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Sacrificial “Linguistic Subterfuge,” and the Times We’re In

by Kelly Denton-Borhaug

I have been thinking about the courageous question Elizabeth Samet, Professor of English Literature at West Point U.S. Military Academy, recently dared to pose for an article in Foreign Policy: “Can an American Soldier Ever Die in Vain?”(1) According to Samet, we are living in a time of “linguistic subterfuge” with respect to our ways of war in the United States.  As she writes, “… whenever people describe violence with abstraction or indirection, there’s a reason.”

Samet describes our language of war as immersed in a kind of sentimentality that makes every war story a tale of redemption. She lists examples: “…the empty profusion of yellow ribbons and lapel-pin flags… the organized celebration of American heroes and patriotic values… celebrity public service announcements, beer commercials about military homecomings… the National Football League’s ‘Salute to Service’ campaign…”

As readers of the Library of Social Science know, Samet is onto something important here. And refusal to face the futility of war has all the consequences she describes: the dehumanization of military service members, increasing inability to engage in an honest accounting with respect to our own violence, and unwillingness to engage a sober evaluation regarding the next war on the horizon.

Perhaps the best way to describe the time we live in is to consider the latest memorial to the National Mall in Washington DC. This memorial project passed every hoop without a blip, and was approved unanimously in congress. Money appeared almost magically to support it, and few if any questions or criticisms have been raised about the message it conveys.

Called “The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial in Washington,” and dedicated to veterans whose war-time experiences have left them with life-changing injuries, this latest memorial project has been in the planning and implementation for sixteen years. Its dedication day was Oct. 5. And the news and human interest stories about it that converged in the media illuminate our analysis about the times in which we live.(2)

One of the veterans whose picture will appear in the memorial’s structures is Army Lt. Dawn Halfaker, who lost her right arm in an explosion while serving in Iraq. Now, ten years later, she serves as the Chair of the Wounded Warriors Project. In an interview with the Associated Press, Halfaker was asked why the memorial is important: "I think it will bring it home for visitors. I think it will give people a better understanding of how somebody’s life is forever changed and really help them understand the sacrifice a little bit more."

Others involved with the project have described its purpose with the same sacrificial language, such as Arthur Wilson, another disabled veteran from the Vietnam era, and co-founder of the foundation tasked with building the memorial: "Who could take issue with honoring those who have given a life sacrifice?"

Yet another young veteran of the U.S. recent wars, whose photograph in the memorial structure portrays him at his Purple Heart ceremony in a wheelchair, had this to say, when interviewed about his experience: “It’s a blessing to be wounded in the name of my country.”

In our time, it seems that the only words we have to speak about the wounds of war are steeped in sacrifice. Our forgetful era is characterized by seemingly unaware repetitions of what poet Wilfred Owen described as “the Old Lie.” We should stop and think about the spectacle of these sacrificial rationalizations that mostly are met with a resounding lack of any critical appraisal. Is there really nothing more to be said after hearing for the millionth time, “it is sweet to die (or be wounded) for one’s country?” Such sacrificial language has the impact of creating a deafening silence.

This is why Samet’s courage and thought are so striking. Her question about our difficulty facing the futility of war is one that I also have asked, though phrased in somewhat of a different way: If we didn’t describe the deaths of soldiers as “the ultimate sacrifice”, what would we say instead? Samet notes that the sentimental and sacrificial language we use to speak of war is in fact “… a code of distortion, misdirection and concealment.”

But as she attempts to think this through, she gets caught up herself in the sacrificial tentacles of this discourse. She writes, “It isn’t easy to determine whether a war is futile. Perhaps it never has been. Are all lost wars futile? Are all victories worth their price? Might Pyrrhic victories be described as futile too?”

Whenever we find ourselves speaking in terminology that describes war as weighing the price, considering the cost, cleansing the impurity, surgically removing the cancerous evil (the language currently used to describe warring efforts against ISIS), we are in a sacrificial discursive world.

This language and imagery throw a sacred canopy over the realities of war and preclude clear thinking; but we can take Samet’s insight a step further, because not only does this way of speaking and understanding promote distortion and concealment of the realities of war.

Daring to raise questions or invoke strong analysis makes one a heretic in the sacred world of war and war-culture. Thus the deafening silence and lack of any further questions, once the disabled veterans have described their experience with the terminology of sacrificial blessing.

