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The Soldier as Sacrificial Victim

by Richard A. Koenigberg
About the Author

Richard Koenigsberg received his Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research. He is Director of the Library of Social Science.


Nations Have the Right to Kill: Hitler, the Holocaust and War

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“Koenigsberg’s ideas cut trenchantly through conventional, rationalized notions about culture, the nation, and war, and enable us to see through the psychic machinations of human institutions in utterly new ways.”
  —Ruth Stein, New York University, author of For Love of the Father

Contents

  1. "Blood Sacrifice Preserves the Nation"
  2. The First World War as a Sacrificial Ritual
  3. Hiding the Victim
  4. "Body-Bags" and the Evolution of a Counter-Sacrificial Culture
  5. Awakening

I. "Blood Sacrifice Preserves the Nation"

In Violence and the Sacred (2003) and other books, Rene Girard theorizes that sacrificial scapegoating is the fundamental mechanism supporting and sustaining religion and civilized communities. The maintenance of group unity, according to Girard—prevention of discord between members of the community—requires that violence be deflected outward.

Society identifies a "scapegoat"—toward which members of the group safely may displace violence. By virtue of the scapegoat mechanism, divisions in the community are reduced to but one division: the division of all against one common victim or minority group.

Prime candidates for scapegoating, Girard says, are the "marginal and the weak," a minority group, or those isolated by their very prominence. In this paper, building on my own research (2009) and that of Carolyn Marvin (1999), I wish to expand upon Girard’s analysis by focusing on what Marvin calls "insider violence:" the desire to sacrifice members of one’s own group. Specifically, I shall focus on the institution of warfare to show how the soldier functions as a sacrificial victim.

Summarizing Girard’s theory, S. Mark Heim (2001) states that the scapegoating process does not just accept innocent victims, but prefers them—outsiders who are not closely linked to established groups in society. "The sad good thing that happens as a result of this bad thing," Heim states, is that “scapegoating actually works." In the wake of murdering the victim or victims, communities find that the "sudden war of all against one has delivered them from the war of each against all."

According to Girardian scholar Duncan Ragsdale (personal correspondence), "All the kingdoms of the world are based on the scapegoat mechanism." This mechanism, Ragsdale says, depends on a "collective unknowing" for it to work. The title of one of Girard’s books, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (2003), alludes to this idea of a concealed dynamic that has worked to maintain civilizations from their beginnings.

People perform scapegoating, but are not aware of what they are doing, or why. Girard suggests there is profound resistance—in the psychoanalytic sense of the term—toward becoming aware of the victimage mechanism; what amounts to a taboo against knowing.

Carolyn Marvin states in Blood Sacrifice and the Nation (1999) that we "misunderstand the genuinely religious character of patriotism." The power to compel believers to die in the West, she says, has passed from Christianity to the nation-state. Willingness to sacrifice oneself for the community, according to Marvin, constitutes the "ultimate sign of faith in social existence." Whereas Girard theorizes that preserving the unity of the community requires violence toward an outsider or marginal group, Marvin proposes a more radical hypothesis: preservation of the nation-state requires sacrificing members of one’s own group.

The sacrifice of members of one’s own group, Marvin proposes, is the fundamental purpose of the institution of warfare. In our conventional way of thinking, nations go to war to defend the homeland, defeat the enemy, achieve "victory," etc. Marvin suggests that beneath these declared motives lies the real purpose of warfare, namely the desire or need to sacrifice members of one’s own community." Blood sacrifice," Marvin declares, "Preserves the nation."

It is the task of the soldier to perform acts of self-sacrifice in the name of the nation. General Douglas MacArthur told graduating West Pointers in 1962 that they as soldiers "above all other men" were required to practice "the greatest act of religious training—sacrifice." Marvin calls soldiers the "sacrificial class." Soldiers are that group of people within a nation who are required to "die for their country" when asked to do so. They are the designated sacrificial victims.

II. The First World War as a Sacrificial Ritual

My understanding of the sacrificial dynamic of warfare grows out of research on the First World War. This war (1914-1918) is famous for the way in which battles were fought. Soldiers hunkered down in trenches on opposing sides on the Western front: France and Great Britain on one side; Germany on the other. Battles or attacks occurred when a line of soldiers got out of a trench—often several miles in length—and advanced en masse toward the enemy line, where there was a probability that the soldier would be hit by an artillery shell or mowed down by machine-gun fire as he moved forward.

