“The Soldier Body and the Flag Body”
(Part III 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.

One of the objectives of Library of Social Science is to bring together the research of some of the world’s most creative and insightful scholars—so that one piece of writing builds upon the next. The online publications below discuss issues raised by Monnet’s paper.

Dr. Monnet is the author of The Poetics and Politics of the American Gothic.

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

The social theorist whose work has been the most pertinent to this issue is Emile Durkheim, especially in his late work Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1915). Durkheim’s most influential idea in this study is that social belonging is essentially the root of religion, since religious feelings (i.e. awe, submission to a greater power, and a sense of the sacred and profane) originate in the admiration and fear that the individual feels before the power of the collectivity.

The collectivity has the power to protect or to harm the individual, and so the individual’s basic attitude towards the group is necessarily an ambivalent one of attraction/attachment and awe/terror. Durkheim argues that every human society makes a distinction between the sacred and profane and that this too is rooted in collective experience.

That which is set aside as “sacred” is invested with the meaning and the power which is basically that of the group, i.e. it is a sign for the collectivity. In the aboriginal tribes that Durkheim used as the basis of his theory, the sacred takes the form of a totem. Durkheim further argues that the religious practices of aboriginal tribes are able to reveal the universal traits of all religions and all societies.

Their “primitivism” does not make them qualitatively different from the monotheism of more “advanced” societies, but gives them rather the status of basic common denominator or structural skeleton of all religions. Interestingly, when Durkheim casts about for a modern equivalent to the totem, he does not cite the Christian cross but the national flag. Flags are our modern totems insofar as they are the emblems that represent the most widely respected collective units, not tribes in our case but nation-states. In Durkheimian sociology, then, the modern equivalents of totem and tribe are flag and country.

This insight intersects with some of the work done in the field of civil religion. However, much of the work on American civil religion in the 1970s that followed Robert Bellah’s attempt to apply Durkheimian notions to American culture may have misconceived the location of the sacred in American society.

While scholars debated the interpenetration of religion and politics in Presidents’ speeches and the supposed sanctity of the Constitution in American politics, the totemic status of the flag as an embodied symbol of American sovereignty was largely overlooked. In other words, historians focused on texts, myths and rhetoric, but ignored the quasi-religious rites and sacred objects that could define American civil religion.

Yet, when we think of the omnipresence of the American flag at official ceremonies, government offices, public buildings, schools and sports events, as well as the elaborate rules that govern its fabrication, handling and disposal, it is impossible to deny that there is an element of the sacred attached to this object. More striking still is the way in which the bodies of dead soldiers are ritualistically covered by flags, and how flags are given to families in lieu of the body of the slain soldier.

There is a physical continuity between the flag-body and the soldier-body that Durkheim’s theory of the religious basis of society goes further towards explaining than any official account of why flags are given to soldiers’ families. Finally, not only the intense emotions around flag-burning and flag desecration, but the various Supreme Court decisions concerning the treatment of the flag suggest that it is not explicitly treated as a religious object only because its status is regarded tacitly as higher than any other religious symbol.

This is the point missed by Robert Bellah and other scholars: civil religion does not function like other existing religions because it transcends them in relation to the collectivity as a whole. While many people have abandoned religious beliefs and practice, it is almost impossible to have no nationality.

Even people who have lost their citizenship one way or another usually consider themselves as “belonging” to some nation in at least a spiritual and cultural sense. The main point here is that nationality is generally the first and most important way that social life on this planet is organized. It commands the most primary emotions and its leaders, representatives, institutions, and flags require the highest degree of respect.

While the claim that the American flag is a kind of totem may still be accepted by most historians, Marvin and Ingle’s argument that the nation is regenerated most effectively by blood sacrifice is more problematic.

This is where Réné Girard’s work on the sacrifice comes in. In Violence and the Sacred (1972/2005), Girard argued that societies are naturally rife with tensions and conflicts— and that they can avoid internal violence only by directing this aggression towards a common object. This sacrificial scapegoat allows the group to maintain internal peace by being purged or destroyed.

Similarly, Anthony Marx argues (2003) in a recent study of national origins that nation-states did not merely replace the Church, as is commonly accepted, but that they harnessed the exclusionary tactics and deep passions of religious identity into nationalist politics. Linking Christian martyrology to modern nation-formation, Marvin and Ingle argue that national cohesion is always constituted on the basis of a collective “victimage” or collective sacrifice. 

In other words, as nations tend to view their history in terms of foundational moments of collective sacrifice, such as wars of liberation or other moments of great loss of life, the intensity of their sense of national unity and loyalty is based on a sense of ongoing identification with these foundational sacrifices. Here we return to Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg and his hope that the casualties buried in that new war cemetery would inspire the living to “dedicate” themselves to the cause of American nationhood.

