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The Transhuman Soldier: A Comparative Look at World War I and the Iran-Iraq War

by Babak Rahimi

About the Author

Babak Rahimi is Assistant Professor of Iranian and Islamic Studies at the University of California at San Diego. His research focuses on the theoretic relationship between religion, ritual and politics and the relationship between culture and public sphere.

Theater State and the Formation of Early Modern Public Sphere in Iran (Iran Studies)

Author: Babak Rahimi

Publisher: Brill
Format: Hardcover
Published on: 2011

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon, click here.

This first systematic study of Persian and European sources analyzes how the Muharram rites changed from being a devotional practice to an ambiguous ritualization that created distinct spaces of communication—widening the gap between state and society.

“We prayed”, wrote a British chaplain in a letter of condolence to the widow of a fallen soldier in 1916, “We gave thanks that your husband had heard and answered the call of duty and that God had seen him fit to lay down his life in his country’s service. That must be your comfort now. You will console yourself with our Lord’s words—words repeated over your husband’s grave—“Greater love hath no man than this—that a man lay down his life for his friends!”

In a war that introduced the first instance of mass armies, volunteers and conscripts—letters and testimonies not only expressed the intimate realities, but also the ideological roots of warfare. What this letter reveals is the sacrosanct way in which the soldier’s self-sacrifice becomes an expression of ideals of nationalism, a point that the chaplain in this instance clearly expresses with the use of the terms “country’s service,” and selfless response of the soldier to the “call of duty”. The moment of consolation in the letter emerges when the soldier is praised for giving up his life for “friends,” and for the nation he served.

Nearly seventy years later, amidst the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), an Iranian soldier’s last will and testament: “Martyrs are no longer present, but they have given us life, and the flickering of the light that emerged from the depth of darkness has now turned into a bright and magnificent sun. I now leave so I can become bright as that sun that eternally shines.” A war fought for eight long years between two Muslim nations provided an opportunity for men like this Iranian soldier to express his religious and national pride—in a poetic idiom symbolizing the act of martyrdom as immortality.

As this testimony demonstrates, soldiers are not merely those who die on the battlefield; they become figures who attain an immortal reality through self-sacrifice. In other testimonies from the Iran-Iraq war, the soldier’s martyrdom is conceived—not just as a way to attain immortality, but as a supernatural force offering new vitality to the community, empowering “us”, the nation, through the act of self-sacrifice.

The First World War (1914-18) erupted as an international war fought between two opposed blocs of great powers, due to the emergence on the European scene of a unified German Empire between 1864 and 1871 aiming to protect itself against an old rival, France. The Iran-Iraq War, by contrast, occurred in the context of second phase of the Cold-War and was a result of complex political tensions around border and territorial disputes—that led to confrontation between the two Muslim nations in the 70s.

Each war seemed prompted by an assassination, or attempted assassination (in the case of WWI, assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by a Serbian nationalist in 1914, and in the case of the Iran-Iraq War, an alleged failed assassination attempt on the life of Tariq Aziz by an Iranian in 1980). Of course, the two wars differed in the geo-political circumstances that led to their instigation, and the ways they were fought.

Yet, the two war letters and testimonies reveal an ideological affinity between the two wars. In both cases, the accounts speak of the soldier’s death as a way of giving life to something greater than the soldier as an individual: in the first case for “his friends”; in the second case, “for us”, the living beings that feel the loss of the martyrs (dead soldiers).

Even more striking is that the testimonies invite a strange feeling of “comfort” about a soldier’s death, or the potential sacrifice on the battlefield, arousing a feeling of greatness and a sense of continuity in the idiom of “Greater love”, “country’s service”, “bright and magnificent sun” that “eternally shines”.

What ultimately brings together these two testimonies? What ideas do such statements, built around the idiom of sacrifice for a greater body or entity, express? In this brief comparative study, I argue that in warfare the fallen soldier becomes a transhuman force giving life to the nation he attempts to serve. The fallen soldier is transformed into a transcendent entity as he offers himself, his individuated life, for a greater vitality (community), hence allowing him to participate in a transcendent entity (national or religious community). 

