The most significant book ever written on war?

Carolyn Marvin’s Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag is perhaps the most significant book ever written on the dynamics of warfare. The extracts below convey her central themes:

  1. Society depends on the death of its own members
  2. Sacrificial Willingness
  3. The Enemy Constitutes the Pretext
  4. Soldiers as the Sacrificial Class
  5. The Totem Secret

Please click here to read excerpts from her book.

To read Chapter 4 (complete),“The totem myth: Sacrifice and transformation,” click here.


Society depends on the death of its own members at the hands of the group. The nation is the shared memory of blood sacrifice, periodically renewed. At the behest of the group, the lifeblood of community members must be shed. The creation of sentiments strong enough to hold the group together periodically requires the willing deaths of a significant portion of its members. Group solidarity flows from the value of this sacrifice.

Merely as an idea, sacrifice has no permanent value. Real stakes are measured in bodies. The value of a sacrificial episode depends on how many bodies touch blood directly and how many other bodies are linked by personal ties of blood and affection to them. Bodily sacrifice is the totem core of American nationalism.

What is really true in any society is what is worth killing for, and what citizens may be compelled to sacrifice their lives for. The irrefutable sign of national faith, which we call patriotism, is making one’s body an offering, a sacrifice. To die for others is the ultimate expression of faith in social existence. The sacred is easily recognized. It is that set of beliefs and persons for which we ought to shed our own blood. Rituals that celebrate this blood sacrifice give expression and witness to faith.


Preserving the totem secret requires cooperation from both sacrificed and sacrificers. Insiders must offer themselves willingly, or appear to. We say that soldiers “gave” their lives for their country. The most useful sacrifices declare in advance of leaving 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, the family by blood or ordeal testifies that the victim bears no grudge in death. No blood vengeance will be sought on his behalf. No blame attaches to the group.
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.


To keep the sacrificial secret, a pretext to slaughter group members must be created. The enemy constitutes the pretext. The more credible the threat, the more completely our motives are concealed. The more credible the threat, the more enthusiastically the group sends the victim to die (amidst general lamentation for the loss of its young), and the more group members believe they are not the cause.

We tell ourselves that the purpose of war is to kill the enemy. And it is. But what makes us feel unified 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, only the savior’s death makes the ritual work.

If the ritual purpose of war were merely to kill the enemy, 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.


Sacrifice to the totem god, the nation, implies the existence of a religious community of devotees who execute the sacrificial mission. This community is the military, though it strains conventional wisdom to think of soldiers as a religious class. Totem class members model and train for death. Soldiers are most familiar to us in images that show them conforming their bodies to the group discipline of military postures and gestures such as marching or standing at attention.

This body work is prologue to the lesson of supreme sacrifice, of submission to the totem group. The dynamics of sacrifice, or insider death, are as follows. Insiders consent to leave the group, which colludes in their execution. “Uncle Sam wants you!” goes the famous recruiting slogan in which Uncle Sam stands for the nation calling its sons to death, ritually transforming them. Sacrificial designates go willingly, becoming murderers so we can kill them more easily. The totem sends them to die but it is not their visible executioner. The enemy executes members of the sacrificial class.


The knowledge that the group must sacrifice its own to survive is a secret. We keep it secret by treating violence as primitive and morally suspect, a failure of social structure rather than an elemental component. Violence exists is presented as a last resort, a challenge to civilized modernity as the hallmark of the nation-state.

The totem secret demands that we must pose as unwilling killers. Our side must not shoot first. It is not we who want the blood of our sons. The enemy causes the sacrifice. Violence exists because of the Other and not because of us. We insist that the death of our own does not originate with ourselves. All group-sustaining violence poses as a reluctant response to violence that originates with others.

While totem violence is regularly enacted in rituals of unifying blood sacrifice such as war, this knowledge must be separated from devotees, as sacred things are, whenever it threatens to surface explicitly. We use the term taboo to describe the tension between the violent mechanism that sustains enduring groups and the reluctance of group members to acknowledge their responsibility for enacting it. To protect themselves from recognizing the source of group unity, citizens render totem violence and its symbols sacred, that is, unknowable.

Best Publications on World War I

From among hundreds of books and papers, Library of Social Science editors have selected just a few. Please read the summaries below, then click through any title to access excerpts from the book or the complete paper.

We are rebuilding our Ideologies of War Website from the ground up: identifying the most significant writings illuminating the sources and meanings of collective forms of violence. We now turn to World War I, the “mother of all wars.”

It is by now clear that the Second World War followed directly as a function of the First: Hitler demanded—and enacted—a “replay.” We also are beginning to understand that the First World War and the Holocaust are intimately related.

