“National Identity is Strengthened by Lives that are Lost”
(Part I of Agnieszka Monnet’s paper War and National Renewal: Civil Religion and Blood Sacrifice in American Culture appears below. Click here for the complete paper with references.)
Understanding collective forms of violence begins with the writings of Carolyn Marvin. Library of Social Science is grateful for her foundational research—and has worked to bring her ideas to a wide audience (for example, please see here, and here). Dr. Monnet’s important paper conveys the essence of Marvin’s theory—and tests its validity by investigating several concrete cases.
Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet teaches American literature and culture at the University of Lausanne, and is Chair of the English Department.
Dr. Monnet is the author of The Poetics and Politics of the American Gothic.

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Wars are often associated with a rhetoric of renewal or “new beginnings.” I would like to examine the conditions which allow war – sometimes – to function as an occasion for a new purchase on a shared sense of national identity and common purpose. One critical frame that brings such a proposition into focus is the sociology of religion and group identity founded by Emile Durkheim and developed in America since the 1960s in terms of the notion of civil religion.

Specifically, I will consider a recent book which combines Durkheim’s insights with Réné Girard’s claims about the social function of ritualized sacrifice into a troubling argument about modern national cohesion as dependent on blood sacrifice. Even if many modern nation states define themselves as quintessentially secular and legal entities, inspiring healthy patriotism rather than overly emotional nationalism, they share with explicitly descent-based nationalisms a substratum of more “mystical” ideals and rituals.

The most important, complex, and seemingly irrational of these is self-sacrifice for the common good or the group. This willingness, closely associated with military valor and patriotic heroism, is in fact essential to the cohesiveness and endurance of any group, argue Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle in their book, Blood Sacrifice and the Nation (1999). Without it, a nation will not be able to defend itself and will not even want to. A nation that cannot inspire its members to lay down their life for it will inevitably fragment into clashing groups and lose its sovereignty.

While recognizing its central place in definitions of viable nations (those that produce a lasting sense of coherence and continuity in their populations), historians and scholars of national identity are at pains to account for the intensity of attachment that would induce individuals to die for their nation.

Moreover, the specter of Japanese suicide pilots and Islamic airplane hijackers, whose deaths may be understood as heroic sacrifices in their own cultural contexts but as terrorism in ours, complicates the work of distinguishing “appropriate” martyrdom from religious fanaticism. If, as Tom Nairn has suggested (1977), the nation is “the modern Janus,” no other aspect of national experience is more double-faced than patriotic self-sacrifice.

This essay will attempt to unpack some of the paradoxes raised by the notion of sacrifice in the context of US military history as well as the media treatment of the September 11 attacks, with a special focus on the sacred status of the flag and the ambivalent position of the soldier (and other uniformed servicemen such as police and firefighters).

My final objective is to probe the theory of national renewal based on blood sacrifice advanced by Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle by testing its explanatory power for two images that have become iconic as representations of military service and sacrifice: Rosenthal’s photo of the flag-planting at Iwo Jima and Thomas Franklin’s photo of Ground Zero.

Many nations also structure their national histories around the subsequent wars that they waged with other nations or internally. These events that organize national history and are sometimes (but far from always) associated with a regeneration of national cohesion and patriotic attachment. In the United States, the Civil War and the Second World War are widely regarded as the two most important military conflicts in terms of reorganizing national identity and renewing a sense of national purpose.

If America was “born” in the Revolutionary War, it is justifiable to say that it was “reborn” in the Civil War. Robert Penn Warren claimed (1961/1998) that the “The Civil War is, for the American imagination, the great single event of our history.” Before the Civil War, Warren contends, the United States “had no history in the deepest and most inward sense.” John Neff has proposed (2005) that the Civil War produced two separate national ideologies which could each be called a civil religion: the Lost Cause of the South, and the “Cause Victorious” of the North.

Most historians would agree that American national self-understanding changed significantly during the Civil War. One concrete example of this transformation is the shift in usage from the plural to the singular in relation to the United States, as in “The United States is a republic” as opposed to “The United States are a republic.” This shift is generally dated to around 1861, which is to say, the beginning of the Civil War, and helped American conceptualize the entity or cause they were fighting for (on the Union side, that is).

