Rites of Spring: Sacrifice, Incarnation, and War
by Michael Vlahos
Michael Vlahos, PhD teaches in the Global Security Studies program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences and is a professor in the Strategy and Policy Department at the US Naval War College. Dr. Vlahos was long a foreign affairs and national security commentator on contract with CNN. His articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, The Times Literary Supplement, Foreign Policy, and Rolling Stone. Since 2001 he has been a regular featured guest of the nationally syndicated John Batchelor Show on WABC.
Vlahos is one of our most creative and courageous public intellectuals — exploring political myths and symbolic structures. He seeks to expose our society’s “hidden narratives” — often masked by conventional discourse — that generate violence and rob us of insight.
“Winds of Change Blow in the Middle East”: Michael Vlahos on CNN.
Vlahos speaks about D-Day (June 6, 1944) on WABC: “We had to create a moment of unique American sacrifice. Normandy was the ‘high mass’ of our nation.”
Author: Michael Vlahos
"Michael Vlahos has been remarkable in pointing toward broader connections and deeper historical-cultural roots in the challenges that Western democracies face. He has earned public gratitude for his many books and essays. Fighting Identity is another important and original contribution in helping Americans understand how their conscious and unconscious national beliefs affect their strengths, vulnerabilities, and possibilities in meeting this era's threats."
—James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly
The 20th century’s wars—from 1914-1951, and their aftermath—killed perhaps 150 million individual human beings. We casually ascribe this calamity to madness, evil, or the inevitable efficiencies of an industrial economy. Yet I argue that this killing was embedded in the desire of peoples to fulfill—through war—the vision that drove them. This was the paradoxical, unconfessed vision of Modernity—which replaced universal institutions of collective identity (for centuries vested in social order and Church) with a dynamic new alternative.
This was a vision of collective apotheosis that promised human transcendence through the passion play of the Nation: War. The rituals and symbols of war in Modernity evolved from, and recreated, ancient and prehistoric patterns of human sacrifice and divine incarnation. These worked together, because the nation could truly be fulfilled now only through a passage of sacrifice and ascension. Moreover, this passage could be completed only through the intermediative agency of human body and blood. Modernity’s new framework of meaning thus renewed ancient and prehistoric concepts of the sacred among early human communities—only now these bands of humans numbered in the millions.
Building unconsciously on the solutions of forgotten ancestors, Modernity’s vision offers these insights:
1) 20th century “total war” required mass human sacrifice to create the desired collective vehicle of divine national incarnation,
2) The decisive shift to this modern mode of sacrifice and incarnation came with the emergence of pseudo-universalisms in World War I, and
3) “Total war” national variants all gravitated to the same cultural form and functions, whether Nazi or Soviet or American or British or Japanese. War in Modernity became an extended ritual of existential intermediation, demanding mass sacrifice in which the literal “body and blood” of millions at once renewed and re-fertilized the nation, but also allowed the sacred body of the nation to transcend death and become divine.
This collective belief surged throughout the 19th century, but its horrific realization, in the actual experience of war in the 20th century, was so shatteringly self-destructive that Modernity may now at last, mercifully, break from its own terrible creed.
Burdened as we are by consciousness, and its awakening promise of death and a life of pain, we humans responded early with the creation of constructs of alternative promise. Physical anthropologists and evolutionary scientists now hypothesize that our evidence-trail of continuous creativity and a persistent search for the sacred—whose first artifacts date from the early Pleistocene—represents a key human adaptation that has allowed us to better survive and prosper.
But what exactly are these constructs, and how do they work? Lifelong observation tells me that these constructs, in their symbolic essence, are an abstracted form of reality replacement; in other words, they record a deliberate changeling of actual reality for a constructed reality that is equally, if not more persuasive—in terms of collective belief—than sensory reality.
Moreover, these self-created reality-changelings solidify their hold on people in community through both sacred and social vectors. Each vector performs a dynamic cultural function. The sacred vector—revealed in both what we call “religion” and what we pretend is not—which we call “ideology”—addresses death by offering the promise of personal-in-collective transcendence.
The social vector addresses a life of pain (in the continual presence of death) in daily life, by constructing an elaborate cursus honorum of social punishment and reward—or what is called “status” in the social sciences—that distracts us from the pain of unfettered consciousness: A sort of all-surrounding “game of life” if you will.
But what exactly is “transcendence?” I first came across this term-of-art for spiritual fulfillment in a speech of Vaclav Havel. I think it works because it is tied to universal patterns of process and passage rather than the workings of any particular belief system or construct. Moreover, these began in early society with elaborate rituals that bind communities of identity together through time.
We see these first among Neanderthal bands in the Pleistocene, through their vivid and achingly human funerary rites. Their rituals began our own continuous—and continuously believed—connections among people. Like a river of the people, moving through time. Everyone remains eternally a part of this river. In this sense too, what we call ancestor worship translates in ancient Rome to revered busts of ancestors at the central place in every Roman house.
The ligature is the human body itself—what flows from our bodies as life essences—and its enduring reproduction in forms of shared remembrance of our brief material selves. What are the three primary colors in all primitive societies? Red, White, and Black, from blood, semen, and feces. This compelling color-code became tied to symbolic touchstones in the rituals that bind, and the rituals that form passages to transcendence—not simply in “primitive societies,” but in our own crazed 20th century. We can still feel their fetishistic power in modern sacred enterprise, and still electrically in 3rd Reich extravagance—vitality, sacrifice, and our rooting in sacred soil.
How does the second, social vector—the cursus or path-pursuit of status—interweave with the promise of transcendence? The seamless weave of social and sacred in “primitive societies” became an almost bipolar cultural enterprise-pair in the Neolithic-to-Civilization breakthrough (c. 7,000-2,000 BCE). The institutional building-out—of what we now call “religion” and “politics”—is well illustrated, all the way to the very right-brain/left-brain Caesaropapist struggles of the Medieval Latin West (but not Byzantium, the true source of 17th-18th century divine right kingship).