Historian Modris Eksteins (1989) describes the typical pattern of "battle" that characterized the First World War:

The victimized crowd of attackers in no man’s land has become one of the supreme images of this war. Attackers moved forward usually without seeking cover and were mowed down in rows, with the mechanical efficiency of a scythe, like so many blades of grass. "We were very surprised to see them walking," wrote a German machine gunner of his experience of a British attack at the Somme. "The officers went in front. I noticed one of them walking calmly, carrying a walking stick. When we started firing we just had to load and reload. They went down in the hundreds. You didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them."

In spite of the absurdity, futility and massive casualties that resulted from this strategy, this way of fighting continued throughout the war’s duration. Most historians agree that the endless battles produced insignificant results, apart from the monumental wastage of lives. Writing about the first two years of the war, Eksteins says that the belligerents on the Western front "hammered at each other in battles that cost millions of men their lives but moved the front line at most a mile or so in either direction."

At the Battle of the Somme that began on July 1, 1916, 60,000 men were killed or injured on the first day on the British front of the 110,000 who got out of trenches and began to walk forward along a 13-mile front. One would imagine that the British would have received the message and abandoned this disastrous strategy shortly thereafter, but they did not. Day after day, week after week, month after month, soldiers got out of trenches, advanced toward the German line, and were slaughtered. Over 416,000 Britons were killed at the Somme, but the battle lines did not change.

Even the best historians are mystified, struggling to explain what was going on—the perpetual, senseless carnage. The problem is that their thinking is too conventional. They continue to assume that nations were trying to "win" the war; that it was a question of "victory or defeat." When pressed to explain the suicidal battle-strategies, commentators say that Generals were held in thrall by an antiquated battle strategy, or that they underestimated the power of the machine-gun. Frequently, people throw up their hands in despair and declare that the Generals simply were "stupid."

In our conventional way of thinking, we say that a soldier has died because the enemy has killed him. When French and British soldiers got out of trenches to attack and were mowed down by machine gun fire, we say that they were killed by Germans. Likewise, when German soldiers moved forward en masse and were slaughtered by opposing forces, we say that the French or British killed them. Wouldn’t it be more parsimonious to say that nations and leaders—by putting their soldiers into such an impossible situation—were killing their own men?

Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that France was killing Frenchmen, Germany was killing Germans, and that Great Britain killed British soldiers? We disguise the sacrificial meaning of war by delegating their execution to the other nation. The nation, Marvin says, sends its soldiers to die, but is not their visible executioner: "The enemy executes the members of the sacrificial class."

Significant political figures of the time seem to have been edified by the spectacle of mass slaughter that occurred during the First World War. Here is what P. H. Pearse (Martin, in Kamenka, 1973), founder of the Irish revolutionary movement, had to say upon observing the daily carnage in France:

The last sixteen months have been the most glorious in the history of Europe. Heroism has come back to the earth. It is good for the world that such things should be done. The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefield. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country.

Pearse describes the First World War in the language of mythic sacrifice, proclaiming that the heart of the earth needed to be "warmed with the red wine of the battlefield." He declares that the war is "glorious," and is pleased to observe that "heroism" has come back to the earth. He characterizes slaughter as an offering to God: a form of august homage taking the form of "millions of lives given gladly for love of country."

Observing the war as it took its course, French nationalist Maurice Barres (1918) wrote that nothing was "more beautiful yet more difficult to understand than these boys, today cold in their graves, who gave themselves for France." Barres called the early years of war—during which thousands of French soldiers were slaughtered on a daily basis—"marvelous times, in which one may again find himself, times in which the splendor of our profound unity is revealed."

While the young soldiers had been learning the lessons of war through sledgehammer blows and in the furnace of fire, Barres said, the "differences and the divisions, which yesterday seemed insurmountable have today completely disappeared." The French people came together, according to Barres, not because of the death of an outsider or scapegoat, but by virtue of the sacrificial death of French soldiers.

Like Pearse, it would appear that Barres was thrilled and exhilarated by the death of young men. Barres links the achievement of unity within the French nation—disappearance of "differences and divisions"—directly to the fact that soldiers have been willing to sacrifice their lives. How does the soldier’s death function to produce national unity? Perhaps sacrificial death in warfare is the means by which a people demonstrates that it is devoted to and united behind its sacred ideals. Willingness to send young men to die is the way a nation "puts its money where its mouth is."

According to Marvin, "The community celebrates and reveres its insiders turned outsiders. From within the boundaries, the community fears and worships these outsiders it consumes to preserve its life." Soldiers are celebrated, revered and worshipped because they (like Christ) take the sacrificial burden upon themselves. They are the designated victims who are required to suffer—and perhaps to die—for other members of the group. The soldier is an "insider turned outsider," member of the community who has been thrust outward from within the nation’s boundaries in order to do battle over there—on foreign soil.

