Sacrifice to the totem god—the nation—Marvin suggests, implies the existence of a “religious community of devotees” who perform the sacrificial mission. This community is the military. While it may “strain conventional wisdom” to think of soldiers as a “religious class,” General Douglas MacArthur told graduating West Pointers in 1962 that they as soldiers, above all other men, were required to practice the “greatest act of religious training—sacrifice.”
Totem members, Marvin says, “model and train for death.” They conform their bodies to the group discipline of military postures such as marching or standing at attention. This body work is “prologue to the lesson of supreme sacrifice”—of submission to the totem group.
Sacrifice—or “insider death” as Marvin calls it—occurs when soldiers leave the group, which concludes in their “execution.” In my voluminous writings on warfare and sacrifice (see, for example, “The Soldier as Sacrificial Victim”) I’ve never used this term “execution” to designate how the national group colludes in causing the death of its soldiers (the term “sacrifice” removes some of the string). Yet is there a better way to describe what occurred during the First World War—when nations asked soldiers to get out of trenches and to run into machine-gun fire and artillery shells for four years?
Marvin says that the totem or nation-state sends their own soldiers to die, but is not “their visible executioner.” As Marvin puts it, “the enemy executes members of the sacrificial class.” In short, the nation delegates the execution of its soldiers to the enemy.
In basic training, it would appear that soldiers are being trained to be aggressive warriors. “Kill, kill, kill” the recruits say as they stick bayonets into a straw dummy. This is the image of the soldier that we prefer: masculine, virile men who are capable of destroying an enemy.
Marvin has another take on what occurs. She suggests that the group trains soldiers to be “murderers” so that we can “kill them more easily.” If soldiers are murderers, then we can feel less guilty about sending them off to die.
Richard Koenigsberg, PhD
Director, Library of Social Science