Tag Archives: Warfare

Mass-Murder by Government


The Holocaust cannot be understood as an event separate from German history and Western civilization. The Holocaust grew out of the calamitous German experience of the First World War, and how Hitler interpreted and responded to this event.

When people learned of the death camps, they were horrified and appalled. “Incomprehensible” was a common reaction. Indeed, the event called the Holocaust is nearly beyond imagination. It is difficult to believe that human beings could bring something like this into existence. The event is so disturbing that some people deny it occurred.

When I became aware of the First World War, I was shocked, horrified and appalled. This event too is nearly beyond imagination. It’s difficult to believe that the leaders of “civilized” nations could ask men to get out of trenches for four years to be ripped apart — killed and maimed — by machine gun fire and artillery shells.

Here is a summary of the results of the First World War:

65 million men mobilized
8.5 million dead
21 million wounded
7.7 million POWs and missing
37 million total casualties

Although I was bewildered when I first began to read about the First World War, historians are apparently not. Perhaps they have become accustomed to this war. Whatever the reasons, historians — and people in general — rarely express surprise or amazement. The term “incomprehensible” is never used.

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In spite of the monumental carnage, the First World War is viewed as a “normal” dimension of history. We’d prefer not to put the First World War — or any war — in the same category as the Holocaust. Why? Because we view the Holocaust as an instance in which a nation intentionally engaged in mass–murder, whereas the 52-month episode of mass slaughter called the First World War is conceived as an event that occurred accidentally, or at least unintentionally.

It wasn’t that nations actually wanted to destroy large numbers of people. Rather, no one comprehended what they were getting into. The magnitude of killing was not expected. Things got out of control and went far beyond what anyone anticipated. It wasn’t as if anyone wanted what happened to happen. No one was responsible.

Can we truly claim that killing during the First War World — 9 million dead — was unintentional? Please provide your own insights on our blog.


Hundreds of books have been written seeking to fathom why some Germans were willing to murder Jews. Controversies have arisen. Were the murderers simply following orders — manifesting a universal human tendency to be “obedient to authority”? Had these people been so thoroughly indoctrinated with the anti-Semitic ideology that they believed that their actions were necessary and virtuous?

Rarely are similar questions asked about participants in the First World War. Soldiers are expected to kill. When they murder, they are simply doing their duty. No explanation is required. Regarding the First World War, we want to know — not only why soldiers were willing to kill — but why were they willing to die. This issue is glossed over. Do we imagine that it is natural for soldiers to go into battle — and to die when leaders ask them to?

One historian has posed the question of why soldiers continued getting out of trenches for four years — running into machine gun fire and artillery shells — when they knew that the results of this behavior were often fatal. In Rites of Spring (2000), Modris Eksteins asks:

What kept them in the trenches? What sustained them on the edge of No Man’s Land, that strip of territory which death ruled with an iron fist? What made them go over the top, in long rows? What sustained them in constant confrontation with death?

The question of what kept men going in this hell of the Western Front, Eksteins says, is “central to an understanding of the war and its significance”:

What deserves emphasis in the context of the war is that, despite the growing dissatisfaction, the war continued, and it continued for one reason: the soldier was willing to keep fighting. Just why he kept going has to be explained, and that matter has often been ignored.

Political scientist Jean Bethke Elshtain (in Women and War, 1995) observes that the First World War was the “nadir of nineteenth-century nationalism.” Mounds of bodies were sacrificed in a “prolonged, dreadful orgy of destruction.” “Trench warfare” meant “mass, anonymous death.” Elshtain observes that we “still have trouble accounting for modern state worship”; the “mounds of combatants and noncombatants alike sacrificed to the conflicts of nation-states.”

I pose three fundamental questions.

