We tell ourselves that the purpose of war is to kill the enemy. This narrative has sustained the ideology of warfare for the past one-hundred years. Nations—according to our conventional way of thinking—go to war to “defeat” an enemy that threatens national security.
Marvin says that the fundamental purpose of warfare is to sacrifice members of one’s own group. If the ritual of war is to work, however, we can’t allow ourselves to be aware of this. We cannot say or know that the purpose of warfare is to sacrifice our own soldiers.
To keep the sacrificial secret, Marvin says, a “pretext to slaughter group members” must be created. This requires an “enemy” conceived as a threat to one’s nation. The more credible the threat, the easier it is to conceal our motives. The more credible the threat, the more enthusiastically the group can send its victims to die. We need to believe that we are not the cause: it is the enemy that compels us to act.
The totem secret demands that we pose as unwilling killers: “Our side must not shoot first.” In a nutshell, Marvin explains, willingness to go to war—and to sacrifice our young men—is governed by the following proposition: “It is not we who want the blood of our sons. The enemy causes the sacrifice.”
We say that the purpose of war is to kill the enemy. But what makes us feel unified, Marvin says, is not the sacrifice of the enemy, but the “sacrifice of our own—the supreme ritual of war.” Though we set out “to kill the enemy beyond the border—only the savior’s (the soldier’s) death makes the ritual work.”
If the ritual purpose of war were merely to kill the enemy, Marvin says, the deaths of some 40,000 or more Iraqis during the Gulf War would have made a lasting contribution to American national unity. Though the deaths of only 147 Americans testified to impressive American military superiority, its weak sacrificial impact caused the Gulf War to fade quickly as a unifying event. Wars whose unifying effects endure must be costly. Not winning or losing, but serious bloodletting is the important factor in ritual success.
Of course, the last war that unified the American people was the “good war,” World War II. This war was costly, generating 291,557 deaths and 1,076,245 total casualties. Hitler was the ideal scapegoat; a perfect pretext. His function was to keep the sacrificial mechanism alive—for Americans and other nations around the world.
Richard Koenigsberg, PhD
Director, Library of Social Science