Review Essay of Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity
Review Essay of US War-Culture, Sacrifice and Salvationby David Weddle
US War-culture, Sacrifice and Salvation
By Kelly Denton-Borhaug
Publisher: Taylor & Francis
Author: Kelly Denton-Borhaug
Published: Aug. 10, 2014
The military-industrial complex in the U.S. has grown exponentially in recent decades, yet the realities of war remain invisible to most Americans. A culture has been created where sacrificial rhetoric is the norm.. This culture has been partly enabled to flourish because popular American Christian understandings of redemption rely so heavily on the sacrificial. U.S. War-culture, Sacrifice and Salvation explores how formulations of Christian redemption create a world and a time of necessary sacrifice.
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.
Miracles: Wonder and Meaning in World Religions
By David L. Weddle
Publisher: NYU Press
Author: David Weddle
Published: July 19, 2010
One of the brutal facts of war is that technologies of death are always more advanced than methods of healing. The widespread use of cannonballs in the American Civil War caused more mangled limbs than the overworked saws of surgeons could manage to amputate; the resulting gangrene took thousands of lives in hospital tents. Anti-personnel mines—suddenly rising like flushed quail to propel their jagged contents into human flesh—create nearly irreparable wounds when they do not simply end life altogether.
From the use of the long bow at Agincourt to clouds of mustard gas on the Western Front in World War I to the skin-clinging agony of jellied napalm in Vietnam and the deferred pulmonary failure due to Agent Orange, our capacity to destroy seems ever to march ahead of our ability to recover or reconstruct. Thus, deaths and injuries in battle are first and foremost tributes to our ingenuity in the manufacture of weapons.
In our day, American military forces employ “smart” bombs and sophisticated guidance of drone aircraft to inflict precise and inescapable destruction (by intention, only on those who deserve it, but exploding shrapnel has no power of discrimination and “collateral damage” in the form of maimed children continues to appear on the balance sheets).
On the other hand, our enemies, first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, have demonstrated their own inventiveness in the creation, positioning, and detonation of “improvised explosive devices.” Their toll in lost limbs and brain injuries has been so high we have yet to calculate the final cost, particularly among those veterans who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and the paranoia and violence it unexpectedly visits upon its victims and their families.
Such inflicted pain can rise to the level that the theologian Marilyn McCord Adams called “horrendous evil,” suffering so severe and pointless that the victim no longer finds life worth continuing; thus, the alarming rate of suicide among military personnel who served in our current wars.
The jarring fact is that the ghastly effect of warriors’ injuries is intended; that their wounds are beyond healing and their bodies broken with no hope of restoration is precisely the measure of the effectiveness of the weapons used against them. Battlefields are, besides theaters for dramas of personal valor, also laboratories for the testing of new technologies: catapult, musket, repeating rifle, machine gun, and missile.
Since the purpose of weapons is to damage enemies so seriously they will be unable to respond, each advancing stage of weaponry requires testing in the field to ensure its success. Weapons that fail to be efficient in wounding and killing are quickly discarded, as the revolvers with flawed designs during the Civil War and the M-16 rifle that routinely jammed in Vietnam. We must trust the reliability of our weapons and only testing in battle assures our confidence is well-placed.
Yet would any politician or religious leader dare to say that fallen warriors died as “test subjects” in exercises of technological competition? Further, what society could acknowledge that war is an economic venture in which fighters are as dispensable as other capital resources? In military jargon, “boots on the ground” are “assets” to be invested or expended in pursuit of a “successful mission.”
The terms are telling in their impersonal and commercial resonances. Few go to war in order to die, but that risk is an absolute condition of the activity. To enlist in the armed forces, therefore, is to agree to accept the possibility of dying in exchange for whatever benefit, to yourself or others, is on offer.
Even though the stakes are unusually high, the deal is a common contract of exchange. If you survive, honor is yours, along with the confidence that comes from initiation into the ranks of trained combatants, and transferable skills for a civilian career; even health care benefits (provided the Veteran Affairs Hospital in your area operates with reasonable integrity).
For you there are many names: hero, guardian, champion, and warrior. Other citizens will—in this post-Vietnam era—respect and “thank you for your service.” Grateful for such recognition, you are rightly proud. You risked all and were rewarded; you won your gamble.
