Monthly Archives: July 2014

Nations Consume Body Parts

Limbless veterans at Roehampton Military Hospital

Limbless veterans at Roehampton Military Hospital

In our Newsletter of July 18, 2014, I suggested that in warfare, loss may be conceived as victory. The “greatness” of one’s nation is demonstrated by virtue of its capacity and willingness to “throw away” human beings & material resources. In our Newsletter of July 19, 2014—responding to Richard Rhodes’ reflections on this mechanism—I hypothesized that loss or sacrifice represents victory because it function to demonstrate the depth of devotion to a sacred object (whether this object is called “Allah” or “Great Britain”). Sacrificial death bears witness to the intensity of belief—and to the reality of the object in the name of which one dies and kills. The proof of the pudding lies in the dying and killing.

In a subsequent email, Rhodes referred to Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain (1987) which, he said, explores how wounding and death in warfare represent ways of “anchoring belief in physical reality.” The opening of the body affirms the “intensity and totality of the sacrificer’s witness.”

The photo above (of British soldiers after the First World War) is an excellent example of how loss might equal gain: how the triumph of belief is registered within the bodies of soldiers, who have given their limbs to their nation. Looking at the faces of these men, one sees pride and self-satisfaction. Rather than regrets, we witness an almost arrogant self-assurance.

In Dismembering the Male (1996), Joanna Bourke observes that public rhetoric in Great Britain during and after the Great War judged soldiers’ mutilations to be “badges of their courage,” the hallmark of their glorious service, “proof of patriotism.” The disabled soldier was not less but “more of a man.” A writer in The Times (1920) stated, “Next to the loss of life, the sacrifice of a limb is the greatest sacrifice a man can make for his country.”

Scarry states that in warfare, the human body is “brought to bear upon the process of verification.” The “alteration of the soldier’s body” in warfare gives witness to the power of ideology. The sheer factualness of the human body lends the cultural construct an “aura of realness or certainty.”

The photo shows that the legs of these soldiers were given away to the nation-state. Body parts have been removed—consumed by the nation. The absence of legs proves the reality of Great Britain. Where legs were, there shall nation be.

Into the Furnace of War

The following passage appeared in the July 18, 2014, issue of our Newsletter/Blog (entitled “Warfare: Loss as Victory”):

British political leader David Lloyd George stated (Haste, 1977) that every nation during the First World War conducted its military activities as if there were no limit to the number of young men who could be “thrown into the furnace to feed the flames of war.” The First World War was a perpetual, driving force that “shoveled warm human hearts and bodies by the millions into the furnace” (Gilbert, 2004).

Lawrence Besserman, Professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and author of Sacred and Secular in Medieval and Early Modern Cultures responded with the following email:

“Thrown into the furnace”—horrific quotes, and I thought only the Muslims believed in death as victory. But the metaphor of men thrown into the furnace implies something we might be overlooking: bodies/lives as fuel to drive the engine of the state. An Industrial Age perversion that mirrors the ancient conception that the gods need human sacrifice to be satisfied? That’s what the metaphor of “thrown into the furnace” evokes for me.

John Horne (in Coetzee and Shevin-Coetzee, 1995) analyzed the published letters of French soldiers who fought in the war. The theme of many of these letters was the idea of sacrifice as a source of redemption and renewal for the French nation. Contemplating the warriors who had fallen around him, French soldier J. Saleilles wondered whether their “gift of blood” was not the “supernatural source of the renewal of life which must be given to our country.”

What does it mean to say that the renewal of a nation’s life depends upon a “gift of blood”? This phrase links the soldier’s death to the more abundant life of one’s nation. When injury or death occurs on the battlefield, the blood contained within the body of the soldier flows out of him—and into the body politic. The body and blood of the soldier fuels or regenerates the nation.

Writing in 1916, P. H. Pearse (in Kamenka, 1973)—founder of the Irish Revolutionary movement—observed with pleasure the carnage of the First World War:

The last sixteen months have been the most glorious in the history of Europe. Heroism has come back to the earth. It is good for the world to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefield. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this—the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country.