The task of political and military leaders is to persuade young men of the virtue of sacrifice. This is accomplished by appealing to their narcissism and idealism through the use of words like "honor," "glory" and "heroism." In a lecture that formed an important part of the training of British Officers in the First World War, Colonel Shirley (Kerr, 1993) stated that his objective was to convince the soldier who had entered the service of his Country to proceed to serve her "with all your heart and with all your soul." If you have done your best and yet must fall, Colonel Shirley explained to his Officers, you may take comfort in the thought that you will have "suffered for a cause greater and more noble than that for which any man has ever yet sacrificed his all."

One million volunteers joined the British army the first year of World War I, 1914. War Office recruiting stands were inundated with men persuaded of their duty to fight. On September 9, 1915 Basil Hart (Kerr, 1993) asked his parents not to wear mourning clothes in the event he died. "I do not wish you to regard my death as an occasion for grief," he said, "but of one for thanksgiving. For no man could desire a nobler end than to die for his country and the cause of civilization." Frenchman Robert Dubarle (Horne, in Coetzee and Shevin-Coetzee, 1995) wrote similarly, shortly before his death, of the "glorious privilege of sacrificing oneself, voluntarily. Let us try, without complaining too much, to offer our sacrifice to our country and to place the love of fatherland above our own grief."

III. Hiding the Victim

We’ve noted that Girard believes that in order for it to be effective, the sacrificial mechanism must be disguised or hidden. We avoid knowing what is going on by averting our eyes from the victim. S. Mark Heims states that the working of mythical sacrifice in society requires that people "know not what they do." The scapegoating mechanism, he says, is "most virulent when it is most invisible;" effectiveness of the mechanism of sacrificial killing depends on "blindness to its workings." To "avert one’s eyes from the sight of the real victims," Heims says, is that "characteristically human act" that lies at the essence of scapegoating.

Perhaps a similar dynamic is operative in the case of warfare. War as a unifier of the national community works best when people are able to avert their eyes from the sight of the victims; when they don’t have to look closely at what happens to the bodies of soldiers. People enjoy the idea of war, but would prefer to participate at a distance. They would rather not see the maimed bodies. Sight of a soldier’s mutilated body drains warfare of its glory.

The son of Douglas Haig, the British Commander-in-Chief responsible for the disastrous Battle of the Somme, reports that the General "felt that it was his duty to refrain from visiting the casualty stations because these visits made him physically ill." The French Commander Joffre, after pinning a military decoration on a blinded soldier, said to his Staff: "I mustn’t be shown any more such spectacles. I would no longer have the courage to give the order to attack." In war, the body of the soldier is given over to slaughter—in the name of the sacred ideal. We want the "beautiful" ideal, but don’t want to look too closely at what happens to the body of the soldier.

Hypocrisy lies at the heart of the institution of warfare. People plug into the spectacle and relish the fantasy of their nation's power and glory. They embrace war as a righteous struggle between good and evil. However, most people themselves do not wish to be put in harm's way. War is enjoyable to the extent that killing, suffering and dying are delegated to someone else. Further, people would rather that the carnage take place somewhere else, at a distance from the homeland.

George M. Cohan was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his World War I song, Over There. Even now it is difficult to resist this fervent appeal to our idealism and sense of moral responsibility.

Johnnie, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun,
Take it on the run, on the run, on the run,
Hear them calling you and me, ev’ry son of liberty
Hurry right away, no delay, go today
Over there, over there!
Send the word; send the word, over there!
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming,
And we won’t come back 'til it’s over, Over There!

What actually was occurring "over there?" John Ellis writes about the sights that stretcher-bearers had to endure as they attempted to recover the bodies lying in "no man’s land." Some soldiers might be found alive, even semi-conscious, with the lower half of their face sliced off or the top of their head and their brains clearly visible.

Men arrived still breathing at the regimental aid posts with holes the size of a football between their shoulder blades. Doctors might gently prise apart the hands of a man clutching his midriff and recoil, sickened, as his intestines spilled out over his trousers. Horrific events such as this occurred a million times over during the First World War.

Insofar as approximately 53,000 Americans were killed and 204,000 wounded in the First World War, we may assume that tens-of-thousands of American soldiers experienced horrors precisely like the ones described above. What astonishing incongruity between the joyful, optimistic song that emboldened men to become soldiers and the nauseating results of battle. How sad to realize that societies play upon the idealism and good will of young men in order to send them "over there," where they may become sacrificial victims.

IV. "Body-Bags" and the Evolution of a Counter-Sacrificial Culture

Is there no escape from the victimage mechanism: the need to sacrifice human beings in the name of maintaining the sacred community? Girard suggests that just as societies have created the scapegoat mechanism, so powerful forces have evolved that operate in opposition to perpetuating this mechanism. Girard’s writings focus specifically upon historical events and trends acting to generate greater awareness of the victim, and of the victim’s innocence. To the extent that attention is brought to bear upon the victim and his innocence, Girard believes, so does the efficacy of the scapegoating mechanism diminish.

