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Warfare as Transcendence: The Work of Michael Vlahos
Library of Social Science’s Online Publishing Program

Michael Vlahos

For the past six weeks, the staff of Library of Social Science has been reflecting on our Online Publishing Program: “emotions recollected in tranquility.” What have we found? We are beginning to fulfill our mission to publish and disseminate the finest, most important research and writing on the meanings of collective forms of violence. We provide a platform for committed, passionate authors so their voices can be heard throughout the world.

We are indebted to Michael Vlahos for his wonderful contributions. Vlahos is a well-known commentator on the ideologies that fuel American culture. Formerly a professor at the Strategy and Policy Department of the US Naval War College, and now teaching at the Global Security Program at Johns Hopkins University. Library of Social Science is pleased to present his exciting, insightful publications.

The write-ups below crystallize central ideas that appear in his papers and essays written for LSS. Please read the write-ups, and then click each link to read the complete Newsletter issue.

For Vlahos, the purpose of war is ritual and symbolic. He argues that wars are embedded in the desire to fulfill a vision, a collective desire for transcendence that he describe as a primitive belief only to be achieved through sacrifice. Sacrifice—enacted and memorialized—is the “mortar of our collective belief and belonging.” Our “collective desire for transcendence” can be achieved only through sacrifice.

“America,” according to Vlahos, is not just a civil religion, but an “honest-to-God church religion.” Our nation is a “living faith,” telling us who we are and how we should live together. American exceptionalism is the “core passion” of American civil religion. Yet our desire to bring freedom and democracy to the world—to “redeem a corrupted and oppressed humanity”—is on the wane. In despair, we seek only retributive justice: to kill “the Devil himself.”

As our online publishing program develops, the essays and papers we present become a body of work and the basis for a scholarly community. Authors cite and respond to these writings, with the ideas of one author becoming the take-off point for another essay.

Papers and Essays by Michael Vlahos
America is a Religion: Our High-Church Politics and Sacred War
  • PART I: America is a Religion: Our High-Church Politics and Sacred War
    America is not just civil religion—it is honest-to-God church religion. Our nation tells us who we are, and how we should live together. Religions are living faiths. The word is from the Latin religare—to bind together—and that is what religion is for: To frame how we belong to each other, what is meaningful in life, and how together we should cherish each other.

  • PART II: Why See America as a Religion?
    Why see America as a religion? How can we hold to our true faith if we see it as just another sacred construct in humanity’s long search for meaning? Communities of belief perform best when belief is unshaken. Yet there are urgent reasons why we need to see ourselves for what we are. We are entering a time of crisis in America’s relationship with the world, and in American identity.
Counterterrorism, American Exceptionalism, and Retributive Justice
  • PART I: American Exceptionalism: Counterterrorism, American Exceptionalism, and Retributive Justice
    American exceptionalism should be understood as the core passion of American civil religion, envisioning a nation rooted in a savage yet pure wilderness—“God’s American Israel”. The act of taming one’s own world is in itself an act of purification—and of tempering and strengthening those who might one day redeem a corrupted and oppressed humanity.
  • PART II: Three Kinds of Terrorist
    The terrorist is the terrorist “against the body,” or the heretic. Society may condemn him, yet if he recants there is hope for return to the body politic. The second terrorist is the apostate, who has renounced the American idea wholesale and seeks its overthrow. The third type is the stranger, alien to the sacred body.
  • PART III: Retribution: Counterterrorism, American Exceptionalism, and Retributive Justice
    Moving American exceptionalism away from Universalist visions of redemption and back to retributive justice is itself an admission of weakness and fear—and the impending end of its own Universalist claim. Terrorism has come to dominate our religion in unconquerable antithesis. In today’s American civil-religious thought, terrorism is the Devil himself—and the Devil drives.

The 20th century’s wars—from 1914-1951, and their aftermath—killed perhaps 150 million individual human beings. We casually ascribe this calamity to madness, evil, or the inevitable efficiencies of an industrial economy. Yet I argue that this killing was embedded in the desire of peoples to fulfill—through war—the vision that drove them. This was the paradoxical, unconfessed vision of Modernity—which replaced universal institutions of collective identity (for centuries vested in social order and Church) with a dynamic new alternative.

Transcendence through War (Response by Alexander Chirila)
Chirila responds to Michael Vlahos’s paper, “Rites of Spring:” The myth of transcendence through sacrifice, bloodshed, and battle is an enduring expression of a desire to bridge Nature and the Divine through Death. Vlahos points out that we cannot entirely escape our collective desire for transcendence, or the primitive belief that this can be achieved only through sacrifice.

Stand Alone Essays
  • Terrorism’s Sacred Heart: The Sacrifice
    What makes terrorism so powerful is that it leverages the most powerful of human actions: the sacrifice. For thousands of years, human sacrifice has represented a sacred rite, with many layers of explicit ritual and symbol—in which our most precious loss transforms into our most precious gift. Think of the sacrifice—enacted and memorialized—as the mortar of our collective belief and belonging.
  • The Ideology of Sacrifice is Hemorrhaging
    In his essay, “The Rites of Spring,” Michael Vlahos stated 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, 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.”
  • The Primary Purpose of War is Ritual and Symbolic
    If the primary purpose of war is ritual and symbolic, it means that war is instrumental of itself. It also means that the creation of ritual and symbol through war is intended to create a feeling in us, to make us feel good. Good about what exactly is the crucial question?
  • D-Day (June 6, 1944), the Invasion of Normandy: “A moment of unique American sacrifice”
    Michael Vlahos podcast on the John Batchelor radio show: “We had to create—not just a mythic moment—but a moment of unique American sacrifice. We managed to do that. As we look back, it is the great liturgy of the American experience—not just in World War II—but of the America that was born on that day. It’s a kind of high mass of the nation—of the American ethos.”