What kept humanity’s sacred and social vectors connected was the self-evident need to make social constructs support and reinforce the promise of transcendence, which of course also has a daily, working social component: To help people believe in the absolute reality of all custom and taboo, law and obligation, and every judgment in community world view—as somehow celestially tied to divine purpose.
Hence great enterprises of society—status-larded as they have always are with the hope of great reward (A knighthood? A barony?)—Nonetheless always require a higher sacred dispensation. Hence big social enterprises apparently dominated by status jockeying for “power” alone must also be anointed at some level by sacred authority—and they must also, at some level, believe in it.
Just how did human big social enterprise find that anointment? There are two paths: Sacrificial rites of 1-divine incarnation and 2-sacred war. These worked together, because a human community (or later, nation) can truly be fulfilled only through a passage of sacrifice and ascension. Moreover, this passage can be completed only through the intermediative agency of human body and blood.
II. Sacrifice and Divine Incarnation in Antiquity
From the beginning we have used our bodies to intermediate with Nature, Death, and the Divine. These three existential challenges tasked the earliest human communities. How do we survive Nature? How do we deal with Death? How do we touch the Divine we feel?
Our bodies became an offering, a bridge, and a passage to these questions.
- In sacrificing, or in the mortification of our bodies, we offered ourselves
- In the sacred funerary preparation of our bodies, we built bridges
- In the induced extension of consciousness, we hallucinated and dreamed a passage
Our bodies became, so long ago (through the Pleistocene-Neolithic-Chalkolithic), our agent and vehicle for confronting the existential that was both unknowable, unalterable, and inaccessible, save through the ritual presentation of our bodies.
But slowly this desperate intermediation of the body became less urgent. Bigger, richer, more deeply secure human communities began to have the pleasure of choosing their ritual intermediation with Nature, Death, and the Divine, and shaping its rituals and symbols to fit more everyday social needs.
Because, freed of urgent existential claim, people want to define life’s meaning in togetherness-terms. People not only want to be together: They want to feel that being together is what it is all, all about. Moreover people want to feel that they are somehow connected to all those who came before and all those who will come thereafter: That we are all connected, and that embracing this river of humanity should be enough to make a fragile, feckless, fleeting life, enough.
Above all, people everywhere—all us humans—seek the warm and embracing orbit of identity—and want to feel together, thus, without the chasing fear of fate at every turn. We want to bask in our time together, if only for a short while.
So as this desire became increasingly possible—first in some few places like Mesopotamia, the Nile, the Indus, and Yangtze River valleys—the rituals of urgent intermediation with Nature, Death, and the Divine, began to pick and choose what offerings, bridges, and passages society wished to highlight in its ritual connections with the existential. Human sacrifice lingered, especially in the promise of sacred kingship.
Hence, for many societies in what became the West, human sacrifice was replaced with highly charged animal changelings, like great bulls and pure-white doves. At his coronation, the king would need regnant symbols of his accession to divine dimensions: “power, irresistibility, brute force, these were the bull qualities that held the greatest appeal for the people who thought of their king as a god.”
Sergio Bertelli writes of the “king-bull link—“among the Swazi and Rwanda, the sovereign was ‘the bull of the nation.’” But the god ceremoniously must sacrifice himself for his people. After a 17th century coronation mass, and the subsequent royal feast, the bull was the ritual gourmand centerpiece, stuffed with animals, all of which
… were royal symbols, as was the bull itself. One might ask at this point, consequently, whether this mixture might involve a distribution of the royal body. The engraver [of this scene] was emphasizing the distribution of the flesh. The emperor is giving a piece of bull meat to a gentleman (a courtier or a subject?). We can see that the meat was distributed personally by the emperor. The emperor (as will be shown further below) was perceived to be not only the great distributor, from whom material nourishment came, but also, in a certain sense, the immolated victim.”
Likewise, funerary rites for the final divine passage of the king prepared the body in mystical and fetishistic ways that served a powerful, collateral political function: As the departed Pharaoh was prepped to ascend to his divine state, ritual could turn an otherwise impossible existential challenge into a utility of political authority.
Increasingly, the intermediation of the body in Antiquity—with Nature, Death, and the Divine—came to serve the needs of state authority in ways undreamt of in a forgotten Pleistocene.
Instead of human sacrifice, the ritual emphasis of the sacred turned to incarnation. This process can be identified initially in the Bible of the ancient Greeks, the Iliad. Here, mortal men born of a union between God and woman, become fabulous heroes, like Hercules and Achilles. This is the first form of incarnation, where men literally demonstrate that they can become part-god, and thus, immortal heroes on earth.
But then the sacred kingship of the fertile river valleys—exemplified by Old Kingdom Egypt—rose into divine kingship. The king blessed by the Gods becomes himself, a God. By the 4th century BCE this political topos—dominating Mesopotamia and Egypt—was embraced and seeded across the new Hellenistic oikoumene by Alexander. Just a few centuries later, it becomes the foundation of Roman ecumenical authority throughout the Mediterranean World and beyond.
Divine incarnation, as practiced by the imperial Roman state, at first limited divine kingship to incarnation in death (beginning with the God Augustus)—the emperor ascends to divinity—to thus become the supreme representative of Roman political authority—only with his passing. By Late Antiquity (>250), public and court rituals took on more elements akin to god-on-earth kingship among Achaemenids and New Kingdom Egyptians.
On his accession to the throne, for example, a Roman-Byzantine emperor was raised up on a shield, like ancient Persia: “He rose on that day like the sun, the light beaming forth from him, as though he shone like the sun. Now the people were astonished at the rising of two suns.”
