The Primary Purpose of War is Ritual and Symbolic
By Michael Vlahos
Michael Vlahos, PhD teaches in the Global Security Studies program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences. For more information on Dr. Vlahos, please click here.
Book by Michael Vlahos
FIGHTING IDENTITY: Sacred War and World Change

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The primary purpose of war is ritual and symbolic. Seeing war in this way alters our traditional understanding. Ordinarily, we simply accept what our eyes tell us: War is what it is, and what it is—is what it appears to be. Things go boom for a purpose.

We understand war as instrumental. Physical violence is used to compel others to our will. We do this—war—and they do that—submit. At least this is the goal (although things do not always go according to plan).

But what if the primary purpose of war is ritual and symbolic? This means that war is instrumental of itself. It is the agency of itself. If the very creation of ritual and symbol is the goal of war—the objective is reached not as a consequence what is accomplished, but through the act itself.

Moreover, the ritual and symbolic act of war is not about them, but about us. If war's primary purpose is ritual and symbolic, then the creation of ritual and symbol through war is intended to create a feeling in us. Rather than simply creating a feeling in the enemy to submit, war is really about making us feel—well, good.

Good about what, exactly? Good in what way? Good for what reason? Answering these questions gives us the real answer to the original question: Why war?

Before offering, in explanation, a series of historical cases, I’ll give a foretaste of the argument. It is a classical first plate.

Why did Julius Caesar go to such bloody effort to invade and conquer Gaul—and then write a book about it? Certainly, Gallic prostration would advance his political ambitions—but what if Caesar's real goal was ritual and symbolic?

Gaul played a special, even mythic role in the Roman self-image. Had not Gallic tribes invaded time and again, once nearly destroying Rome? Gallia was huge: A muscular, untamed world bigger than Rome. The act of forcing the Gauls into submission would place Caesar into the highest pantheon of Roman ancestral heroes, like the saviors and even the founders themselves. 

So the entire Gallic war was shaped into a series of events where Romans transcended in battle over maddened hordes of warriors; in which all the prized qualities of Roman virtue could be shown to full advantage in triumph. Hence sieges became the ritual centerpiece of Caesar's campaign—because sieges showcased superior Roman technology, discipline, and staying power.

In a literary age that prized rhetoric over all arts, Caesar waged remorseless war—in which perhaps a million Gallic people died—for the highest ritual purpose of all: Writing a book. Because De Bello Gallico became in itself the forever-representation—even the incarnate embodiment—of the war. No mere narrative, it was to Romans the living symbol of their very identity: Their virtue enshrined in living legend.

Finally, after the last great battle—the epic siege of Alesia—Caesar brought the great chieftain of all the Gallic tribes back to Rome, enchained in a cage, and presented him to the Senate and People of Rome in that most solemn and illustrious ritual of all: The Triumph. Think of it: An entire war for a big parade!

But such comparisons end here. The ritual of the triumph in Roman antiquity was a religious event: It was more like a Mass than a parade. It was the literal realization of Roman identity, and the solemn celebration of Roman identity through the immortal achievement of Victory. It was the most sacred collective moment in Roman society—what their entire civilization lived for.

Thus Caesar was not only placing himself as a mythic hero in the highest pantheon of Rome, he was also giving to all Romans the very ticket with which they could themselves join the river of Rome, and meet their ancestors, heads held high, as among the greatest generation of all Romans.

Caesar fought in Gaul to extend and build on the very sources of meaning and belonging that constituted Roman identity, and so he became indissolubly connected with each individual Roman citizen in this sacred process. The Gallic war immortally embedded Caesar in his society through ritual and symbol.

Here the terrible and tragic physical activity—the slaughter of a million Gallic people—was simply a means to an end. But the end was not merely, say, the advancement of Caesar's political ambitions. It was the creation of an enduring feeling among all Romans—transmitted through ritual and symbol—that they all eagerly embraced. We know, even today, that Caesar's orchestration of ritual and symbol was so successful that it has been embraced even by us in nostalgic cinema and story.

Here it is crucial to note that the ultimate submission of Vercingetorix was important, yet still incidental (Caesar had pacified Gaul before this final insurgency) to the creation of Caesar's passage of ritual and symbol. But—talking like a military strategist—none of Caesar's goals or objectives look anything like a modern war college syllabus. For Caesar, the entire physical instrumentality of war was slaved to the service of the ritual and symbolic, meaning, to the ultimate existential feeling of Romans about themselves.

Thus Caesar's war on Gaul was an artfully constructed arrogation of Roman identity for his own personal purpose—and worse, it worked. Triumphantly. It is not for nothing that Caesar was Flamen Dialis—the high priest of Jupiter—and that he was thus so perfectly positioned to existentially understand how to orchestrate Roman visions of the sacred through war. But Caesar continues to have, unabated, a legion of imitators in our age, some nearly as expert and successful as he.

Above all, they all share this little secret, more powerful than a thousand atom bombs, that:

The primary purpose of war is ritual and symbolic.