The world, according to Pearse, needed to be warmed with the “red wine of the battlefield.” The outflowing of blood—millions of lives “given gladly for love of country”—constituted a form of nourishment for the nation-state.


It is often said that “the individual must die so that the nation might live.” During the First World War, the bodies of soldiers were fed into the jaws of battle under the assumption that the “life” of the nation was more significant than the lives of individuals: the body politic consumed human bodies. In war, the bodies and blood of soldiers give rise to the reality of the nation.

When the British asked their soldiers to get out of a trench to run into opposing machine gun fire (for example, at the Battle of the Somme), we say that Germans killed the British soldiers. We might just as well say that the British killed British soldiers. One can say it either way. It’s six of one, a half-dozen of the other.

I’ve studied the First World War for 25 years. Scholars may spend a lifetime analyzing the political machinations and conflicts and blunders that led to the outbreak and perpetuation of the war. They may scrutinize every battle, and the strategies that governed them. However, after all is said and done, the best—most parsimonious—conclusion one can draw about the First World War is: “Nations killed a lot of people.”

During the Aztec period, each Mexican city-state fought other Mexican city-states in order to capture sacrificial victims and feed them to the gods. Upon returning from one typical battle, Aztec warriors reported to the emperor Moctezuma (1502-1520), telling him that they had taken a goodly number of captives, but that 370 of their own warriors had died, or been lost through capture. Moctezuma replied:

“Behold, brothers, how true was the word of the ancestors who taught us that the sun…feeds alike from both sides” (in Brundage, 1986).

Why is Loss Perceived as Victory?

In a recent Library of Social Science Newsletter/blog post, Richard Koenigsberg wrote that:

Waging war constitutes a vehicle for “giving away” men and resources. Waging war is a gift to the god—one’s society or nation. One throws away men and material objects—wealth—in order to prove the greatness of one’s nation, which is measured in terms of its capacity and willingness to tolerate loss.

Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes, author of The Twilight of the Bombs (2011), responded with the following question:

You tell me everything but what I most want to know: Why is loss perceived as victory? How does that infernal mechanism work? Surely something more is involved than simply “bigness of soul,” whatever that is. What’s the gain? What’s the secondary gain?

Gods arise out of sacrifice: if there were no dying, how would we know that a god existed? How would we know that a nation existed?

When a suicide bomber blows himself up in the name of Allah, we kind of understand what is going on, don’t we? We can imagine that someone might sacrifice himself for his god. The Christian world has its own martyrs as well. But if don’t believe in Allah, we feel that the suicide bomber has died for nothing.

When the Japanese soldier or kamikaze pilot died for the Emperor, we can understand this as well. We can imagine that a human being is capable of giving his life for the sake of an Emperor or a King, or maybe even a President, even if we don’t believe that the Emperor is god.

What is the mechanism involved? The sacrificial act—giving one’s life—functions as a testimony to the truth or reality of the entity in whose name the individual dies.

The term “martyr” derives from the Greek word meaning “to bear witness.” When the suicide bomber dies for Allah, he is bearing witness to the intensity of his belief. Death constitutes “proof,” for both himself and his fellow believers.

His fellow jihadists might think to themselves, “Look, he’s giving his life for Allah. Allah must be real, otherwise it’s not possible that he would kill himself.” It’s difficult to imagine that someone is dying for no-thing.

Of course, we are still not convinced. Just because the suicide bomber blows himself up, we are not therefore persuaded in the reality of Allah.

Japanese who died for the Emperor similarly did so as a testimony to their belief in the Emperor’s reality. We may not be convinced of the reality of the Emperor’s divinity simply because so many soldiers died for him. On the other hand, the mechanism is no great mystery because we too have some sacred ideal—an absolute—in the name of which we believe dying is worthwhile.

To return to Richard Rhodes’ question: Why is the loss of life and material resources perceived or conceived as victory? Because for those who make the sacrifice—whether they are dying for Allah or Japan or Great Britain—victory is the triumph of belief. The more people who die in the name of the ideal, the more are we persuaded that the ideal must be real. We are willing to sustain loss in order to demonstrate the absolute validity of the ideal in whose name loss is generated.

It takes a radical act of consciousness to imagine that—when we human beings give our lives for some-thing—we are dying in the name of no-thing.

