Rites of Spring: War and Human Sacrifice
United States Navy War College
This article argues that humans have responded to an awakening consciousness of death by creating constructs of alternative promise. These constructs, in their symbolic essence, are an abstracted form of reality replacement, in other words, a deliberate change of an actual for a constructed reality that is equally, if not more, persuasive. This constructed reality solidifies its hold on communities through sacred and social vectors, each of which performs a dynamic cultural function. The sacred vector — revealed in Modernity both in religion and ideology — addresses death by offering the promise of personal-in-collective transcendence: Through the divine immortality of the nation itself.
What kept humanity’s sacred and social vectors connected was the need to make social constructs support and reinforce the promise of transcendence, which, according to Vlahos, also has an existential social component: belief in the absolute reality of custom and taboo, law and obligation, and every judgment in the community’s world view. Hence great enterprises of society always require a higher sacred dispensation.
Vlahos argues that war is the social enterprise that needs this anointment more than any other. He takes a critical stance towards Modernity, suggesting it has been ruthlessly self-destructive precisely because of its perverse romantic quest to recreate the primitive, awakened in our world as the ideal of national unity—deliberately rooted in aggressive contrast to the “other”. The author argues that “the other” also evolved in our consciousness to serve a perhaps darker social/sacred function: to help us celebrate ourselves. Fighting the other solidifies the collective because we become kin when we join together to oppose all that we are not, in do-or-die battle. The “other” as the enemy serves to ratify sacrifice and valor in the fight because the alien stranger also acknowledges the transcendence inherent in such acts. After 1789, humanity sought national transcendence through shared struggle culminating in battle. This is a primitive, prehistoric recipe for transcendence, reborn for societies of many millions. It does not rely on, or require, yardsticks of victory as defined by theorists such as Clausewitz. Victory instead is all in the valor, the unity of struggle, and its stainless sacrifice. The battle itself becomes transcendent through the shared death-and-new-life experience of the nation.
Vlahos argues that the heart of Modernity is precisely to arrange such an opposition: the enemy is both inhuman and purest evil, threatening identity itself. The collective commitment to live or die — and then transcend forever — is the organizing principle of identity. This is the sacred essence of Modernity. Now, whole nations, not simply corrupt monarchs and their sycophantic elites, became the thing itself — and everyone became a part of national apotheosis. Enacted in blood, this rite represented an absolute commitment to collective sacrifice that ultimately brought many nations down. Vlahos suggests that if Modernity sought to achieve transcendence through a vehicle that risked cultural self-destruction, it fully succeeded. After 1789, nations had the right, even the obligation, to kill because their people so desired to enjoin the rites of sacrifice that promised collective transcendence. Yet the 20th century’s world wars show how the power and authority of such rites ended in horror when they failed to deliver on their promise, and instead of shared transcendence brought only mass death.