I present this short essay as an exploration of the role of the ideology of self-sacrifice in warfare. I hope to show how self-sacrifice on the battlefield reflects not simply an “altruistic” action imbued with ideals of service and duty for one’s community. Rather, the practice of self-sacrifice in warfare involves denial of individual existence in place of a creative vitality as a source for the regeneration of the community. The dead soldier is transformed into a supernatural force.

The Great War

As the largest war and second-bloodiest conflict in human history with over 31 million casualties and 9 million deaths, the First World War marks a period of intense imperialistic tension in which nationalism played a major role in promoting hostility between the great powers. Although the history of such imperialistic rivalries can be traced to the late 19th century, particularly among great powers like Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Great Britain and Russia, the ethos of self-sacrifice emerged as a central feature in the Great War.

This ethos of self-sacrifice emerged—not only because death for one’s nation was identified as a noble endeavor to defend one’s country—but because the act of self-sacrifice provided an emotional medium for individuals, in particular the soldiers. It made them feel and think that they belonged to something greater than themselves, uniting them on the battlefield as a collective body, namely, the nation.

The declaration of war was met with fervor, and many men voluntarily joined the military, eager to serve their country, although perhaps not knowing what they would actually encounter on the battlefield. No other war has mobilized so many soldiers in the field of battle than the First World War. Soldiers—both volunteers and conscripts—experienced various combative methods, such as chemical warfare, submarine and aerial bombardment.

In perhaps the most grotesque feature of the war, trench warfare took place in combative terrain where thousands died while advancing only a meter of land into the enemy’ territories. At battles such as Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Marne, Cambrai and Verdun, millions suffered death or injury in trench warfare.

Coningsby Dawson, a British infantryman who fought in the Great War, wrote that soldiers

In the noble indignation of a great ideal, face a worse hell than the most ingenious of fanatics ever planned or plotted. Men die scorched like moths in a furnace, blown to atoms, gassed, tortured. And again other men step forward to take their places well knowing what will be their fate. Bodies may die, but the spirit of England grows greater as each new soul speeds upon its way.

Here, soldiers’ knowledge of their “fate” underlies a near fatalistic, ready-to-die mindset.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the famous battle of Gallipoli, where on April 25, 1915 thousands of Australian, New Zealander, Newfoundlander and Ottoman Turkish soldiers met their death on the bottom of steep cliffs of the Gallipoli Peninsula, on Turkey’s Aegean coast. At Gallipoli, when the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzacs) landed a mile off where they originally planned, they faced an Ottoman army waiting to defend its empire’s “national territory”. The battle began as the Anzacs came under intense fire and shelling fighting their way from the beach inland, some even reaching the heights of the peninsula.

The Ottoman army, led by Mustafa Kemal (later known as Ataturk), pushed the Anzacs back to the beach. The battle continued for another two days when the two armies eventually faced each other with sniper fire and shelling. The battle ended when the Anzacs eventually evacuated, and the Ottoman forces declared victory.

The battle of Gallipoli is best known for the “courageous” sacrifice of nearly 400,000 soldiers (both ANZAC and Turkish) who were either injured or died a heroic death on the battlefield. However, battles such as Gallipoli represent not only the incredible rapid loss of life on the battlefield, but also the soldiers’ avid willingness to die, as Dawson describes it, “scorched like moths in a furnace.”

The Longest War

When the Iran-Iraq war began with the Iraqi troop’s invasion of Iranian territories on September 22nd, 1980, Iran was experiencing a popular revolutionary explosion with the toppling of the monarchical regime of Mohammad Reza Shah of Iran. Though the causes of conflict can be linked to various factors such as a border dispute, assertion of hegemonic rivalry in the region, and, most importantly, nationalistic hostilities between the two states, the war involved a huge loss of military and civilian lives.

The conflict, which has also been called the “latest manifestation of the millenarian Arab-Persian struggle for domination of the Gulf and the Fertile Crescent,” lasted for 8 years until a mutual ceasefire was agreed upon. With one million deaths and heavy losses on both sides, the Iran-Iraq war became one of the longest and bloodiest wars in modern history.

