Ivan Strenski: “To Live and Die for Iraq? Questions about Sacrifice”

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About the Author
Ivan Strenski is the Holstein Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Author of fifteen books and over 75 articles, he is recognized as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the sociology of religion.

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“Nobody wants to die for Iraq.” So goes one explanation why an Iraqi security force—outnumbering their ISIL opponents by a ratio of 10 to 1—has failed to dislodge ISIL from the city of Ramadi. On the other hand, ISIL fighters repeatedly attack the larger governmental forces.

Typically, ISIL strategies begin with devastating “suicide” truck bomber attacks in which the ISIL drivers rush head-long to their certain deaths…or Paradise. Yet, despite being gaudily well-equipped, well-“trained”, and stoutly supported by brilliant US aerial fire-power, Iraqi soldiers seem unenthused about sacrificing themselves—dying—to recapture the lost territory of their own “nation-state.” Why?

One answer comes easily enough: Iraq is not “their own nation.” “Iraq” is just a space, not a “place. It is just an expanse defined by a series of lines on a map, drawn a century ago, across the Middle East by some British and French diplomats, playing God with the worlds of other people, who sometimes did, and sometimes did not, play along.

Iraq thus might be a “space,” but is it a “place”? Is it where their “nation” lives, and not just the coordinates described by the borders of the Iraqi “nation-state”? And, even if Iraq were more than that, it would not arguably be “theirs,” given corruption and bad faith sapping feelings of loyalty to a common effort. Their families are “theirs”; their religious affiliations are “theirs”; their tribes are “theirs.”

And for them, as well as for some future Islamic State in-the-making, ISIL and its “suicide”/human bombers prove, at least frequently, that people give up their lived—sacrifice themselves—for some social entity ‘larger’ than themselves that they wish to see prosper. But, sacrifice for “Iraq”? Not so much. Conundrums such as these have puzzled me to the point where I felt compelled to try to understand them.

For a student of religion what strikes one as odd is that we name the act of giving up one’s life for the sake of one’s nation, as a “sacrifice.” Why the silent appeal to religious rituals? Why do we talk about such a soldier’s death in the service of their nation as if it were no different than Abraham standing, knife in hand, over his son, Isaac, lying helplessly, bound hand and foot—a “sacrifice”? If war enthusiasts saw the nation grow with each self-negating soldierly death, Abraham knew none of this. So, why are both “sacrifices”?

To a religion comparativist, the answer seems rather straightforward: the act of killing or dying in violent circumstances such as warfare, for instance, requires justification, if only weakly so. Further, when it comes to oneself, no one really seeks to lose their lives without “good” reason. Even so-called “suicide” bombers, who seem so heedless of their lives apparently do so for promised rewards in a heavenly realm.

Their acts thus require justification or support from other domains of discourse already deemed authoritative. Sacrifice, already invested with the authority of a noble religious rite, thus props up analogous acts in the civic realm. If it is good and holy to kill, or give up a life, in the domain of noble rituals, so therefore it must also be good and holy to do so in the civic real, such as in warfare. (In cases where the civic notion of sacrifice carries authority, its status is also often then lent to ritual sacrifice. This rhetoric flourishes in the literature of comparative study of religion and social and cultural anthropology.)

The attitudes of, typically upper class, British officers toward the expendability of their generally lower class conscripts lack this religious ritual legitimation. Yes, sadistic British generals like Douglas Haig, cited in a recent LSS post, “Warfare: Loss Is Victory,” measured the merit of their efforts in proportion to the number of casualties suffered to his own forces.

But this coarse attitude is not the low-hanging fruit of an easy critique of sacrifice. Indeed, theirs is talk of wasteful expenditure, but no talk of sacrifice. Instead, pure British utilitarianism rules. Spending human beings to stoke the fires of war, should remind us of so many tons of coal feeding the fiery maw of the British industrial Leviathan.

The British officer corps of WWI was a notoriously sick lot, oozing class superiority from every pore. Religious sacrifices were not foremost in the minds of the likes of Haig when they used others below them in social status for God and Country. Haig perfected this manner of monstrosity, all the while excusing himself, by deflecting it toward service to the nation.

Closer to catching hold of the deeper, darker antinomies of civic sacrifice is a second LSS post highlighting the lofty rhetoric of sacrifice in warfare, “The Nation Exists in an Absence of Body Parts.” “Sacrifice” was wheeled in to distract those dismembered in the war from their physical and personal losses—by directing attention to some sort of transcendent accumulation of value.

But as I argued in my LSS paper, “Sacrifice: Bad Math, Bad Grammar,” this calculation of benefit suffers from an apparent mathematical, or at least arithmetical, disability. What is—and how do we precisely calculate—the transcendent good won by the loss of limbs? How, moreover, is that transcendent victory really any more than a label slapped onto the yawning emptiness left by lost body parts—never to be made whole, no matter how elegant the technology? How bad is this “math”?

The LSS post reproduces a photo of WWI veterans who had lost limbs in combat (see Dismembering the Male, Joanna Bourke, 1996). Richard Koenigsberg observes “Where legs were, there shalt nation be. The nation exists in the absence of this body part.” True enough, so long as we specify that it is not “nations,” but “nation-states” at play here. In the minds of Peshmerga, to die for the Kurdish “nation” in “Iraq” is one thing; to die for the nation-state of “Iraq” is another.

Moreover, to die to establish a Kurdish nation-state is one thing many Peshmerga would willingly do, while to die even for a real “Iraq” still remains another. The issue persists whether the exchange balances out in favor of the loss of the lost body part, and the indignity of mutilation. And, just how is that calculus spelt out?

Closer to home and recent events, asking about the value of total loss in exchange for a future possibility seems like asking whether the deaths of a number of young black men in the wake of the Ferguson demonstrations, Black Lives Matter and so on can be seen—ex post facto—as meaningful. That is, are they sacrifices for the great good of the safety of entire generations of young black mento come?

Did, in gruesome fact, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Jonathan Ferrell, Samuel DuBose, Freddie Gray and others have to die so that future young, black men could live? Would their deaths have been “worthwhile” (sic) if they could insure the safety of those who followed? This is exactly the kind of sacrificial thinking behind dying for the nation-state, or losing a limb in its defense.

How and why is “nation-state” worth all that? Aren’t all “nation-states” just “constructs,” and not just Iraq? Why die for the geographical imagination of map-makers? Yet, “nation”—the nation-state, to be exact—is worth something to its members. After a while, even arbitrary lines on a map become invested with meaning, and thus reality. The passionate self-identification with local sports teams has no more basis in reality than do the boundary lines between the constituent states and cities of the United States.

As to the value of the nation-state, it can rank right up there with that of our humanity itself. Not even our deconstructionist skepticism—induced by our awareness of the contingency of our present Westphalian order of nation-states—can withstand the energies spent on identification with a group. Even to the mutilated soldier, now guiltily celebrated as “more of a man” than his intact brothers, the loss of a life or body part might—just might—be a fair trade to see that the nation-state should live. After all, the survival of one’s nation-state might be decisive in whether the soldier continues to live or not.

Ask those hapless Iraq Shi’a soldiers—if we could—readied for summary execution after their first combat loss to ISIL. Deciding who decides isn’t such an easy task. Some soldiers might not want to be “more of a man,” at least this once, and, instead just get along among matters commonplace?

Problem is that the enemies of one’s nation-state might not be willing to let losers live and let live. There are too many possibilities crowding each other out on the horizon of future dangers to a given nation-state for a trouble-free answer to prevail. Still, that does not mean that we should not ask precisely those questions I have raised here. Just because we may not get all the answers is no reason for not asking all the questions.