“America as a Counter-Sacrificial Culture”
Richard Koenigsberg
Parts I-III of my workshop—America's Return to an Ideology of Warfare—appear below:
I. Culture of Triviality
II. A Counter-Sacrificial Culture
III. Aversion to Casualties
To read the workshop outline, click here.
LSS Book ExhibitMyself (far right) with Dr. DeLuca (center) at the Austrian Consulate of the United Nations.


During the 1990’s, the United States had become a society that was averse to becoming engaged in violent political conflict. A mentality emerged profoundly averse to battle casualties. Beginning at the conclusion of the Gulf War on February 28, 1991—until September 11, 2001—there seemed to be no political situation that justified going to war. The United States hesitated to act if there was even a small probability that America soldiers might be killed or wounded.

For ten years after the 1991 Gulf War, it seemed Americans had better things to do. We were not particularly interested in warfare. After 9/11—with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq— the old mentality re-emerged. The American government persuaded the America people that some things were worth killing and dying for. The United States overcame its aversion to casualties—and once again began to accept the idea of death in battle.

After the fall of communism, America lost its primary enemy. During the 1990s, American society seemed placid, perhaps even vacuous and empty. The emergence of a global society and the Internet allowed people to imagine that the idea of “the nation” might lose its power. Perhaps John Lennon’s fantasy of a time when there would be “nothing to kill and die for” was coming true.

After 9/11, the idea of the country re-emerged with a vengeance. Suddenly, America again had enemies. George Bush in his State-of-the-Union speech of January 22, 2002 proclaimed a new “Axis of evil.” Iraq, Iran and North Korea would replace the Axis power—Germany, Italy and Japan—that the United States had defeated in the Second World War.

The violent political world that seemed to have been fading made a come-back. America could return to its old mission: defeating evil enemies in order to bring freedom and democracy to the world. With an enemy, the idea of the nation could re-emerge in full force.

Because warfare beginning in 2002 usurped the national consciousness, there is a tendency to forget the policy that dominated America history for ten years before September 11. I think it’s important to analyze the war in Iraq within the framework of this earlier policy. George Bush and America leaders needed to reverse the trend—the policy of aversion to casualties—that had dominated the 1990s. George Bush would reaffirm America’s sacrificial ideals. The United States once again would become a courageous, heroic nation struggling to defeat evil enemies in the name of goodness.

The American mass-media, 1992-2001, conveyed a culture of triviality and emptiness. Typical stories dominating the News before September 11 included the O.J. saga and death of Princess Di. Another big story—occurring just before September 11—was the disappearance of Chandra Levy, a Washington D.C. intern believed to have been the mistress of Congressman Gary Condit.

Condit was never an official suspect. But the national media suspected that he was withholding information about the intern’s disappearance. Suspicion deepened. Condit avoided answering questions in a television interview conducted by news anchor Connie Chung on August 23, 2001. The Chandra Levy/Gary Condit story was considered one of the “biggest” before 9/11. The world of Walter Cronkite—of profoundly significant historical events—seemed to be fading from the scene.

Another big story just before September 11 was Barbara Walter’s much-hyped interview with Anne Heche on ABC-TV’s 20/20 show. The interview that occurred on September 6, 2001 was the most highly rated show that evening. Heche had just married a cameraman after a 3-year lesbian relationship with television personality Ellen Degeneris—and revealed she was pregnant.

Previously, Heche had planned to tie the knot in a ceremony with Ellen in Vermont. During the interview, Heche told Barbara Walters that she had met Degeneris 1997. She said Ellen was “the most ravishing woman I had ever seen,” and revealed that she had sex with Ellen on the first night they met—even though she had never slept with a woman before. This kind of story—scandal with a prurient interest—dominated the media. Violent political conflicts seemed very distant from everyone’s mind.

Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End of History, hypothesized that capitalism and liberal democracy were on the ascendance. Perhaps the narrative of history as a world-historic struggle between nation-states was coming to an end. Globalization, multiculturalism and the Internet were on everyone’s mind. People from different cultures were interacting and learning from one another.

This was the world of post-modernism—where grand narratives had died. The essential idea was that there were no absolutes; no single definition of right and wrong or good and evil. Each culture constructed its own version of truth.

Before September 11, I barely paid attention to “the news.” I did subscribe to CompuServe and sometimes would glance at stories they presented. Occasionally, I took note of a suicide bombing by a Palestinian that occurred in Israel. I reflected to myself that the world of sacrificial death had not entirely vanished from the scene. There was one place at least where the narrative of dying for a cause persisted.

