“The Ritual of War and National Solidarity”
(Part IV 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.)
From Richard Koenigsberg
Director of Library of Social Science

Monnet says that her paper explores the rhetoric of war through the lens of a “recent” book by Marvin and Ingle. I often explain to Mei Ha that publishers and scholars have a different view of what “recent” is. But Blood Sacrifice in the Nation was published in 1999! Recent?

I get it—entirely.

In “Authorship and Readership as a Developmental Process,” I suggest we think about books in terms of what they do—rather than as material objects.

What (significant) books do, of course, is to generate transformations in our ways of thinking about ourselves and the world. Books change us psychologically. Psychic change gives rise to cultural change.

In Part II of her paper, Monnet points out that although nationalistic rhetoric relies heavily on the notion of sacrifice, the idea that nations actually ‘need’ members to be willing to die for them can appear “prima facie a revolting claim.”

Revolting, disturbing, yes. But what if this hypothesis is correct? What if it is true that nations are maintained by virtue of sacrificial death?

Is Blood Sacrifice and the Nation a “recent” book? Yes, if this means that we are just beginning pay attention. It may take years to assimilate or digest certain ideas: readership and authorship are a developmental process.

On the Origin of Species was published in 1859—and we are still in the process of coming to terms with it.
Dr. Monnet is the author of The Poetics and Politics of the American Gothic.

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

Military service possesses a truly unusual status in relation to the nation-state: it is defined by a direct appropriation of the individual in the service of the group. In fact, the whole point is to de-individualize the individual and to make him as unlike a civilian as possible.

Thus, military training is characterized by strict discipline and the foregoing of civilian freedoms. The overt rationale for the strictness of military discipline is to make soldiers effective and to save lives, but an anthropological view would focus on the ritualistic aspect of practices that organize access to legalized murder and self-sacrifice.

Surely one of the most shocking images in Michael Moore’s anti-war film Fahrenheit 9/11 was that of American soldiers in Iraq drunk and stoned and blasting loud rock music as they careened lawlessly through Iraqi streets shooting from tanks. Moore’s objective in showing these images was to undermine the credibility of the entire military operation, since soldiers are supposed to be chaste and sober in order for their access to killing to be acceptable. By showing the irreverent attitude of American servicemen to their mission, Moore wished to show that the war itself was corrupt and wrong.

In doing so, he was reviving a cultural narrative that had emerged during the Vietnam War, which characterized the soldiers of that war also as lawless and the war itself as illegal. The image of the Vietnam soldier as insubordinate and generally lawless is often linked to the fact that America failed in Vietnam.

In fact, all wars since WWII have been failures, as far as regenerating a collective sense of purpose and national cohesion is concerned: so-called successful ones, such as the Panama Invasion and Persian Gulf, as ineffective in this respect as the failures (e.g. Vietnam) and stalemates (e.g. Korea).

The issue of why some wars “work” as national rituals of renewal and some do not is the subject of a chapter of Marvin and Ingle’s book listing several “conditions” that need to be met. These conditions are rooted in the ritual aspect of the theory and need to be understood in anthropological rather than political terms. First of all, according to Marvin and Ingle, the greater the number of deaths, the greater the effect of national “coming together” and patriotism.

The two most “successful” wars in this regard in the history of the United States were the Civil War and World War II. In the first, nearly one in ten able-bodied adult males were killed or injured. In the second, the percentage of deaths relative to the population was smaller, but 82% of American men between the age of 20 and 25 were drafted or enlisted, and therefore at risk.

An important corollary of the first condition is that only member deaths count, not enemy deaths. This would explain why the effects of the First Gulf War, with over 85,000 Iraqi deaths but only 147 American casualties, were so fleeting. Common sense would suggest that such a resounding victory would translate into a longer lasting sense of national unity and pride, but scholars all agree that the war faded quickly from popular memory and concern.