Here, the bridge and passage to the divine is the political province of a single person and retinue circles of palace and imperial elites only, and which even for the earthly presence of the divine can represent a full transcendence only in death. Yet it is a ritual incarnation nonetheless, as if to turn Ovid’s metamorphosis on its head: “The Gods Made Flesh” becomes for us humans a reverse process, with the emperor made divine. But could divine transcendence be forever confined to kings alone?
How they strove to keep divine monopoly! Yet once unleashed, the imagination of human society would not long submit to a divine preserve of mere kings. Both Mithraism and Christianity raised the possibility of divine incarnation—not achieved by some uber-lord on his death—but present as a promise for all by its fact among the living. That God had come to humanity as one of us, that God could and would assume human form is the ultimate promise of our collective passage to the divine. The bridge is thus not only offered up, it is there and open for all.
But incarnation carries with it the payment of sacrifice. The passage to the divine is the path of sacrifice. The purest sacrifice their lives; the best to be worthy, suffer pain and torture; but the iron law of the construct has always held: There is no ascent without suffering. The bar to transcendence is high.
Thus, in Late Antiquity, human sacrifice is ritually revived, no longer to placate the divine, but to emblazon the only pathway to its embrace. The Stylites, the Holy Men, the Flagellants, the steeliest Ascetics, all sought surest suffering—and its neon demonstration—as slam-dunk certainty of transcendence. Centuries later, Crusaders would cry out, in dying for Christ, to become one with him.
The shift in consciousness toppled the strict construction of divine incarnation that had abided since Nilotic dynasts and passed down in the form of imperial Roman political legitimacy. Strict construction had rested primarily on a social vector that ensured the submission of the many to the very few, and a sacred vector that gave less and less back to the people. Late Antiquity saw a meltdown of the old sacred vector (for transcendence) that also reshaped an imperial Roman social vector where human slavery sustained a comfortable “1%” of citizens in the cities.
The Late Antique template of sacrifice—Christian and Mithraist—is thus the deep-clay foundation for the cult of sacrifice that comes to inhabit, then occupy, and finally, seize total control of Modernity. Here was no crude Pleistocene or even later La Têne throwback—or even Late Mesoamerican human sacrifice—lingering on from tremulous existential roots (even though both La Têne and Aztec used ritual sacrifice as part of a highly-tuned strategy for sustaining political authority).
There is no question that new consciousness in the Greco-Roman world created the foundation for rituals and symbols of divine incarnation to be used eventually as a rite of collective transcendence. The question rather is how these rites transformed from traditions sustaining the political needs of kingship legitimacy alone (maintaining the social vector of classical Antiquity’s reality-construct) into a collective, participatory experience of incarnation that offered transcendence—for the first time since prehistory—fully to all society.
III. Sacrifice and War in Antiquity
We can trace war back to the Neolithic and the earliest complex societies. War is archaeologically well attested in pre-civilized societies, and was sustainable because of the surplus wealth and leisure time created—for the first time—by the bounty of herding and agriculture. Yet even here war was constrained by actual reality, namely, the actual limits of surplus and leisure time, and the limits of mayhem on predominantly still-small human communities.
If they were going to fight 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, or in our time, as recorded in the New Guinea highlands, they could above all not afford many casualties. The rituals of war needed to be deliberately restrained by social norms to fit the constraints of actual reality.
But why test these limits at all? What is practical about war? Does it bring in more food? Why fight at all?
Well there are “practical” aspects, like stealing pigs in New Guinea or horses among Great Plains tribes, or cattle for Gallic-Celtic or Masai raiders. But it was really about the two intertwined vectors, social and sacred. War is and will always be a collective ritual arena—critically too, including the enemy—in which the most precious forms of status could be won, and in which individual (and by extension, collective) transcendence achieved not only by triumph, but also by sacrifice in battle.
Among transitional hunting-gathering-to-agricultural-herding communities, rituals of transcendence in conflict were often pegged to symbolic acts not resulting in death, like the Cheyenne “counting coup”—essentially touching an opponent, as in touch football or paintball—instead of taking scalps. Here the symbolic (“touch”) outcome was kept rather strictly proportional to actual (“death”) possibility.
In contrast, “civilization” ushered in not simply writing and temple-cities, but also, mature agricultural ecosystems birthed by new technology and new social “management” (agribusiness slavery: the grand evil of Antiquity). Such richly endowed societies could afford to be less careful about casualties. They might even lose in a battle, say, 5% of their army, and still consider the experience fulfilling and their dead well lost.
But just how is battle, in its terrible sacrifice, “fulfillment” in any meaningful way? Going further, how can war (the extension of battle) be seen by any rational person as in any way serving as a vehicle of collective transcendence?
The Iliad here is our earliest, and still most intimate guide to the sacred in war—among the civilized oikoumene, or known world, of Antiquity. Moreover, it is still a pretty good guide to the sacred in all war, from primitive to modern.
First thing, there is no innate apprehension among humans that we are all connected or all the same, even less that we are all thus innately brothers and sisters. Far from it: The Yąnomamö of the Amazonian rainforest have named themselves, “The Human Beings.” And just who might you be?
This intensely inscribed awareness of otherness—that we are the right and true, and who are you?—is perhaps our existential awareness. Yet it too, flowing from consciousness itself, could be another evolutionary adaptation: Cautioning us to be careful about both the motives and worthiness of other human bands we encounter. We know that all disparate human groups interbred, and that we interbred with Neanderthals before they passed on (~5% of our DNA).
But “the other” also evolved in our consciousness to serve another, perhaps darker social/sacred function: To help us celebrate ourselves.
Hence fighting the other—the other who is not us, who has rejected us, who has hurt us—solidifies the collective socially because we altogether oppose them in battle. In Tacitus’ Germania, he wrote that German war bands had their women cheerleading them on (baring breasts to shame cowards), so that the whole of the community was there at the moment of existential opposition.