II. A Counter-Sacrificial Culture

To make war, a nation must be willing accept casualties. When nations go to war, soldiers are sent into battle—where some of them will be killed or wounded. If a nation is unwilling to accept the idea that their soldiers will be killed or wounded, it’s difficult for a nation to go to war. Once a war begins, a nation must accept the fact that—as long as the war continues—soldiers will continue to die and be wounded.

During the 1990s, U.S. foreign policy was dominated by a profound aversion to battle casualties. We were unwilling to engage in battle if there was even a slight possibility that soldiers might be killed. It seemed that the U.S. during the 1990s was unwilling to sacrifice the lives of young people.

With the war in Afghanistan, and especially the war in Iraq, we witnessed the return to the traditional posture: a willingness to accept battle casualties as part of the price of making war. How did the United States go from a nation unwilling to accept battle casualties—to a society again willing to accept the fact that when a nation wages war—soldiers will die?  September 11 provided the occasion for the return to an ideology of warfare.

By the mid-1990s in the United States, a new attitude toward violent political conflict had emerged. I call this the development of a counter-sacrificial culture. Policy-makers spoke and wrote papers about America’s “aversion to casualties.” It would appear that the aversion to casualties—a counter-sacrificial culture—grew out of the Vietnam war. An Important factor generating this change, it would appear, was the televised return of body-bags to the US—containing the remains of dead soldiers.

Reality was pushed in the face of Americans: The consequence of war is that real people—human beings from our own communities—die. The return of body-bags reminded people of what warfare actually is. Disillusion with war was accompanied by the de-idealization of the American soldier.

The 1991 Gulf war seemed to be a diversion from a broader cultural trend: Americans were turning away from the ideology of warfare. Newsweek reported in 1994 that only 400 United States soldiers had been killed in action in the 20 years since the end of the Vietnam War. Serving in the armed forces was a relatively safe job.  Being a truck driver was riskier than being soldier. Driving a taxi was six times riskier.

In 1994—on the eve of an invasion of Haiti that did not happen—Dick Cheney on Meet the Press stated that the conflict was “not worth America lives.” Discussing the case for intervention, Senator John Glenn observed that Haiti did not pass the “Dover Test:” the televised return of body bags from overseas to the Air Force base in Dover, Delaware. By the mid-Nineties, the United States had moved toward believing that no international situation was worthy of intervention—if even a single America soldier might die in battle.

A 1995 essay in Foreign Affairs on “Post-Heroic Warfare” received a great deal of attention. Military authority Edward Luttwak concluded that “America is a nation intolerant of casualties.” Roger Cohen wrote in the New York Times on July 7, 1995 that our unwillingness to intervene in Bosnia spelled the “death of Western honor.” Eric Gans theorized in June 1999 that the model of heroism constituted by the sacrifice of individual lives for the sake of the collectivity was “rapidly losing its viability.”

In the face of what happened after September 11, we tend to forget the American policy toward war that dominated the 90s. Waging war requires accepting the possibility that some of one’s own citizens will die. If one refuses to accept the possibility of a soldier dying, how is it possible to wage war? Perhaps the ideology of warfare was dying.

Societies in the first half of the 20th Century were quite willing to send young men off to die in battle. Nations were not shy about asking people to sacrifice their lives. World War I was the first instance of mass-slaughter. Nine-million men were killed and twenty-one million injured. During the years 1914-1918, an average of 6000 men were killed each day. Dying for a nation—sacrificing one’s life—was often viewed as noble and beautiful.

P. H. Pearse—founder of the Irish revolutionary movement—observed the daily carnage in France and declared:

The last sixteenth months have been the most glorious in the history of Europe. Heroism has come back to the earth. It is good for the world that such things should be done. The old heart of earth needed be warmed with red wine of the battlefield. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this—the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country.

Hitler fought throughout the First World War.  In spite of having witnessed the death and maiming of hundreds of his comrades, he continued to embrace and glorify warfare. Hitler declared in Mein Kampf: “More than once, thousands and thousands of young Germans stepped forward with self-sacrificing resolve to sacrifice their young lives freely and joyfully on the altar of the beloved fatherland.” This kind of enthusiasm about sacrificial death in warfare seems odd to the contemporary mind.

Still, the basic idea surrounding death in battle persists: In our hearts the dream remains the same. People continue to view a soldier’s sacrifice for his nation as noble and beautiful. As long as sacrificial death is viewed as noble and beautiful, warfare can continue occur.