  • Why, during the course of the First World War, did national leaders continually ask young men to engage in battle strategies that caused a great number of men to be wounded or killed?
  • Why did men in the great majority of cases follow orders — going like sheep to the slaughter?
  • Why have historians rarely interrogated the suicidal battle strategies of the First World War?
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Carolyn Marvin’s theory of warfare, presented in Blood Sacrifice and the Nation (1999), helps us to answer these questions. Marvin hypothesizes that “society depends on the death of its own members at the hands of the group,” claiming that the underlying cost of all society is the “violent death of some of its members.” In short, one’s nation or society “lives” insofar as members of one’s society die.

War is a ritual performed by nations — in order to claim sacrificial victims. Society, Marvin says, “depends on the death of sacrificial victims at the hands of the group itself.” The maintenance of civilization, society and the nation-state, according to Marvin, requires blood sacrifice in war.

What an unpleasant theory. However, is it less pleasant to reflect upon the 200 million plus human beings killed by governments in the 20th century? It is not a question of this instance of war, or that; of this instance of genocide, or that. Rather, the slaughter of citizens by nations is a consistent theme — a prominent feature — of twentieth century history.

Do we have theories to account for these recurring episodes of governmental mass murder? Of course, each historical event is unique. However, do we really wish to claim that each episode of societal killing has a separate cause?

Marvin’s theory arose out of her study of United States history, yet works perfectly to explain the phenomena I have studied. The First World War may be understood as a massive, collective ritual of blood sacrifice. Societies acted to cause the deaths of young men — in order to keep their nations alive. In some instances (for example, Australia and Canada), blood sacrifice gave rise to the nation.


Marvin’s theory explains why wars recur — their function for societies and human beings. Just as significantly, her theory seeks to explain the fact that we don’t want to know the truth: that warfare is sacrificial ritual. The occurrence of war — and the denial of warfare’s purpose or function — are part of the same dynamic or complex.

According to Marvin, knowledge that society depends on the death of sacrificial victims at the hands of the group is the “totem secret”; the “collective group taboo.” While we enact warfare as a sacrificial ritual, we simultaneously don’t wish to know that we are enacting this ritual.

Throughout the twentieth century, governments have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions of human beings. Did each war and episode of genocide occur because of reasons unique to each given event? Perhaps a more parsimonious hypothesis is that episodes of violence generated by societies and governments represent the fulfillment of a collective desire.

Warfare is not forbidden. Indeed, we take it for granted that nations will wage war. It’s what they do. This is what I mean when I say that people believe that Nations Have the Right to Kill (Koenigsberg, 2009). We are not forbidden to wage war, but up to now we have been forbidden to know why we wage war.

The sacrificial meaning of warfare once was a secret — but no more.

Warfare: Slaughter or Sacrifice?

Destroying the World to Rescue the World

Paul Kahn: The popular sovereign emerges when all members of the polity can experience the pain of politics. All citizens are equal, when all read the same history of suffering as their pain, and all stand equally before the threat of future pain—sacrifice—for the state.

At the heart of the state, we find a commitment to the willing sacrifice of all of the national resources—human and material—for the end of preservation of the state. All can be called upon to sacrifice—to suffer—for the maintenance of the state. Nuclear weapons are the perfect expression of democratic pain. A policy of mutual assured destruction is the end-point, ending in a vision of universal self-sacrifice founded on a love of nation.

Richard Koenigsberg: Better dead than red. Hitler declared, “You are nothing, your nation is everything”: destroy the world in order to rescue one’s nation and its sacred ideals. But the other side—one’s enemy—they too are willing to destroy the world in order to preserve their sacred ideals.

Destroy the world in order to save the world. This is the fundamental structure of political ideologies: Where is evil located? Who is the enemy? Evil is located within the heart and soul of the enemy. Political ideologies are rescue fantasies. To save the heart and soul of the world, one must destroy evil—kill off the enemy.

Hitler located evil in “the Jew.” If Germany was to survive, every single Jew in the world would have to be located and destroyed. “We may be inhumane,” Hitler declared, “but if we rescue Germany we have performed the greatest dead in the world.” Is there any political ideology that does not have this structure?

