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The Soldier as Sacrificial Victim


© Richard Koenigsberg

Library of Social Science

First posted: 22 October 2006

Political scientists and historians—indeed most of us—think and speak of war in terms of conquest, territorial expansion, victory and defeat, and self-defense. Evolutionary psychological theories that focus on “male aggression” suggest that warlike behavior may have developed based on its adaptive value. The discourse of the soldier revolves around words such as masculinity, violence, courage and heroism. But do these interpretations accurately reflect the reality and meaning of war?



The Aztecs conceived of warfare, according to Burt Brundage. as a “sacred activity” whose purpose was to capture enemy soldiers in order to sacrifice them to the gods. War was required in order to provide food and energy for the sun so that it could continue on its course. When the four original gods decided to create the sun, Brundage states, “they first had to create war so that the hearts and blood needed by the sun would be available.” According to Jacques Soustell, the Aztecs believed that the sun was "born from sacrifice and blood.”

When the hand-to-hand fighting began in a typical Mexican war, Brundage explains, the battle took on an aspect completely unlike anything known in Western civilization. It was not so much a matter of killing the enemy as of capturing him for sacrifice. Specialists with ropes followed the fighting men in order to bind those who had been overthrown before they could recover consciousness. Upon completion of battle, the Aztecs returned home with defeated warriors as captives, who subsequently became victims in the sacrificial ritual.

Brundage describes this ritual as follows:

At the foot of the ascent the captor delivered his captive over to the priests who then dragged him up by the hair if he did not himself make the ascent. On reaching the level of the summit he was immediately thrown backward over the techcatl, four priests bearing heavily down on the limbs, while the fifth one crushed his throat. The Sixth priest struck a powerful blow in the center of the upthrust chest and broke through the sternum. Reaching into the wound he ripped out the still-beating heart and turning, held it skyward for a moment—an offering to the god.

The logic of this Aztec sacrificial ritual was not complex. According to Lopez Austin, “As long as men could offer blood and the hearts of captives taken in combat, the power of the sun god would not decline, and he would continue on his course above the earth.” To “keep the sun moving in its course so that darkness should not overwhelm the world forever,” Soustelle says, it was necessary to “feed it every day with its food, ‘the precious water'—that is, with human blood.” Sacrifice was a “sacred duty toward the sun and a necessity for the welfare of men: without it, the very life of the world would stop.”

The purpose of the life of an Aztec warrior was to capture enemy soldiers in order to feed the sun. When the midwife cut the umbilical cord of a baby boy, she harangued him:

Dear son, you must understand that your home is not here where you have been born, for you are a warrior. Your mission is to give the sun the blood of enemies to drink and feed Tlaltecuhtli, the earth with their bodies. Your country, your inheritance and your father are in the house of the sun, in the sky.

Just as the Aztec warrior was fated to engage in battle in order to capture warriors for sacrifice, he too risked becoming a sacrificial victim. The Mexican city-states with which the Aztecs did battle had their own gods that required nourishment.



Unlike the Aztecs, we in the West do not conceive the purpose of warfare to be sacrificial. Rather, we imagine that wars are fought for “real” reasons or purposes such as conquest, acquisition of territory, or defending one's homeland. We understand the death or maiming of soldiers in battle as by-products of the attempt to achieve political objectives. We do not say that wars are initiated in order to produce sacrificial victims, even though the result of every war is dead soldiers. The case study that I will examine in this paper—the First World War—suggests that Western warfare, like its Aztec counterpart, represents a form of sacrifice.

The First World War took place August 1914 to November 1918 and involved many of the world's nations. Casualties of World War I are estimated at 9 million dead and 37 million missing or wounded. The First World War is famous for the way its battles were fought. Each side expected a quick victory, which did not occur. Soon hundreds of miles of trenches were built on the Western front, with French and British soldiers digging themselves in on one side and German soldiers on the other. Battles occurred when troops from one side got out of their trench and moved toward the opposing trench, hoping to survive the trip through “no man's land,” cut through the barbed wire, and break through the enemy line.

One typical British "attack" occurred during the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 and is described as follows in the German regimental diary:

Ten columns of extended line could clearly be discerned. Each advancing column was estimated at more than a thousand men, offering such a target as had never been seen before, or thought possible. Never had the machine gunners such straightforward work to do nor done it so effectively. They traversed to and fro along the enemy's ranks unceasingly.