Out of battle, fighting done, there is the incumbency of memory: For those who distinguished themselves representing the whole, and for those who sacrificed for the whole. Both equally gave, and equally are memorialized for replenishing identity. Hence in the Iliad, Achilles does both: His acts of valor ritually degrade the Trojans, while his sacrifice replenishes Greek devotion to the cause and belief in themselves, while also instilling within them yet more eager desire to win.
Ultimately, the essence of Greek identity and collateral transcendence for the individual is in how he shows himself in battle, and for the whole of society, how his valor/sacrifice shows of the society. Valor and sacrifice in the pitiless arena of battle nonetheless renews the nation, elevates it even, by underscoring and replenishing the river of the city (civitas in Latin, or polis in Greek, the heart of identity).
What becomes critical however—as Greek city states coalesce and emerge into a world-building enterprise under Alexander—is that they both become more sophisticated in their approach to war, while at the same time bringing forward the most elementally—primitive meaning—frameworks enshrined in the Iliad.
So (in Hellenistic and Roman times) the enemy other becomes complex, because he might be of two kinds: The Greek-speaking enemy city-state or the Barbarian (barbaroi, the not-human-beings). If the enemy is another Greek-speaking opponent, then he serves to ratify sacrifice and valor in battle because he acknowledges the transcendence inherent in such acts. If a barbaroi, then defeat of the not-human-beings represents an elevation of self, of identity collectively transcending over something both lesser and yet still-threatening.
Throughout this long, 10,000 year development of primitive warfare into civilization and mature Antiquity (in the Greco-Roman world), the sacredness of war is still acutely-tied to Iliadic senses, and Homer’s canon is made to bridge both the primitive and the highly-sophisticated world of Late Antiquity.
The bridge keeps the sacred vector alive in society, while tying its enactment to the state, the great creation of Antiquity. War in Antiquity became an enterprise essential to the authority of the state: Both for wars against barbarians and wars internally to maintain the state’s cohesion. Yet a war became a state-enterprise increasingly removed from the collective, and as this continues over centuries, the entire primitive power of war—through its sacred vector—dissipates. Emperors may call upon the valor and sacrifice of war to inspire popular loyalty and commitment to his authority, but to lesser and lesser effect.
In the decline of militarily independent city-states across the Mediterranean we also see the decline of the sacred vector of the human reality-construct. In counterpoint, in the rise and entrenchment of imperial state systems—from Alexander to Augustus—we see the enhancement of the social vector, as war becomes primarily a political instrument. The sacred vector of war is kept alive only through the grand ritual of the Triumph, and even here it is emperor-centric.
Yet in the 2nd-3rd centuries (ACE) a truly new, countervailing conscious emerging surges through the oikoumene. The Greco-Roman world is shaken to the core by a truly alternative human vision, the promise of a river embracing all humanity—and of persons all equal before god. From the 4th to the 7th centuries, two competing (but not quite wholly opposed) visions emerge: Christianity and Islam.
Both posit a universal human fraternity tied to a consciousness no long Iliad-rooted in war. Yet neither is it rooted in another vision of transcendence through war. It is different, big time (and to add more trans-ecumenical evidence, this was happening also in India and China, with Buddhism). Moreover this prevailing ecumenical consciousness (in spite of sectarian splintering) lasts into 12th century.
During the so-called “dark ages” after Antiquity, this new consciousness prevailed more naturally, yet without a countervailing and appropriating tyrant authority-framework that could impose its overarching construct. Hence there was a strangely wonderful looseness from about 600-1100—and alternative consciousness flourished, in both Christian and Muslim worlds, revealing the good of relatively unregulated human environment.
Then it was “repurposed.” The period from the Crusades to the French Revolution is the story of a takeover of universalisms from Late Antiquity and their transformation again into state-centric, sometimes universalistic, but nonetheless, predominantly particularistic visions. Both Christianity and Islam, as they evolved out of Late Antiquity, became increasingly transfigured.
Latin West moved toward warring states and sects, while the Orthodox and Islamic East became a kind of Byzantine-Muslim mélange or umbrella universalism. Hapsburg Empire or Ottoman Sultanate, the vision or the re-emergent state naturally appropriated the very structures of power and authority originally created by the old Greco-Roman vision.
Built on state ownership of both society and sacred, and with a social vector again rooted firmly in political legitimacy, and a sacred vector firmly in transcendence—for only the very few. The apparent equipoise of the 18th century can be viewed in this context, from its new imperial forms from California to Calcutta, carries us forward in history to the edge of Modernity. War had become an extension of monarchical right—both on the social and the sacred side—to own us in part—were they not king by divine right? Did not these same monarchs actually also own their anointing national churches? [But did they really own their people?]
Yet in the Dutch Republic, and rising bourgeoisie of France and England, and the Sons of Liberty in the Americas, other things were racing beneath the surface.
The answer to big change, to things unsaid—and unseen—at the end of the 18th century, was nothing less than a second meltdown in Western Civilization, like that of Late Antiquity, leading to another moment of human fission that would again transform us—and humanity’s understanding of transcendence and the sacred.
IV. Sacrifice and Divine Incarnation in Modernity
But in Late Antiquity, state orchestration of the construct—and both its sacred and social vectors—fractured and splintered for 500 years, leading to a more disaggregated, self-organizing, and informal European society.
Rather in contrast, at the end of the 18th century, the new liturgy of human sacrifice took the form of hyper-organized mass voluntarism: An exultant, prospective, collective human offering. The cultural framework was built up over centuries. From the Crusades through the religious wars of Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the individual sacrificed for a universal vision of Christ on earth.
But then this vision took a very different turn, and burst into new form in 1789. Yet for a century and more even, before revolution, philosophers were enunciating an alternative to Christian universalism. The metaphoric template for this shift: The Body Politick.
