Enter your email to receive the Library of Social Science Newsletter:   
A Disturbing Hypothesis
In her paper, “War and National Renewal: Civil Religion and Blood Sacrifice in American Culture” (2012), Agnieszka Monnet writes about the “troubling argument” about modern national cohesion as “dependent on blood sacrifice.” She states that nothing could seem more wrong 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.”

Commenting on Nations Have the Right to Kill (Koenigsberg, 2009) in From War to Peace (2011), Kent Shifferd writes about the “disturbing” hypothesis that human beings go to war to “prove that the nation is real;” that the power of the nation grows out of its ability to “sacrifice human beings to itself.”

The criterion for judging a hypothesis is never how it makes us feel—but whether it is true or not. Many of the ideas that changed the course of history originally were experienced as “troubling”—and deeply disturbing.
Below is an edited version of Kent Shifferd’s commentary on Nations Have the Right to Kill that appeared in Shifferd’s book, From War to Peace.
From War to Peace:
A Guide to the Next Hundred Years
From War to Peace: A Guide to the Next Hundred Years Author: Kent Shifferd
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: McFarland (2011)
Language: English
Hardcover: $35.00
ISBN: 978-0786461448
Kent D. Shifferd has taught for 35 years at Northland College, the University of Wisconsin, Ripon College, and United Theological Seminary.
For information on ordering from Amazon, please click here.
It is disturbing to consider the ways in which the minds of young men are manipulated using psychological techniques in order to get them to kill—and the ways that killing disturbs their minds. But there is an even more disturbing hypothesis about psychology and the very existence of war itself.

Scholar Richard Koenigsberg and others argue that war is the result of a desire on the part of a society as a whole to kill its own young men in order to prove the very existence of a meaningful society that can confirm our existence.

Koenigsberg recasts the perception of war from its traditional explanations as normative, glorious and honorable. He argues that we are delusional if we think the colossal slaughter and maiming of young men and civilians of all ages can be characterized in that way. The emperor has no clothes. War is about the mass production of corpses and mutilated bodies.

War is a psychopathology that grips whole nations, yet one to which they remain blind. War arises out of the mind of the collective. While men say they go to war for honor, or territory, or self-defense, or empire, or whatever political or economic cause, in fact they go to war to prove that the nation is real. The only way to do this is to show its power by its ability to sacrifice human beings to itself. And, he asserts, not only those of the "enemy," but even more so, its own young men. In fact, we go to war in order to get our own boys killed. Then we can feel a meaningful emotional relationship to the nation.

Durkheim argued that the nation, like other institutions, is a mental construct, an invention of convenience to counter the centrifugal forces that would, if unchecked, tear society apart. In reality, living within these continually shifting boundaries are different classes and ethnic groups and religious sects and individuals with different interests, all divided from one another in varying degrees of competition and even hostility.

Advanced industrial societies especially require a "common faith, a common conscience collective, if they were not to disintegrate into heaps of mutually antagonistic and self-seeking individuals." So what holds them together? The myth, or totem, of the nation. Durkheim believed that God is society writ large, and hence our identification with society is emotionally extremely powerful, especially since this nation-state god requires ritual sacrifice.

Rene Girard argues that disparate conglomerates of people and groups we call society, or nations, can only continue to exist in some semblance of unity if it identifies a scapegoat, a sacrificial victim, and so deflects violence outward—as the Germans did with the Jews, just to take the most famous case. We know who we are and we validate who we are by destroying the enemy. "We" are not "them" and define ourselves in contrast to them.

Koenigsberg argues that war is also such a case of sacrificial victimization, but, and here is where he is original and nor derivative, he argues that the necessary sacrifice includes a society's own young men as well as the "enemy." War exists because it satisfies a powerful psychological need, the need to believe that there is something greater than the individual self, something worth making sacrifices for. In short, the enemy provides a convenient excuse to kill our own young men, providing the mask or taboo that prevents us from recognizing what we are doing.

Perhaps this might account for the extreme anger that some people feel when others protest against a particular war or weapons system, or even against the flag that is the symbol or totem of the nation. They feel threatened at the very core of their beings, thinking perhaps as follows:

"Because, if my child did not die or suffer mutilation for something great and honorable, then this mutilation of a life is a meaningless waste and I helped kill my own beloved. And what does that make me?"

It would require too much emotional and psychic pain to risk thinking along these lines, and so the real generator of war is beyond rational control. The implication of this hypothesis is that trying to control or eliminate war by showing how irrational or dysfunctional it is in economic or political terms, or by trying to create institutions such as the United Nations or the International Criminal Court for genocide, is a waste of time.

This hypothesis also explains why peace advocates often become the enemy, and sometimes the sacrificial victims. They must be discredited if we are to go on with our comforting beliefs, and not wake up to the fact that we are butchering our children for no good cause.

We do not want to know what we are doing. Koenigsberg points out that we are only able to believe in honor and noble sacrifice if we do not look at the bodies of the soldiers who have been so horribly mangled. For instance, in World War II American journalists were prohibited from photographing our own dead. And in the wars against Iraq, the U.S. government prohibited the photographing even of flag-draped coffins coming home.

And what about the fact that so many millions—in the First World War—went willingly over the top and walked into certain death—running into bullets being spewed by machine guns? Had they taken on the role of sacrificial lamb, internalized it as ones set apart? Koenigsberg believes the answer is yes.

Somehow it is assumed that soldiers will "do their duty," even to the extent of forfeiting their lives. Yet what a radical form of behavior this was-walking into machine-gun fire. The behavior of soldiers in the First World War contradicts what biologists and psychologists tell us about the instinct for survival. It must be something very powerful.

Jean Elshtain believes that these sacrifices are part of "modern state worship." The state has taken the place of God. "In war, actual human bodies are sacrificed in the name of perpetuating a magical entity, the body politic. Sacrificial acts function to affirm the reality or existence of this sacred object, the nation. Entering into battle may be characterized as a devotional act, with death in war constituting the supreme act of devotion." It is, after all, what Lincoln said at Gettysburg-"the last full measure of devotion." We commonly call it the "supreme sacrifice." How close are we to admitting the truth of this terrible hypothesis?

Certainly Koenigsberg and others are right to unmask war, to show it to be a profoundly stupid enterprise. And he is right to raise the question of, why men willingly sacrifice themselves, as the millions did in World Wars I and II. Why do our children buy into this self-destructive myth? Surely there is something profoundly irrational about modern war, about tolerating inevitable deaths and mutilations in the millions.

The hypothesis might also go far in explaining how followers of Christianity, whose God preaches nonviolence and compassion, can deny the obvious rational application of their central teaching and instead endorse the slaughter of countless others of God's children. And Robert Bellah's thesis about the existence of a civil religion that is a conjoining of religious and political myths ("In God We Trust," laying a hand on the Bible to be sworn in to high office, military chaplains, etc.) is empirically demonstrable. Just as certainly the state seems to trump the church.