But what shall we say of your comrades who did not survive? They were lost to sniper bullets, IEDs buried in the road, artillery shells from barren mountain sides, traitorous assassinations, or diseases contracted in foreign lands. There are so many ways to lose the wager of combat; and as Donald Fagan put it in his haunting rock song, Deacon Blues, “I want a name when I lose.”
“They call Alabama the Crimson Tide,” Fagan wrote of winners, but what name shall we give to those who lose in war? What should we call fallen warriors? To my mind, this is the most pressing question Kelly Denton-Borhaug raises in her informative and disturbing study, U.S. War-culture, Sacrifice and Salvation (Equinox, 2011): what meaning should “we assign to the deaths of soldiers in combat?” (243).
Deaths in battle are most often designated as sacrifice and therein, Denton-Borhaug 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” (1). While her analysis of the sprawling influence of military values and interests is limited to contemporary American culture, her critique applies to other contexts in which Christian imagery of sacrifice is prominent, as her references to Latin American liberation theologians Elsa Tamez and Jung Mo Sung demonstrate.
Denton-Borhaug 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.
Her answer to the question of what to call the death of soldiers is “tragedy, a consequence of the failure of politics for which all citizens are responsible and accountable.” This terminology shifts focus from the death of the warrior as a calculated loss to the larger burden of guilt borne by the society in whose name, and for whose sake, the soldier is said to have died. Her book develops the case against continued use of the trope “war-as-sacrifice” by politicians and religious leaders, military ethicists, and Christian theologians.
Between religious views of sacrifice as redemptive violence and rational calculations of the morality of war driven by classic Just War theory, our thinking about war and its putative value is inflected from the start with the premise that war is religiously sanctioned and morally authorized. In Denton-Borhaug’s imprecise, but persuasive terms, religious meanings of sacrifice “slide” and “slip” into, or “mesh” with, political discourse to combine religious and national identities.
One primary example of the “slippage” is “between the self-sacrificial identity of the martyr and that of the soldier” (91), 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.
Edward Said taught us that people use “discourse” to support political and social structures of power; and we have seen evidence enough that religious discourse is particularly effective at that task. In her careful recounting of political rhetoric in the United States following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Denton-Borhaug 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.
To be entirely balanced, however, we note that Bruce Lincoln demonstrated in his comparative study of speeches after 9-11 by President George W. Bush and al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, that “the concentration of overly and emphatically religious content in bin Laden’s speech was almost sixty times greater than in Bush’s” (Holy Terrors). As we have seen in the years since, melding binary oppositions of religious language (good/evil, us/them, God/Devil) with military rationales is not a peculiarly American, or exclusively Christian, vice.
Denton-Borhaug concludes her chapter on “building and maintaining the drive to war” with a summary indicating several interrelated themes of sacrificial discourse and her critique:
The conclusion to be drawn is: consistent and repetitive use of sacrificial language within the larger discourse of the ‘war on terror’ let loose into the wider culture a kind of power to shape the mood, motivation and response of the general public. This public disposition acquiesced to a paternal authority that would act on its behalf and was mystified by a shield of religious sanctity. Moreover, this message disingenuously assured the public that the sacrifice only would execute righteous punishment ‘far from home,’ as opposed to any that would require hardships on the part of the American public at large. (67–68)
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-Borhaug’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.
The public, in the meanwhile, largely unaffected by recent wars, quietly and nearly unconsciously accepts the bargain because it seems to pay off in years when the stock market soars, terrorist plots are uncovered by exhaustive surveillance, and drones efficiently take out their targets.
Unlike previous wars in our national history, the present conflicts do not entail the costs incurred when casualties are high and widely distributed among the populace, as in conflicts from the Civil War to Vietnam. The end of the military draft insulated sons and daughters of American social, political, and economic elites from the brutality of war; they have rather become its bemused consumers in the form of Hollywood productions and video games.
That fact means, of course, that those who “sacrifice” their lives and limbs in combat are members of the “volunteer” armed forces, disproportionately from minority ethnic groups and those otherwise without economic and educational opportunities. And that fact brings us back to the real “business” of war.
Denton-Borhaug rightly focuses on questions of who profits from war and properly renews and extends the well-known warning of President Eisenhower about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex” now grown to what sociologist Nick Turse calls “this new military-industrial-technological-entertainment-academic-scientific-media-intelligence-homeland security-surveillance-national security-corporate complex” (quoted on 31).