How does a society go about bringing greater attention to the victim? I believe that the United States developed a counter-scapegoating mechanism. I’m referring to the televised reports of dead soldiers—returning in body bags from battle. These televised reports functioned to make it more difficult for people to "avert their eyes" from the victim.

The return of dead soldiers in body bags correlated with the development of a profoundly counter-sacrificial culture in American society. For a long period of time after the Viet Nam war (up until September 11, 2001), there was virtually no international situation that was considered to be worthy of American intervention if it meant that even a single soldier might die in battle. Americans had developed a zero tolerance for casualties.

In an October, 1994 article in Newsweek written while the invasion of Haiti was being considered, Jacob Weisberg noted that only about 400 U. S. soldiers had been killed in action in the twenty years since the end of the Vietnam war. This meant that serving in the armed forces was a relatively safe job. Driving a truck was three times riskier than being in the military, driving a taxi six times riskier.

On the eve of an invasion that did not happen, Richard Cheney appeared on Meet the Press and stated that Haiti was "not worth American lives." Senator John Glenn suggested that the case for intervention could not pass the "Dover Test," the televised return of body bags from Port-au-Prince to the Air Force base in Dover, Delaware. Writing in the New York Times on July 16, 1995, Roger Cohen stated that unwillingness to intervene in Bosnia spelled the "death of Western honor." Eric Gans noted on June 26, 1999 that the model of heroism constituted by the sacrifice of the individual life for the sake of the collectivity is “rapidly losing its viability."

Another milestone in the American experience of war was the movie Saving Private Ryan, an unflinching depicting of the landing of American soldiers on Omaha Beach in Normandy on June 6, 1944. This was the first time in fifty-four years, according to military authority David M. Hart, that the viciousness and brutality of an amphibious assault under fire by modern weapons had been depicted in such graphic detail. For me—and I’m sure for many others—this was the first time in a film that I’d seen battle portrayed as a form of unrelenting slaughter.

While many movies about the Second World War depict the soldier as an individual possessing a substantial degree of agency—capable of shaping the course of battle—what we see in the famous first half-hour of Saving Private Ryan is how helpless soldiers were; how narrow was their capacity for choice or agency. What occurred, essentially, was that soldiers jumped off boats into the ocean, where they faced a barrage of machine-guns and artillery shelling. Many soldiers drowned, while others immediately were massacred.

Luckier soldiers made it to the beach intact, although at this point they continued to be subject to attack and often were killed. Among other horrors, the movie shows body parts floating in the ocean and strewn upon the beach. Carolyn Marvin states that many who participated in the D-Day invasion sensed that they were being sacrificed. "We knew that we were considered to be expendable," recalled a participant who survived the D-Day invasion. "That was the price of doing it."

V. Awakening from the Nightmare of History

What would it mean to "awaken from the nightmare of history?" In the first place, the ability to awaken means recognizing that we already exist as if in the midst of a bad dream, one however that is occurring within the space of reality or waking life. Many aspects of political history possess the characteristics of a nightmare. One need only read or watch “the news” to apprehend the "waking nightmare" to which I refer.

The fact that one is present within "reality"—or awake—does not mean, however, that one is not dreaming. It is a mistake to equate "reality" with that which is real. War, I suggest, may be conceived as a shared or collective fantasy, like a bad dream that many people are having at the same time. What is the nature of the shared fantasy that is the source of the ideology of war?

The ideology of war is generated based on the fantasy that nations are real entities—bodies politics—that substantially exist. This fantasy of the nation as an actual body politic is complemented by another one, namely the fantasy that these bodies will continue to exist to the extent that we feed them with sacrificial victims. It is this grotesque fantasy—of sacrificing human bodies for the body politic—that is the source of collective acts of mass-murder manifesting as war and genocide.

Awakening from the nightmare of history means that we become aware of this sacrificial fantasy and how it functions. Becoming aware of the sacrificial fantasy means: perceiving how the "victimage mechanism" operates within human communities (Girard); revealing the "totem secret" (Marvin); and "making conscious the unconscious on the stage of social reality" (N. O. Brown).

If the ideology of sacrificial violence depends on "collective unknowing" in order to be effective, perhaps our capacity to know—become aware of how human beings act to generate this violence—will lead to abandoning this ideology. On the other hand, perhaps it will not. Perhaps the human attachment to the fantasy of society or nation or body politic is so profound that we are unable to live in separation from the idea of these entities.