The following passage appeared in a recent issue of our Newsletter:

British political leader David Lloyd George stated (Haste, 1977) that every nation during the First World War conducted its military activities as if there were no limit to the number of young men who could be “thrown into the furnace to feed the flames of war.” The First World War was a perpetual, driving force that “shoveled warm human hearts and bodies by the millions into the furnace” (Gilbert, 2004).

Lawrence Besserman, Professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and author of Sacred and Secular in Medieval and Early Modern Cultures responded:

"Thrown into the furnace"—horrific quotes, and I thought only the Muslims believed in death as victory. But the metaphor of men thrown into the furnace implies something we might be overlooking: bodies/lives as fuel to drive the engine of the state. An Industrial Age perversion that mirrors the ancient conception that the gods need human sacrifice to be satisfied?

John Horne (in Coetzee and Shevin-Coetzee, 1995) analyzed the published letters of French soldiers. The theme of many of these was sacrifice as a source of redemption and renewal. Contemplating the warriors who had fallen, French soldier J. Saleilles wondered whether their “gift of blood” was not the “supernatural source of the renewal of life which must be given to our country.”

What does it mean to say that the renewal of a nation’s life depends upon a “gift of blood”? This phrase links the soldier’s death to the more abundant life of one’s nation. When injury or death occurs on the battlefield, the blood contained within the body of the soldier flows out of him—into the body politic. The body and blood of the soldier fuels or regenerates the nation.

Writing in 1916, P. H. Pearse (in Kamenka, 1973)—founder of the Irish Revolutionary movement—observed with pleasure the carnage of the First World War:

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

The world needed to be warmed with the “red wine of the battlefield.” The outflowing of blood—millions of lives “given gladly for love of country”—constituted a form of nourishment for the nation-state.


It is often said, “The individual must die so that the nation might live.” During the First World War, the bodies of soldiers were fed into the jaws of battle under the assumption that the “life” of the nation was more significant than the lives of individuals. The body politic consumed human bodies, giving rise to the reality of the nation.

When the British asked their soldiers to get out of a trench to run into opposing machine gun fire (for example, at the Battle of the Somme), we say that Germans killed the British soldiers. We might just as well say that the British killed British soldiers.

Scholars spend lifetimes analyzing the political machinations, conflicts and blunders that led to the outbreak and perpetuation of the First World War, scrutinizing every battle.

owever, after all is said and done, the best—most parsimonious—conclusion one can draw about the First World War is: “Nations killed a lot of people.”

During the Aztec period, Mexican city-states fought other Mexican city-states in order to capture sacrificial victims and feed them to the gods. Upon returning from one typical battle, Aztec warriors reported to the emperor Moctezuma (1502-1520), telling him that they had taken a goodly number of captives, but that 370 of their own warriors had died, or been lost through capture. Moctezuma replied:

“Behold, brothers, how true was the word of the ancestors who taught us that the sun…feeds alike from both sides” (in Brundage, 1986).