At the Somme on July 1, 1916, the British lost about 60 thousand men, of whom 21 thousand were killed—most in the first hour of the attack. Robert Kee called the trenches the “concentration camps of the First World War.” Citing Kee, military historian John Keegan observes in The Face of Battle that there is something “Treblinka like” about July 1 at the Somme, those “long docile lines of young men, shoddily uniformed, heavily burdened, numbered about their necks, plodding forward to their own extermination inside the barbed wire.”

Only by pretending that men getting out of trenches and running into machine gun fire and artillery shells have a “sporting chance”—do we maintain the delusion that World War I and the Holocaust were different kinds of events.

With regards,
Orion Anderson
Managing Editor
Ideologies of War

Bonadeo, Alfredo. Mark of the Beast: Death and Degradation in the Literature of the Great War (Book Excerpts)

Only men who know how to overcome their “personal material egoism,” nationalist leader Enrico Corradini proclaimed, can understand that war is “desirable and holy”—because it brings death, and death welds the individual to the nation. Corradini urged his selfish compatriots to fight, to die, and to redeem themselves. “By devoting himself to death the insignificant egotist helps to create the life of the true great individual—the fatherland.”

Griffin, Roger. The Meaning of ‘Sacrifice’ in the First World War (Paper)

As the prospects of a short war evaporated and the death toll grew, powerful psychological processes ensured the war would remain for millions a catalyst to experiencing transcendence. It was as if the fantasy of redemption through sacrifice—stubbornly entertained by both the fighters and onlookers—was fuelled rather than quenched by the blood of the fallen, like pouring oil on flames. The war can be seen as a collective act of redemptive self-sacrifice—transcendent meaning produced by the relentless flow of blood.

Gullace, Nicoletta. White Feathers and Wounded Men (Paper)

On August 30, 1914, Admiral Fitzgerald deputized thirty women to hand out white feathers to men not in uniform. The purpose was to shame “every young slacker,” and to remind those deaf to their country’s need that “British soldiers are fighting and dying across the channel.” Fitzgerald warned the men that there is a danger awaiting them “far more terrible than anything they can meet in battle,” for if they were found “idling and loafing tomorrow” they would be publicly humiliated by a lady with a white feather.

Lockwood, Renee. Sacrifice and the Creation of Group of Identity (Paper)

The battles at Gallipoli are often seen to represent the moment of independence for the Australian nation. Despite its Federation in 1901, Australia had not yet succeeded in producing a unique national character. Australian war historian Ken Inglis asserts: “The altar had not yet been stained with crimson—as every rallying center of a nation should be.” After the huge loss of life at Gallipoli, Australia’s prophetic hopes of a national identity born of blood and sacrifice were realized.

Mosse, George L. National Cemeteries and National Revival: The Cult of the Fallen Soldiers in Germany (Paper)

The cult of the fallen assimilated basic themes Christianity. The exclamation “Now we are made sacred” implied an analogy of the sacrifice in war to the passion and resurrection of Christ. Walter Flex, one of the chief myth-makers of the First World War, linked the war to the Last Supper, a revelation through which Christ illuminated the world. The sacrificial death of the best of our people, he said, is only “a repetition of the passion of Christ.”

Nazism and War

Pioneering the online publication of scholarship, the Ideologies of War website has attracted a world-wide audience—exploring the sources and meanings of collective forms of violence. We are re-organizing our website to make it more accessible and useful. Our webpage, Nazism and War, presents some of the most insightful books and papers on this topic. From among hundreds of books and papers, Library of Social Science editors have selected just a few. Please read the summaries to your right and below, then click through any title to access excerpts from the book or the complete paper.

If there are books or papers providing exceptional insight on this topic—that have not been included—please send me an email, and we’ll consider including it on our website.

We hope the resources provided by Ideologies of War will help you grow and develop as a researcher, author and teacher.

With regards,
Orion Anderson
Managing Editor
Ideologies of War

Baird, J. W. To Die For Germany: Heroes in the Nazi Pantheon

In November 1917, the soldier and youthful idealist Walter Flex ended his The Wanderer between Two Worlds with the thought that “We died for Germany’s glory. Flower, Germany, as garland of death to us!” His benediction glorified all of the sacrificial dead of the war. During the Great War, propagandists and poets alike joined hands in exalting the blood sacrifice of the youth of Germany, thus transforming carnage into ethereal national revelation. Only in Germany did heroic death in war become a philosophy of life—indeed, a significant component of the ethos of radical nationalism.