The French Revolution was the ram’s horn call of human fulfillment through the divinity of La Gran Nation. Together the people would transcend through the sacrifice of battle into “sunlit uplands” of liberty, fraternal love, and sweet reason: A Millennium of the Nation.
Yet revolution in Paris failed this vision. As Simon Schama tells us:
Suddenly, subjects were told they had become Citizens; an aggregate of subjects held in place by injustice and intimidation had become a Nation. From this new thing, this Nation of Citizens, justice, freedom and plenty could be not only expected but required. By the same token, should it not materialize, only those who had spurned their citizenship, or who were by their birth or unrepentant beliefs incapable of exercising it, could be held responsible. Before the promise of 1789 could be realized, then, it was necessary to root out Uncitizens. Thus began the cycle of violence which ended in the smoking obelisk and the forest of guillotines.
The central passion of revolution became the celebration of virtue, and virtue demanded the purification of French identity. “Il faut du sang pour cimenter la revolution” (“There must be blood to cement revolution”), said Mme Roland. Here is where blood sacrifice entered to take center stage, from the wings of prehistory. Again, Schama:
There was another obsession which converged with this Romanticization of violence: the neoclassical fixation with the patriotic death. The annals of Rome (and occasionally the doomed battles of Athens and Sparta) were the mirrors into which revolutionaries constantly gazed in search of self- recognition. Their France would be Rome reborn, but purified by the benison of the feeling heart. It thus followed, surely, that for such a Nation to be born, many would necessarily die. And both the birth and death would be simultaneously beautiful.
Napoleon saved French identity from Robespierre: he found a way to decouple the celebration of French national identity from a liturgy of blood sacrifice in pursuit of pure virtue, and instead channeled the energies of new national yearning to a more productive celebratory liturgy of battle. War became the liberating alternative in a new religious nationalism unleashed by France to the crushing, remorseless path of blood cleansing to achieve revolutionary virtue.
In the wars of revolution at the end of the 18th century, whole societies joined the fight. Entire generations of young men charged together into battle, collectively sacrificing so that the nation might live, and be renewed, and at last, ascend to a particularly exalted state of grace.
Such talk was explicit, up front, and on everyone’s lips—all knew what needed to be done, and all were steeled to the task. After 1800, all nations sought the mythic passage of becoming promised by collective battle.
Why did national societies so eagerly embrace battle and blood-sacrifice? Why was it so fervently believed that the nation was sacred, and that battle was the testing ritual whereby a people together would transcend?
The essential weaving, unrecognized and unnamed, was of ancient and prehistoric ritual patterns of human sacrifice and divine incarnation. Sacred kingship—first developed in ancient Egypt—had become divine kingship in Antiquity. Modernity appropriated the many rituals of sacred and divine kingship—including Christological narratives—and slaved them to the cult of the Leader.
Yet now, The Leader does not assume the lofty and unapproachable dais of the divine, nor as divine agent or divine incarnation legitimating his rule over the many. In Modernity, The Leader becomes the embodiment—in his very flesh—of the national body, so that the incarnation of the national divine can be represented, symbolized, and valorized by his (or in the case of Evita, her) physical presence. In Modernity too emerges the ritual artifact of Leader-Nation-union-transcendence through shared blood sacrifice for the nation. Here, at the moment of greatest peril, His sacrifice cements collective ascent in victory or honor in defeat, thus sustaining in death the living river of the nation.
Ritual killing of the sacred king is first raised by Carl von Clausewitz:
The king who perishes shamefully insults the nation and is the cause of its misfortunes; the king who succumbs gloriously elevates the nation and is balm on its wounds.
Killing the sacred king Lincoln is instantly freighted by Walt Whitman:
My captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will.
The ship is safe and sound, its voyage closed and done:
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won!
Exult, O shores! and ring, O bells!
But I, with silent tread,
Walk the spot my captain lies
Fallen cold and dead.
The Father to the Son—the young men of the nation—the pure and innocent youth—allow the nation to transcend through their stainless sacrifice, which is the force that vanquishes evil, just as their blood replenishes the nation’s sacred soil, mingling perhaps with that of the fallen leader: The immortal community of “honored dead.”
As a journalist of Il Popolo d’Italia wrote in 1918: "We are all sure that a radical, deep, unforeseeable transformation awaits us. Everybody feels that millions and millions of men cannot die without incredible renewals ensuing from the tremendous slaughter."
Above all it is the collective life force or essence, unleashed and united in war that represents the divine incarnation of the nation. The nation became divine in its strength of unity, in its matchless purity, in the oneness of its love. The nation can only achieve this divine incarnation through the concentrated, focused sacrifice and renewal of its energy—its force—in battle. This is transcendence dreamed of and longed for by every citizen. Moreover it is only through the corporeal agency of our bodies that such a collective rapture of spirit can be achieved—hence the passage in blood, and the ascent in death.
If this liturgy of the nation sounds vaguely creepy to us—it is because we insistently maintain the “nationalism” is just a political simulacrum of religion. Just saying so gives us some confidence that we have disenthralled ourselves from the ills of two centuries of Modernity.
But there was a time when such speech—the liturgy of Modernity, and its ringing calls for blood-sacrifice to the Patria—brought tears to a yearning audience, and cries of affirmation. Again, Schama:
All the newspapers, the revolutionary festivals, the painted plates; the songs and street theater; the regiments of little boys waving their right arms in the air swearing patriotic oaths in piping voices—all these features of what historians have come to designate the "political culture of the Revolution"—were the products of the same morbid preoccupation with the just massacre and the heroic death.
In the 20th century, Stalin—in the “collectivization”—Hitler and Stalin—in their great war in the East—and Mao—in “the great leap forward”—recreated in our time, again, the grand rite of revolutionary virtue realized through purification. As so powerfully recounted recently by Adam Tooze (Wages of Destruction), Timothy Snyder (Bloodlands), and Yang Jisheng (Tombstone), the true spirit of the nation as divine incarnation could in revolution, finally be achieved only in mass cleansing: Of creation and rebirth through blood.