III. Aversion to Casualties

The Vietnam War brought forth an intense questioning—not only of that war—but of warfare in general. The belief that warfare is honorable and noble came under fire. Students chanted in 1967: “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” They were pointing to the fact that Vietnamese soldiers were being killed as a result of actions taken by President Johnson. But not only that. It seems they held Lyndon Johnson responsible for the deaths of young Americans as well.

Disillusionment continued after the Vietnam War (which ended in 1975). Journalist Christopher Hayes wrote that the experience of Vietnam had largely “succeeded in cleansing Americans of whatever romantic notions of military heroism they may have once held dear.” Policy analysts wrote and spoke about the “Vietnam Syndrome”—public aversion to American overseas military involvements following the domestic controversy over the war.

Since the early 1980s, public opinion was biased against war—leading to a less interventionist U.S. foreign policy, and a relative absence of American wars. By the mid-Nineties, this tendency continued, leading to a military policy dubbed “casualty aversion.”

Senator John Glenn stated in 1997 that when people go off war, the “bands play and flags fly.” But things are not quite so easy when “the flag draped over coffin comes back to Dover, Delaware.” Defense Secretary William Cohen spoke of people whose hearts “beat so proudly and enthusiastically” at the idea of the United States intervening in various political conflicts. However, when these people see coffins returning, they switch and say: “What are we doing there?”

Although an anti-war posture dominated American society, many people longed for the spirit of the “greatest generation”—when men fought and died in massive numbers during World War II. Christopher Hayes wrote about a “pining for the glory days of the Good War.” NBC-TV anchorman Tom Brokaw celebrated the “simple, old-fashioned patriotism of the greatest generation.” Interviewing survivors of World War II, Brokaw said that members of this generation “love their country and are not ashamed to say just that.”

If there was a common lament of members of this generation, it was: “Where is the old-fashioned patriotism that got them through so much heartache and sacrifice?” According to Brokaw, members of the Greatest Generation shared a “sense of duty to their country” that was not in fashion any more.

Senator Daniel Inouye (of Hawaii) stated that the “one time the nation got together” was during the Second World War: “We stood as one. We spoke as one. We clenched our fists as one.” In short, although America society was dominated by an anti-war posture—some Americans longed for the good old, heroic days—the time of intense patriotism when young men were willing to fight and die for their country.

Still, the policy of “casualty aversion” dominated the nineties. Military analysts studied and wrote about the implications of this policy. Army Colonel Richard Lacquement claimed that this policy had profound consequences. Military strategies during the Persian Gulf war (1991), Haiti (1994), Bosnia (1995), and Kosovo (1999), Lacquement claimed, developed as a result of policy makers’ belief that the American public had a “low tolerance for casualties.”

Discussing the concept of “post-heroic warfare,” Lacquement stated that policy-makers believed that casualties resulting from the clash of armies was “no longer tolerable to the America public.” Henry Kissinger noted that during the Vietnam War in 1969—when he and the Nixon administration came into office—we had 500 casualties a week.” Now, Americans are “not willing to take any casualties.” Vietnam produced a “whole new attitude.”

Something gained, something lost. The desire to avoid battle-casualties meant that people turned away from warfare. However, this attitude also reflected diminishing idealism; unwillingness to sacrifice for a cause. America young people in the 1990s bore no resemblance to the “greatest generation” that fought and died defeating Germany and Japan in the Second World War. A policy of zero-tolerance for casualties meant that Americans were unwilling to sacrifice their lives for any cause—however noble.

In Kissinger’s reflections, one senses a longing for the “good old days”—when the United States persisted in fighting even though vast numbers of soldiers died on the battlefield. Did the suicide bombings of September 11 provide the occasion for a return of the ideology that seemed to be fading--belief that it is worthwhile to sacrifice one’s life for a noble cause?

The change in the US attitude—once war had been declared—did not come automatically. American leaders had to inspire or persuade Americans to renew their commitment to the idea that sacrifice is worthwhile. Islamic terrorists provided an example or model. Perhaps the return to an ideology of warfare reflected the following line of thought: “If you can die for your ideals, so we can die for our ideals.” Or: “Do not think the U.S does not possess ideals for which we are willing to die and kill. As you are willing to die for Allah, so we Americans are willing to die for freedom and democracy.”

George Bush, his colleagues, and many Americans, it would appear, aspired to generate a return to a world that once had existed, but had ceased to exist: one consisting of men like those of the “greatest generation.” Once again, young people would be willing to sacrifice their lives for a noble cause. George Bush embraced America’s world-historic mission: to bring freedom and democracy to the world. Again, there would be something kill and die for.