One of Richard Koenigsberg’s recent essays in the Library of Social Science Newsletter, “As the Soldier Dies, so the Nation Comes Alive,” returned to the analysis of Carolyn Marvin.(3)  He recalled Marvin’s use of the notion of taboo drawn from her study of the famous sociologist of religion, Emile Durkheim.

She writes, “We use the term taboo to describe the tension between the violent mechanism that sustains enduring groups and the reluctance of group members to acknowledge their responsibility for enacting it. To protect themselves from recognizing the source of group unity, citizens render totem violence and its symbols sacred, that is, unknowable.”(4) Marvin helps us to understand how the reference to the sacred promotes a system of concealment through which people hide the realities of violent sacrificial dynamics from themselves.
But the sacred not only is “unknowable,” it also demands unquestioning obedience. Everyone must fall into line. And by and large, this precisely is what we do. In fact, citizens participate in all kinds of disciplining measures to ensure that no deeper questions will be raised, no deeper analysis attempted. To do so would be to engage in a kind of heresy.  Of course, most people think of “heresy” as belonging to arcane religious systems and demands. But this heresy operates in a different way. We find it in many examples of contemporary popular, political and military culture.

Marvin’s analysis may be complemented by investigations that come from a wide variety of disciplines. I suggest that thinkers and writers involved in The Library of Social Science would be well served by our attempts to bring together as many diverse analyses of sacrificial dynamics as possible, to reach many different audiences with a far-reaching and comprehensive investigation.

For instance, cognitive linguist George Lakoff has persuasively argued that “cognitive metaphors” unconsciously shape our way of thinking, valuing and acting. The dominant cognitive metaphor we tend to use in our language to think and speak about morality is that of wealth, or “keeping the moral books.” Lakoff writes, “Whenever we are not talking literally about money, and we ask whether a course of action is ‘worth it,’ we are using this financial metaphor to treat the resulting well-being or harm as if they were money …”(6)

Exchange systems, including and especially sacrificial notions of exchange, are endemic to the ways we speak, think, and act, and we tend not to question or analyze the logic behind them; they are normalized and function unconsciously. This too is part of the reason why we tend not to raise questions about sacrificial rationalizations and justifications.

I additionally have argued that particularly in nations such as the United States, where Christian traditions, speech and rituals have played such a dominant role, Christian sacrificial exchange notions, especially those related to understandings about the death of Jesus as “the ultimate sacrifice for the salvation of the world,” further electrify and sacralize the dynamics of our sacrificial war-culture (see U.S. War-culture, Sacrifice and Salvation).

In the United States it is very difficult to tease apart civil religious practices from specifically religious ones. Christian theological exposition is replete with sacrificial discourse, and we often find this discourse slipping into all kinds of civil religious rhetorical frames (and vice versa). Theological sacrificial exposition moreover very frequently merges with statements about divine response to the reality of war. The quote below comes from a recent issue of a journal of protestant theology focusing on war:

What to do, for example, with that language of broken heads, crushed heads, wounded heads. What if God were to take all that pain and suffering on God’s own self? What if the “head now wounded” is not the head of the enemy, but the sacred head of God’s own son? What if God were to send God’s beloved son in order that all might be saved?”(7)

I hope the Christian sacrificial exchange metaphor above jumps out at readers of this Newsletter. In my own work, I have tried to address these theological constructions and critique them. Over time, I have discovered all too well that for many Christians, raising questions about the sacrificial interpretation of Jesus’ death raises hackles! Nevertheless, my conclusion is that Christian soteriological habits contribute to the presence of a sacred canopy over the ethos, institutions and practices of war in the United States.

Asking why we describe the death of soldiers as an “ultimate sacrifice,” creates an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. This discomfort is mirrored in Christian settings, when we ask whether describing Jesus’ death as “the ultimate sacrifice” is a good idea. The seamless pattern of logic behind both linguistic constructions merges and is mutually reinforcing.

This too is part of the explanation for the continuing linguistic distortion and concealment in our time, a reason behind the deafening silence. My theological analysis treads on a sacred landscape that is deeply cherished even while its destructive consequences have been too little examined. But in addition to all these methods above, the sociological and psychological, the cognitive linguistic, and the theological and rhetorical, a materialist investigation also is needed.

