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Was Qassem Soleimani a Bad Guy or a Martyr?

History is constructed not just out of the acts of the powerful, but also out of the strong feelings of the powerless.
Qassem Soleimani, Qasem Soleimani, Qassem Suleimani, General Soleimani, Iran news, Iranian news, US news, Iranian general, Middle East news, Middle East

The funeral of Qassem Soleimani in Tehran, Iran on 1/7/2020. © Saeediex / Shutterstock

January 07, 2020 14:24 EDT

When people live (and die) with a binary vision of the world, the same object may end up with two opposite meanings. This tends to be the norm in wartime, but the trend toward reducing everything to a binary opposition has increased radically in recent years, even in times of peace. The instinct to label things, precisely so as to avoid examining their components, has aggravated the trend.

Qassem Soleimani: What Next for Tehran and Trump?


The Trump administration and nearly all US politicians have called Iranian General Qassem Soleimani a “bad guy” if not an “evil” man, even those who criticized the wisdom and legality of launching the attack that killed him on January 3 at Baghdad airport. On the other side of the world, immense crowds showed up for the funeral of a man they revered as a patriot and hero.

In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, former British diplomat Ian McCredie noted, in an article on Fair Observer, not just a simple psychological truth but also its likely consequences that US President Donald Trump apparently didn’t bother to consider: “Soleimani’s death on Iraqi soil will likely strengthen popular support for the Iranian government, which will portray the general as a Shia martyr and US President Donald Trump as a murderer.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:


The one person any strategically-minded assassin should have avoided targeting before discovering that once the job is done it will be too late

Contextual Note

The Trump administration and most political commentators in the US have repeated endlessly that Soleimani, who was the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, was “evil” because he killed hundreds of Americans. This is a highly misleading statement from at least two points of view. First, Soleimani didn’t kill many or possibly any Americans. Rather, he led campaigns that resulted in hundreds of US casualties. Second, if killing hundreds of people of any nationality in a situation of declared combat makes a person evil, most heads of states and many of their subordinates should be deemed evil.

Few who know his history would deny that Soleimani was violent, brutal, pitiless and sectarian, qualities that we correctly associate with evil. He was also vain, self-obsessed and ambitious, not unlike numerous other people in the world of politics. According to Murtaza Hussain of The Intercept, Soleimani was capable of “generalized slaughter of locals” after the end of a victorious battle in which he drove away Islamic State (IS) forces. In other words, had he been an American soldier who most likely would have been court-martialed for his excessive conduct, President Donald Trump would have honored him as a hero and pardoned his crimes, just as he did for Navy platoon leader Eddie Gallagher, who was branded as “freaking evil” by his buddies in the Navy SEALs.

Iranians admired Soleimani on the same grounds that Americans admire people like Trump: because he was wildly successful at what he did. The general created for himself the image of a winner against what Iranian and Iraqi Shias perceive as two clearly evil forces: US power and the Islamic State group (Sunni extremists). Two of the rather contradictory things he did — and at which he achieved with brilliant success — were to resist American domination of Iraq and to aid the Americans and others in fighting and eventually neutralizing IS after its quasi-conquest of much of Iraq and Syria in 2014. That he should ultimately die for his efforts at the hands of the imperialist Americans makes him a double martyr.

Well before his assassination, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, referred to Soleimani as “a living martyr of the revolution.” According to MarketWatch, back in March 2019, with no inkling of his martyrdom to come, Khamenei “expressed hope that he would die as one.” Martyrdom has long been a recognized political marketing tool, though it tends to be undervalued in the US, whose culture famously denies death and cultivates the idea of eternal youth.

Perhaps it’s the denial of death itself that prevents leaders in the US from recognizing the powerful force that martyrdom can wield in the rest of the world. Not many political decision-makers in the US reflect these days on the power of Marc Antony’s funeral oration in Act III of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”. While showing his respect for the honorable intentions of Caesar’s assassins, Antony convinces the people that just thinking about the murdered Caesar “will inflame you, it will make you mad.” That’s what martyrdom does. And the final acts of Shakespeare’s play recount the civil war that, after the demise of the “honorable” assassins, eventually transformed Rome from a republic to an empire.

Historical Note

We appear to be witnessing the end of an era and something akin to a historical sea-change, though it’s hard to believe it could happen so suddenly. Interviewed by The Nation in November 2017, less than a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, the historian Alfred McCoy observed that “Almost as if driven by some malign design, Trump is systematically toppling the pillars that have sustained US global power for the past 70 years.” McCoy demonstrated his gift for prophecy when he predicted that “Trump’s bluster could soon become blunder, either sparking a military firestorm on the tinder-dry Korean peninsula or launching some abortive anti-missile strike that exposes the limits of American power.”

Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former American diplomat, summed up the current situation on Twitter: “One sure result of the U.S. strike is that the era of U.S.-Iraq cooperation is over. The U.S. diplomatic & mil presence will end b/c Iraq asks us to depart or our presence is just a target or both. The result will be greater Iranian influence, terrorism and Iraqi infighting.”

Embed from Getty Images

At least in terms of the American goal of seducing “hearts and minds,” the entire Middle East, with the exception of Israel, may be lost. Arab governments in the Gulf, led by Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia, will continue to “play ball” with the US. But the basic belief that it is in any people’s interest to be close to the US and to identify with its interests and values (again, aside from Israel) may no longer be tenable. Other choices and orientations are emerging.

The recent history of the US has led political decision-makers to underestimate the power of martyrdom and especially its lasting effects. Osama bin Laden was too marginal in his extremism to thrive as a martyr after being taken down by Barack Obama in 2011. At the time of his elimination, bin Laden had already become something of a relic of history. It was too late for martyrdom to have much of an effect. It’s always about timing.

Because of its tendency to focus on the future and neglect the past, the US has — at least internally — successfully perfected the art of neutralizing the effects of potential martyrs. In the 1960s: John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King (as well as Malcolm X and Bobby Kennedy) might have been seen as the martyrs of a sinister establishment.

Instead, JFK was honored as a symbol of youthful ambition, eliminated in 1963 through a stroke of bad luck when a lone but apparently talented shooter managed the feat of shooting the US president — at a considerable distance — from both the back and the front in quick succession. (They rolled out a similar scenario for his brother’s assassination in 1968, including being shot from both sides). Selling a story that could short-circuit the politically dangerous logic of martyrdom required science, organization and refined marketing skills. The administration of Lyndon Johnson was up to the task. Their success may have encouraged them to use the same skills at prevarication to try to sell the public the Vietnam War. Half a million American martyrs made that a harder task, one that ultimately failed.

Unlike JFK, who may simply have been a bit too independent for the military-industrial complex’s tastes, Martin Luther King was an authentic subverter of establishment values. He attacked all the system’s weaknesses, starting with racial hypocrisy but extending well beyond, as he called into question US imperialism and what he saw as the systemic injustice of capitalism. By turning King into a secular saint defined by his rhetorical skills rather than “the content of [the] character” of his discourse, the establishment smothered and buried his acerbic criticism of the system. By officially celebrating his birthday as an annual holiday, it built him a monument notable for the statue’s silenced voice.

Qassem Soleimani may never occupy a major place even in Iranian history. He is unlikely to become Iran’s Davy Crockett at the Alamo. What history will remember instead — surrounding his assassination — is the extended process that Alfred McCoy describes of a swiftly declining empire that spent all its time focusing on material resources and its potential for intimidation and no time on sensing the needs, desires and betrayed emotions of the people whose lives the empire was claiming to improve.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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