Although nationalistic rhetoric tends to rely heavily on the notion of sacrifice, and we are all familiar with such phrases in political speeches, the idea that nations might actually “need” members to be willing to die for them can appear prima facie as a revolting claim. For many modern subjects, the idea of the nation serves as a powerful ideal of community and social justice.

Civic nationalism promises to transcend and reconcile ethnic, religious, and all other differences by congealing a disparate population into a kind of imagined family linked by citizenship and mutual solidarity, and it is in this utopian guise that the idea of the nation inspires powerful emotions in people across the political spectrum. Modern political theory defines the role of the nation-state primarily as one of protection: of nationals from non-nationals, and of citizens from each other.

Therefore, nothing could seem more wrong (even “sacrilegious”) than to propose that the nation might need members to die for it on a regular basis in order to sustain its sense of unity. Following Girard’s contention that some rituals require participants to be unaware of their true meaning and function, Marvin and Ingle argue that the true nature of war as national sacrificial ritual is the object of a powerful taboo.

Although willing sacrifices create powerful group feeling, and political speeches such as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address tacitly acknowledge this, the group or nation cannot know that it needs members to die or that it finds ways to send them to die. This fact cannot be explicitly articulated or understood or the ritual will not work.

The class of willing sacrifices that every viable nation possesses is its military, which is why soldiers are something like a priestly order: subject to strict selection, training, rules, and privileges. In the US, the mandatory Soldier’s Oath binds the pledger to protect the Constitution and obey orders given by the President and his representatives:

"I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God." (Title 10, US Code; Act of 5 May 1960 replacing the wording first adopted in 1789, with amendment effective 5 October 1962).

The mixture of national and religious rhetoric (“true faith”, “So help me God,” “appointed” officers) is striking for a nation which has made the separation of church and state a cornerstone of its national creed, but this is to miss the point that the state is itself a kind of church for all practical purposes.

The other striking thing about the Oath is that it contains several important omissions. While explicitly naming the Constitution as the sacred text of the United States, it respects the taboo on naming the real sacred symbol, i.e. the flag. Nevertheless, while many soldiers would lay down their life to keep an American flag safe, none would risk injury to protect a copy of the Constitution (or even the original document, for that matter).

The other important omission in the Soldier’s Oath is any reference to killing or dying, which finally are the two basic tasks that the soldier is authorized to do and which sets him/her apart from ordinary citizens. These all-important implications are couched in the neutral pledge to obey the President and one’s hierarchical superiors in the Army who represent his sovereign authority.

The direct and explicit relationship of each soldier to the highest sovereign power in the group articulated in the Soldier’s Oath, binding each oath-taker directly to the President, reveals something about why military service occupies such a charged and often coveted place in national experience.

Military service confers on soldiers a privileged relationship to totemic power, the power linked to sovereignty and to the most sacred sites, objects and moments in national life. This heightened relationship to national belonging is the reason why military service continues to be prized by young men seeking a rite of passage and a link to something greater than their individual lives.

It is also the reason why women have fought to be accepted into the military and why African Americans and other ethnic groups have eagerly served in every major war. Military service bears a special relationship to citizenship and offers the promise of unassailable national credentials.

And yet, soldiers are often objects of intense popular ambivalence. The negative stereotypes of soldiers as unthinking automatons or lawless brutes are rooted in a common perception that soldiers are qualitatively different from civilians: they are linked to death, either by killing or agreeing to be killed.

The unquestioning willingness to die, though appreciable in certain specific circumstances, nevertheless creates suspicion that servicemen are uncritical: naive fools in the best of cases, brainwashed robots in the worst. These negative perceptions are even greater in the case of combat veterans who have killed as well as risked their lives.

The fear and contempt aroused by Vietnam veterans in the 1970s (before their rehabilitation by official ceremonies and shifts in media depictions in the mid-1980s) revealed a discomfort that is latent in the civilian attitude towards veterans of any war.

The official and public respect accorded to military personnel, all the more ubiquitous and ostentatious since the beginning of the Iraq War, conceals the fact that there is necessarily a tension between civilians, focused on their pleasure and profit, and the class of people designated for exposure to death and injury supposedly to protect them (though, in actual fact, few American wars have been truly defensive, most advancing economic and imperial interests of limited relevance to the majority of the population).

Thus, the suspicion and distrust is often mutual (with veterans voicing resentment about having been sent into danger by a population that doesn’t seem to appreciate what soldiers have risked and lost). This mutual incomprehension came to a head during the Vietnam War but is always present to some degree.