Examples of the infiltration of military interests into American culture are shocking (including the Pentagon’s 1033 program that supplies local police forces with surplus tactical equipment and high-grade weaponry) and should serve as a wake-up call to the nation. Denton-Borhaug’s message is that American culture is in danger of becoming yeast in which the virus of war is nourished because “the framework of sacrifice energize[s] war-culture” (17).
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-Borhaug’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. The 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” (122). As Denton-Borhaug 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” (124). 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-Borhaug 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’” (125). She draws on feminist theology to expose what she regards as a conspiracy to maintain traditional hierarchies of power that silence voices of dissent as threats to national security: what she calls “the post-9/11 masculinist protection governmental scheme” (98) or “the system of masculinist chivalry…separating those who have the right to decide from those placed in the feminine position, whose responsibility it is to demonstrate subordination” (99). While Denton-Borhaug avoids the stereotypical claim that only (or all) males support war, she insists that the patriarchal model of the family undergirds Just War theory, beginning with Augustine, who conflated the authority of the paterfamilias to punish unruly children with the power of rulers to conduct war for just cause. According to “Strict Father morality” (George Lakoff), the only stable basis of family or nation is rigorous moral accounting. That ideology is strengthened by reference to sacrifice as a necessary means of righting moral wrongs, as in interpretations of Christ’s death as satisfying God’s righteous judgment against humanity. These ideas coalesce, Denton-Borhaug argues, in “a deadly nexus. Just war discourse, influenced by the assumptions of the masculinist security regime, gains further traction from moral/religious notions of sacrificial exchange … Just as the sacrifice of Jesus is declared theologically necessary for Christian salvation, so the mechanism of sacrifice explains, rationalizes and transcendentalizes the necessity of Just War” (119–120).
If a word of caution is in order here it would be the observation that the patriarchal family has been losing ground since the 1960s and now constitutes the basis for less than half the households in the United States. While such arrangements can live on as nostalgic ideals in political and religious discourse, it is also true that the American populace did not replace President George W. Bush with Senator John McCain, a Vietnam veteran who is even more stridently representative of the “masculinist protective regime.” Of course, the presidential election of 2008 was decided by many factors, but one certainly was “war fatigue,” distrust of secret detention and disgust with torture. The American public—at least for a moment—demonstrated its capacity to break the spell of sacrificial discourse, to awaken from the illusion created by the “deadly nexus” of religious and political language with the clear-eyed realization that the deaths of our sons and daughters in lands we could hardly locate on a map and whose languages we could not name, let alone speak, were not redemptive sacrifices after all, but brutal losses. If the choice of Barak Obama was in a moment of such awakening, however, it has turned out to be of brief duration. Even as this review is being composed, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks of the possibility of deploying ground troops in combat with the “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria. President Obama, seemingly as enchanted by the powers invested in the Commander-and-Chief as any president before him, will no doubt agree—and, in words to grieving loved ones, praise the sacrifice of our brave men and women in uniform. And that is why this book, for all its overwrought prose, is indispensable. I wish every member of Congress had a copy near at hand. It is a call to wake up, shake off the spell of “war-as-sacrifice,” and find other ways to negotiate our differences with global neighbors.
That call brings us to the final chapters of the book in which Denton-Borhaug offers and defends her own answer to the crucial question: “If we tried not to think about the losses of war as a form of sacrificial exchange, how else might we conceive of them imaginatively?” (125). This question is the right one to ask, and Denton-Borhaug concludes—after a survey of recent theologies that all end in “reinscribing sacrifice” in one way or another—that it is neither “wise or ethically defensible to attempt to rehabilitate theological sacrificial frameworks in our efforts to speak about and understand the meaning and nature of Christian ethics and practice” (170).
At this point, the reader might expect a turn away from religious language altogether, given the dangers in “transcendentalizing” war that the argument has to this point skillfully exposed. But Denton-Borhaug is a Christian theologian who teaches at Moravian College and leads workshops on theology of peace-making, so she cannot entirely abandon the project of interpreting Christian faith in a way that resists “war-culture.” She acknowledges that her task is not easy—and that is an understatement. If she is right that views of Christ’s death as sacrifice inevitably “feed into war-culture” (125), then the vast majority of Christians are dupes of the militarization of America; they have been seduced by imperial power. This sweeping judgment has often been rendered from the minority position of “historic peace churches,” particularly the Mennonites, against the political intrigue and lavish wealth of established churches.
