Michael Vlahos, PhD teaches in the Global Security Studies program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences.
Since 2001 he has been a regular featured guest of the nationally syndicated John Batchelor Show on WABC.
The 20th century’s wars—from 1914-1951, and their aftermath—killed perhaps 150 million individual human beings. We casually ascribe this calamity to madness, evil, or the inevitable efficiencies of an industrial economy. Yet I argue that this killing was embedded in the desire of peoples to fulfill—through war—the vision that drove them.
This was a vision of collective apotheosis that promised human transcendence through the passion play of the Nation: War. The rituals and symbols of war in Modernity evolved from, and recreated, ancient patterns of human sacrifice and divine incarnation.
Warfare, Divine Kingship, and the Cult of the Leader
Sacred kingship—first developed in ancient Egypt—had become divine kingship in Antiquity. Modernity appropriated the many rituals of sacred and divine kingship—including Christological narratives—and slaved them to the cult of the Leader.
Yet now, The Leader does not assume the lofty and unapproachable dais of the divine, nor as divine agent or divine incarnation legitimating his rule over the many. In Modernity, The Leader becomes the embodiment—in his very flesh—of the national body, so that the incarnation of the national divine can be represented, symbolized, and valorized by his physical presence.
In Modernity too emerges the ritual artifact of Leader-Nation-union-transcendence through shared blood sacrifice for the nation. Here, at the moment of greatest peril, His sacrifice cements collective ascent in victory or honor in defeat, thus sustaining in death the living river of the nation.
The Father to the Son—the young men of the nation—the pure and innocent youth—allow the nation to transcend through their stainless sacrifice, which is the force that vanquishes evil, just as their blood replenishes the nation’s sacred soil, mingling perhaps with that of the fallen leader: The immortal community of “honored dead.”
As a journalist of Il Popolo d'Italia wrote in 1918: "We are all sure that a radical, deep, unforeseeable transformation awaits us. Everybody feels that millions and millions of men cannot die without incredible renewals ensuing from the tremendous slaughter."
Above all, it is the collective life force or essence, unleashed and united in war, that represents the divine incarnation of the nation. The nation became divine in its strength of unity, in its matchless purity, in the oneness of its love.
The nation can only achieve this divine incarnation through the concentrated, focused sacrifice and renewal of its energy—its force—in battle. This is transcendence dreamed of and longed for by every citizen. Moreover it is only through the corporeal agency of our bodies that such a collective rapture of spirit can be achieved—hence the passage in blood, and the ascent in death.
In the 20th century, Stalin—in the “collectivization”—Hitler and Stalin—in their great war in the East—and Mao—in “the great leap forward”—recreated in our time, again, the grand rite of revolutionary virtue realized through purification. As so powerfully recounted recently by Adam Tooze (Wages of Destruction), Timothy Snyder (Bloodlands), and Yang Jisheng (Tombstone), the true spirit of the nation as divine incarnation could in revolution, finally be achieved only in mass cleansing: Of creation and rebirth through blood.
For two centuries and more, Modernity’s creed of mass sacrifice and national apotheosis ruled history. In its name this creed sacrificed 150 million humans and destroyed scores of societies, and ran the risk, for a while, of sacrificing all of humanity on an atomic altar. The age of national-religious war took ancient patterns of ritual meaning and used them to create a self-destructive mechanism of death that threatened the viability at last of human life.
Sacrifice and War in Modernity
The watershed of Modernity, 1784, is Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii. There has never before or since been a painting that was both marker and decisive incitement to big change. In a splash-screen instant, the artist-as-revolutionary created the vision of incarnation, sacrifice, and war that would remorselessly drive Modernity—in a single image.
What the oath said was this: That we are all together, come what may; that we will live together, and die together, to realize the river of our identity. This is the sacred essence of Modernity: That now whole nations, not simply corrupt monarchs and their ass-kissing elites, are the thing itself. The nation is the people, the people are the nation—and where is this fraternity and unity most evident, most tested, and most triumphant?
After 1800, humanity—at least at first, Western European humanity, but then, remorselessly, everyone else—sought national transcendence through struggle culminating in battle. Battle here had to of course meet certain existential benchmarks: 1-Battle must represent a field of the nation, fighting together; 2-Battle must show the valor of the nation as testament of its unity; 3-Battle must show the steadfastness of the nation standing fore-square against those who would destroy it; 4-Battle must in the sacrifice of its most precious young, the very future of the people, that their blood will renew and nourish that nation, making it ever stronger.
This is a primitive recipe for transcendence. It does not rely on, nor require, victory as defined by, say, Clausewitz. Victory is in the valor, the unity of struggle, and the sacrifice. The battle itself becomes transcendence through the shared death-and-new-life experience of the nation: Which must metaphorically inhabit together—everyone—the testing and the sacrifice. Or there can be not transcendence. Nations have the right to kill because their people desire to sacrifice themselves, and that right (as the world wars show) ends when people suddenly lose that desire.
The Failure of Religious Nationalism
The irresolvable issue within Modernity is that religious nationalism became indelibly infused with, and flogged on by, old visions of universalism—but without any of the tolerance, accommodation, and political yielding that characterized the world of Late Antiquity. Hence, after 1800, each Big Man religious national dynamic—Britain, France, Russia, Germany, United States, yes, even Japan and China—sought to join their vision of themselves to a larger vision of humanity.
But how did this turn out in practice? Did any of these fabulously successful nations really create a universalistic vision for all of humanity? Even us? Don’t kid yourself. Looking at world politics from 1800 to today, it is always the same. Here is what the Big Man nation tells the world: 1-We are the greatest, the most civilized; 2-You should join us (or submit); 3-No one can stop us; 4-Hey, it will be a great party if you only get with the program and submit (or we will kill you).
All these nation-states of Modernity had unconsciously embraced the soul of primitive war as their ticket to unity and national transcendence. Moreover they had totally bought off on the idea that identity/transcendence could be fully realized in battle. But this inner requirement was existentially at odds with the outer requirement: That they win the competition over who will be the next “Rome”—the next universalistic vision for all humanity.
Modernity’s promise of personal-in-collective transcendence—realized through the states mobilization of the nation and then people’s triumphal sacrifice in war—gave the state unprecedented power. First Napoleon, and then the terrible triumvirate of the 20th century—Hitler, Stalin, and Mao—showed exactly what could be done with a reality-construct if truly embraced by millions and their industrial economic engine.
America—and then post-Stalin Soviets in the 1950s and post-Mao Chinese in the 1970s—ratcheted back the ritual. The state saw the disenchantment among their people. For a while too, this loss-of-authority-through-disenthralling was counterbalanced for the state by the greatest weapons’ juju of all time: “The Atomic bomb.”
But today the state lives off of the residual brand loyalty of societies to the national war and sacrifice franchise. The United States Government has crafted an instrument of war that fully decouples the mythic tradition of collective sacrifice from the nation, replacing it with highly ritualized enterprise of “all-volunteer” sacrifice. Here, a select few American citizens become our representatives in battle, while the nation merely affirms in return: “We honor your service.”
In a time when war and sacrifice seem to be in recess, where we self-consciously seek to disenthrall ourselves of its bloody rites, the construct yet lives. More deeply the need that created it remains strong.