Ideologies differ in terms of the class of people identified as the source of evil: Jews, communists, capitalists, the great Satan, terrorists. Political ideologies seek to locate the source of evil. In our hearts the dream remains the same: if only this class of people did not exist, the world could return to a state of perfection. Destroy the enemy to save the world.

Torture—or Noble Sacrifice?

Paul Kahn: Nothing is easier than to describe the horror of the battlefield. Yet, despite our knowledge of that horror, we celebrate a political history of achievement on the battlefield. The West not only experienced the destruction of a generation of young men in the First World War, it pursued the Second World War to the point of genocide and the destruction of European material wealth and civil society.

The experience in the trenches of the First World War may come to appear as nothing other than a torturous mauling and destruction of bodies. For the soldier who has lost faith in the sovereign character of a politics of sacrifice, war becomes a scene of horrendous torture: broken bodies, pain and death. Once a family loses this faith in the sovereign, it will only see the state conscripting and killing its loved ones.

The sacred loses its power and we are left with the tortured body—a residue of politics when faith in the sovereign has disappeared. Wilfred Owen captures this residue of the dying body when he writes: “What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?” Not sacrifice, but slaughter; not the transcendence of the merely human, but the evil of the loss of the human. To those who do not hear God, Abraham’s action must have looked like a bizarre torture of his son.

Richard Koenigsberg: Yet historians continue to write about episodes of mass destruction as if they make sense. Historians are true believers. Their craft builds upon faith in sovereign entities given names like France and Great Britain and Germany. Dying for one’s country: sacred devotion.

Losing faith, one perceives the horror of the battlefield. Warfare comes to be experienced as torture: the torture of young men. The First World War was a massive scene of torture, with national leaders sending young men to be blown to pieces: broken bodies, pain and death.

But they were “dying for their countries.” Faith transforms slaughter into sacrifice. Dying for Great Britain, the young men are revered, memorialized, commemorated. The soldier—like Christ—is resurrected in the immortality of the nation. And so in the soldier all will be made alive. The soldier dies so that we may live.

Destroying Witches/Killing Enemies

Paul Kahn: A secular age looks back at the wars of religion and sees in them a great evil: bodies were destroyed for “no real reason.” All the suffering and destruction to what end? Similarly, we look at the tortured destruction of witches and heretics as a kind of madness producing great evil. Once faith is gone, we are left with only tortured and maimed bodies.

So we are beginning to see our own political past. We do not see political martyrs, but senseless suffering. No longer understanding the sacred character of the political, we see only the tortured bodies of the victims. We see a field of arbitrary death and destruction that contributes nothing to the well-being that we would place at the heart of the contemporary political narrative.

Or, I should say, this is what we might begin to see—or even hope to see—but still not quite yet. The politics of the sublime, of the sacred character of the nation, recedes but is not yet gone. The popular sovereign remains a brooding presence capable of enthralling the nation. It remains a hungry god and we remain willing to feed it our children. We react in only half-forgotten ways to the attack of September 11.

Richard Koenigsberg: Yet we do not yet understand political mass murder as a “kind of madness.” We still do not equate our drive to destroy “enemies” with the “tortured destruction of witches and heretics”: a form of madness producing great evil.

Looking back upon the twentieth century, historians imagine that—somehow—it all made sense: anti-Semitism was a cultural form rooted in Western civilization and history; communism was a doctrine created by serious thinkers who believed that a humane world required the elimination of capitalism and capitalists; and preservation of the American way of life required the destruction of communism and communists (generating “witch-hunts”).

Was killing Jews in Nazi Germany analogous to killing witches? Yes. However, the enlightenment belief in rationality persists: we seek “reasons”; assume there must have been reasons, refusing to embrace the reality of collective madness. MAD = mutually assured destruction: “A doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which a full-scale use of high-yield weapons of mass destruction by two opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both attacker and defender.”