Bessel, Richard. Nazism and War

Only weeks before unconditional surrender, on April 7, 1945, Donitz called upon all naval officers to fight to the bitter end: “In this situation one thing matters: to continue fighting despite all the blows of fate. Fanatical will must enflame our hearts. Anyone who does not behave thus is a scoundrel. He must be strung up with a placard tied around him: ‘Here hangs a traitor’.” Military police and SS units patrolled behind the lines to catch and kill any soldier who might be suspected of desertion. Any soldier who was apprehended and was unable to provide the necessary identification, or who was suspected of desertion, faced hanging or the firing squad.

Geyer, Michael. “There is a Land Where Everything is Pure: Its Name is Land of Death”

It seems incontrovertible that the tide had irrevocably shifted against the German war effort in fall of 1942—with the battle of Stalingrad. At Nuremberg, Jodl would sum up that “earlier than anyone in the world, Hitler anticipated and knew that the war was lost.” Unwilling to negotiate. Hitler wanted “to fight to the death.” All this leads to the ineluctable conclusion that the machinery of destruction and annihilation went into high gear at the very moment the war was lost. The Wehrmacht fought for three years and the nation was mobilized in a total war effort notwithstanding the Nazi and military leaderships knowledge that this war effort would not make a difference in the eventual outcome of the war.

O’Donnell, Meghan. “Dangerous Undercurrent: Death, Sacrifice and Ruin in Third Reich Germany” (Paper)

Hitler called on the ideology of sacrificial death in his political testament written just before his suicide on the 30th of April 1945: “May it become part of the code of honour of the German officer that the surrender of a district or of a town is impossible, and that the leaders must march ahead as shining examples, faithfully fulfilling their duty unto death.” Through the suicides of Eva Braun, and Joseph and Magda Goebbels, a connection can be drawn to the undercurrent of death, ruin and sacrifice which had been so masterfully constructed by their Führer, who managed to create possibly the greatest act of the Totenkult, the ideological “suicide of the nation.”

Stephen G. Fritz. Frontsoldaten: The German Soldier in World War II

To serve a Volksgemeinschaft, to live a life of camaraderie, to believe in the German people and Hitler as the German Fuhrer—these were ideals pressed into the minds and souls of German youth. “Our freedom was service”: this line from a Hitler Youth song reflected the ideal of devotion to the community–even to the point of death. Hardly any song sang by the Hitler Youth did not celebrate death in the service of the community. “Laugh, comrades,” one such song proclaimed, “our death will be a celebration.” And why? “Germany must live, even if we die,” went the refrain, “We dedicate our death to you as the smallest deed.”

Terrell, Robert. “Reading Death and Sacrifice in the Berlin Völkischer Beobachter, February 1942–March 1943” (Paper)

The poet Wilhelm Ehmer wrote that the sacrifices of the dead were “not an end but a continuation.” The tome of humanity would forever feature the story of the German Volk, written in blood as a memorial to the greatness of their struggle. The blood of the dead used to write the eternal record of human history mandates that the living not betray the sacrifice. Berliners are bearers of the banner of the Reich—to die may be their honorable duty. Berliners should not fear this duty, but rejoice in their ability to participate in the “full force of renewal.”

Read LSS essays (write one yourself)

Below are excerpts from Library of Social Science Review Essays. Please click any book title (or photo) to read the complete text. Some of the books we’ve reviewed are recent, some not. We select titles based on the insights they contain—and their capacity to shape the development of thought. We focus on books that illuminate the sources and meanings of political forms of violence.




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Library of Social Science Book Reviews is an established, unique resource for scholars, educators, students and publishers. We identify new and significant books—and bring them to the attention of readers around the world through our Library of Social Science Newsletter, which reaches 57,230 people. A review is not an end in itself. A book review—like the book itself—is a vehicle to transmit ideas and generate change. Our thoughtful, substantial review essays—written by top scholars—zero in on a book’s most consequential ideas or theories. They engage the author’s arguments and articulate their implications—in order to generate new insights and knowledge.

With the Internet and World Wide Web, scholars can no longer cloister themselves within an idiosyncratic, circumscribed discourse. The Internet not only enables interdisciplinary work, but requires it. Library of Social Science Book Reviews embraces interdisciplinarity. We are open to insights from every scholarly discipline and perspective, including History, Sociology, Anthropology, Political Science, Religious Studies, Psychology and the Humanities.

We live now within an “attention economy.” Whereas once it was exceedingly difficult for people to be heard (to publish or “proclaim”), now nearly everyone has a voice. A new problem arises: in a sea of publications and authors, how does one identify those that are most significant—having something wise and original to say?