Another example of how the Civil War helped create a sense of common national identity is the way in which it occasioned the founding of a national military cemetery system. Up until the Civil War, the bodies of slain American soldiers had not been retrieved systematically from battlefields nor been the objects of special reverence. It was in 1862 that, for the first time, the U.S. government decided to set aside, by Act of Congress, special cemeteries to bury the bodies of those who gave their lives in defense of the Republic, and an entire network of sacred national sites was thereby created.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863) is a powerful mixture of political and religious rhetoric that should serve as a point of departure for any analysis of the notion of American civil religion. Although this concept no longer inspires the same intensity of debate as it did in the decade following Robert Bellah’s influential essay on the subject in 1967, it remains a compelling framework through which to understand the emotional and quasi-mystical dimensions of American politics.

Civil religion has been defined in a variety of ways, but I use it to refer to the way in which national institutions, rituals and ideologies function like a religion: dividing the world into sacred and profane spheres, providing constituents with a sense of supra-individual transcendence and collective continuity, and offering an emotionally satisfying frame for coping with death.

If national civil religion resembles traditional religions in these three aspects, the modern nation has wrested from religion a fourth aspect that it now monopolizes completely: the power to kill non-members for the sake of its self-preservation and to ask members to die in its name. Currently, only the nation-state legitimately holds this right, which is why the nation can be said to have replaced religion in the social organization of death.

Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg offers a revealing blueprint of how religious notions structure American political ideology. The word “dedicated” is used seven times in this speech of 267 words. The first use is completely neutral, in the sense of “committed to” or “defined by”: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

However, in the next lines, Lincoln begins to rework the meaning of this word, pushing it steadily into a religious frame. For example, the third appearance of the term is synonymous to “consecrate” or set aside as sacred, without actually saying so explicitly: “We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.”

To speak of “dedicating” a piece of land for burial purposes, while not in itself overtly religious, shifts the register of the term in a more religious direction by referring to an activity, that of burial, which had traditionally been a function performed by the church and not the state. Building upon this sense of the word, Lincoln repeats it once more in the next line, this time as an exact synonym of “consecrate,” and reinforces this meaning by the even more explicitly religious verb “to hallow.”

In other words, “dedication” has at least two different meanings in the Gettysburg Address: that of committing one’s self to a course of action or program, and a setting aside for religious or special purposes. When Lincoln says in the third paragraph that “we cannot dedicate” this ground, he performs a subtle but significant confusion between the two senses.

By arguing that the battle itself has “consecrated” the land, Lincoln shifts from the neutral to the religious sense of the word and moreover implies that the battle itself is somehow sacred. Sociologically, in the light of Durkheim’s theory, which locates the sacred in the experience of the collective, this makes sense, i.e. the battle is sacred because it is about the fate of the nation.

The concepts invoked here, i.e. dedication, consecration, and devotion, are used in ways that need to be understood not only for their rhetorical value, but for their ritual and performative function in the context of the official event at which they are uttered: the dedication of one of the very first war cemeteries. Lincoln was not only dedicating this one cemetery, he was defining the meaning and purpose of the war cemetery as a national institution.

In doing so, he articulated one of the most enigmatic paradoxes of national identity: namely, that it is strengthened by the lives that are lost in its name. The “devotion” inspired in the survivors by the sacrifice of the dead produces a “new birth of freedom,” a phrase that refigures the deaths of the soldiers into an image of birth linked to national identity through the word “freedom” (a term which vaguely but unmistakably signifies “America”).

In other words, death, figured and understood as willing sacrifice, invests the nation with a sense of purpose, collective feeling, and renewed unity. Although Lincoln’s speech invokes this transformative magic by which death becomes a “new birth,” it does not explain how it works. After all, the many deaths at Gettysburg could seem to dilute the cohesion of the Union and be figured as a tragedy to be regretted rather than an occasion for regeneration. The logic by which death re-energizes national solidarity and cohesion can best be understood through the disciplines of sociology and anthropology, and will be examined in a moment.