Insanity—or Noble Sacrifice?

Paul Kahn: Willingness to sacrifice for the creation and maintenance of political meanings always appears inconceivable to those outside of the community. We find it incomprehensible that Palestinians would be willing to blow themselves up for the maintenance of a political identity. But the suicide bomber is not different in kind from the Israeli soldier. Both know that political identity is a matter of life and death.

Both sides in this conflict wonder at the capacity of the other to kill and be killed. We have the same reaction to the sacrificial politics of others as we do to those who believe in different gods, rituals, and sacred texts. It literally makes no sense to us; it appears “crazy.” How, we wonder, can anyone believe that the gods appeared in that object or that place? This shock of difference, however, usually does not cause us to doubt our own beliefs. We think others strange, but that does not unmoor us from our own sacred rituals. The same is true of our own political meanings.

Richard Koenigsberg: How strange and bizarre that Islamic radicals would willingly die for Allah. How weird. Yet 360,000 Union soldiers died in the American Civil War in the name of “preserving the Union.” And 126,000 American soldiers died in the First World War—in order to “make the world safe for democracy.” We don’t find these deaths strange at all. There is nothing “crazy” about dying for our own sacred ideals. By virtue of faith, slaughter becomes noble sacrifice.

Sacrifice, American Exceptionalism and War-Culture (part I of II)

Review Essay of Stanley Hauerwas’s book War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity

by Kelly Denton-Borhaug

Developmental Time, Cultural Space
Baker Academic
Author: Stanley Hauerwas
Format: Paperback
Published on: Oct. 2011
ISBN-10: 0801039290
Language: English
Pages: 208

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon at a special, discounted price, click here.

How are American identity and America’s presence in the world shaped by war, and what does God have to do with it? Esteemed theologian Stanley Hauerwas helps readers reflect theologically on war, church, justice, and nonviolence in this compelling volume, exploring issues such as how America depends on war for its identity, how war affects the soul of a nation, the sacrifices that war entails, and why war is considered “necessary,” especially in America. He also examines the views of nonviolence held by Martin Luther King Jr. and C. S. Lewis, how Jesus constitutes the justice of God, and the relationship between congregational ministry and Christian formation in America.

About the author: Stanley Hauerwas (Ph.D., Yale University) is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He is the author of numerous books, including Cross-Shattered Christ, A Cross-Shattered Church, With the Grain of the Universe, A Better Hope, and Matthew in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible.

About the Reviewer

Rev. Kelly Denton-Borhaug, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. She holds a Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. Her teaching and scholarly interests include Christian theology and ethics with a particular focus on the ethics of models of redemption in liberation theologies. She is the author US War-culture, Sacrifice and Salvation. More information is available through her blog.

US War-culture, Sacrifice and Salvation

By Kelly Denton-Borhaug

Publisher: Equinox Publishing Ltd.
Author:Kelly Denton-Borhaug
Format: Paperback
Published on: Dec 15, 2010
ISBN-10: 1845537114
Language: English
Pages: 298

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon at a special, discounted price, click here.

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 when dealing in war. 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 have been manipulated to create a world and a time of necessary sacrifice. It reveals the links between Christian notions of salvation and sacrifice and the aims of the military-industrial complex.

Dear Colleague,

Professor Kelly Denton-Borhaug’s review essay of Stanley Hauerwas’ book, War and the American Difference, represents a major breakthrough in our understand of the sacrificial dynamics of warfare.

Building on Hauerwas’ central themes, she argues that the “sacrificial war narrative”— profoundly embedded in American culture, historical memory and national consciousness— is “our national story.” Subsequent to the Civil War, “sacrifice and the (American) state became inseparably intertwined.”

This sacrificial metaphor at the heart of citizenship—inextricably tied to war—has incredible power, all the more so because “most citizens are unconscious of its active impact in our lives.” In fact, Denton-Borhaug says, most citizens are “blithely unaware” of the “sacrificial war-culture that profoundly shapes their understandings of citizenship and the nation.”

