What should we call fallen warriors? To my mind, this is the most pressing question Kelly Denton-Borlaug raises in her informative and disturbing study, U.S. War-Culture, Sacrifice and Salvation: what meaning should we “assign to the deaths of soldiers in combat?”
|About the author: Rev. Kelly Denton-Borhaug, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA.
|About the Reviewer: David L. Weddle is the David and Lucile Packard Professor at Colorado College and the author of Miracles: Wonder and Meaning in World Religions.
Deaths in battle are most often designated as sacrifice and therein, Denton-Borlaug argues, a powerful motivation for warfare lies. It is her conviction that American fervor for war is sustained by pervasive use of sacrifice to name the loss of life in battle.
Thus, all who employ and elaborate that discourse—journalists, politicians, religious leaders, artists, academics, industrialists, and most poignantly, parents, spouses, children, and friends of those who do not return from war—all are implicated in the bloodshed.
Her thesis is straightforward: “The purpose of this book is to expose and analyze the enduring and destructive relationship between U. S. War-culture, and frameworks and practices of sacrifice”.
Denton-Borlaug argues that references to combat deaths as “necessary” sacrifices are drawn from centuries of Christian interpretations of the death of Jesus as required for salvation, and transform war into a sacred enterprise devoted to saving the nation from its enemies.
She believes that until such language is replaced by more neutral rhetoric, we will never escape the delusion that war is the necessary, even “transcendental,” means to ensure national security.
One primary example of the “slippage” is “between the self-sacrificial identity of the martyr and that of the soldier”, evident in the prevalence of Christian symbolism in war memorials.
One need only think of those quiet manicured acres of Arlington National Cemetery with white crosses in crisp lines, as if at attention, extending to the horizon. Their silent witness constitutes a visual form of discourse that speaks powerfully of the religious meaning attached to the deaths of warriors.
In her careful recounting of political rhetoric in the United States following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Denton-Borlaug is convincing: the use of sacrificial discourse is everywhere present in elevating the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the level of redemptive violence, holy in their execution of retributive justice and glorious in their restoration of national honor.
Given the general currency of Christian references in the United States—despite a declining number of citizens who regularly attend religious services or support religious institutions—Presidents from Lincoln to Obama have drawn upon the language of sacrifice to “mystify,” in Denton-Borlaug’s well-chosen term, both the deaths of soldiers and the authority by which they are sent to those deaths.
The deaths are assigned the mysterious role of sacrificial offerings, and the authority operates behind the “classified” veil of national security. The deaths are not open to rational explanation (and even deliberately hidden from view, when the Bush administration prohibited photographs of coffins bearing dead soldiers from Iraq), while the authority defends its obfuscation (“lack of transparency”) as the necessary price of protecting the public.
Sacrifice is a term drawn from religious discourse that reeks of blood as much as any battle memoir; but it is also invested with haunting resonance of the divine, as is clear in its etymology from the Latin terms meaning “to make sacred.” But who is sanctified or in Denton-Borlaug’s term “transcendentalized”? Does the warrior become sacred by death or does the nation that offers the warrior for its own security (salvation) on the altar of the battlefield “slip” into the place of ultimate cause (God)?
Or can the warrior play both roles, as when one offers oneself as the sacrifice—as in Christian interpretation of Jesus’ death as self-sacrifice? This dual meaning of Christ as divine high priest who makes of his own blood the final sacrifice is already developed by the author of a late New Testament epistle: “[Christ] has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26).
It is this model of heroic offering of oneself for the salvation of others that inspires the view of those who die in battle as redemptive sacrifices. This image is always in the background, but has become even more powerful since the end of the military draft in the United States and the consequent impression that members of the “volunteer armed forces” freely choose to serve at such cost.
By association with the deaths of fallen warriors, the wars which took their lives also become sacred enterprises, as valuable to patriotic piety as the cross upon which Christ gave himself. “In the trope of ‘the ultimate sacrifice,’ Jesus’ sacrifice ‘bleeds’ into and informs the meaning of the sacrifice of soldiers in death”.
As Denton-Borlaug demonstrates, it makes no difference which theory of atonement Christian theologians employ to interpret the way Christ’s death brings about salvation—whether by penal substitution or victory over the devil or restoration of divine honor—as long as sacrifice is the primary metaphor, the myth that violence alone brings redemption will continue to shape our religious and political discourse.
Thus, our author charges that “religious institutions perpetrating uncritical portrayals of the work of Christ as the ultimate sacrifice for human salvation, unwittingly feed into war-culture”. We shall see that this sweeping indictment has many respondents.
The category sacrifice accomplishes a great deal of discursive work: it “makes sacred” not only those who die in battle and the “just cause” for which they gave their lives, but also the “legitimate authority” (to borrow another term from Just War theory) that declared war in the first place. Denton-Borlaug is particularly concerned to remove from military authority the uniform of masculine protection; in her judgment, “secular war-culture may be described as a ‘male protection racket’”.
What I think she would like to see is decisive attention paid to her voice amidst the “multivalency” because she believes her critique of sacrificial discourse and its support of “war-culture” is of urgent importance. Her sermonic rhetoric carries the moral earnestness of a crusader: “We must struggle our way to cognitive and theological frameworks that support life and flourishing, instead of glorifying suffering, sacrifice, violence and death. Our true salvation (God’s intended world) depends upon it” (italics added).
While avoiding reference to sacrifice, Denton-Borlaug cannot help but speak of “struggle” because, however you say it and with whatever good intentions you mean it, no expression of Christian theology escapes the shadow of the cross and its agon. This is particularly true of a version that swims against the current of both prevailing culture and also dominant religious ideas.
There is a reason heretics often end at the stake, and what Denton-Borlaug proposes in this book is both political and religious heresy. It will take great “struggle” to displace dominant ideas of sacrifice with pacifist values. Nevertheless, leaving aside the question of how our author knows what world God intends—or whether God intends, let alone enacts, anything in the world—we can acknowledge that the survival of humanity may well depend, especially in our age of nuclear weapons, upon breaking the spell of war made sacred by the deaths of warriors.
A thorough critique of the discourse of sacrifice, such as this book masterfully provides, is a prerequisite for moving beyond myths of redemptive violence toward ideals of peace and justice.