But Denton-Borhaug’s indictment goes further by challenging the main point of agreement among global forms of Christianity: that Jesus died for the sins of the world. If her project were successful in removing the cross of Christ from the center of Christian faith and practice, it would constitute—nearly 400 years after its onset—the triumph of the radical Reformation. One does not need to be a cynic, however, to ask how plausible is it that any version of Christian theology, including hers, could be persuasive without the myth of redemptive violence that lies at the heart of its gospel. Let us consider her attempt.
Denton-Borhaug’s alternative to sacrifice as the central Christian theological category is work, specifically actions taken toward realizing what Jesus called “the kingdom of God” in which peace and justice would reign over the earth and humans would “learn war no more.” She draws upon the theology of utopia by Brazilian liberation theologian, Jung Mo Sung, who encourages constructive action while modestly acknowledging “the historic non-attainability of the Kingdom (or to translate basilea more inclusively, ‘God’s intended world’). God’s intended world always remains ahead of us, as goal and criterion for judging all contemporary attempts at greater justice-making” (167). Rather than meeting threats with violence, Denton-Borhaug counsels working to eliminate suffering by promoting equality, generosity, and the virtues that enhance peace. That is her pragmatic response to “war-culture”; her theological proposal is to link such positive action with the “retrieval of images of paradise,” not as other-worldly reward for sacrifice, but as an ideal to be pursued here and now. Given the mysterious synergy between divine intention and human responsibility, she calls her proposal, “collaborative eschatology” (192). The future we hope for is the one we must work to bring about.
If all this sounds faintly familiar, remember that Protestants in the nineteenth century were also keen on creating heaven on earth. Proponents of the Social Gospel made strenuous attempts (“muscular Christianity” was one of their risibly masculine tropes) to redeem social institutions and restore peace in international relations and justice in our economic system. They made some impressive gains in social welfare and legal protections for the poor, but finally their utopian efforts failed to establish the kingdom of God on earth. Instead they discovered in the very heart of “Christian Europe” a lust for sacrificial blood that could be satisfied only by world war. Denton-Borhaug seeks to avoid such naïve arrogance by limiting her theological work to its historic critical function of iconoclasm, revealing the clay feet of every colossal ambition and insisting (without entire consistency given her unconditional rejection of sacrificial discourse) on the impossibility of absolute claims. She calls for opening the theological arena to all contestants, allowing for the “multivalency of a wide diversity of soteriological voices in conversation and debate” (189), although it is hard to see how that condition would differ from the present state of affairs in the church and academy, where there seems to be nothing but debate.
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_” (176, italics added). While avoiding reference to sacrifice, Denton-Borhaug 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-Borhaug 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.
What constructive suggestions Denton-Borhaug has for alternative ways of speaking about the deaths of fallen warriors come in the final pages of the book. They are provocative and inspiring. She cites Judith Butler’s insight—“Grief is that trace of my inevitable human connection to others”—and then, acting as a Christian theologian, throws a “cognitive bridge” between “grief before the cross of Jesus, and grief in the face of so many analogical historical crosses” (196–197). The only common grounds enemies often have are the cemeteries in which they bury their children. Yet if that acknowledgement were all that is required for enemies to see one another as fellow humans deserving of dignity and sympathy, we would have eliminated war long ago. Suffering can evoke a sense of vulnerability and solidarity with others who suffer, but it can also awaken the hunger for reprisal. Perhaps Denton-Borhaug is right that the difference in response depends upon the discursive diet one has been fed: sacrifice in the service of just retribution or “rehumanization of all the parties involved in and affected by war: soldiers, enemies, noncombatants, citizens” (205). While our author does not align with European humanist advocates of “cosmopolitan” morality, such as Cécile Fabre, Denton-Borhaug does propose that we think of all soldiers not as sacrificers, but as workers. In this way, the meaning of their deaths in battle can be analyzed in terms of their utility to the “war-culture” and the industries it supports. As a result, it will be possible “to hold to account those systems that brutally instrumentalize human bodies and spirits” (210). No one could object to assigning moral responsibility for needless carnage to those who profit from it. But how would such an analysis allow us to describe fallen warriors as anything other than “lost assets”?