The war’s strategic force was initially a dynamic one, as Iraqi troops quickly and easily fought their way across the southwestern regions of Iran from October to early November 1980. Since Iran’s military was still a disorganized institution due to the outbreak of the revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, the Iranian resistance came rather late in the early stages of the war. It was not until January 1981 that Iranian troops and revolutionary militia began to decisively launch series of counter-attacks, breaking through the Iraqi troop forces and initiating the first massive ground combat operation in the war, which mainly involved the use of infantry, armor, and artillery in combination.

Although aerial warfare played a major role in the Iran-Iraq war (especially toward the end of the conflict), causing the death of thousands Iraqi and Iranian civilians, the combative war on the ground became the main military operative thrust of the Iran-Iraq war. This resulted in the emergence of a series of battle tactics, similar to those in the First World War, including chemical warfare, with horrific human wave attacks which involved high numbers of casualties.

Of the many battlefield spectacles, the Iranian side perhaps has attracted more attention. Mainly due to the revolutionary zeal that erupted a year prior to the war, the Iranian military benefited from the use of voluntary men, old and young (even boys) to engage in combat against the Iraqi forces. The Iranian volunteer or “martyr” units were the decisive factor in pushing back the Iraqis in the initial stages of the invasion. But with the gradual progression of the war, especially after July 1982, such units, created and maintained as a cult of martyrdom, became a central feature of Iran’s military operational tactics of reversing the direction of the war with an invasion of Iraq. 

As Efraim Karsh describes,

With their red and yellow headbands proclaiming Allah’s or Khomeini’s greatness, a piece of white cloth pinned to their uniforms as symbol of a shroud, each one carrying his death with him, and a plastic key around their necks, issued personally by Khomeini as a symbol of their assured entry into paradise upon martyrdom, they charged towards the Iraqi positions in total disregard of the danger of their lives, and to the shocked disbelief of their enemies.

An Iraqi officer described the effect to these assaults on him and his men: “They come on in their hundreds, often walking straight across the minefields, triggering them with their feet as they are supposed to do. They chant ‘Allah Akbar’ and keep coming, and we keep shooting, sweeping our 50 millimeter machine guns around like sickles.”

When Iraqi forces captured the Iranian city of Khoramshar in 1980, a 13-year-old Iranian boy held a grenade in his hand and blew himself up under an Iraqi tank. Hussain Fahmideh became an instant national hero in revolutionary Iran—to the extent that even Ayatollah Khomeini called the boy “my leader”.  His picture, painted in the form of a mural, still looms large in one of the main avenues in the capital city, Tehran.

The Sacred Soldier and the Ideology of Consecrated Death

Although the First World War may appear to differ from the Iran-Iraq War in terms of the emphasis on national and religious identity, the theme of the glorification of a soldier’s death on the battlefield identifies a central ideological theme for the two wars. In the Iran-Iraq, like the First World War, soldiers were deployed to the frontlines where they fought and died as a way of giving up something of themselves, namely their lives, for something greater than their individual realities, the political and religious communities (“spirit of England”, “Islamic Iran”, “Umma”, “Ardulfurataini Watan” or “Land of Two Rivers”).

Lives were lost on the battlefield not simply due to failures (or successes) of military operations, but as voluntary thrusts for a combative action shaping v national or religious identities in the act of self-sacrifice. The sacrificed blood of a soldier bestows, or offers, a new life for the community, as it identifies the reality of the nation displayed with the destruction of each body on the battlefield.

Much like the Anzacs in Gallipoli or the Germans at Verdun, the Iraqi or Iranian soldiers fought for the greater “spirit” of their nation. But more importantly they fought in order to restore the life of their respective communities through the resurrection of an Arab secular nation (Iraq) or the expansion of a revolutionary Islamic nation (Iran).

As the ANZAC or the Iranian soldiers fight, get slaughtered and gunned down under the enemy fire, their death attains a supernatural existence with the glory they attain in sacrificing their individuated selves for the nation. The soldiers as martyrs are “not present but have given us life.” The martyr “gives us life” by conquering his natural, biological process of living as a human being, the process of birth, maturing, aging and dying. He attains a new form of life, the sort that is beyond his individual existence, the here-and-now, a transcendental being that identifies the permanent status of the collective body that is the nation.