Similarly, the War of 1812 (with 2,260 killed), the Mexican American war of 1846-48 (with 1733 deaths) and the Spanish American War of 1898 (with 385)--each had little long-term impact on American national self-definition, and even the Korean and Vietnam Wars (with around 50 and 60 thousand casualties, respectively) did not touch nearly as much of the population as WWII with its 400,000 deaths (and over a million combined deaths and wounded).

However, Korea and Vietnam failed to meet other ritual conditions listed by Marvin and Ingle, including the requirement that the sacrificial victim must be (or appear to be) willing. The victims, and again, this refers generally to soldiers, must declare themselves willing to die for the cause, and the group must declare itself willing to sacrifice them.

If the Soldier’s Oath is the formal declaration of the soldier’s willingness, an official declaration of war is the standard way in which the nation indicates its willingness to bear the cost of war in soldiers’ lives. The Vietnam War was a failure in all respects, as far as this condition is concerned, because first of all, the US government never formally declared war on Vietnam, and secondly U.S. soldiers were increasingly unwilling to die or even fight in the war as it lost popular support in later years.

Popular support is, in fact, another condition for a war to have lasting effects on national cohesion. The most reliable producer of what Marvin and Ingle call “unanimous victimage” (i.e. widespread popular consent for member sacrifice) is a credible enemy. WWII was an ideal war because it offered enemies that were unambiguously worth killing and being killed by.

The pretext for war must also be seen as coming from the outside, so as to better conceal the fact that the nation will benefit from its soldiers’ deaths. Again, Pearl Harbor offered the US an ideal war situation, and Presidents have always made an effort to create the impression that American military involvement is a reaction to a belligerent attack rather than a preemptive move (e.g. the fictive Gulf of Tonkin missile attack in 1964 cited by Johnson as his casus belli in Vietnam).

Fourth, there must be genuine uncertainty of the outcome, and the greater the uncertainty, the greater the ritual magic and enduring effects of the outcome. The Revolutionary War, the Civil War and WWII all share this feature. There was no certainty from the start that the American rebels would succeed or that the Southern rebels wouldn’t. It is also plausible that Normandy has had such an enduring power over the national imagination because its outcome was so unsure at the time.

Similarly, James Bradley’s account (2000/2006) of the Battle of Iwo Jima in Flags of Our Fathers lays special stress on the way in which the unexpectedly high losses caused “a sickening anxiety” about the outcome of that operation. It took 23 days to secure the island, far more than anyone predicted, and success was likely but far from guaranteed. Iwo Jima was the only battle of the war where the losses of the victors outnumbered the losses of the defenders.

Fifth, the outcome must be definite: victory or loss must be clear and borders re-consecrated in order for time to begin again. The outcome itself is less important than its clarity. Even a loss can have a tremendously unifying effect on a group (one thinks of the Alamo or Weimar Germany). In contrast, an ambiguous outcome, such as that in Korea, cannot create a feeling of national unity. This theory can help explain the memory hole into which the Korean War disappeared in spite of its 36,574 dead and 103,284 American wounded.

Finally, only another ritual can repair a failed ritual. It is interesting in this light to see how the First Gulf War was offered by President Bush Sr. as an attempt to repair the failed ritual of the Vietnam War, and how the war in Iraq was understood widely to be Bush Jr.’s attempt to repair the ultimately failed ritual of the First Gulf War.

Since popular elections are also social rituals whose ritual agency can be compared to that of member sacrifice, it is important to see how Clinton’s election in 1992, on his promise of a “new covenant” with America, and more recently, Obama’s election in 2008, were understood by many Americans as rituals that could heal the divisions that have been plaguing America since the failure of the Vietnam War. Obama’s failure to bridge the gap between the left and right in the US (and what political figure could?) has shown how quickly such hopes can evaporate.

In the past six decades, the only event that came even close to generating the kind of national feeling Mario Cuomo describes having about WWII was the Sept. 11 attack. Yet the deaths at the Twin Towers ultimately did not have the cohesive effect of the deaths of soldiers at Iwo Jima. For one thing, as already mentioned, most victims of 9/11 were not willing sacrifices in any possible sense of those words.

