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Ilona Pajari
“The Logic of Sacrifice”
Part II of "Soldier's Death and the Logic of Sacrifice" appears below.
4. The Logic of Sacrifice
To read Part I, click here.
1. Introduction
2. The Birth of the Citizen Soldier
3. Nationalism and Religion
To read the original essay, including footnotes, click here.
Ilona Pajari
Dr. Ilona Pajari is Senior Researcher in History and Ethnology at the University of Jyväskylän (Finland).
For program of the Idealized Deaths Symposium, organized by Dr. Pajari, click here.
The ideology used in describing both the sacrifice of the dead soldier and the supposed attitudes of his family can be called “the logic of sacrifice.” This theoretical construct owes a lot to the classics of nationalism, gender studies and military history. The core of this ideal comes, at least in this article, from Finnish military history, especially in the years of the Second World War, in which this ideal can be found on various occasions, often clearly formulated and articulated. Between the World Wars the gender order war was considered to be in crisis in many countries; both militant anti-feminism and ideas of camaraderie between the sexes were found. In wartime, culture contrasts become clearer and ideologies more unambiguous, even if the reality of war often demands that women take up many previously exclusively male tasks and occupations. The logic of sacrifice can also be used to explain away such discrepancies: women are not being unfeminine; they are denying their true selves for the homeland.

The logic of sacrifice includes numerous intertwining issues. First, it must be recognized that the nation needs sacrifices. Its existence is not to be taken for granted, even if the nation always has ancient roots and the present generation only has to revive it if the nation does not have a state of its own and a distinct, widely acknowledged common culture. The nation is in danger of oblivion if its (male) citizens are not willing to fight for it. This requirement is essentially moral in nature; actual military and political concerns are only partially present while talking about national destiny, as Anthony D. Smith has demonstrated in his book Chosen Peoples.

Older, established nations may seem less eager to ask people to make the ultimate sacrifice in order that the nation may survive, but new, upcoming nations almost always do this. Put in realpolitik terms, a war of independence is good; if there isn’t such a war, then a civil war makes it clear the country is a nation, justifying even the loss of one’s own people countrymen. The Finnish Civil War on 1918 is a good example of this: the winners called it a war of liberation, yet the war was about many things, was mainly fought between the Finns themselves and the nation had become independent before the outbreak of war. Lesser sacrifices like hard work, giving birth and raising children are to be praised, but the ancient ideal of blood sacrifice is always present in this kind of nationalistic imagery.

Secondly, the fatherland is not merely a merciless Moloch, but also, and unquestionably, an object of love. In nationalistic thinking it is the greatest love object of all. People do not really exist without a nation, just as the life of the nation comes from its people. “Fatherland, he got everything from you – his life and his heroic spirit,” it was often claimed in newspaper death notices in Second World War Finland. The nation was pictured as the most important source of identity for men, especially in times of war. It had replaced the family, local community and other ties. It is often reported how the reality of the military front is very special and civilian realities lose their meaning; the logic of sacrifice attempts to imitate and reproduce this state of mind even in times of peace. In this respect it is essentially militaristic and used with general consent only in war-faring nations. The Finnish national identity has relied heavily on this kind of imagery. The Finnish fatherland may be poor, barren and small, but even though it gives little to its people they must be ready to die for it. The national poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg writes in the Finnish national anthem: “Our country is poor and will stay so if one is looking for gold; a stranger will proudly pass it by, but we shall love it.”

The third prerequisite of the logic of sacrifice is that the nation’s right to exist  is proven through sacrifice. Sacrificing oneself is presented as something natural to “our” people. The nation’s male population must be masculine, healthy, and spiritually and mentally strong – of course, the female population has to be similar to be able to give birth to the nation’s sons. In times of war the nation’s place among nations is at stake. A nation of weak, effeminate men does not have a right to exist. George L. Mosse has described the process in which European nationalism developed into this kind of masculine, physical, heteronormative and even racist ideology. Yet the logic of sacrifice itself omits many things, such as: “our” nation is pure, strong, worthy of sacrifices. Those people or qualities that would compromise these “facts” are not considered to be part of the nation. A war can also be a proof of the nation’s adulthood: according to Tuomas Tepora the Winter War was interpreted as a “celebration of a coming of age” for the entire nation. In this war the Finns would become mature men, who had left childish disputes behind them and could stand united against the enemy.

There is a certain passive tone in this kind of nationalism, which may be typical of Finnish nationalism. The men who are asked to give their lives for the nation do not actively create the nation; they are given a task by the nation itself and by their forefathers. This is one way to disguise the recent nature of nationalistic thinking in one particular country; it may also be an attempt to obliterate the fact that the nation was not in the first place created by a spontaneous people’s uprising but by upper-class writers and politicians, as was the case in Finland. According to their writings, the nation is eternal and cannot be changed. It can only be improved by conquering more land and working harder than ever. The personal glory that can be expected from these enterprises is small. On the other hand, because the purpose is common and defined in the ancient past, this kind of thinking can be very democratic. Every man – which in this case means every soldier – can be given the name of hero, because everyone is a son of the nation.