Though a publication may be of the highest quality, if it is not found by readers, it is useless. For a piece of writing to have an impact, an audience is required. Library of Social Science does not leave this to chance. By virtue of our Newsletter, tens of thousands of people read our review essays in a single day. Whereas once it took years to be “cited,” the pace of scholarly work has quickened. A new dynamic has emerged.

It is no longer possible to think of books as fixed entities. As the world flows on, so scholarship partakes in the reality of change. The Internet means that no argument is fixed, finished or complete. Our authors become part of an ongoing “developmental dialogue.” By bringing forth significant ideas and insights, Library of Social Science Book Reviews aspires to shape the course of scholarship—and perhaps history itself.

Published Review Essays

Click any book title below to read the complete review.

Brown, Norman O.
Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History
Who created the symbolic order? What is the source of the “power” of society?” Freud observed that the mythological conception of the universe is fundamentally psychology projected into the external world. Brown suggests that not just mythology, but the entirety of culture is a projection. In the words of Stephen Spender: “The world which we create—the world of slums and telegrams and newspapers—is a kind of language of our inner wishes and thoughts.”

Fornari, Franco
The Psychoanalysis of War
The spirit of sacrifice is intimately related to an ideology in the name of which one may sacrifice oneself. What is this “absolute and unconditional something” that would somehow justify the “establishment of a masochistic-sacrificial position?” The masochistic-sacrificial position (e.g., the role of a soldier) is idealized—becoming a kind of “supervalue”—because it is put into the service of “that absolute and unconditional something.”

Gentile, Emilio
Politics as Religion
The “fusion of the individual and the masses in the organic union of the nation” is combined with persecution against those outside the community. According to this totalitarian fantasy, there can be no separation between the individual and the state: they must exist in a condition of “perfect union.” Those Others who disrupt the experience of perfect union are branded enemies of the state who must be eliminated or removed.

Griffin, Roger
Modernism and Fascism
Fascist ideology revolves around the vision of a nation being capable of “imminent phoenix like rebirth.” The quest for rebirth gives rise to a revolutionary new political and cultural order that embraces all of the “‘true’ members of the national community.” Fascism constitutes a radical form of nationalism growing out of the perception that one’s country is in imminent danger—seeking resurrection.

Hauerwas, Stanley
War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity
The sacrificial metaphor at the heart of citizenship, and inextricably tied to war, has incredible power, all the more so because most citizens are unconscious of its active impact in our lives. Most citizens are blithely unaware of the contradiction between their assumptions regarding “the separation of church and state”—and the deeply religious sacrificial war-culture that so profoundly shapes their understandings of citizenship and the nation.

Herf, Jeffrey
The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust
National Socialism explained why a private war with Poland resulted in Germany fighting a life or death struggle against the combined might of the British Empire, the Soviet Union and the United States. Only Hitler and the Nazis could explain the war: the result of Jewish financial plutocrats in London and New York, and Jewish Communists in Moscow, working together to fulfill the Jewish dream of world domination. Only Germany understood the truth and was fighting to annihilate the Jewish threat.

Jones, James
Blood that Cries Out from the Earth: The Psychology of Religious Terrorism
Violent religious actions are linked to a particular image of God, namely that of a “vengeful, punitive and overpowering patriarchal divine being.” The believer who engages in acts of violence is relating to an omnipotent being who “appears to will the believer’s destruction.” This punitive God must be “appeased and placated.” In the face of such a God, the believer must “humiliate and abject himself.”

Kantorowicz, Ernst
The King’s Two Bodies
Nations function—like the Second Body of the King—as a double of one’s self: a larger, “more ample” body with which we identify. Our nation is a Body Politic that seems more powerful than our actual body. We project our bodies into a Body Politic and wage war to defend the fantasy of an omnipotent body that will live forever.

Kramer, Alan
Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War
The brutal combination of human and cultural destruction was not some kind of natural disaster, nor the logical extension of human (or masculine) violence. Instead, it “arose from strategic, political, and economic calculation.” This is the book’s most important contribution: awareness that people and cultural artifacts were not destroyed by a “whirlwind” or a “machine,” but by specific decisions of specific commanders, by orders decreed from above and carried out by armed men on the ground.

Lifton, Robert Jay
The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide
The central fantasy uncovered by Lifton was that of the German nation as an organism that could succumb to an illness. Lifton cites Dr. Johann S. who spoke about being “doctor to the Volkskorper” (‘national body’ or ‘people’s body’). National Socialism, Dr. Johann S. said, is a movement rather than a party, constantly growing and changing according to the “health” requirements of the people’s body. “Just as a body may succumb to illness,” the doctor declared, so “the Volkskorper could do the same.”