The text which appears below is a summary or edited version of the first two sections of Denton-Borhaug’s review essay. We urge to read the essay in its entirety here.

We are grateful for Professor Denton-Borhaug’s valuable contribution.

Best regards,
Richard Koenigsberg

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

PS: The text below covers the first two sections of the review essay. A summary of the balance of the essay will appear in a subsequent edition of the Library of Social Science Newsletter.

“Sacrifice, American
Exceptionalism and War Culture”

Review Essay by Kelly Denton-Borhaug

There is a story that informs American attitudes and identity. Hauerwas traces the impact of this story on Americans in this book. This is a story about “the sacrifice of war,” and how it shapes our understanding of the nation and citizenship. As Hauerwas explores this story, especially through its development in the experience of the American Civil War, the connection between “the sacrifice of war” and a common moral identity for American citizens becomes clear.

The experience of the Civil War defined and unified the nation: “The story of the transformation of the Civil War from limited to total war is also the story of how America became the nation we call America”. We should not miss the ways that Christian sacrificial formulations influenced the development of this national narrative.

I expand here upon Hauerwas list: from President Lincoln as a Christ figure; to the many sermons comparing the war to “a vicarious atonement” made for the developing nation; to the growing need to justify the unbearable and overwhelming accumulation of death over the course of the war through sacralizing death; and through the sacrificial national commemorations that developed both during and after the war, including those that continue up to the present day. Thus, “sacrifice and the state became inseparably intertwined”.

The text that appears in this issue of the Library of Social Science Newsletter (Part I of II) is a summary or condensed version of the first two parts of Denton-Borhaug’s essay.

Please click here to read the complete review essay. If you wish to comment on this excerpt—or the entire review essay—leave your reflections and commentary below.

This is our national story. Yet we tend not to think consciously about this as our “story” – certainly not as consciously as we think about other national stories that shape us as citizens—such as those about the separation of church and state, freedom of religious choice and freedom of the state from religion. These others stories tend to push (quasi)religious factors into the background.

I argue that the sacrificial war narrative—so profoundly embedded in American culture, historical memory and national consciousness—shapes us in a subterranean, subconscious fashion. As George Lakoff has demonstrated, we cognitively internalize certain metaphors that shape the way we value, make decisions, and generally go about living our lives—but tend not to be conscious of these same metaphors.

The sacrificial metaphor at the heart of citizenship—inextricably tied to war—has incredible power, all the more so because most citizens are unconscious of its active impact in our lives. In fact, 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 profoundly shapes their understandings of citizenship and the nation. Legal and political theorist Paul W. Kahn has explored this dimension:

Through our secular faith as U.S. citizens, our identity is affirmed by way of those who sacrificed themselves for the conception and maintenance of the nation. In addition, through ongoing sacrifice (with war as the apotheosis), citizens are linked to “the organic body that is the mystical corpus of the state.”

This national narrative—alive in commemorative national rhetoric and ritual, but subconscious in terms of its religious reality—has enormous power. I argue that this is the story we must investigate more deeply if we are to truly understand the morally compelling nature of war for people of the United States. Hauerwas explicates the consequences of U.S. sacrificial war-culture that were cemented in the experience of the Civil War and beyond.

He quotes historian Mark Noll: “War is America’s altar. . . our church”. What does this mean? We can identify a host of consequences. I expand on Hauerwas’ list: first, war becomes a central component in the story of American exceptionalism. Second, the compulsion toward war increases in ratio to our connection to war as our most dynamic moral reality. Third, the dying and killing of war become attached to certain understandings of redemption, both personal and national.

Fourth, the sacrifices of war create the very mechanism through which the nation achieves and maintains its transcendent status. President Lincoln declared that it is through war that the nation achieved the right to exist “in perpetuity”: “The baptism of blood in war unveils the transcendent dimensions of the union” (note the religious language!). Fifth, not only does war transcendentalize the nation—the nation must return to war again and again in order to maintain this transcendentalized status.

