Library of Social Science
Enter your email to receive the LSS Newsletter:

Fighting Identity: Sacred War & World Change

Excerpts from: Vlahos, Michael (2008). Fighting Identity: Sacred War & World Change. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Security International.

26—The real key to “other” realization is the war relationship itself: seducing us into a co-dependent relationship where we assist their realization and legitimization…We are what they want. We are what they so desperately need. The commitment, the sacrifice, and the promise of transcendence: all of this is focused on engaging us. Why else take on the greatest nation-state? Nonstate actors need the superpower; they desire the superpower. Only the grand state—the world state—can confer legitimacy, the sacred nonstate prize.

29—Mark Schantz’s Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death. Was the sacrifice of the Southern soldiers so different from Taliban who ambush that armored American patrol? Are they not armed as well with the sure foreknowledge of their death? The woman who straps on a belt of C4 beneath her burka just takes the sacrifice one small step beyond. Always it is the sacrifice that shows the meaning: not the fact of its simple certainty.

33—Our identity is the sacred. What we hold most dear, what we cherish even to the sacrifice of our own life, is this belonging.

57—Only through the power of their sacrifice can the nation transcend. In the sacrifice, men are portrayed as Jesus, and their mein is as holy as that of the Son of God.

57–Muslim and American war-liturgies are truly contending but nonetheless related ritual forms. They are both equally messianic and also firmly apocalyptic, seeking revelation and the fulfillment of God’s Word. Also remarkably after 9/11 they eagerly engaged each other, almost as if drawing strength from one another.

71—The rhetoric of World War II was also ardently appropriated for a political cause and for a lesser if not unworthy venue. The result degraded America’s central sacred experience, risking national identity itself.

71—The shopping trope actually became quite celebrated as a symbolic sidelining of the American people, while actual ownership of the war was vested in a tiny fraternity of partisan elites…For all the extravagant seizure of World War II reliquaries, the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) gained no enduring world community support.

73—So right now in the spring of 2008, twin universalistic visions that have dominated the last seven years have failed. Both Americans and Muslims have rejected the lure of messianic vision. This may represent a rhythmic lull, a quiet time of weariness and fatigue. But it may also portend a long-wave decline in the force of the war-universal. Here are the last universalistic progeny of late antiquity, still seeking to deliver and unite humanity through military liturgy—but on an ebbing tide. Humanity’s universalistic visions promising transcendence through empire also promised global deliverance. But if these are in recess what idea will meet powerful rising demand for identify, and for collective belonging and transcendence?

73—Big Identity. I posit this as the very thing worth fighting for—meaning worth sacrificing your life for—where such sacrifice is immortally engraved as a sacred act.

79—We know that such narratives are sacred because they are existential—in other words the narrative defines reality, and the material world must fit itself to the narrative:

80—Those who critically examine sacred narratives are of course always heretics: not metaphorically but actually. Heresy is the necessary counterpoint of official orthodoxy—and hence heresy is expected.

81—Conceiving of human history as cultural creation that moves outside of coherent ordination is threatening. Heresy might be defined as alternative interpretations within a theological paradigm. Conceptualization standing outside of it, even in American political discourse, is thus simply apostasy. Fortunately apostasy in this society leads at worst to mild sanctions. Surely being dismissed or ignored or being coaxed to change the answer is much to be preferred to the strappado or the stake. But a complex culture that punishes—however mildly—the messenger bearing contrary signs of change is also a culture that is vulnerable, perhaps deeply vulnerable, to the denial of what it fears.

147—The identity of those who defend us is diverging from the larger American civic identity.

163—Hence the sacred cycle of the American Great War is like a liturgy—in ritual form and delivery of meaning, is a Mass. Like a Mass, we collectively share the sacrifice and transcendence, so that the meaning of our identity is renewed….Was it divine planning, or perhaps a deep-collective literary awareness, that made our first three Great Wars such perfect advancers of the story?

164—America’s Great Wars follow a mythic cycle. The cycle is familiar to all of us, and subconsciously a part of us:

167—The Last Great War Story? The United States had spent the 1990s reengaging the sacred narrative, with its elites wrangling over what the new framework should be. September 11 gave us the answer. Within days we were wrapped in the talismanic mantle of a fourth great war. The president met collective bated breath with the promise of a final passion of national transcendence and world redemption. The sacred cycle of America’s war was thus renewed.

173—America’s leaders out of their own prophecy saw apocalyptic war: a full-blown Great War in which humanity would be redeemed through altruistic military action. This strategy was to be played out in practice, and a national consensus put its full faith in the divine rule sets of a transformed American way of war relentlessly bearing the enemy to righteous destruction. Hence American leaders could talk about this war as though it was the final sequel to World War II. They sensed the war as a sacred exercise in identity to be realized through narrative. American success in its Great Wars was a given—our mythic stories told us so. We believed the narrative awaited only the pure of heart. Once we truly pledged apocalyptic commitment, we must prevail.

