Sacrificial Death and the Sacred Object

In a recent Library of Social Science Newsletter, Richard Koenigsberg wrote that:

Warfare constitutes a vehicle for “giving away” men and resources. Waging war is a gift to the god—one’s society or nation. One throws away men and material objects—wealth—in order to prove the greatness of one’s nation, which is measured in terms of its capacity and willingness to tolerate loss. 

Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes, author of The Twilight of the Bombs (2011), responded with the following question:

You tell me everything but what I most want to know: Why is loss perceived as victory? How does that infernal mechanism work? Surely something more is involved than simply “bigness of soul,” whatever that is. What’s the gain?

Gods arise out of sacrifice: if there were no one was willing to sacrifice for a god, how would we know that this god existed? How would we know that a nation exists?

When a suicide bomber blows himself up in the name of Allah, we kind of understand what is going on. We can imagine that someone might sacrifice himself for his god (Christianity had its martyrs). But if one doesn’t believe in Allah, one feels that the suicide bomber has died for nothing.

When a Japanese soldier or kamikaze pilot died, we can understand this as well. We can imagine that a human being might give his life for an Emperor or a nation, even if we don’t believe that the Emperor is god.

What is the mechanism? The sacrificial act—giving one’s life—functions as a testimony to the truth or reality of the entity in whose name the individual dies.

The term "martyr" derives from the Greek word meaning "to bear witness." When the suicide bomber dies for Allah, he bears witness to the intensity of his belief. Death constitutes “proof”—for himself and fellow believers. “Look, he’s giving his life for Allah. Allah must be real.” It’s difficult to imagine that someone would give one’s life if Allah were not real—that one would die for no-thing.

Those who do not believe in Allah are not convinced. Just because a suicide bomber blows himself up, we are not thereby persuaded in the reality of Allah.

Dying for the Emperor in the Second World War, Japanese gave witness to their belief that the Emperor was god. Still, citizens of other nations were not thereby persuaded of the Emperor’s divinity— simply because so many Japanese soldiers died.

On the other hand, we do not find it difficult to imagine why someone has died for his country, e. g., for France, Great Britain, or America. We believe in the reality of these entities, so death in their name makes sense.

It would appear that we are dealing with a common mechanism, which we might call the law of sacrifice. People give their lives in order to prove the reality of the sacred object with which they identify.

To return to the question: Why is the loss of life and material resources perceived or conceived as victory?

Because for those who make the sacrifice—whether they are dying for Allah or Japan or Great Britain—victory represents the triumph of belief. When people die in the name of a sacred ideal, we are persuaded that this ideal must be real.

People sustain loss in war in order to demonstrate the validity of the ideal in whose name loss is generated.

It takes a radical act of consciousness to imagine that—when we human beings give our lives for some-thing—we are dying in the name of no-thing.