3) a flat opinion I had heard expressed when up at West Point USMA lecturing in October.

The Iliad was the chief enculturating text for the ancient Greeks and the song was used to teach youths all aspects of war. It has now been used to great effect by psychiatrist Jonathan Shay in *Achilles in Vietnam* and *Odysseus in America* and British arcaheomedical expert Robert Arnott has exmained the accounts of trauma and wounding and shown that they are accurate.

In any case what concerns me is the extremely factionalized responses to the piece which did not even read it through or bother to think what it was saying, but immediately launched into virulent criticisms.

ANY COMMENTS?



David - 11/26/2003

8 or 10 years? More like 3 or 4 years, and they'll be full-fledged jihadists.


Vernon - 11/26/2003

The little bastards are throwing stones now, in 8 or 10 years they will be blowing themselves up to kill infidels so they can go claim their virgins in paradise.


Cram - 11/25/2003

Norman,
While I didn't neccessarily support this war when it began, I cannot in good faith compare the US and Israel to Afrikaaners.

There are few significant differences:
Afrikaaners were a minority subjegating the majorty in their own country whereas the US and Israel are occupying foreign land until stability can take over, whereby both say they will leave.

As for "Zionists/Afrikaaners/Americans would never DREAM of admitting they didn't BELONG where they were," Afrikaaners never said that they had any intention of leaving, whereas the US and Israel have expressed hope of one day leaving thair respective occupied territory as soon as is possible.


Prometheus - 11/25/2003

Having more advanced projectile technology means you can focus more intently on two aspects that the stone throwers also seem, curiously enough, to perpetually lack. Strategy and tactics. Both militarily and politically. Morally too.



"Like fire I bore the gift of freedom, and out of contempt for my foresight the god of the ideological left chained me to a rock where a vulture tore at my guts."

Prometheus


David - 11/25/2003


I agree with you. That's why I think U.S. soldiers should feel free to throw "stones" right back.

The fact that our "stones" are better than theirs should be no deterrent. After all, the name of the game is having the best "stones".


Norman Weiss - 11/25/2003

Actually, the Palestine/South Africa/Iraq analogy is apt in many ways: a vastly superior force with colonizing tendencies trying to crush the poor and ill-armed locals. Oh, and another common thread: the Zionists/Afrikaaners/Americans would never DREAM of admitting they didn't BELONG where they were, tank barrels pointed at children.


Farley Steinmann - 11/25/2003

Your "stone" hit close, Jonathan, but not on the mark.

Intractable conflict in South Africa and Palestine was not brought about by American policy blunders. Had the U.S. government worked WITH the Kurds and Shia in 1991 to depose Saddam, or worked WITH Germany and France in 2003 (as in the case of Iran this week) to isolate him, American soldiers would not be harassed and killed in this new "front" of the so-called "war on terrorism" created by the failed plans of the Project for a New American Century and their bumbling neo-advocate in the White House.


Jonathan Dresner - 11/25/2003

Let's face it, the rifle and machine gun are just mechanized stone throwers.

But the difference between throwing a stone at an armored warrior, who can be hurt by a high-velocity rock but who might have difficulty retaliating, and throwing a stone at an armored vehicle which can't be injured or a machine-gun armed soldier who can retaliate quickly and efficiently, is rather too much to gloss over.

There are two relevant models for Iraqi stone-throwing: South Africa and Palestine. Let's discuss those, shall we?

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