For the very dysfunction Hauerwas describes is in fact an addiction to sacrificial dynamics. “American wars,” he writes, “must be wars in which the sacrifices of those doing the dying and the killing have redemptive purpose and justification”. Just war analysis is not so much the attempt to investigate whether a given war will rise to the level of just war principles, but is revealed as “an attempt to control the description, ‘war’”.

The text that appears in this issue of the Library of Social Science Newsletter (Part I of II) is a summary or condensed version of the first two parts of Denton-Borhaug’s essay.

Please click here to read the complete review essay. If you wish to comment on this excerpt—or the entire review essay—leave your reflections and commentary below.

In other words, to understand the dynamics of sacrificial war-culture in the United States, we must investigate our language, and how it shapes our very ways of knowing, for “War possesses our imaginations, our everyday habits and scholarly assumptions”. One way to investigate this keen insight would be to explore more deeply the utilization of sacrificial formulations in just war discourse.

American popular political culture is a most revealing site to discover these dynamics at play. For instance, a 2008 television ad for the presidential republican candidate featured a veteran of the Iraq war speaking directly to the camera—to the American people as it were— passionately arguing that Obama is unfit to be president because “he doesn’t understand or respect the sacrifices of war.” The word, “sacrifice” surfaces repeatedly in this short speech, while the camera focuses on his upper body, only at the end panning out to show his entire figure—and the loss of his limb—to make very visually specific the “sacrifice” he has endured.

The ad powerfully warns the American public that not to ascribe to commitment and faith in this sacrificial construction is a type of (religious?) political heresy that casts suspicion. In fact, not to ascribe wholeheartedly to this belief is to be cast out: marked as “other” from patriotic, faithful Americans. The veteran concludes his sacrificial logic, “It is a fundamental truth that freedom is always worth the price.”

Hauerwas includes a chapter that suggests a way forward, expanding upon his colleague Enda McDonagh’s suggestion that one way to counter the bulwark of just war thinking, and its self-imposed discipline and paucity of imagination, is to begin to use a different rhetorical formulation: “start a discussion about war that would make war as morally problematic as slavery”. In other words, develop an argument regarding the “abolition” of war in similar terms to the abolition of slavery.

The text that appears in this issue of the Library of Social Science Newsletter (Part I of II) is a summary or condensed version of the first two parts of Denton-Borhaug’s essay.

Please click here to read the complete review essay. If you wish to comment on this excerpt—or the entire review essay—leave your reflections and commentary below.

Why War?

In 1989, I was on the fourth floor of the Bobst library at NYU. Having read most of the books on Nazism, Hitler and the Holocaust, I drifted across the aisle and started browsing through the volumes on the First World War—and was astonished at what I discovered.

I was astonished—not only by the persistence and magnitude of the slaughter—but by the blasé way historians described what had occurred. It seemed as if mass murder was taken for granted: nothing special. At least the Holocaust evoked shock and bewilderment. But the extermination of 9 million human beings (most of them young men) evoked little amazement.

I began studying the topic more deeply, assuming historians would reveal the causes. What was so significant that could generate such massive slaughter? Of course, historians were able to trace how one event led to another. But why did the slaughter take place? Why was it necessary? Gradually, I realized historians were unable to answer these questions.

Orion and I were reading back issues of the New York Review of Books earlier this week—as a model for Library of Social Science Book Reviews—and came across a terrific article by Jason Epstein. In his review essay, Epstein poses several questions I have been thinking about during the past 25 years.

Reviewing John Keegan’s The First World War, Epstein conveys this great historian’s conclusion: that the nations of Europe (and the world) “had no compelling reason to fight.” Keegan asked: “Why did the states of Europe proceed as if in a dead march and a dialogue of the deaf, to the destruction of their continent and its civilization?” It is this question—and others like it—that we pose in this Newsletter, and through our Websites.