In our minds there could be no other way. Great war had always led to national epiphany. In its presence we would always rise and transcend. We simply had to work hard and persevere. For our leaders this was truly an article of faith. But so it was for almost all Americans.

177—The abiding essence of the American Way of War—and its narrative culmination in eternal victory—is reflexively and indissolubly tied to submission. So pure is our “fight for the right” and so evil the stain we fight, that only their ritual prostration can bring peace and their hope of ultimate redemption.

178—Without enemy submission we had no alternative military narrative. We denied ourselves the option of achieving political objectives by giving the enemy what he wants—even if that was clearly the best way to go—because our rhetoric had made this unthinkable. We are about victory—because this is how we memorialize our soldiers’ sacrifice & thus organize our collective mythic experience. In our rituals of American religious nationalism, seeking a relationship with the enemy can easily be made to seem like a desecration of hallowed sacrifice.

179—They make us their enablers. In the new “fit” we become agents of their story. Moreover, our world authority legitimates and anoints them among those they seek to convert. We become their secret weapon.

179—Entering into their fit means also entering into a world where we cannot escape the role they create for us in their grand drama—their drama of identity. The role we play as the Other in their passion play—evil, weak, even inhuman—is a central cultural ritual that is almost primitive in its emotional intensity and passionate symbolism. Why can we not see this? Here the enemy creates another paradox: by challenging our own identity they push us into an emotional codependency. We may have gone in thinking clinical experience, clinical outcome. But their riposte is a manhood challenge. Their very resistance inflames our nation’s spiritual need to prove its battle-worthiness and warrior ethos. We cannot resist their challenge. They hood us into their “fit”…and we are finished.

We are finished because our angry lash-out makes us even better helpmates. Practically this means that we sustain what motivates them—the evil other, the American dark enemy. Yet we also ratify their necessary story: that they are the frontline struggle against the evil invaders of Iraq.

187—Strength in a people and their culture is the strength of their identity…Identity that has its liturgy firmly tied to the life of society can only be put down through extermination. When narrative is broken or worse yet, betrayed and corrupted, then a people are suddenly adrift. They are lost. They may have every material comfort in place and untouched, and all their various arms and engines of power may be in full readiness. But the story, the sacred story has been diminished or even lost.

187—Iraq is botched narrative beyond the Israel-Hizbullah war. For us, faith in Biblical narrative was shaken. The United States was at risk of losing its whole mythos.

198—It is not romanticizing—a la Orientalism—to observe that this is root cultural evolution. What is astonishing in contrast is how casually Westerners assume that what people seek, only we can give—that what they seek is what we value—that any rejection of our value-assumptions and our authority to give them permission is actionable evidence of their deviance and criminality.

Our Orientalism—like all complex us-them messages—are messages about ourselves. The final mind-impediment to ditching COIN is our residual but deeply emotional tie to mythic images of Gunga Din or Zulu!—subconsciously carried forward to consciousness at least in how we see the enemy. Hence our battles against “bad guys” in Somalia, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Iraq are shard-like regluings of old European firefights regaled to refract today’s “struggle for civilization.”

206—We have no way of knowing what American identity will look like after 100 years of “global counterinsurgency.” MY JUDGMENT IS THAT WE WOULD BE FOOLISH TO WANT TO FIND OUT.

Our classical narrative, like that of Rome, encourages us to enter a story with only one exit. Having set up Western civilization versus Islamist barbarism as the plotline, we are faced with a binary denouement: victory of death. If we could only see that we are in the thrall of a literary artifact—sacred, surely, and we feel its ancestral weight—but at the same time, it is just a story. We have other choices—we can write other stories.
We can nudge the globalization pattern to our favor. Just as Rome & Byzantium grudgingly learned to co-opt enemies rather than always try to destroy them, so we can begin to build relationships with nonstate communities and movements. Yet again our narrative puts us in a reflexively weak position—“You are either with us or against us!”

207—But in this war we have shown that we like to fight first—and “no deals with terrorists” (most of the time!). By choosing cooptation only under extremis we make our best option a vice and our worst choice (fight!) a virtue. With the exception of glaze-eyed martyr-romantics, where a bullet makes for the best relationship, we should always buy-out, co-opt, and pay-off—and if they refuse our money, then get creative: “Make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

207—Here is that offer. The greatest strength America still holds is its authority to grant legitimacy. Like Rome & Constantinople we can make such grant and make it stick. We can raise-up still uncrystallized identities & give them realization. We did it for Kurdistan (but not for Kurds!) and we did it for the most-established Iraqi Shi’a faction (Hakim but not Sadr!). Moreover many fight us in the hope that legitimation surely lies at the end of their struggle against us.

209—Yet at home, the formal separation of American national identity can do this: it can make our majority society less connected to humanity, more self-indulgent, more afraid, and more passive; it can also make the 300 the chosen, and increasingly the main instrument with which a fearful America deals with the world…My prescription is hardly original and almost ordinary: National Service. All citizens. No exceptions. Reintegrate American national identity.