Nationalism takes many of its ideals from the past, the nation’s own real or imagined history or the common Western or other military history. Yet the ancient heroes and their attitudes toward death in war differed from nationalism’s particular form of the logic of sacrifice. One of the earliest idealizations of death in war can be found in Gilgamesh, which dates from 1700 B.C. The hero Enkidu is only satisfied if he dies in and only in war. In ancient Athens Pericles praised the Athenian warriors for their military prowess in his famous speech recorded by Thucydides. According to Pericles, these deaths should not be mourned, because they were the best deaths of all. The Vikings could only go to Valhalla by dying in war, and the Germanic tribes also considered the structure of the afterlife to follow the  values of this world. Not everyone would go to the best place in the afterlife, not even every man who fought in war. One might always die in one’s own bed, which was considered a tragic fate for an otherwise great hero.

In these ancient imaginings of death and war the personal honor of the warrior was central. The modern(izing) logic of sacrifice is something else, although it does borrow phrases and attitudes from earlier times. The reason for war is something quite outside the experience of an individual soldier; as the military needs are concerned, they are not expected to seek personal excellence but to fight alongside others. In modern armies independent, warrior-like actions can be dangerous to others and will almost certainly get the soldier killed. Military training, discipline and recruitment practises for higher positions all aim to ensure that any foolhardy actions are made improbable, if not impossible. A soldier is not supposed to actively seek his death in battle; only orders from superiors can justify so-called suicide missions. The reality of war is often different, for “going over the top,” preferably with a sword in one’s hand soon proved ineffectual in the First World War and has, of course, disappeared from modern warfare. Paul Fussell named one of the chapters in his book The Great War and Modern Memory “Never Such Innocence Again.” But in addition to tactics and personal heroism rhere were many other kinds of innocence to be lost.

The fourth central feature of the logic of sacrifice is a certain ranking of men: the best are taken first. Not everyone dies even in the bloodiest of wars. Mourning families were consoled in Finland during the war with this ideal; in general it also means that the fallen soldiers are the best of men. One must not speak ill of the dead, but nationalism has sometimes taken that to unexpected lengths. Death in war is even supposed to wash away all sins, whether we understand this literally in a religious sense or more generally on the level of society. This sanctification of certain deceased has also led to a very unequal commemoration of war victims: fallen soldiers have been remembered while civilians have often been neglected. Those who gave only their limb or their mental health may have been left without necessary support. The fallen are easier to glorify: they only ask for a gravesite and a cross.

This kind of thinking is not limited to Finland, of course. Pat Jalland has written in her book Death in War and Peace how the priority given to war death made civilian deaths seem insignificant during and after the First World War. This is one of the reasons why a “stiff upper lip” culture became the common attitude toward death in Britain between the World Wars, like toward many other of life’s negative aspects. People can only suffer a certain amount of death and tragedy; it was easier to “carry on” than dwell upon the losses. Mourning for fallen soldiers was difficult in First World War Britain, as it was also later and in many other countries. Families were expected to act bravely and be happy they had such a heroic son; they must also be exemplary to others in how they carry their grief. One could not “spread one’s own sorrows, when tens of thousands were suffering in silence far worse pain than we are”.

In Finland in the Second World War the clergy’s role was to assure families that because their sons had been so brave as to die for their country, they must have had a living faith in God and therefore these families would meet them in heaven. No man without that faith could have done what they did. The fallen soldiers should not actually be mourned, for as was said about the Christian dead in general, they had gone to a better place and for the best of reasons.

“Their sacrifices must not be in vain” is a common theme in war-faring nations. So too in Finland. One of the greatest fears of leaders at the battle front and on the home front is always that people will begin to revolt. When news about losses reach the people, they will ask why are we at war? The obvious answer may be because the enemy attacked us, whether that is true or not. Another response, connected directly to the losses, is that their deaths will build a better future – whatever the national self-image demands. Few fallen soldiers actually uttered their final wishes, but the propagandists and other eager writers did this for them. Soldiers’ funerals, which in Finland were held on the home front, were naturally suitable occasions for these self-defining moments.

The last letters of the fallen were read carefully and often interpreted according to the logic of sacrifice: “The war has become a promoter of the powerful self- esteem and purposeful manhood of the young Finnish men,” wrote the priest and politician Paavo Virkkunen in 1941. On the other hand, final letters could go uncommented on in published letter collections, like in a collection made by Rolf Tiivola in the same year. The tradition of knowing for certain what the fallen had fought and died for was of course long: according to Benedict Anderson, Michelet wrote about those who fell in the French Revolution in much the same vein. It was essential to assure fellow countrymen that the sacrifices of the fallen  would become national history and be forever remembered, like the sacrifices of one’s forefathers. Mircea Eliade’s theory of the myth of the eternal return is brought to mind.