Divine incarnation in Modernity, however, preferred the Napoleonic vehicle of transcendence through battle to the more brutally self-eviscerating vehicle of transcendence through ritual, revolutionary purification.
For two centuries and more, Modernity’s creed of mass sacrifice and national apotheosis ruled history. In its name this creed sacrificed 150 million humans and destroyed scores of societies, and ran the risk, for a while, of sacrificing all of humanity on an atomic altar. The age of national-religious war took ancient and prehistoric patterns of ritual meaning and used them to create a self-destructive mechanism of death that threatened the viability at last of human life.
Why did human sacrifice reach such a level of exuberance? Why did Modernity seek ritual fulfillment to the point of national suicide? Perhaps because for thousands of years, rituals of sacrifice and death were practiced within a tightly regulated orbit of control, where too much violence could threaten survival itself. This demarcated a zone of taboo mindful of the material constraints of pre-industrial economies, and the awareness that extravagant collective violence could threaten the viability of human society.
When those controls were loosed they were lost, and easily forgotten, in part because industrial civilization seemed so assured in its control of nature and the world, and in part because the calling of transcendence through divine incarnation and blood sacrifice was so compelling.
- Élan Vital—the life essence, the immortal spirit of the divine nation
- Sacrifice as blood-renewal, and incarnation of national divinity
- Death of the enemies of the nation as the path to purification and virtue
Transcendence a lá Robespierre died out in mid-century through the horrific examples of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. But transcendence a la Napoleon survived the two world wars. It took the apocalyptic threat of an atomic age, and its nuclear trigger, to finally stay the promise of transcendence of battle.
The “rolling thunder” of Modernity saw the triumph of transcendence through battle and the full shift from Robespierre to Napoleon from 1789 to 1878: Serbia (>1804), Latin America (>1810), Greece (>1821), Belgium (>1830), Egypt, India (1857-1859), Italy (>1848), Poland (1863-1864), China (1850-1864), Germany (1864-1871), The United States (1861-1876), Bulgaria (1876). The rites of revolutionary virtue became embedded in, and then indistinguishable, from the rites of war.
These “wars of national unification” were really collective rituals of national passage, and contained within them varying levels of revolutionary virtue. To the extent that the enemies of virtue lay within the body of the nation itself, the dimension of purification loomed larger. To the extent that the enemy was the alien, the stranger, the incarnation of the nation sought battle above all.
The Victorian century explicitly tied the promise of transcendence in battle to the wider romantic zeitgeist, enhancing the mythic aura and allure of sacrifice in battle. Hence, transcendence in battle more effectively claimed the feelings of millions, and sealed their commitment to a collective identity cemented by the blood of the nation’s young men—described as changelings for Jesus—sacred martyrs who died that the nation might live.
As Lincoln evoked in the Gettysburg Address:
We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. … But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow, this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract … It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us … that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain–that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom …
How war substituted so efficiently for revolution in the pursuit of divine incarnation helps explain how wars exuberant pursuit in the 20th could take humanity so close to the abyss.
V. Sacrifice and War in Modernity
The watershed of Modernity, 1784, hands down, is Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii. There has never before or since been a painting that was both marker and decisive incitement to big change. In a splash-screen instant the artist-as-revolutionary created the vision of incarnation, sacrifice, and war that would remorselessly drive Modernity—in a single image.
It was of course all about The Oath. Sacrifice in Modernity was sealed and cemented in the divine pledge—whether looking back, as in the Rütlischwur oath of the Swiss Confederacy, or America’s own “We mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” The oath became the organizing principle of new sacred identity.
What the oath said was this: That we are all together, come what may; that we will live together, and die together, to realize the river of our identity. This is the sacred essence of Modernity: That now whole nations, not simply corrupt monarchs and their ass-kissing elites, are the thing itself. The nation is the people, the people are the nation—and where is this fraternity and unity most evident, most tested, and most triumphant?
In battle—Napoleon, like Alexander, created an entire sacred landscape in which war might be used practically to create the theater—the opera—of the nation, equal and enjoined together, in the pursuit of celebrating their identity.
After 1800, humanity—at least at first, Western European humanity, but then, remorselessly, everyone else—sought national transcendence through struggle culminating in battle. Battle here had to of course meet certain existential benchmarks: 1-Battle must represent a field of the nation, fighting together; 2-Battle must show the valor of the nation as testament of its unity; 3-Battle must show the steadfastness of the nation standing fore-square against those who would destroy it; 4-Battle must in the sacrifice of its most precious young, the very future of the people, that their blood will renew and nourish that nation, making it ever stronger.
This is a primitive recipe for transcendence. It does not rely on, nor require, victory as defined by, say, Clausewitz. Victory is in the valor, the unity of struggle, and the sacrifice. The battle itself becomes transcendence through the shared death-and-new-life experience of the nation: Which must metaphorically inhabit together—everyone—the testing and the sacrifice. Or there can be not transcendence.
19th century French art explicitly underscores the required connection between death, new life, and the transcendence of the river of France. Alphonse de Neuville’s Le Cimetière de Saint-Privat shows six wounded soldiers, out of ammo, who having held off a horde of Germans, now await their death, serenely at attention, in the cemetery, as the spiked-helmets pour in—sacrifice for the France that came before.
In reverse, Édouard Detaille’s Le Rêve is a tableau of a sleeping bivouacked in open air, under dawning sky. In pink-morning clouds we can see the legions of Napoleon, marching, looking down—France that came before, urging on. Likewise, at a border marker, Eugene Chaperon’s Les Vedettes pits a lancer gazing helplessly on Prussian Uhlans’ dominating conquered Alsatian girls. Pushing up from the ground, the ghost-corpses of French dead from the Franco-Prussian War raise their arms, pleading for the Lancer to free the lost Patrie.
