“Iwo Jima and Sept. 11: American Sacrifice as a Ritual of National Regeneration”
(Part II 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.
From Richard Koenigsberg
Director of Library of Social Science

I discovered Professor Monnet’s paper online in the European Journal of American Studies (had it been published in a paper version, I never would have found it). My jobs is to scour the Web to identify the world’s finest scholars and scholarship. In the language of the Internet, this is the process of “curation.”

In a year, perhaps 50 people might have come across Professor Monnet’s paper in the online journal. In the next few days, 10,000+ people will have read an LSS Newsletters containing her paper. I call this the acceleration of research.

With the proliferation of content today, the main issue for an author is being found—getting people to know and use one’s own research. The essence of leadership, according to Seth Godin, is the art of “giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work.”

The mission of Library of Social Science is to provide scholars with a platform to reach a world-wide audience.

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.

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon, click here.

Since the Civil War, only World War II has come close to playing a comparable role of renewing a sense of sacred feeling and common purpose. In both cases, I am referring to a sense of collective unity that is articulated most clearly after the fact, in the national narrative and memory that finally takes stock of the event, and do not wish to eclipse the complexity of cultural forces that were in play during the actual events. During the Civil War, there were riots by draft resisters, and many Americans on both sides of the conflict felt that the price to pay for Union and Emancipation was far too high.

American participation in the Second World War also had its opponents and critics, even after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Nevertheless, World War II has been dubbed “The Good War” in common parlance because of its seeming moral clarity. The dropping of the atomic bomb and the firebombing of German cities may have tainted the moral high-ground claimed by the Allies for some observers, but the Second World War has nevertheless entered American national memory as the most important episode of collective effort and public solidarity in the twentieth century.

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo recalls the Second World War as the “last time that this country believed anything profoundly, any great single cause”:

We are good, they are bad. Let’s all get together we said, and we creamed them. We started from way behind. We found strength in this common commitment, this commonality, community, family. The idea of coming together was best served in my lifetime in the Second World War.

Besides evoking a Manichean moral simplicity commonly associated with WWII, Cuomo’s description of the war is most revealing in its curious last phrase: the idea of coming together being “best served” by the Second World War. “Coming together” is necessary for any group that wants to endure, and Cuomo’s slightly awkward phrasing inadvertently suggests that war is a means of fulfilling this need.

The currently recognized effectiveness of the Second World War in performing this function is clear from Cuomo’s emphatically redundant description of the unparalleled solidarity it created: “this common commitment, this commonality, community, family.”

As if this series of cognates of “common” were not enough, Cuomo follows up with the phrase “coming together,” emphasizing that the unity he describes does did not emerge automatically from a natural solidarity but is more accurately described as a defensive reaction to an outside threat, so therefore necessarily ephemeral. Rapturous accounts of World War II unity are inevitably either eulogies or jeremiads, but their shared trait is a regret that the sense of cohesion did not last longer.

Nonetheless, even if the glow of World War II as a collective experience faded in the decades that followed, and was overshadowed by the divisive war in Vietnam and other crises of political authority, it can be said that World War II still remains for the time being the most effective functional paradigm for interpreting large-scale death in a national narrative.

This became especially clear during the Sept. 11 attacks in New York. Although the initial comparison that many commentators made was with Pearl Harbor, the image that dominated the media in the weeks after the attacks (and which has since been immortalized as a postage stamp), Thomas Franklin’s photo of firefighters raising a flag, drew comparisons with a very different World War II event: the planting of the flag on Iwo Jima.

If the comparison with Pearl Harbor needs no explanation (though it certainly requires qualification), the logic of mapping Joseph Rosenthal’s famous photograph onto the rubble of the Twin Towers deserves careful unpacking. Why should that image of territory-marking in the Pacific be a framework for mediating and understanding the attack on New York? What exactly is the connection, besides the compositional similarity of the photos?

One obvious answer is the “rising from the rubble” metaphor suggested by the devastated landscape of both images. Yet this answer is not entirely satisfying since the devastated landscape on Iwo Jima is foreign land and the flag-raisers are the authors rather than victims of an attack. In other words, the rubble is not theirs to rise from.

I would suggest that Iwo Jima was invoked in the wake of 9/11 for another reason: its depiction of American sacrifice as a ritual of national regeneration. Although the photo is generally understood to signify victory, it is also understood to evoke the high cost of that victory. The fact that Iwo Jima was one of the bloodiest landings of the Pacific campaign is indissociably linked to the cultural status of the photo.