The most profound flaw in the thinking of historians and political scientists is their assumption of rationality. They proceed as if it is possible to identify “real reasons” for mass murder—and for the tendency of nation-states to proceed as if self-extermination was their objective.

Epstein cites a sermon presented by the Bishop of London in 1915, who urged Englishmen to kill Germans…to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young men as well the old,…to kill them lest the civilization of the world should itself be killed. As I have said a thousand times, I look upon it as a war for purity…for the principles of Christianity. I look upon everyone who dies in it as a martyr.

The words in this brief passage (that easily could have come out of Hitler’s mouth) reveal several themes that have emerged from my research on collective forms of violence.
Warfare revolves around the idea that it is necessary to kill or destroy the enemy. There is blind passion in the Bishop’s words—he insists it is necessary to “kill Germans,” the “good as well as the bad,” the “young men as well as the old”. Why this belief that it necessary to kill—or kill off—each and every member of another nation or societal group?

Nations and enemies go together. It seems that one requires the other, almost as if nations need enemies in order to energize themselves—to stay alive. The nation’s identity seems to be dependent on its capacity to identify an enemy to hate, revile—and possibly kill.

The Bishop asserts that it is necessary to kill Germans “lest the civilization of the world should itself be killed.” I have found that the idea of “rescuing civilization” is central in generating warfare. War is not about “primitive aggression.” Rather, nations initiate acts of war when they imagine that the future of civilization is at stake.

Somehow, the other civilization (or group) is imagined to threaten the existence of one’s own civilization. This principle applies to contemporary political struggles—as well as the First World War. Warfare arises as a form of morality, or moral righteousness. The enemy Other is imagined to be acting to destroy one’s own society. Violent acts are therefore necessary—required.

Hitler explained, “We may be inhumane, but if we rescue Germany, we have performed the greatest deed in the world.” If you think about any case of political violence that you have studied or are familiar with, you will probably conclude that Hitler’s statement is applicable. Collective forms of violence are undertaken in the name of a rescue fantasy. “Yes, we are performing acts of inhumane violence. However, if our nation or society is to survive, we have no other choice but to undertake them.”

The Bishop’s war cry, Epstein observes, could have “landed him in an asylum” had he delivered it a year earlier. Warfare, it would appear, renders normal what in other circumstances would be judged insane. Outside the context of war, asking men to get out of trenches and to run into machine gun fire and artillery shells for four years—would be considered a form of insanity.

I worked with a psychiatrist in 1998 developing an all-day seminar on warfare. She was not a historian and was unfamiliar with the First World War. We were sitting on a couch watching Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957). When we came to the scene in which soldiers were compelled to get out of their trench and move into no man’s land—in the face of massive shelling (click the link to view the video), she jumped up from the couch and screamed, “It’s crazy. It’s insane.”

This, perhaps, is the normal or natural reaction of a human being who has not been socialized into the historical discourse on the First World War. And yes, what occurred between 1914 and 1918 was insane. However, we don’t like to say this. We shy away from acknowledging that insane forms of behavior are contained within the fabric of civilization.

What’s more, human beings to not seem to be ashamed of their proclivity toward mass murder and self-destruction. Leaders who are responsible for the deaths of millions of human beings often live to a ripe old age. Perhaps we are even proud of our willingness to kill and die for abstract ideas—our sacred ideals. It’s what distinguishes us from other animals.

Can we begin to “bracket” the ideology of warfare—to conceive of this institution as something other than who we are? Post-modernists have deconstructed nearly everything. However, the idea of warfare (and of the nation-state, which generates war) reigns supreme.

It is easy to be “against” war. However, we have yet to pose and answer fundamental questions: Precisely what is warfare? Why do we need it? Why have human beings become so attached to the idea or ideology of warfare? These are questions we seek to answer through our Library of Social Science Newsletter, our Ideologies of War website, and through Library of Social Science Book Reviews.

We may not be ready to conceive of warfare as an institutionalized form of insanity. So let’s say that warfare is like a dream that many people are having at once: a collective fantasy that has been embraced and called “reality.”

We hope you will join us in our project of working to awaken from the nightmare of history.

The Goal of War is Death

Hitler’s view of the “Aryan” was not what many people imagine. What was “most strongly developed in the Aryan,” Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, was his willingness to sacrifice himself for the community: to “give one’s personal labor and if necessary one’s life for others.”

The Aryan was “not greatest in his mental qualities,” but in the extent of his willingness to “put all his abilities in the service of the community.” The Aryan “willingly subordinates his own ego to the life of the community and, if the hour demands, even sacrifices it.” The “superiority” of the Aryan race grew out of the capacity of the Aryan to sacrifice his own life for the sake of the community.

The idea that one should sacrifice one’s own life for the sake of one’s community or nation was the bedrock of Nazi ideology: the anlage out of which everything else grew. Nazism meant absolute devotion to Germany: willingness to die for one’s country. Hitler’s “will” revolved around actualizing this ideology—bringing it into being.

Nationalism, Hitler believed, meant acting with a “boundless and all-embracing love for the people,” and, if necessary, dying for it. A man proves his love for his people “solely by the sacrifices he is prepared to make for it.” Giving one’s life for the community constituted the “crown of sacrifice.”

Military service meant consciousness of the duty to fight for the existence of the German people by “sacrificing the life of the individual, always and forever, at all times and all places.” To be a Nazi, in short, was to be endlessly, eternally willing to die for Germany.

Hitler was deeply disturbed by Germany’s loss of the First World War (or, rather, by her surrender). On the other hand, he idealized the death of the German soldier in battle. The young regiments went to death in Flanders, Hitler wrote , crying Deutschland ueber Alles in der Welt (Germany above everything in the world). With “fatherland love in our heart and songs on our lips,” Hitler’s regiment had “gone into battle as to a dance.”

More than once, Hitler said, thousands of young Germans had stepped forward to “sacrifice their young lives freely and joyfully on the altar of the beloved fatherland.” Having died in battle, the best comrades—“still almost children”—slumbered in the sacred ground having “run to their death with gleaming eyes for the one true fatherland.”

Nazism was an ideology of sacrificial death. To be a Nazi was to be willing “to die for Germany” (the title of a book by Jay Baird). “Obedience to authority” does not convey the meaning of Nazism. Rather, the willingness to submit and to sacrifice one’s life grew out of faith: love for one’s country and loyalty to Adolf Hitler, who was conceived as the perfect embodiment of Germany.

When a boy entered the Hitler Youth at age 10, he swore to devote all his energies and strength to Adolf Hitler, vowing that he was “willing and ready to give up my life for him.” The Wehrmacht soldier swore by a sacred oath that he would render “unconditional obedience” to Hitler, willing at all times to “give my life for this oath.” And the SS-man famously vowed “obedience unto death.”

Nazism was a cult of sacrificial death. Willingness to die for Germany constituted the core of Nazi ideology. “Obedience unto death” was the fount of morality: a vow to surrender one’s life when Adolf Hitler asked one to.

Hitler explained to his people, “You are nothing, your nation is everything.” Nazism was the will to nothingness: negation of the self in the name of glorifying one’s nation. Sacrificial death was the highest ideal. Dying for Germany was the summum bonum: the end in itself (at the same time containing all other goods).

Warfare constituted a vast arena giving Germany the opportunity to sacrifice young men. When the war against Russia began, German General Gerd von Rundstedt admonished the soldier of the Second World War to emulate his brothers of the First World War and to “die in the same way”: strong, unswerving and obedient, going “happily and as a matter of course to his death” (cited in Baird, 1975). Goebbels was satisfied that German soldiers went into battle “with devotion, like congregations going into service.”