Chaperon’s painting was exhibited in the Salon of 1914. As the poilu charged into battle, they and their leaders believed that transcendence would be achieved by a Furia Francese: That the sacred spirit, or élan vital, of French soldiers expressed through their onrushing bodies, would overcome German guns. 140,000 fell in four days. Did Ossian receive the fallen like Napoleon’s veterans in Anne-Louis Giradot’s great canvas? Or did transcendence now become France’s counsel of despair?
But in addition to an incarnation of martyrdom, Modernity also sought to debase the enemy other. In contrast to polite Euro-18th century portrayals of the opponent (fellow aristocrats leading indentured rank-and-file), the enemy is now arrayed in the primitive panoply of Antiquity: He serves the nation best as the not-human-beings, as barbaroi.
While war rhetoric in Antiquity often made extravagant us vs. them constructions, their existential application was much less common. Yet at the heart of Modernity is the drive to arrange just such an opposition: To work into the entire construct a vision of the enemy black, inhuman, and evil—so that inherent in the very postulation of conflict is a threat to identity itself.
In other words, Modernity recreated the primitive, but without its abiding constraints and intimacy of compassion. We in these times appropriated their elemental sacred, and the newly unleashed power of identity to bind nations, and forgot how such elemental energy might go terribly awry—especially when the necessary helpmates of your agenda are industrial revolution and its racing vision of technology.
So Modernity succeeded in recreating the most elemental venue of primitive war, while adding elements that could only be present in their own time: Industrial scale, science-driven intensity of violence, and the breast-rending power of state-religious propaganda. These all added up to an absolute commitment to collective sacrifice that brought many nations down. If Modernity sought to achieve transcendence through a vehicle of potential cultural self-destruction—it fully succeeded.
Nations have the right to kill because their people desire to sacrifice themselves, and that right (as the world wars show) ends when people suddenly lose that desire.
“The Other” becomes a contagion because modern nationalism needed to take primitive war beyond its paradigm, because the level of industrial-technology generated sacrifice now demanded that the enemy—so recently your European compatriot—become a not-human-being. So imagine that “other” so recently a brother, entering your nation’s “body” and helping subvert it.
Modern Germany in fact pursued such a course—twice, and offers a model for the truly collaborative dynamic of self-destruction in Modernity (our 20th century).
What makes the German path so compelling is not simply its self-destructive urges but also the unbelievable ironies that attend victory. At ever point at which Germany won everything it wanted—both before 1914 and after 1940—it willfully insisted (to itself) that this was not enough. We console ourselves in retrospect that Hitler was the all-powerful evil who had personally appropriated Germany’s national passage. It was all, his fault.
On the surface this seems obvious. But dig down and the big thing emerges—at its rooted is the calling of the age, that algae-bloom consciousness we call Modernity. Yet what was the actual and true basis of religious nationalism after 1800? Was it simply about the nation state? Ask Napoleon. Did he simply want a very “belle” estate for “la belle France”? No—absolutely not. He wanted to establish a universal dominion—or radiance—of French identity, a lá the Romans.
But was this possible in the new modernity of vibrant and resistant new national identities? No—just look at the French adventure in Spain (or in the Kingdom of Naples, or in its own Vendée).
The irresolvable issue within Modernity is that religious nationalism became indelibly infused with, and flogged on by, old visions of universalism—but without any of the tolerance, accommodation, and political yielding that characterized the world of Late Antiquity. Hence, after 1800, each Big Man religious national dynamic—Britain, France, Russia, Germany, United States, yes, even Japan and China (later on)—sought to join their vision of themselves to a larger vision of humanity.
But how did this turn out in practice? Did any of these fabulously successful nations really create a universalistic vision for all of humanity? Even us? Don’t kid yourself. Looking at world politics from 1800 to today, it is always the same. Here is what the Big Man nation tells the world: 1-We are the greatest, the most civilized; 2-You should join us (or submit); 3-No one can stop us; 4-Hey, it will be a great party if you only get with the program and submit (or we will kill you).
What we see in World War I and World War II is a ferocious to-the-death struggle between those who want to impose their universalism and those who so desperately will die to avoid it. But throughout the 20th century, and certainly during the great wars—right up to today—we can see the internal contradiction in the official rhetoric. Here it is.
All these nation-states of Modernity had unconsciously embraced the soul of primitive war as their ticket to unity and national transcendence. Moreover they had totally bought off on the idea that identity/transcendence could be fully realized in battle. But this inner requirement was existentially at odds with the outer requirement: That they win the competition over who will be the next “Rome”—the next universalistic vision for all humanity.
In this sense it might be said that the needs of the sacred—for society and community—were trumped by the social demands of the newly globalized world of the 20th century, in which even nation-states had to worry about bigger status.
So we get back to the mystery of Germany in the 1930s. Their fateful reach for world status—Weltmacht—had failed, and thus, so had all Germans: No matter how many had sacrificed their blood for the struggle, it was lost. Furthermore their sacred blood (red) did not renew, but was somehow polluted. The stainless armor (the white color of fertility) of the German Volk too had been brought down, and the vision at late-war of Germania, the Mother Goddess, crucified and raped by the Allies, abided with every citizen. Finally, the dark-loam of German soil, the (black) foundation for all identity, had also been scalpel-scored.
Here the primal colors of primitive society come into sharp relief in postwar Germany. They had been altered out of recognition over the centuries. Red remained the primal color of blood and the life of the nation. White now was the white of the shield and the sword and the armor that protected the nation (in the 17th century, cavalry attack with saber was called l’arme blanche), the honor and vitality of men, while the black since the Neolithic had come to represent the fertilizing of the nation, and its soil romantically repositioned in an industrial age to seem the kin-tie to a primitive world, where hearth and plow defined community life. So it was that Germany in defeat set out to reclaim its primordial identity—because that is what happened, and it is revealed in the colors that revel in the enduring meaning of the primitive.