Secondly, even the media sanctification of the firefighters in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, which worked initially to position them like soldiers and therefore like national heroes in their sacrifice, eventually wore off as revelations of the sometimes less than heroic side of firefighters appeared in 2002.

For example, William Langewiesche’s American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center (2002) took away some of their saintly luster with his description of firefighters treating their own dead with “elaborate flag-draped ceremonials” while adopting a callous “bag ‘em and tag ‘em” attitude toward civilian dead. As a result, tensions arose in the weeks after the attacks between firefighters and the civilian construction workers, who felt that the civilian dead were being forgotten in the media hype about firefighters.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the lack of enduring solidarity as an effect of the Sept. 11 attacks is the way the emotions of that day were channeled by the Bush administration into a strategy of revenge that targeted what turned out to be an unrelated country and to have had very ambiguous results.

Iraq is no longer ruled by an unstable dictator, but the war has brought no tangible benefits to the United States (though many private corporations have profited greatly), and certainly no sense of national regeneration or rededication to a common cause. On the contrary, the war in Iraq has left America heavily in debt and more polarized than ever.

Precisely because most wars America has waged have failed so utterly at producing any kind of national solidarity, something that needs to be examined in this discussion of ritual conditions and ritual agency is the question of what level this logic operates on. Clearly, it is not the level of individual actors, since no American official would ever think of himself as sending American soldiers to die in order to strengthen national cohesion.

Even less is this the logic of official state discourse or reasoning. In fact, the ignorance of individuals and states of the advantages of war sacrifice as ritualized social glue is obvious from how often wars are conducted ineptly, from a ritual point of view, robbing them of any efficacy whatsoever. In any case, as Girard insists, and Marvin and Ingle concur, the real motives for the group-member sacrifice must be unknown to the participants of the ritual.

A war must seem to be provoked by an external enemy and not sought out by the group. The sacrifice will not work to generate group feeling and solidarity if there is any hint of recognition that the group desired the sacrifice in any way. This split between the explicitly articulated and the tacit ritual meaning of sacrificial violence is the reason why analysis of political speeches, documents, and memos may not explain everything about a nation’s behavior.

By definition, the collective will and agency operates on a level that is not conscious or epistemologically available to individuals. It is a level that is necessarily supra-individual even though individuals will have their own sense of why they are doing something like enlisting in the military or visiting a national memorial. At the same time, the collective meaning, agency and effects of such actions and institutions will exist on a different plane of social reality than the meaning and effects of individuals’ actions and how they perceive them.

It is often said that wars are launched as a means of generating unity and distracting a civilian population from domestic discord. This is the cynical commonplace that was made about Clinton’s bombing of Serbia and Kosovo as well as Bush Sr.’s decision to attack Iraq in 1990. Like many clichés, it may be partly true, and some wars do indeed create powerful feelings of national solidarity, spawning institutions and commemoration practices that give the country momentum for a while.

Yet Marvin and Ingle’s theory of blood sacrifice and civil religion suggests that this solidarity comes not from facing or defeating a common enemy, real or invented, but from the deaths of members/soldiers willing to die in the name of the nation. In other words, the only kind of war that could possibly create real national renewal is one that is so cataclysmic that it would cost not thousands, but hundreds of thousands, of lives.

If Americans realized that they cannot get national unity with military action on the cheap, perhaps we might rethink our willingness, generation after generation, to believe that war can offer any kind of desirable solution to international conflict. As H.W. Brands reminds us, “during the past two hundred years no country has sent military forces into battle more often than the United States.”

If we understood better the mixed motivations that drive American politicians to choose war as a foreign policy option, we might have a better chance at making other choices. If we also understood better the powerful mechanisms at work in collective and national identifications, we might become more adept at creating group solidarity by means of elections and other popular democratic processes instead of so often looking for a quick fix of regeneration through violence.