Warfare: Loss as Victory

Carry On: Letters in War Time

136 pages
Publisher: Kessinger Publishing, LLC (1917/April 1, 2005)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1417986611
ISBN-13: 978-1417986613For information on purchasing this book through Amazon, click here.The complete text can be read online here for free.

Writing about his experience as a British Soldier in the First World War, Coningsby Dawson in Carry On: Letters in War Time (1917) stated that it is the “bigness of soul” that makes nations great. The war, he said, was a “prolonged moment of exultation for most of us.”

“These men, in the noble indignation of a great ideal, face a worse hell than the most ingenious of fanatics ever planned or plotted. Men die scorched like moths in a furnace, blown to atoms, gassed, tortured. And again other men step forward to take their places well knowing what will be their fate. Bodies may die, but the spirit of England grows greater as each new soul speeds upon its way.” (from Letter XLIX, February 6th, 1917)

The greatness of England, according to Dawson, was measured in terms of the number of casualties it could afford and would endure. Dawson sees a direct correlation between the number of casualties and the spirit of England. Each time a soldier dies, the soul of the nation grows.

British General Douglas Haig planned the Battle of the Somme (July 1-November 18, 1916) and many other disastrous campaigns during the First World War. He was responsible for the deaths of well over a million British soldiers. Although he was criticized for persisting in futile battle strategies, Haig retained the title of commander-in-chief until the end of the war in 1918.

In spite of the enormous casualties and costs of the battles he initiated, he received encouragement and support from the King and a substantial part of the British populace. The following letter to Haig was found among his papers (De Groot, 1988):

“Illustrious General, the expectation of mankind is upon you—the ‘Hungry Haig’ as we call you here at home. You shall report 500,000 casualties, but the Soul of the empire will afford them. Drive on, Illustrious General!”

Haig probably preserved this anonymous note because it echoed his own feelings. This letter and similar messages that he received reinforced his belief that there existed a great mass of people who shared his willingness and determination to fight on even at the cost of the lives of hundreds of thousands of men. The letter writer—like Coningsby Dawson—claims that the Soul of the empire can “afford casualties.” As “the Hungry Haig” consumed the bodies of soldiers, England grew greater.

British political leader David Lloyd George stated (Haste, 1977) that every nation during the First World War conducted its military activities as if there were no limit to the number of young men who could be “thrown into the furnace to feed the flames of war.” The First World War was a perpetual, driving force that “shoveled warm human hearts and bodies by the millions into the furnace” (Gilbert, 2004).

Waging war constitutes a vehicle for “giving away” men and resources. Waging war is a gift to the god—one’s society or nation. One throws away men and material objects—wealth—in order to prove the greatness of one’s nation, which is measured in terms of its capacity and willingness to tolerate loss.

In our hearts, the dream remains the same. Today, the “greatest nation on earth” throws away or squanders billions upon billions of dollars. To what end? To demonstrate one’s capacity and willingness to throw away billions and billions of dollars. Loss is victory.

Call for Reviewer: US War-culture, Sacrifice, and Salvation

Kelly Denton-Borhaug’s US War-culture, Sacrifice and Salvation is one of the most insightful books ever written on the dynamics of warfare. Excerpts from the book appear below. We seek an author to write a review essay on this exciting study. Please respond directly to this email or write to

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During the period of the First World War, with the experience of literally hundreds of thousands sacrificing themselves for the nation, the cognitive connection between war and Christianity grew even stronger. As one scholar writes: “Christian symbols, indeed, the very figure of Christ, were present in the cult of the fallen soldier—and in Germany, Italy and France, familiar Christian symbols represented nation sacrifice. The First World War was a climax in the evolution of modern nationalism, and in its quest for totality, the nation sought to co-opt Christianity.”

Nationalism has frequently been described and analyzed as a religion, yet with insufficient attention to the dominant theme of sacrifice that binds the experiences of nationalism and Christian religion, forming a sacred canopy encompassing both religious and national self-identity and representation.

