The Ideology of Sacrifice is Hemorrhaging
Essay/Commentary by Michael Vlahos
Michael Vlahos responds below to previous LSS publications by Kelly Denton-Borhaug and David Weddle that appear here, and here. To fully appreciate Michael’s commentary, please read their essays as well.
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In his review of Kelly Denton-Borhaug’s, US War-Culture and Sacrifice, and Salvation, David Weddle summarizes her argument: “Deaths in battle are often designated as sacrifice, and therein a powerful motivation for warfare lies. American fervor for war is sustained by ‘sacrifice’ to name the loss of life in battle.”

In another issue of the LSS Newsletter, Denton-Borhaug observes that it seems that “the only words we have to speak about the wounds of war are steeped in sacrifice.”

In his essay, “The Rites of Spring,” Michael Vlahos states that War in Modernity was an “extended ritual demanding mass sacrifice in which the literal ‘body and blood’ of millions at once renewed and re-fertilized the nation.” However, he suggests, this national theology “no longer rules America as it once did.” The fervent faith of a whole nation—leading to sacrifice on the high altar—has been “emptied of belief.”

Taking his argument a step further in his essay presented here, Vlahos states that the authority of the sacrificial construction—that “enshrines the state” —has been “hemorrhaging.” People no longer see sacrifice as a “cathartic national group-hug of identity, meaning and belonging.”

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.

I share the views of Kelly Denton-Borhaug and David Weddle on the destructive side of religious nationalism in Modernity. And I share their vision of a future, more altruistic humanity—a humankind whose sense of meaning and belonging resides in our connections to one another.

But we live in a radically distorted world today, in which pain and stress denominate the bonds that define what it means to be human. Central to this tapestry of hurt is war. The practice of war represents an existential assault and daily shame.

Early human bands did not celebrate sacrifice—such a luxury would have been absolutely unthinkable. Likewise, they built their fragile human connections around sustaining the band: Meaning, simply, that cooperation was the prize of survival, and competition was the disaster.

Only in a world—a world we have relentlessly built where there are millions of "excess" meaning, available—humans, could we have conceived of a societal paradigm built on sacrifice in war. The pressures of creating a collective structure of belonging and meaning for a society of millions required a dramaturgy of transcendence.

This amazingly successful dramaturgy was best (most perfectly) realized through the sacred ritual of war. War in Modernity has been nearly infinitely accommodating to the creation of a canon and pantheon of sacrifice—with or without any particular church input (meaning, Christian or Muslim or Hindu). The sacrifice in itself has been the essential instrumentality forging meaning and belonging—ensuring a path of transcendence through ecstatic visions of collective identity.

This passionate framework completely failed, of course, in World War I. But societies found ways to keep it alive for another half century or so after 1918. Only now has it begun to fail spectacularly—in the very place it had seemed to be so successful, the United States. The claim of sacrifice as an exultation of identity and sure replenishment and renewal of the nation through blood (as promised by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, and every other leader in Modernity)—has begun to unravel in the West.

Throughout Europe and North America today, national identity exists almost totally without reference to the service of citizen-soldiers and sacrifice in war. Look around—there are no "citizen-soldiers," only "volunteer" professional legionnaires who serve the state.

Soldiers are no longer—as they were, say, in the nation-in-arms models that prevailed before World War I—a part of us. Now they are wholly alien and above us—as Halo-like gods of war serving a distant imperial state. So why should we lament their loss?

Since 9-11, sacrifice has been sustained almost by Government fiat. Americans are in effect cowed by the ever-aggressive example of select professional soldiers who have given their lives or limbs for a nation of contemptible, passive "civilians"—who represent what President George W. Bush called "shopping America."

But the authority of this entire construction—that enshrines the state and derogates ordinary American (citizens)—is hemorrhaging. People no longer see sacrifice as a cathartic national group-hug of identity, meaning, and belonging.

Because people no longer embrace this ancient design—created back in the day by America and France in times of existential revolution—we are free to throw off the machinations of the modern state (including the US Government). We are free to seek a sense of collective connection no longer tied to blood sacrifice.