Marvin, Carolyn & David Ingle
Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag
What is really true in any community is “what its members can agree is worth killing for,” or what they can be compelled to sacrifice their lives for. What is “sacred” within a given society is that set of beliefs “for which we ought to shed our own blood.” Warfare constitutes the central ritual allowing societies to enact or demonstrate faith in the nation.

Miller, Steven E.
Military Strategy and the Origins of the First World War
The ideology of the offensive at all costs grew out of the desire to demonstrate the moral courage and will of one’s troops, and therefore the greatness of one’s nation. Such a strategy rarely resulted in breakthroughs. By virtue of attacking—even when slaughter was the result—soldiers exemplified the will to national self-sacrifice for the sake of one’s nation.

Mineau, André
SS Thinking and the Holocaust
Total war is total health, and the Nazi party portrayed Germany as a patient in danger of racial infection. The SS translated its biological worldview into dispassionate practice. War was a matter of self-defense, a prophylactic, and therefore ethical. In SS thinking, Mineau claims, Operation Barbarossa and the Holocaust combined to act as one “gigantic sanitary operation,” representing the “politics of antibiotics par excellence.”

Scarry, Elaine
The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World
The desire to resolve disputes through waging war revolves around the fact that the maiming and destruction of human bodies is necessary—a requirement. War seeks to establish the validity—the truth—of a sacred ideal. Warfare is characterized or constituted by a unique, radical form of verification: the maiming and destruction of human bodies.

Schantz, Mark S.
Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death
The political system of U.S. society in the Civil War era demanded that its citizens sacrifice their lives and commit violence against their fellow countrymen so the nation as a whole could survive. The dominant religious ideology of the time required citizens to voluntarily exchange the mundane world for the heavenly rewards of the afterlife. The individual could achieve the eternal life in heaven and could be commemorated as a hero if he was ready to sacrifice himself.

Skya, Walter. A
Japan’s Holy War: The Ideology of Radical Shinto Ultranationalism
To achieve the state of “one heart, same body,” the individual had to discard or annihilate the self. Any consideration of one’s own personal needs was wrong: one had to totally submerge the self into the collectivity. When Kakehi spoke of the bad aspects of Western culture that had entered Japan, he was referring to the evils of Western secularism and individualism. The Western focus on the value of the individual was the “greatest threat to the Japanese nation.”

Stein, Ruth
For Love of the Father: A Psychoanalytic Study of Religious Terrorism
Collective forms of violence are perpetuated in the name of an ideal that binds the group together and functions to “sanctify the actions of a (collective) perpetrator on a (collective) victim.” Large scale forms of violence are undertaken in the name of an ideal object that can move groups to decree the liquidation of anything that “challenges its validity and superiority.” Forms of behavior deemed criminal on the individual level may be “condoned and encouraged when perpetrated collectively.”

Strenski, Ivan
Contesting Sacrifice: Religion, Nationalism, and Social Thought in France
Nationalists attacked the deplorable state of French morale. Intellectuals were derided for “egoism” and “lazy melancholy;” workers for lack of enthusiasm for collective causes. War represented a spiritual force that would “bind citizens into common service for the nation,” incubating a spirit of national unity. Just as Jesus’ death cleansed the sins of humanity, so common soldiers’ self-sacrifices were seen as expiation for France’s sins.

Weitz, Eric
A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation
The key term is “individual.” It is individuality that must be eliminated in the genocidal process, the individuality of perpetrators as well as victims. Although the rituals enforcing mass compliance that Weitz studies help account for the passive and active participation of people in dominating groups, it is the abandonment of self-reflective thought that lies at the heart of “the banality of evil.”

Wittman, Laura
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Modern Mourning, and the Reinvention of the Mystical Body
The tombs give aesthetic expression to the need of modern man for redemptive myths despite, or maybe because of, the “death of God”. They marked yet another point where the modern West collectively expressed existential dissatisfaction and intimations of nihilism—and hence the concomitant longing to return to the ancestral state of mythic consciousness that had given rise to the first burial ceremonies.

Obedience as Desire

The famous frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan depicts the head and torso of a long-haired, mustachioed man. Upon close scrutiny, it becomes evident that the man’s torso and arms are composed of tiny individual persons, crowded closely together and each looking toward the head of the composite Leviathan.

  1. Our relationship to “society” is psychosomatic: imagining our own body as bound to the sovereign’s body.
  2. Attachment seeks power: fusion of one’s own body with a body imagined to be omnipotent.
  3. “Obedience” is the price: inability to resist the sovereign’s will.
  4. A “docile body” is one that imagines itself as physically bound to the sovereign’s body (politic).