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Ideologies of War, Genocide & Terror


On this page we present papers and book extracts from some of the most important social theorists writing on warfare. Click a name from the list directly below to go to that theorist’s section of this page:

Paul Kahn

Because of his quiet, measured style of presentation, it is perhaps difficult to recognize Paul W. Kahn as one of our most radical social theorists. Passages from two of his books—Out of Eden and Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror and Sovereignty—appear below.

Passages from Chapter 5. In Kahn, Paul. (2006). Out of Eden: Adam and Eve and the Problem of Evil. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

To read the complete chapter, click here.

“The willingness to sacrifice for the creation and maintenance of political meanings always appears inconceivable to those outside of the community. We find it incomprehensible that Palestinians would be willing to blow themselves up for the maintenance of a political identity. But the suicide bomber is not different in kind from the Israeli soldier. Both know that political identity is a matter of life and death.

“Both sides in this conflict wonder at the capacity of the other to kill and be killed. Both sides try to apply a moral measure to the behavior of the other. In this, they each suffer from the same misunderstanding. Citizens sacrifice themselves and their children not because it is morally correct but because it is politically necessary. This a necessity, however, that can be measured only from within the political world of meaning.

“We have the same reaction to the sacrificial politics of others as we do to those who believe in different gods, rituals, and sacred texts. It literally makes no sense to us; it appears “crazy.” How, we wonder, can anyone believe that the gods appeared in that object or that place? Why would anyone think that wine can be the blood of Christ or that God would perform miracles for an enslaved people? This shock of difference, however, usually does not cause us to doubt our own beliefs. We think others strange, but that does not unmoor us from our own sacred rituals.”

Passages from Chapter 2. In Kahn, Paul W. (2008). Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror and Sovereignty. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

To read the complete chapter, click here.

“The destruction of bodies in modern warfare moves toward a generalized practice of torture. We have not so much abandoned the practice of torture as shifted the locus of an act of violent sacrifice—the genus within which torture is a specific cultural form. The battlefield is strewn with the disemboweled and beheaded, with severed limbs and broken bodies. All have died a terrible death in a display of sovereign power. To view the battlefield is to witness the awesome power of the sovereign to occupy and destroy the finite body. It is to stand before the modern, democratic equivalent of the spectacle of the scaffold.

“Viewing the battlefield from a certain distance, it is not even clear who is the object of sacrifice: the enemy and the conscript suffer the same threat and burden of physical destruction for the sake of making present sovereign power. Killing and being killed are bound together just as the sacral-monarch’s power to take a life was always linked to his own sacrificial character. The power to take a life is always linked to the willingness to give up one’s own life, for self-sacrifice marks the presence of the sovereign.

“Lincoln described the democratic battlefield as “consecrated ground.” It is the space within which the sacrificial character of modern politics shows itself. It is a field of reciprocal acts of self-sacrifice, in which enemies offer each other the occasion for displaying sovereign power. Arguably, the battlefield only makes sense as a space within which citizens might realize the possibility of transcending the finite conditions of their individual lives. There, they become more than themselves, which is why war figures in the modern imagination as such a powerful source of meaning.”

Passages from Chapter 5. In Kahn, Paul W. (2008). Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror and Sovereignty. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

To read the complete chapter, click here.

“The sovereign is born in a sacrificial shedding of blood that marks a new appearance of the sacred. One knows that the popular sovereign is present not by counting the numbers in the crowds but by witnessing acts of sacrifice. The power of the sovereign is that of taking possession of the body of the citizen, emptying it of any meaning that it may have previously represented, and claiming it entirely.

“That claim takes the twofold form of killing and being killed. Traditionally, the power of a god was displayed in its capacity to destroy. Sovereign violence perpetuates this elemental form of the sacred. Terrorist violence, no less than lawful forms of combat, is an insistence that others see the same presence of the sacred.”

“At stake in war is neither the life and death of the individual nor the distribution of goods but the existence of the sovereign as an imagined reality of transcendent value. The existence of the sovereign is not a state of being of individuals or institutions that can be objectively measured. The scale of an existential threat works entirely in the imagination, just as a threat to religious belief cannot be measured in actual numbers.

