[A-List] Warfare as Sacrifice
libraryofsocialscience at earthlink.net
Tue Oct 5 11:28:39 MDT 2004
Warfare as Sacrifice
In her groundbreaking book, Blood Sacrifice and the Nation, Carolyn Marvin
suggests that "our deepest secret, the collective group taboo" is knowledge
that society depends on the "death of its own members at the hands of the
group." At the behest of the group, according to Marvin, the lifeblood of
community members must be shed. Soldiers constitute the "sacrificial class"
to whom we delegate the shedding of blood. The soldier is our chosen victim.
When he dies for the country, Marvin says, he dies for all of us.
In most wars, the sacrificial mechanism is not transparent. We do not
readily perceive that the meaning of war lies in dying rather than killing.
We say that wars are waged in order to "defeat the enemy" or for the purpose
of "conquest." Our conceptualization of warfare is designed to prevent us
from knowing or saying what is in a certain sense obvious or self-evident:
That the essence of war is destruction and self-destruction.
To grasp the idea of war as form of self-destruction, one might begin by
studying the First World War. For four years, soldiers were asked to get out
of trenches and to attack the opposing line. For four years, soldiers were
slaughtered as they ran into machine-gun fire and artillery shells. Nine
million men were killed in this war and over twenty-one million wounded.
During one five month period in 1916 on the Western Front, nearly
one-million British, French and German soldiers were killed, an average of
more than 6600 men killed every day, more than 277 every hour, nearly five
What was the meaning of this massive episode of systematic killing and dying
brought forth by the most "civilized" societies of the time? To this day,
historians are unable to comprehend what was going on or to explain why it
happened. Why did nations continue to fight this war in the face of
perpetual carnage? Why did military leaders persist in practicing a battle
strategy whose futility was evident from the very beginning?
To read Richard Koenigsberg's paper, "As the Soldier Dies, So Does the
Nation Come Alive"
earthlink.net%2F%7Elibraryofsocialscience%2F> PLEASE CLICK HERE or visit:
In our conventional way of thinking, we say that the soldier has been killed
by the enemy. When French soldiers got out of trenches during the First
World War, ran toward enemy lines and were slaughtered, we say that Germans
killed them. When Germans got out of trenches and ran toward the enemy line,
we say that they were killed by the English or French. Wouldn't it be more
parsimonious to say that French soldiers were killed by the French nation
and its leaders--who asked them to get out of trenches and run into
artillery shells and machine gun fire? Wouldn't it be more accurate to state
that German soldiers were killed by the German nation and its leaders-who
also asked their soldiers to get out of trenches and run into artillery
shells and machine gun fire? We disguise the sacrificial meaning of warfare
by pretending that the other nation is responsible for the death of the
The mechanism of sacrifice that sustains societies is the thing that has
been "hidden since the foundation of the world" (Rene Girard). The fact that
national groups act to sacrifice their own members is "our deepest secret,
the collective group taboo" (Carolyn Marvin). One might say simply that
human beings repress their awareness of the sacrificial mechanism that
operates to maintain and sustain civilization. Now it is time to "make
conscious the unconscious on the stage of social reality" in order to
"awaken from the nightmare of history."
Though human beings are attracted to war, of course they are repelled by it
as well. In spite of the belief that wars are necessary, it is difficult to
avoid perceiving its ugliness and destructiveness. Taking a stance "for" or
"against" war does nothing to change anything. The "peace movement" is part
of the "war movement," acting to split off or contain the ambivalence that
everyone feels. What is required is to articulate and to reveal what war
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