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The Sacrificial Theory of Warfare, Chapter VII:
The Nation-State is a Bloodthirsty god

Sacrifice, Ivan Strenski observes, means “giving up, destruction and death.” But much talk about sacrifice carries on as if this loss or subtraction “actually achieves addition.” Soldiers sacrifice in battle, but this doesn’t count as diminishment. “How can sacrifice add to the social whole when—in the fact of destruction and death—it subtracts from the social whole by removing one of its members from the body politic?”

The answer to this question is revealed in a book published during the First World War by a British soldier. Coningsby Dawson (1917) writes about his comrades:

These men, in the noble indignation of a great ideal, face a worse hell than the most ingenious of fanatics ever planned or plotted. Men die scorched like moths in a furnace, blown to atoms, gassed, tortured. And again other men step forward to take their places well knowing what will be their fate. Bodies may die, but the spirit of England grows greater as each new soul speeds upon its way.

Loss is gain because the British body politic grows larger by virtue of consuming the bodies of soldiers. As the soul of each soldier “speeds upon its way,” the “spirit of England” grows greater.

A soldier who dies for his country Strenski says, becomes “sacred;” a “consecration” occurs. May the sacrifice of soldiers in battle be compared with ritual sacrifice—in which the body of the victim is eaten and shared by members of the community?

The First World War was like a massive sacrificial ritual, each nation-state like a blood-thirsty god feeding on human bodies. The “greatness” of a nation was measured in terms of the number of sacrificial victims it offered up: loss equaled gain.

Richard A. Koenigsberg

“Sacrifice: Bad Math, Bad Grammar”

Ivan Strenski
Ivan StrenskiIvan Strenski is the Holstein Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside.
Book by Ivan Strenski
  Why Politics Can't Be Freed From Religion
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A dilemma sits at the center of sacrificial discourse. Sacrifice means loss, giving up, destruction and death. But, much talk about sacrifice carries on as if this loss, this subtraction, actually achieves addition.

Soldiers sacrifice themselves in battle, but this doesn’t count as diminishment. It actually adds to whatever social body of reference is in play. So, the question is why and how can sacrifice add to the social whole, when, in the fact of destruction and death, it subtracts from the social whole by removing one of its members from the body of the living?

This bizarre and self-conflicted state of public values eventuates in what I call the ‘bad math’ of sacrifice. Sacrifice means loss, giving up or at least giving ‘of:’ destruction and, in many cases, death. But, characteristically, most talk promoting sacrifice acts as if these losses are in reality gains—a paradigm case of ‘addition by subtraction.’ Proponents of civic sacrifice in war, for example, routinely argue how the loss of lives in heroic combat actually counts as gain.

The question is how and why Civic sacrifice is about a kind giving to the community—that in turn produces moral obligation to give further and more broadly. This thesis can be tested empirically in the instances of so-called ‘suicide bombing.’

These deaths are regarded, both by the actors and their communities of reference, as ‘gifts’ to the community, requiring meaningful action in response. They are not meaningless suicides or mere acts of warfare.

Soldiers on the battlefield are seen as being led like ‘lambs to the slaughter’—a clear suggestion of analogies with ritual sacrificial killing. Or, soldiers may be seen as offering their lives on the analogy of Jesus winning salvation for the nation. Similarly, sacrificial death for Israel has as well always been held in high regard and likened to temple ritual.

What I find remarkable is how close to ritual senses of sacrifice the civic ones can become. If the sacrificial ritual ‘syndrome’ involves killing or destruction, giving gifts, cooking/transforming and eating/consuming communally, and finally consecration, do we find their analogies in civic sacrifice? I think so. For example, even when civic sacrifices are only partial —a ‘giving of rather than a total ‘giving up’ of a life, career etc., the ritual model seems to brood over the civic realm.

In terms of the civic sacrifice—a dying for country, or even paying one’s taxes—gift discourse seems prominent. Soldiers give up their lives for/to their country; good citizens give of themselves in paying their taxes or supporting the United Fund, for example. Similarly, in dying for country, the soldier, or at least their memory, becomes ‘sacred.’ A consecration occurs. They become heroes to us all, have their names inscribed in immortal stone, lend their names to public places and institutions, and so on.

As ‘victims,’ they become blameless and without taint. A kind of primal innocence is restored to them, just as the image of the ‘lamb of God’ tells us from the ritual context. But, after these correspondences with ritual sacrifice, the analogy between civic and ritual sacrifice seems to break down. Is there a sense, for example, in which what is sacrificed in warfare (the life of a soldier) is shared and eaten—even figuratively? I don’t know. But, those wanting to see such deaths in warfare as ‘sacrifices’ might want to see how far the analogy with ritual sacrifice can be extended.