The Transhuman Soldier: A Comparative Look at World
War I and the Iran-Iraq War
by Babak Rahimi
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Babak Rahimi is Assistant Professor of Iranian and Islamic Studies at the University of California at San Diego.


What did Germany, France and Great Britain (1914-1918) have in common with Iran and Iraq (1980-1988)? Millions of young men were asked to run into machine gun fire and artillery shells—to be killed and/or dismembered. Historians tend to view events as unique phenomena. Why then the same bizarre forms of behavior in two widely separate historical cases? Does calling something “war” actually reveal or explain anything?

I present this essay as an exploration of the role of the ideology of self-sacrifice in warfare. I show how self-sacrifice on the battlefield reflects not simply an “altruistic” action imbued with ideals of service for one’s community, but rather a denial of individual existence. The dead soldier represents a source of creative vitality for the regeneration of the community. He is transformed into a supernatural force.

The Sacred Soldier and the Ideology of Consecrated Death

Although the First World War may appear to differ from the Iran-Iraq War, the theme of the glorification of a soldier’s death on the battlefield identifies a central ideological theme for the two wars.

In the Iran-Iraq, like the First World War, soldiers were deployed to the frontlines where they fought and died as a way of giving up something of themselves, namely their lives, for something greater than their individual realities: the political and religious communities (“spirit of England”, “Islamic Iran”, “Umma”, “Ardulfurataini Watan” or “Land of Two Rivers”).

Lives were lost on the battlefield not simply due to failures (or successes) of military operations, but as voluntary thrusts for combative action shaping national or religious identities in the act of self-sacrifice. The sacrificed blood of a soldier bestows, or offers, a new life for the community, as it identifies the reality of the nation displayed with the destruction of each body on the battlefield.

Much like the Anzacs in Gallipoli or the Germans at Verdun, the Iraqi or Iranian soldiers fought for the greater “spirit” of their nation. But more importantly they fought in order to restore the life of their respective communities through the resurrection of an Arab secular nation (Iraq) or the expansion of a revolutionary Islamic nation (Iran).

As the ANZAC or Iranian soldiers fight—get slaughtered and gunned down under the enemy fire—their death attains a supernatural existence with the glory they attain in sacrificing their individuated selves for the nation. The martyr “gives us life” by conquering his natural, biological process of living as a human being, the process of birth, maturing, aging and dying. He attains a new form of life beyond his individual existence, the here-and-now, a transcendental being that identifies the permanent status of the collective body that is the nation.

With his sacrifice, the soldier transforms the ordinary cycle of existence into something livelier and more transhuman. His sacrifice on the battlefield becomes a creative event not only because it ”gives us life” to conquer death. He attains a sacred quality with his ability to generate an all-too-superhuman vitality, a sacred death of transcendental reality. The act of sacrifice empowers the self of a soldier against the natural process of demise—and towards the creation of a transcendent entity in which the sacrificed soldier can participate as a sacred being.

The unavoidable compromise which the ideology of sacred death makes with the world of everyday life is mitigated by its reintroduction of life as a quest to preserve or attain a transcendental entity (a national or a religious body). In both the First World War and the Iran-Iraq War, self-sacrifice is closely linked with something extraordinary that transcended the ordinary, mundane world of perpetual death.

The experience of death for the community or nation enables the soldier to participate in the immortality of a transcendent entity. The act of self-sacrifice in war consecrates death as a source of regeneration of community. The soldier believes that he is dying for something greater than himself that will outlast his individual, perishable life—to be replaced by a greater, eternal vitality.

The supernatural quality of a sacrificed soldier goes beyond the battlefield. As both the First World War and the Iran-Iraq War illustrate, the soldier’s death continues as a regenerative force—manifesting in the process of memorialization. The commemorative ritual constitutes the most significant aspect of the sacrificial process—a gift-offering event to regenerate the nation. The ritual mechanism recalling the “heroic” death of soldiers from the past—reproduces the nation as a collective body for future generations.

As the First World War and the Iran-Iraq war demonstrate, the sacrificed soldier is not eliminated but resurrected in the form of a memorial at the battlefield, where the nation is empowered as a sacred ideal. The ideology of self-sacrifice is central to warfare, promising a permanent order: a collective body for which the soldier sacrifices his life.