The extensiveness of human resort to sacrifice makes it so ubiquitous as to reside largely ‘off the radar screen,’ of overt awareness and consciousness. As a result, analysis of sacrifice is simultaneously all the more difficult and all the more important. But the infusion of the sacred tone that justifies such sacrifice makes this construction impervious to moral analysis and criticism.

Thus, even while sacrificial practices lubricate patriarchal exchanges of power, this dynamic is mystified through its connection to religious understandings and practices. Blood sacrifice is at the heart of war-culture’s and the warrior’s ‘religiosity.’ Because of this, to question the cognitive framework of sacrifice, residing as a deep and largely unexamined anchor for warriors’ identity, is tantamount to a kind of heresy.

Christian proclamation that portrays the work of Christ as a sacrifice cements the architecture of this social structure in Western cultures such as the United States. To cast doubt on the soldier’s mission as sacrifice is as unsettling, challenging and frankly, jarring to common sensibility, as to question the sacrality of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross.


In Germany, Greek ideals melded with Christian frameworks to create a grounding from which the actual experience of war would be confronted and transcended. In ‘the cult of the fallen soldier,’ Greek values of harmony, balanced proportions and controlled strength—celebrated as aspects of youth—meshed with popular Christian piety. The deaths of young soldiers were justified as a sign of military commitment, and glorified as a type of idealized inner control. At the same time, popular exclamations, such as ‘Now we are made sacred,’ juxtaposed the sacrifice of soldiers with the death and resurrection of Christ.

In this way, the passion of Christ became an analogy for the experience of the nation as a whole: through these sacrificial deaths of the most worthy citizens, Christ was understood to illuminate the very world, such that war itself was interpreted as a strategy for Christological revelation. Suffering as a purifying force was recommended to the troops in the trenches; more widely, suffering was advised to the nation as a whole, to lead to a stronger and purified Germany, ‘encased in armor.’

This popular piety grew into an important resource that could be manipulated to overcome fear of death itself. Eternal life, assured to those who had sacrificed themselves for the nation, now outweighed any value of the importance of living in the here and now. The expectation of an eternal and meaningful life—the continuation of a patriotic mission – not only seemed to transcend death itself, but also inspired life before death.

The corresponding growth of war memorials and cemeteries for the war-dead cemented and extended these same frameworks. These sites became popular destinations and shrines of public worship and pilgrimage in Europe following the war, and the development of commercial measures, such as cheap tours for mourners, enabled increasing numbers of civilians to participate in the growing cult.

The actual experience and dread of war thereby was ‘cleansed,’ or we might say, thrust into the distance. And once this took place, it was all too easy for the ‘Myth of the War Experience’ successfully to refocus the memory of war. Not long after, the Nazis reinvigorated this cult and made their own martyred dead central in its observance of the ‘Myth of the War Experience’.


If the search for greater honesty about ourselves requires peeling back the layers of sacrificial logic, memorials have the effect of tying our hands behind our backs. We are invited to honor those who participated in the war and especially, to mourn and honor those U.S. military who died, but we are not invited to question or ponder further. Ultimately, this memorial continues the process of reification of a particular national identity, an identity that comes from war, and from a deep cognitive framework regarding belief in the redemptive nature of violence and the necessity of sacrifice to achieve freedom and justice.

But such questioning leads to serious consequences, for once we begin to understand and interrogate these destructive connections, the cognitive ‘transcendentalization’ of war and war-culture begins to dismantle in our minds. A new kind of consciousness or awareness about our reality begins to dawn upon us. This is not necessarily a comfortable awareness or consciousness, because it is attended by many new questions.

‘Detranscendentalizing’ war and war-culture unsettles formerly unquestioned assumptions and values. How then should we think about what soldiers do? How will we describe their deaths if not as sacred sacrifice? Moreover, how will we understand the nation, its purpose, and our connection to it? What will we do differently with respect to decision-making regarding conflict and the use of armed force?

Finally, the exploration of these links also forces the question about the relationship of Christian following to American civil religion. What will it mean to uncouple Jesus’ death on the cross from the powerful national narrative of Christ’s sacrificial death as the archetype for the necessary sacrifices made in war to preserve ‘the American way of life’?
Detranscendentalizing war-culture means taking up these important questions, destabilizing some dominant frames of understanding, and reemphasizing others.

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