While Denton-Borhaug has many suggestions for concrete “counter-cultural practices,” techniques designed to undermine “war-culture” and “give peace a chance,” none of these “good works” that contribute to the eschatological ideal are available to combatants under military command. How can the work of warriors, which is after all to inflict damage on the enemy, be affirmed as “good work”? Denton-Borhaug recognizes this is the haunting question: “is it possible to do the work of killing, without losing one’s soul?” Her claim, emphasized by italics, is “_Killing diminishes the human soul_” (223)—which seems to leave the warrior with no alternatives but laying down arms or accepting a status of lesser humanity. She cites a stomach-churning passage from a memoir of a survivor of the explosion of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima that ends with these words: “It was complete and utter hell on earth” (226). But if “war is hell,” is it also “demonic” and, therefore, never an authentic human vocation? That is, does this analysis drive to the conclusion that the warrior is necessarily sub-human? But then would we have to admit that the deaths of warriors, in Butler’s term, are “ungrievable”?
As to the work the rest of can do to “dismantle the interpenetrations of war-culture and the sacrificial dynamics that energize it,” Denton-Borhaug relays three suggestions from Wendell Berry: eliminate the possibility of profiting from war [but its enactment would require the adoption of a non-capitalist system of production]; acknowledge that war is always a failure of government [but then a nation must admit that its leaders have failed at precisely the point they are most needed]; and conscript every able-bodied citizen, “beginning with all those who have orchestrated the war” [but to be just that process would require an equitable distribution of military service under an incorruptible bureaucracy, the failure of which led us to cancel the draft after the Vietnam War]. These actions are what a “theology of work” toward “God’s intended world” would encourage. Apparently, those in other religious and political traditions, with perhaps different ideas of what God intends, would find their own rationales for joining in.
Now, it is no criticism of idealistic proposals to say that they are impractical or unrealistic. An ideal, after all, is an imagined state of affairs (remembering that utopia signifies both good place and no place), and all creative action begins with imagining what is not but could or should be. Achieving peace or justice is more a matter of art than science (we know how those horrific twentieth-century “rational” experiments in secular utopias turned out). So it is not entirely inappropriate that Denton-Borhaug appends to her sober assessment of the dangers of sacrificial discourse a poem by Coleman Barks, American professor of English and translator of mystic texts. The poem recounts a dream (the fitting form of utopian imagination) that channels the spirit of John Lennon’s Imagine by envisioning a Woodstock in Baghdad—but without drugs, sex, or rock and roll, as a concession to Sunni sensibilities. That is, Barks subtracts everything that made Woodstock what it was and thus made it non-exportable to a Muslim country; his dream must be modified to enlist universal enthusiasm. But the very censorship of his “unthought-out hippie notion” demonstrates how difficult it is to propose methods of achieving peace that work across cultures. We cannot make peace by ourselves, but is it plausible to think that if only those uptight male warriors in Washington and Baghdad and Damascus would smoke a joint together and hang out in a state of “relaxed, improvisational festivity,” then what a wonderful world this would be? No sacrifices are required in a world where identities, personal and national, gradually blur in the liminal moment of festival.
But we live in a world of sharp differences and the politics of identity. Maintaining the boundaries of personal and national identity is the justification for war and the purpose for sacrifice (as Nancy Jay argued). So the question returns: What name shall we give to fallen warriors if we do not call their deaths sacrifices? Denton-Borhaug answers,
The deaths of soldiers are a tragedy … the appropriate reaction is a deep and reflective grief with the goal of rehumanization of all who are involved … We repent, lament, hope and work toward a better politics that can provide the grounding in which people cooperate to search for solutions for a more just and peaceful world, a world that recognizes the precariousness of all life and works to support life for all. (243)
That is a magnificent peroration and the book might well have ended with it and not the dream poem by Barks. But even these words do not, in my judgment, adequately serve to name fallen warriors. Denton-Borhaug convinces me that interpreting their deaths in terms of Christian sacrifice is a dangerous mistake, but should we assign them only the negative value of tragedy, awakening in us fear and pity for the purpose of catharsis (in Aristotle’s classic terms)? It may make grieving fallen warriors even more complicated, but this book argues the case that soldiers die in our current wars as assets expended for political and economic reasons and that we use religious discourse to hide that cold fact from ourselves.
Yet can that be the whole story? Denton-Borhaug notes that she is not an “extreme” pacifist, yet she concedes little ground for waging legitimate war. In the face of actual threat or invasion, is a national community justified in defending itself, as individuals are? If so, then between the religious category of redemptive sacrifice and the economic description of lost assets, there may be a place to name those who die in combat as “good workers” in the service of a more humane world. Bestowing that honor requires no theology at all.