According to Carolyn Marvin (1999), society “depends on the death of it’s own members at the hands of the group.” The sacrificial victim, however, is not some outsider group—a “scapegoat”—but is a member of one’s own group, an “insider.” Put bluntly, the soldier is the fundamental sacrificial victim.
On the other hand, while the “violent death of some of its members” is the “cost of society”—what holds the group together—we are not allowed to know that this is the case. For the mechanism to work (see Girard, 1987), it must remain “hidden.” Marvin states that our “deepest secret,” the “collective group taboo” is knowledge that “society depends on the death of sacrificial victims at the hand of the group.”
So a fundamental question is: How do we keep the secret a secret? And: how do we avoid feeling guilty at the fact that we send our own soldiers to die?
Preserving the totem secret, Marvin says, requires cooperation from both sacrificed and sacrificers. Insiders must “offer themselves willingly,” or appear to. We say that soldiers “give” their lives for their country. The most “useful” sacrifices declare in advance that they “face death willingly.”
Intimates of the victim are “ritually bound” to “certify his willingness to die.” Standing in for both victim and society, it is the family that testifies that the victim “bears no grudge in death.” No “blood vengeance” will be sought on his behalf. No blame will be attached to the group.
Marvin notes that when the deaths of eighteen Army Rangers in Somalia threatened to expose the totem secret, the New York Times interviewed their families. A victim’s brother was reassuring: “Ever since childhood, he wanted to do it,” Mr. Pilla said. “He was always playing Army in the woods as a little kid. He was interested then in strategies and tactics. He liked to push himself as far as he could go.”
Sacrificial willingness “assuages the guilt of the community” that sends soldiers to die by “denying its killing agency.” Jamie’s father felt “sadness — absolutely,” he said. “But I am not bitter. It was my son’s decision. I could not have stopped him.” The son was willing. The father is blameless. The ritual is complete.
Richard Koenigsberg, PhD
Director, Library of Social Science