“When the killing and being killed of war begins, we see that instead of the state offering a means to the end of individual well-being, sovereignty shows itself as an end in itself. For this reason, there is nothing liberal about war. Because liberalism is fundamentally a commitment to a politics of reason through law. To think that war arises from substantive disagreements that can be resolved through law is like thinking that religious disputes over the locus of the sacred can be resolved in court.”

Richard A. Koenigsberg

Richard Koenigsberg, Ph.D is Director of the Library of Social Science. The passages appearing below are excerpts from online papers—adapted from his book Nations Have the Right to Kill: Hitler, the Holocaust and War. To read the complete paper click any of the titles.


The idea that “the individual must die so that the nation might live” has been put forth frequently in the course of the history of Western nationalism. This phrase reifies the nation-state, treating nations not as social constructions, but as if objects that substantially exist. The phrase suggests that countries are entities in their own right, separate and distinct from individuals.

So pervasive is the ideology of nationalism that when speaking of “France” or “Germany” or “America,” we must remind ourselves that these words refer to ideas or concepts created by human beings rather than to concrete objects or entities that substantially exist. A statement like “The individual must die so that the nation might live” suggests that nations have a life of their own; as if countries are living creatures, the preservation of which is more significant or valuable than the preservation of the lives of actual human beings.

In war, human bodies are sacrificed in the name of perpetuating a magical entity, the body politic. Sacrificial acts function to affirm the reality or existence of this sacred object, the nation. Entering into battle may be characterized as a devotional act, with death in war constituting the supreme act of devotion.


Gwynne Dyer in his classic study War (1985) cites General John Winthrop Hacket: “You offer yourself to be slain: This is the essence of being a soldier. By becoming soldiers, men agree to die when we tell them to.” Joanna Bourke in Dismembering the Male (1996) observes that the most important point to be made about the male body during the Great War is that it was “intended to be mutilated.” She notes that there was “no limit to the danger to which the male body could be subjected. Gunfire cut bodies in half.” In war, male bodies are turned over to the nation-state, and military leaders use these bodies as they see fit.

Why are the state and its military leaders allowed to take control of the bodies of soldiers? What justifies the mutilation and destruction of the male body? Underlying everything that occurs is the sacred ideal: one’s country or nation. The destruction of the male body in the First World War occurred in the name of entities or objects given names such as France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia, Italy, etc. These objects required or justified abject submission.


During the course of the First World War, soldiers’ bodies were fed into the jaws of battle under the assumption that the “life” of the nation was more significant than the lives of human beings. Individual bodies were sacrificed in the name of the greater glory of the body politic. The First World War represented the acting out of the ideological proposition: “The individual must die so that the nation might live.”

In war, the body and blood of the sacrificed soldier give rise to the reality of the nation. Killing and dying substantiate the idea that nations exist. The sound and fury of battle function to convince everyone that something profound and real is occurring. Warfare testifies to the existence of nations. Battle—the bodies of dead and wounded soldiers—anchors belief in material reality—persuading us that countries are more than social constructions.

When injury or death occurs on the field of battle: that is the moment at which blood contained within the body of the soldier flows out of him and into the body politic. The body and blood of the soldier—at that moment—act to energize or regenerate the nation: to bring it back to life.

Carolyn Marvin

Carolyn Marvin is one of our most profound theorists of warfare. The extracts below convey her central themes. Please click here to read excerpts from her book, Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag. To read Chapter 4,“The totem myth: Sacrifice and transformation,” click here.


Society depends on the death of its own members at the hands of the group. The nation is the shared memory of blood sacrifice, periodically renewed. At the behest of the group, the lifeblood of community members must be shed. The creation of sentiments strong enough to hold the group together periodically requires the willing deaths of a significant portion of its members. Group solidarity flows from the value of this sacrifice.

Merely as an idea, sacrifice has no permanent value. Real stakes are measured in bodies. The value of a sacrificial episode depends on how many bodies touch blood directly and how many other bodies are linked by personal ties of blood and affection to them. Bodily sacrifice is the totem core of American nationalism.

