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Politicians Must Connect with the Sacrifice of Soldiers

Tony Walter Tony Walter is professor of death studies at the University of Bath, United Kingdom.

The United States, like many nations, is founded on death – the death of its soldiers who fought, first for independence, then in wars in defense of the nation and its values.

Their blood first created and since then has sustained the nation, argued Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle in their 1999 book "Blood Sacrifice and the Nation." Those who die for their country are more than heroes; they are manifestations of the nation itself, their sacrifice made sacred through burial in a national cemetery and in commemorations on Memorial Day. Without them, without their sacrifice, there is no nation. They are a symbol, an emblem, of the nation itself.

Likewise, the American president embodies the nation. The president pays tribute when service personnel die. Nothing represents the nation more than the image of the president saluting flag-draped caskets of deceased service personnel. Three national symbols in one – president, sacrificed soldier, flag.

Whatever their ratings at the time, the reputation of presidents who sacrifice their own blood – Lincoln, Kennedy – is secured eternally.

If war is a national sacrifice ritual, presidential elections are national fertility rituals in which the nation is renewed.

Presidential hopefuls need to associate themselves with the sacrifice of soldiers, or at least endeavor not to distance themselves. Candidates who have served in the forces are at an advantage.

Contests between would-be presidents over military sacrifice is a contest in profound national symbolism. It's not surprising that it makes news.

Does it exploit grief? Possibly, but the grief of families who lose members on active service has been co-opted by the nation, or at least the government, from the moment of death onwards. The reappearance in presidential elections is perhaps only par for the course.