In other words, we should ask: who benefits from our current political, social, military and economic arrangements with respect to war and war-culture? Who is served by these sacrificial constructions? Marvin argues that the blood ritual of sacrifice embedded in war is necessary to unify and enliven the nation.

But sacrificial exchange discourse and systems operate within every human sphere and institution, and frequently they interact and collide with one another. What I have learned over time is that the process of distortion and concealment they promote is not accidental or neutral. For example:

I’m sure that those involved with The Library of Social Science have many other examples to contribute regarding a material analysis that explores just who benefits from diverse sacrificial social arrangements and rhetorical frames in the United States and wider world.

I have advocated a two-fold method for responding to these realities. First, I believe the task for scholars and others is to peel back the layers of sacrificial constructions, to do our best to understand exactly what comprises them, and demonstrate how they function. One presentation that I created was titled, “How Did War Become Religious?”

Before anything else, we have to develop eyes to see past the distortion and subterfuge, and recognize our reality. This first task belongs to the process of illuminating what had been formerly concealed, mystified or masked. In the case of the recent memorialization on the National Mall, for instance, we can shine light on the sacrificial discourse that has shaped and surrounded this process of memorialization.

We further may explore the ways sacrificial discourse functions to silence deeper or contradictory analyses, so that one central meaning is consolidated to interpret the vastness of injury from our recent wars. Recall veteran Wilson’s words: “Who could take issue with honoring those who have given a life sacrifice?” Seeing this phenomenon, that formerly was buried in our consciousness, is the first all-important step.

The second task has to do with what I call, borrowing from Jung Mo Sung, “detranscendentalizing.” After recognizing our reality, we should try to take charge of it. When Sung saw that “the market” had been sacralized through sacrificial associations, he did not move to demonize all market structures; instead, he advocated for stripping away the transcendentalization that had taken place, so that the market might be seen more truthfully as a human construction, prone to all the limitations of all human creations.  

Sung’s idea is that once the sacred canopy has been dispensed with, the process of criticism and transformation becomes more open and available. One important result for Sung was that it became possible to ask who benefits from current market structures, and who is harmed. Imagine working through the same questions with regard to our sacralized war-culture in the United States.

I am trying to imagine how our practices and institutions of war might be different if they did not operate within the omnipotent and omniscient sacrificial sacred canopy that currently shrouds them. If war was not religious, returning to Samet’s excellent question, would we finally arrive at the conclusion that indeed, “all war is futile”?

Released from the constraints of heresy for daring to challenge a transcendentalized but all-too-human institution, war, what changes would emerge as possible in our imaginations? For now, I am still in the process of trying to imagine language to respond to the question, “If we didn’t describe the deaths of soldiers as ‘an ultimate sacrifice,’ what would we say?”


  1. Elizabeth Samet, “Can An American Soldier Ever Die in Vain? What Shakespeare, Lincoln and ‘Lone Survivor’ Teach Us about the Danger of Refusing to Confront Futility in War” Foreign Policy 9 May 2014 Web. 10 Oct. 2014.
  2. See David Martin, “Building a Monument to Wounded Warriors.” CBS News: Sunday Morning 28 Sept. 2014. Web. 10 Oct. 2014; “Disabled Veterans Memorial Underway Near the National Mall.” Associated Press 23 July 2014. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.
  3. Richard Koenigsberg, “As the Soldier Dies, So the Nation Comes Alive,” The Library of Social Science 6 Oct. 2014. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.
  4. Marvin, C. & Ingle, D. W. (1999). Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag. New York: Cambridge University Press. See Chapter Four, “The Totem Myth: Sacrifice and Transformation.”
  5. George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002, 2nd edn), 44.
  6. Lakoff, 45.
  7. Frederick J. Gaiser, “Of War and Cemeteries,” Word & World: Theology for Christian Ministry Vol 34 No 4 fall (2014), 337.
  8. Jung Mo Sung, Reclaiming Liberation Theology: Desire, Market and Religion (New York: SCM Press, 2007).
  9. Nancy Jay, Throughout Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion and Paternity (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 150. Also See Denton-Borhaug, U.S. War-culture, Sacrifice and Salvation, 161.
  10. See Kelly Denton-Borhaug, “United States War-culture and the Political Economy of the United States.” Word & World Vol 34 No 4 fall (2014): 367-377. Jody Williams is the 1997 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for her leadership with the International Committee to Ban Landmines.