What is really true in any society is what is worth killing for, and what citizens may be compelled to sacrifice their lives for. The irrefutable sign of national faith, which we call patriotism, is making one’s body an offering, a sacrifice. To die for others is the ultimate expression of faith in social existence. The sacred is easily recognized. It is that set of beliefs and persons for which we ought to shed our own blood. Rituals that celebrate this blood sacrifice give expression and witness to faith.


Preserving the totem secret requires cooperation from both sacrificed and sacrificers. Insiders must offer themselves willingly, or appear to. We say that soldiers “gave” their lives for their country. The most useful sacrifices declare in advance of leaving that they face death willingly. Intimates of the victim are ritually bound to certify his willingness to die. Standing in for both victim and society, the family by blood or ordeal testifies that the victim bears no grudge in death. No blood vengeance will be sought on his behalf. No blame attaches to the group.

When the deaths of eighteen Army Rangers in Somalia threatened to expose the totem secret, the New York Times interviewed their families. A victim’s brother was reassuring: “Ever since childhood, he wanted to do it,” Mr. Pilla said. “He was always playing Army in the woods as a little kid. He was interested then in strategies and tactics. He liked to push himself as far as he could go.”

Sacrificial willingness assuages the guilt of the community that sends soldiers to die by denying its killing agency. Jamie’s father felt “sadness—absolutely,” he said. “But I am not bitter. It was my son’s decision. I could not have stopped him.” The son was willing. The father is blameless. The ritual is complete.


To keep the sacrificial secret, a pretext to slaughter group members must be created. The enemy constitutes the pretext. The more credible the threat, the more completely our motives are concealed. The more credible the threat, the more enthusiastically the group sends the victim to die (amidst general lamentation for the loss of its young), and the more group members believe they are not the cause.

We tell ourselves that the purpose of war is to kill the enemy. And it is. But what makes us feel unified is not the sacrifice of the enemy, but the sacrifice of our own—the supreme ritual of war. Though we set out to kill the enemy, only the savior’s death makes the ritual work.

If the ritual purpose of war were merely to kill the enemy, the deaths of some 40,000 or more Iraqis during the Gulf war would have made a lasting contribution to American national unity. Though the deaths of only 147 Americans testified to impressive American military superiority, its weak sacrificial impact caused the Gulf War to fade quickly as a unifying event. Wars whose unifying effects endure must be costly. Not winning or losing, but serious bloodletting is the important factor in ritual success.


Sacrifice to the totem god, the nation, implies the existence of a religious community of devotees who execute the sacrificial mission. This community is the military, though it strains conventional wisdom to think of soldiers as a religious class. Totem class members model and train for death. Soldiers are most familiar to us in images that show them conforming their bodies to the group discipline of military postures and gestures such as marching or standing at attention. This body work is prologue to the lesson of supreme sacrifice, of submission to the totem group.

The dynamics of sacrifice, or insider death, are as follows. Insiders consent to leave the group, which colludes in their execution. “Uncle Sam wants you!” goes the famous recruiting slogan in which Uncle Sam stands for the nation calling its sons to death, ritually transforming them. Sacrificial designates go willingly, becoming murderers so we can kill them more easily. The totem sends them to die but it is not their visible executioner. The enemy executes members of the sacrificial class.


The knowledge that the group must sacrifice its own to survive is a secret. We keep it secret by treating violence as primitive and morally suspect, a failure of social structure rather than an elemental component. Violence exists is presented as a last resort, a challenge to civilized modernity as the hallmark of the nation-state.

The totem secret demands that we must pose as unwilling killers. Our side must not shoot first. It is not we who want the blood of our sons. The enemy causes the sacrifice. Violence exists because of the Other and not because of us. We insist that the death of our own does not originate with ourselves. All group-sustaining violence poses as a reluctant response to violence that originates with others.

While totem violence is regularly enacted in rituals of unifying blood sacrifice such as war, this knowledge must be separated from devotees, as sacred things are, whenever it threatens to surface explicitly. We use the term taboo to describe the tension between the violent mechanism that sustains enduring groups and the reluctance of group members to acknowledge their responsibility for enacting it. To protect themselves from recognizing the source of group unity, citizens render totem violence and its symbols sacred, that is, unknowable.