Among the various meanings attributable to the Rosenthal photo, then, mass death is one. In fact, as Clint Eastwood’s 2006 film, Flags of Our Fathers, reminded us, three of the six soldiers in the Rosenthal photo died in the days following the picture-taking (the photo was taken on the third day of a month-long battle). However, instead of depicting corpses or wounded men, as many war photos do, the photo depicts in the most vivid possible terms the loyalty of American troops to the American flag and therefore to America (the photo depicts this regardless of the question of whether the soldiers actually felt such patriotism or had simply been ordered to raise the flag).

The tacit message behind this deliberately choreographed show of patriotism is that these young men are willingly fighting and dying for America. In Blood Sacrifice and the Nation, Marvin and Ingle argue that only willing self-sacrifice can function successfully to create a sense of national renewal. Soldiers and other uniformed servicemen, by definition, are understood to be willing to lay down their lives for the nation or for others.

In other words, the photo of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima became such a powerful and popular icon of military service because it shows soldiers demonstrating their loyalty to the flag, and thereby to the nation it represents, in a clear and unambiguous tableau, against an invisible backdrop of massive fatality. The fact that the deaths at Iwo Jima can therefore be considered willing sacrifices gives them great ritual power in terms of generating the “heightened devotion” invoked by Lincoln at Gettysburg.

Accordingly, it could be argued that the American media invoked Iwo Jima as an interpretive schema to make sense of the Sept. 11 attacks in order to frame them in the regenerative terms of national sacrifice. Yet, since most of the 2976 people who died in those two buildings were not willing sacrifices, unlike soldiers in battle, they did not fit well in this narrative.

Marvin and Ingle’s insistence that group members must seem willing to die for the group in order for their deaths to successfully generate group cohesion can help explain the way firefighters and other uniformed public servants became the almost obsessive focus of the national media in the weeks following the attacks. It is particularly striking how much emphasis was placed on the volunteer aspect of their commitment to their work.

The thirst for narratives of self-sacrifice was so strong that one woman, Tania Head, became nationally famous for her fraudulent account of being saved by a man who then went back into one of the towers and died. The revealing thing about this hoax is that the perpetrator did not invent a story of her own miraculous escape or heroism but a story of someone else’s heroic death. She intuitively sensed that self-sacrifice generates far more emotional and symbolic currency than survival, no matter how lucky.

If the immediate reaction of the media was to read the Sept. 11 attacks in terms of World War II frames of reference, President Barack Obama gestured rhetorically back to Gettysburg in his speech commemorating the attacks in 2009. Calling on the American public to make Sept. 11 serve as an occasion for national renewal, Obama said: “On a day when others sought to sap our confidence, let us renew our common purpose, let us remember how we came together as one nation, as one people, as Americans united.”

Echoing Cuomo’s description of World War II, Obama invokes the ideals of “coming together,” a “common purpose,” “one nation” and “one people.” Speaking of the death of nearly 3000 Americans as an occasion for unity, Obama invokes the familiar rhetoric of national renewal based on mass death.

In order better to understand how a compelling sense of national unity and renewal can be generated by a massacre like the Sept. 11 attacks, we need to look into sociology and specifically the concept of civil religion, which is concerned with the religious or emotional aspects of nationalism.

This is a field that historians shy away from because it does not lend itself to the same kind of empirical analysis as political speeches and historical events—yet it exerts a fascination because it represents the unexamined core of patriotism as attachment or strong feeling that is defined precisely by a willingness to die for one’s country.

Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983/2006), one of the most influential recent works on national identity, begins and ends with attempts to reflect on this question and yet consistently shies away from engaging with it head on:

In the preceding chapters I have tried to delineate the processes by which the nation came to be imagined... But it is doubtful whether either social change or transformed consciousness, in themselves, do much to explain the attachment that people feel for the inventions of their imaginations—or, to return to a question raised at the beginning of this text—why people are ready to die for these inventions.

As Anderson reminds his readers in this passage, the processes of national identity formation through media and shared texts do not fully account for the power of these attachments. Anderson can only express puzzlement at the force of these feelings, which he consistently equates with and defines by the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for the idea of the nation.

It is this willingness that motivates yet eludes his efforts at analysis, as they focus on tangible institutions such as museums, newspapers, the census, and other inventions of written culture. However, the willingness to die for one’s group is not an invention of the nation state. It has a far longer pedigree and can attach itself to groups of any size. Nevertheless, the nation-state is currently the only group that can legally demand its members to sacrifice themselves for its sake.