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Part 4 of Dying and Killing for Nations: Warfare as Sacrifice

U.S. War Culture (Kelly Denton-Borhaug)
Scroll down to read Kelly Denton-Borhaug’s review essay
Commentary, Richard Koenigsberg: Focusing on the American case, Denton-Borhaug writes about the “sacrificial metaphor at the heart of citizenship.” A sacrificial war culture, she says “profoundly shapes our understanding of citizenship and the nation.” The sacrificial metaphor—intrinsically tied to war—is even more powerful because citizens are “unconscious of its active impact on our own lives.”

The sacrificial war narrative, Denton-Borhaug says—after the Civil War—became our national story: “Sacrifice and the state became inseparably intertwined.”

The experience of the Civil War defined and unified the nation. The story of the transformation of the Civil War—from limited to total war—is also the story of “how America became the nation we call America.”

Although the sacrificial narrative is “our national story,” Denton-Borhaug suggests that we tend “not to think consciously about this as our story.” The sacrificial war narrative—profoundly embedded in American culture, historical memory and national consciousness—shapes us in a “subterranean, subconscious fashion.” Most citizens are unconscious of its “active impact” on our lives.

Building on Hauerwas, Denton-Borhaug theorizes that the sacrifices of war create the mechanism through which the nation “achieves and maintains its transcendent status.” President Lincoln declared that it was through war that the nation achieved the right to exist “in perpetuity.”

The baptism of blood in war “unveils the transcendental dimension” of the American union. What’s more, the nation must “return to war again and again to maintain its transcendentalized status.”
Below is a condensed version of, “Sacrifice, American Exceptionalism and War-Culture,” Kelly Denton-Borhaug’s review of Stanley Hauerwas' War and the American Difference.  
Please click here to read the complete review essay.
About the author: Stanley Hauerwas (Ph.D., Yale University) is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity

For information on ordering, please click here.
About the Reviewer: Rev. Kelly Denton-Borhaug, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA..
Book by Kelly Denton-Borhaug
U.S. War-Culture, Sacrifice and Salvation

For information on ordering, please click here.
There is a story that informs American attitudes and identity. Hauerwas traces the impact of this story on Americans in this book. This is a story about “the sacrifice of war,” and how it shapes our understanding of the nation and citizenship.

The experience of the Civil War defined and unified the nation: “The story of the transformation of the Civil War from limited to total war is also the story of how America became the nation we call America”. We should not miss the ways that Christian sacrificial formulations influenced the development of this national narrative.

I expand here upon Hauerwas list: from President Lincoln as a Christ figure; to the many sermons comparing the war to “a vicarious atonement” made for the developing nation; to the growing need to justify the unbearable and overwhelming accumulation of death over the course of the war through sacralizing death; and through the sacrificial national commemorations that developed both during and after the war, including those that continue up to the present day. Thus, “sacrifice and the state became inseparably intertwined”.

This is our national story. Yet we tend not to think consciously about this as our “story” – certainly not as consciously as we think about other national stories that shape us as citizens—such as those about the separation of church and state, freedom of religious choice and freedom of the state from religion. These others stories tend to push (quasi)religious factors into the background.

I argue that the sacrificial war narrative—so profoundly embedded in American culture, historical memory and national consciousness—shapes us in a subterranean, subconscious fashion. As George Lakoff has demonstrated, we cognitively internalize certain metaphors that shape the way we value, make decisions, and generally go about living our lives—but tend not to be conscious of these same metaphors.

The sacrificial metaphor at the heart of citizenship—inextricably tied to war—has incredible power, all the more so because most citizens are unconscious of its active impact in our lives. In fact, most citizens are blithely unaware of the contradiction between their assumptions regarding “the separation of church and state”—and the deeply religious sacrificial war-culture that profoundly shapes their understandings of citizenship and the nation. Legal and political theorist Paul W. Kahn has explored this dimension:

Through our secular faith as U.S. citizens, our identity is affirmed by way of those who sacrificed themselves for the conception and maintenance of the nation. In addition, through ongoing sacrifice (with war as the apotheosis), citizens are linked to “the organic body that is the mystical corpus of the state.”

This national narrative—alive in commemorative national rhetoric and ritual, but subconscious in terms of its religious reality—has enormous power. I argue that this is the story we must investigate more deeply if we are to truly understand the morally compelling nature of war for people of the United States. Hauerwas explicates the consequences of U.S. sacrificial war-culture that were cemented in the experience of the Civil War and beyond.

The sacrifices of war create the very mechanism through which the nation achieves and maintains its transcendent status. President Lincoln declared that it is through war that the nation achieved the right to exist “in perpetuity”: “The baptism of blood in war unveils the transcendent dimensions of the union” (note the religious language!). Fifth, not only does war transcendentalize the nation—the nation must return to war again and again in order to maintain this transcendentalized status.

For the very dysfunction Hauerwas describes is in fact an addiction to sacrificial dynamics. “American wars,” he writes, “must be wars in which the sacrifices of those doing the dying and the killing have redemptive purpose and justification”. Just war analysis is not so much the attempt to investigate whether a given war will rise to the level of just war principles, but is revealed as “an attempt to control the description, ‘war’”.

In other words, to understand the dynamics of sacrificial war-culture in the United States, we must investigate our language, and how it shapes our very ways of knowing, for “War possesses our imaginations, our everyday habits and scholarly assumptions”. One way to investigate this keen insight would be to explore more deeply the utilization of sacrificial formulations in just war discourse.

American popular political culture is a most revealing site to discover these dynamics at play. For instance, a 2008 television ad for the presidential republican candidate featured a veteran of the Iraq war speaking directly to the camera—to the American people as it were— passionately arguing that Obama is unfit to be president because “he doesn’t understand or respect the sacrifices of war.” The word, “sacrifice” surfaces repeatedly in this short speech, while the camera focuses on his upper body, only at the end panning out to show his entire figure—and the loss of his limb—to make very visually specific the “sacrifice” he has endured.

The ad powerfully warns the American public that not to ascribe to commitment and faith in this sacrificial construction is a type of (religious?) political heresy that casts suspicion. In fact, not to ascribe wholeheartedly to this belief is to be cast out: marked as “other” from patriotic, faithful Americans. The veteran concludes his sacrificial logic, “It is a fundamental truth that freedom is always worth the price.”

Hauerwas includes a chapter that suggests a way forward, expanding upon his colleague Enda McDonagh’s suggestion that one way to counter the bulwark of just war thinking, and its self-imposed discipline and paucity of imagination, is to begin to use a different rhetorical formulation: “start a discussion about war that would make war as morally problematic as slavery”. In other words, develop an argument regarding the “abolition” of war in similar terms to the abolition of slavery.