Dear Colleague,

Book reviews soon to be published by Library of Social Science on Mark Schantz’s book, Awaiting the Heavenly Country, will examine the meanings of the “suicidal charges” that characterized the Civil War from start to finish. Why did men slaughter each other so promiscuously—with a “zeal we still grope to understand”?

I’m not an expert on the Civil War. However, I’ve been studying the First World War for 25 years—another conflict characterized by suicidal battle tactics. Having read hundreds of books and written thousands of pages on this topic, the fundamental question—the one I sought to answer when I began this research—remains:

Why did leaders of civilized nations ask young men—for four years—to get out of trenches to be mowed down by machine gun fire and artillery shells? Why did these young men continue to obey orders—for four years—to go “like sheep to the slaughter,” resulting in 37 million casualties?

For a brief period (1992-2000), it seemed that the human race had reached the end of history; that there was nothing to kill and die for. Quite apart from the politics of September 11, 2001, the suicide bombers brought back into consciousness the idea that some human beings are willing to die in the name of a value or ideal considered to be sacred. Since most of us do not worship Allah, the event seemed “incomprehensible.”

We would appreciate your comments on this Newsletter. Please leave your reflections and commentary below.

Field Marshall Douglas Haig was a British senior officer during World War I who commanded the British army from 1915 to the end of the war. He directed the Battle of the Somme (July 1 to November 18, 1916), in which more than one million men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. The first day of fighting resulted in 60,000 casualties, the worst day in the British army’s history.

Visiting the battlefield on March 31, 1917, Haig reflected that credit had to be paid to the splendid young officers who were able to attack again and again. “To many,” Haig stated, “it meant certain death, and all must have known that before they started.”

Apart from questions of ideology, historical context and tactics, what Haig says about British soldiers could be said by a radical Islamic leader speaking about men he had sent to perform a suicide bombing: “It meant certain death, and they knew it from the beginning.”

What’s more, to my astonishment, Haig justified the fatalities he caused by citing a Muslim military leader, Mughal Emperor Babur (1483-1530) whose views on “heroic death”, he said, are “curiously appropriate now”:

“The most high God has been propitious to us: If we fall in the field, we die the death of martyrs. If we survive, we rise victorious the avengers of the cause of God.”

This statement, Haig said, gets at the “root matter of the present war.”

So there it is: Haig conceptualizes the fatalities of the First World War in a manner identical to how a Muslim warrior conceptualizes death on the battlefield: either one is victorious (with God on one’s side), or one dies a martyr (and presumably rises to paradise or heaven).

In his report of August 22, 1919, Features of the War, Haig states that total British casualties in all theaters of war—killed, wounded, missing and prisoners (including native troops)—were approximately three million (3,076,388). He claims that these casualties were “no larger than to be expected.”

Indeed, according to Haig, British casualties were worth the cost because the issues involved in the stupendous struggle were “far greater than those concerned in any war in recent history.” In the First World War, “Civilization itself was at stake.”

While many of us find the actions of suicide bombers to be incomprehensible, we take for granted the behavior of soldiers in the First World War—who acted like suicide bombers—running into machine gun fire and artillery shelling—martyring themselves for a god given the name of “Great Britain.”

I pose the question: Why do we not find the behavior of leaders and soldiers during the First World War to be incomprehensible? Why are we blasé in our acceptance of the radical behavior that characterized this war? Because it is “written up in history books”? We accept the slaughter as natural, even normal, because the slaughter was undertaken in the name of gods in which we continue to believe.

What would it mean if we could distance—alienate—ourselves from our history: view it from outside the framework of our own belief system? What if we abandoned our faith in the “goodness” of society? What if we no longer worshipped “nations”? What if we allow ourselves to acknowledge—become aware of—the monumental, profound pathology that lies at the heart of civilization?


Richard A. Koenigsberg, Ph.D
Telephone: 718-393-1081
Fax: 413-832-8145

9 thoughts on “Martyrs

  1. Nancy Fair

    This comparison of the suicidal charges of WWI and present-day suicide bombers is very apt and timely. What a difference nationality and context make in our interpretations of the same ideology.

  2. Jan Garrett

    If your point is that our prevailing ideology makes a god or an idol out of the nation, and that this is perverse, I agree, but from previous correspondence my impression is that you think that nothing justifies risking life or limb , which is not an ethically defensible view. If your point is that nothing justifies risking someone else’s life or limb, I am more sympathetic, but sometimes doing the right thing puts one’s own loved ones or colleagues at risk from the reactions of one’s unscrupulous political enemies.

  3. Bertrand

    The western institutions of war are keen to use coded and performative elements in both the practice and the representation of conflicts, be it at home or on ‘the international stage’ – international law and a certain form of military tradition converge to construe the space and time of war as outside of the quotidian, and conflict as taking place in a liminal realm escaping the demands of conventional morals, in a sense, granting the conflict a spiritual proportion, if not prefiguring the nature of the afterlife (be that heavenly or in the memory of the nation) ;
    Terrorism and assymetric warfare by definition eschew such mutual ritualization of conflict: its very point is to enact sacred violence at the heart of a profane order. Despite the victim-nation’s best attempt at eulogizing its dead into martyrdom, they will never have the credit of choosing death consciously, as the attackers themselves do. The ‘reception’ of the attack cannot be suitably ritualized, and its consequences are often popularly perceived as absurd violence, or incomprehensible. By extension this absurdity of the conflict reflect on the national institutions themselves, who are discredited in the process.

  4. Ivan Light

    You ask why do people volunteer to die for a cause, and in such vast numbers? Good question. Thanks for raising it.
    We must assume that those who thus died found profound meaning in their choice. From this it might follow that they had no other source of meaning. Their found their lives meaningless without this sacrifice. This deduction is compatible with existentialist philosophy. The world has no meaning; people need meaning; people make meaning. Religions teach people to love others and thus to extend their zone of concern and gratification to a much wider and seemingly eternal entity, the human species. Religions are a source of meaning, but the First Commandment shows that they are not the only source of meaning. “I am the Lord thy God. You shall have no other gods before me.” Those who died on the battlefield had gods before or, at least, in addition to the Eternal, the nation. By the way, the Eternal is also capable of requiring us to die and to kill on his/her behalf, but, to be fair, it’s infrequently commanded.

  5. Ed Henry

    War is hideous, I agree, and justification of war is never adequate. The only point with which I disagree is the assumption of the goodness of society. Societies get out of kilter sometimes. Our own at this time is an example.

  6. ed robins

    Thanks Richard, well said. Freud and Einstein’s communication (Why War?) brings up their incredible naivete that the world could now be “beyond” war.

  7. Gregory Campbell

    Thank you for continuing to confront the public (at least that part of the public that reads your emails) with the question of WHY? Why the blind acceptance of war and slaughter on the part of people in general? I suggest that there is a pandemic form of mass insanity which infects nations and indeed nearly all of humanity since at least the discovery of writing. This mass insanity has been fairly well described in the east. The traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism have ceaselessly warned whoever had ears to hear that humanity is not fully Awake or to use more modern terms we have not yet reached the full maturity of Complete Consciousness. There is a universal and stupid assumption that simply because we can talk about difficult or complex things and because most of us have spent years in various educational institutions we are therefore fully conscious!!! I submit that until a significant number of human beings do reach the maturity of Complete Consciousness no significant progress can be expected in ending violent conflict. Unfortunately the Hindu and Buddhist experience with Complete Consciousness has demonstrated reaching that state requires a lifetime of our complete dedication to our maturation. In conclusion, those of us who are alive today will not see the end of violent conflict in our lifetimes…

Comments are closed.