So were thus powerful antecedents to Hitler’s flag of Red and White and Black; and although the other great religious nationalisms had somewhat different colors, they all had tricolors, and among these existential colors were red and white. In other words Hitler emerged from a world we know, a world called Modernity. His take and agenda was shout-out weird and evil, but perhaps it is not so far removed from others, even our own. Why do we all, great nations, have three primary colors?
In Modernity, we long for the primitive.
- Modernity is so determinedly self-destructive precisely because of its ruthlessly romantic quest to reawaken and recreate the primitive—because the raw authenticity of the primitive reawakened and renewed in our world has been the key to national unity and its fabulously harnessed collective energy, from 1789 to today.
- War itself became the dream of an explosive expression of collective belief, which had otherwise been broken down and disheartened in our antiseptic and anomic industrial mise-en-scene [see Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the impact of Diagalev’s choreo when it premiered in 1913].
- Hence Modernity’s search for national transcendence is atomically akin to our primitive world’s vision of war. Yet Modernity’s vision of national transcendence seemed to propose a breathtaking disconnect from the bounded rituals of our ancestors. It proposed the unconditional capacity, perhaps even the need, to destroy. This is a “fulfillment” totally beyond the sacrificial parameters of our forgotten ancestors. 20th century testament bears out the risks of total fulfillment through total war.
- Modernity cannot disentangle the models of the nation in Antiquity—like ancient Rome, the paradigmatic all-military-emperor-based universalistic model—from its own repurposing to fulfill the militaristic, collective-based nation-state universalistic calling. Like Rome, the nation-state wants to embrace the purity of its own blood-virtue-soil exceptionalism, but also, somehow, through an enterprise describing itself as a beacon to all humanity—the clarion-call for how all humans might or should be.
- Modernity’s pursuit of such various and conflicted universalisms brought down what were perhaps the 20th century’s most extravagant and ruthless claimants—the 3rd Reich, the USSR, and imperial Japan—and may also yet undercut succedent, triumphalist victors—the USA and China. In the 9-11 War the US especially made it clear that any contradictions between exceptional-us and universalist-you cannot be resolved short of global conquest and submission, as did Caesar: Gauls (and so many others) made Roman at the point of the sword.
How can the US and China still celebrate such a primitive continuity in war—on one ritual-hand lashed on by visions of transcendence—and on the other desperate to find and kill the enemy other that might help fulfill us—all in such pulsing-media-neon?
The rites of war are still tied to an American theology of national apotheosis through battle. Our sacred identity, and its sure ascent—call it our destiny or the fate of democracy and freedom, or leadership or greatness or just power—must be celebrated in the burning Iliad log-crib bull-sacrifice: Because that is where identity lives.
But the national theology no longer rules Americans even as it did after 9-11-2001. Religious nationalism is in steep decline in the United States, just as it is across humanity. The fervent faith of a whole nation, leading it to the sacrifice on the high altar, has been emptied instead of belief. Canon has gone from scriptural to literary, official prayer and homily to stump political rhetoric.
Ironically it is the state that has venally pursued the unmaking of American religious nationalism, and thus the terrible hold of sacrifice and war. Yet the state was the greatest beneficiary of the construct itself, because an overarching reality-framework that let the state claim the lives of the people it “represented.” America’s representation gave it unprecedented authority among humanity. Even Universalist empires in Antiquity (and their “divine” emperors) only demanded such rights in extremis.
Modernity’s promise of personal-in-collective transcendence—realized through the states mobilization of the nation and then people’s triumphal sacrifice in war—gave the state unprecedented power. First Napoleon, and then the terrible triumvirate of the 20th century—Hitler, Stalin, and Mao—showed exactly what could be done with a reality-construct if truly embraced by millions and their industrial economic engine.
America—and then post-Stalin Soviets in the 1950s and post-Mao Chinese in the 1970s—ratcheted back the ritual. The state saw the disenchantment among their people. For a while too, this loss-of-authority-through-disenthralling was counterbalanced for the state by the greatest weapons’ juju of all time: “The Atomic bomb.”
But today the state lives off of the residual brand loyalty of societies to the national war and sacrifice franchise. The United States Government has crafted an instrument of war that fully decouples the mythic tradition of collective sacrifice from the nation, replacing it with highly ritualized enterprise of “all-volunteer” sacrifice. Here, a select few American citizens become our representatives in battle, while the nation merely affirms in return: “We honor your service.”
If anything, human sacrifice has returned to its provenance in Antiquity, where it was the province of the sacred king—who both fought the wars with his personal army, and who also in his sacred incarnation ensured the health and tranquility of the nation. Nowhere are such ancient traditions better exemplified than in today’s United States.
But this leaves Modernity’s Rites of Spring hanging. The passage from longing for the primitive—so fervently expressed by Diagalev and Stravinsky in Paris in 1913, and so extravagantly played out in blood months later in Alsace and Lorraine—may be in full recess, but is it going, soon to be gone? Or, as Dalton Trumbo wrote in his screenplay to the movie Spartacus, “waiting in the shadows for the event to call it forth?”
The passionate demonstration of our bodies as existential intermediation in ritual death has transformed us. Our 10,000-year passage has taken us from an original placation of the unknowable and irresistible, to an elegant tuning of mass political authority through staged manipulation of the sacred, to Modernity’s encompassing liturgy of identity, where mass sacrifice promised the divine transcendence of the nation.
In a time when war and sacrifice seem to be in recess, where we self-consciously seek to disenthrall ourselves of its bloody rites, the construct yet lives. More deeply the need that created it remains strong.