With his sacrifice he transforms his life, the ordinary cycle of his existence, into something altogether livelier and more transhuman. His sacrifice on the battlefield becomes a creative event not only because it gives “us life” to conquer death, but attains a sacred quality with its ability to generate an all-too-superhuman vitality, a sacred death of transcendental reality. The key notion is that the act of sacrifice represents a practice for empowering the self of a soldier against the natural process of demise—and towards the creation of a transcendent entity in which the sacrificed soldier can participate as a sacred being.

The unavoidable compromise which the ideology of sacred death has to make with the world of everyday life is, however, mitigated by its reintroduction of life under the rubrics of sacrifice in a quest to preserve or attain a transcendental entity (a national or a religious body). In both the First World War and the Iran-Iraq War, self-sacrifice is closely linked with something extraordinary that transcended the ordinary lives of soldiers—above the mundane world of perpetual death.

The experience of a death for the community or a nation is also a practice of reproduction, enabling the soldier to participate in the immortality of a transcendent entity. The act of self-sacrifice in war arouses a sense of the consecration of death as a source of regeneration of community. The soldier’s belief that he is dying for something greater than himself that will outlast his individual, perishable life—that will be replaced by a greater, eternal vitality (embodied in the national or a religious identity) is crucial for the ideological justification of war, allowing death to take on an uncommon, unusually sacred character.

The act of self-sacrifice in warfare provides the soldier with a way to perish for something great, beyond his ordinary, mundane life, where natural death is the order of the day. Self-sacrifice for a greater ideal becomes the constitutive factor in making acts of death under enemy fire a meaningful experience.

However, the supernatural quality of a sacrificed soldier is not only formed on the actual battlefield in the course of a war. As both the First World War and the Iran-Iraq War illustrate, the event of a soldier’s death as a regenerative force continues to be manifest in the ritual process of memorialization. The commemorative ritual process constitutes the most significant aspect of the sacrificial process—as a gift-offering event to regenerate the nation. While the ritual mechanism of recalling the “heroic” death of soldiers from the past reproduces the nation as a collective body for the future generations.

In the case of Gallipoli, the ideology of self-sacrifice continues to be reproduced on an annual basis on 25th April. A dead ANZAC soldier continues to live among Australians living in the present, commemorating the day from Canberra to Gallipoli, as a supernatural being that continues to offer his sacrificed life to the nation as a collective body.

Similarly, a martyred Iranian soldier is still remembered as someone that has “given us life”, propelling a new revolutionary spirit with his sacrifice as he is remembered on an annual basis during national and religious ceremonies. The mural of Hussain Fahmideh in Tehran exhibits this supernatural aura of sacrificed soldier, where he not only continues to exhibit the legacy of the sacrifice of his young life for the spirit of the revolutionary republic, but also serves as a model narrative of self-sacrifice for future martyrs of revolutionary Iran.

As the First World War and the Iran-Iraq war demonstrate, the sacrificed soldier is not eliminated but resurrected in the form of a memorial at the battlefield, where the nation is empowered as a sacred ideal. The ideology of self-sacrifice is central to warfare for the promise for a permanent order as the basis of a collective body for which the soldier sacrifices his life.

Recommended Reading

Bloch, Maurice & Parry Jonathan (eds.), 1982. Death & the Regeneration of Life.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bourke, Joanna, 1996. Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Eksteins, Modris, 1989. Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age.  London: Bantam.

Fahimi, Sayyed Mehdi & Mehrabadi, Mohsen, 2002. Farhang-e Jebh-e:  Shahadat nameha. Tehran: Farhang Gostar

Hobsbawm, Eric. J, 1989. The Age of Empire, 1875-1914. New York: Vintage.

Karsh, Efraim, 2002. The Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988.  Oxford: Osprey.

Potter, Lawrence G & Sick, Gary G. 2004. Iran, Iraq, and the Legacies of War.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan.