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.

One thought on “The most significant book ever written on war?

  1. Murray Reiss

    If all it takes is the number of deaths, surely the US war against Vietnam should have made a significant contribution to national unity, while in fact disunity was everywhere evident.

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