In August 1916, German troops counter-attacked. War correspondent Philip Gibbs saw them advance towards the British trenches, "shoulder to shoulder, like a solid bar." It was "sheer suicide," he said, providing the following description of the battle:

I saw our men get their machine-guns into action, and the right side of the living bar frittered away, and then the whole line fell into the scorched grass. Another line followed. The German soldiers were tall men, and did not falter as they came forward. But it seemed to me they walked like men conscious of going to death. They died.

This tactic of assaulting enemy trenches with massive numbers of troops—the central military strategy of World War I—continued to be employed throughout the war despite its result: perpetual, endless slaughter. For four years the belligerents on the Western Front hammered at each other in battles that cost millions of men their lives but moved the front line at most a mile or so in either direction.

The Germans attacked Verdun in 1916. During six months more than twenty-three million shells were fired by the two contending armies, an average of more than a hundred shells a minute. Verdun remained in French hands, but the death toll there was 500,000 men. When added to that of the earlier battle of the Somme, this made a five-month death toll of almost a million men. It was an average of more than 6,600 men killed every day, more than 277 every hour, nearly five each minute.



We're dealing with something extraordinary here. Each time I return to study this war, I am stunned and deeply disturbed. What was going on? Why were leaders willing to continue pushing men into battle knowing the high probability that they would be killed and the low probability that anything would be accomplished? Why did soldiers rarely mutiny? What could have been so significant as to require the death and maiming of tens-of-millions of men?

Historians conceive their task as that of describing events. Further, they assume that war and other forms of societal conflict grow out of something real; that there is logic or purpose to what occurs. When we ourselves read history books, we assume that there is an explanation for the events that are written up. Even if we do not quite understand what was going on or know why things happened as they did, we imagine that historians do. And yet, historians seem unable to comprehend the meaning of the carnage of the First World War. Indeed, only recently have penetrating questions begun to be posed. Modris Eksteins writing in 1989 raises the question of why the soldiers continued to fight:

What kept them in the trenches? What made them go over the top, in long rows? What sustained them in constant confrontation with death? We are talking here not of professional armies, but of mass armies, of volunteers and conscripts, such as the world has not seen before. The incidence of insubordination was minuscule in relation to the number of men under arms and in view of the conditions they had to brave.

It is not possible to understand the perpetual slaughter that occurred in the First World War apart from the idea of “the nation” and the human attachment to this entity. When war was declared in 1914, excited crowds celebrated in every major city. One million volunteers joined the British army during the first year. War Office recruiting stands were inundated with men persuaded of their duty to fight. The soldiers were cheered on as they rushed off to battle. Combatants were willing to fight because they believed they were acting to defend and preserve their countries. Monumental orgies of destruction were undertaken and justified in the name of “France,” “Germany,” “Britain,” “Russia,” etc.

What are countries and why do they evoke such passions? What is the relationship between our attachment to nations, on the one hand, and the willingness to kill, die and bear unendurable suffering on the other? John Lennon asked people to "imagine there's no country," to conceive of a world not demarcated by nation-states and to envision human existence in the absence of attachment to a country. “It’s easy if you try,” sang Lennon. But as it turns out, it’s not easy for people to imagine life without countries.

Nations and their ideologies saturate our everyday existence. In spite of scholars’ efforts to demonstrate that nations are social constructions or “imagined communities,” few people are convinced, for when they hear words like "France," "Germany" or “America," most feel that these terms refer to objects that substantially exist. And although anthropologists provide concepts and methodologies that facilitate escaping the “field force” of one’s own society, for most people, “national life” represents an inescapable framework, profoundly shaping consciousness and our experience of reality.



The First World War arose out of belief in and attachment to nations. War was undertaken, justified and perpetuated in the name of countries. Soldiers’ bodies were fed into the war-machine based on the assumption that the “lives” of nations were more significant than the lives of human beings. The ideology of nationalism has been expressed throughout history in phrases like “The individual must die so that the nation might live.” In the First World War, we witnessed a massive acting out of that very proposition.

In war, the body and blood of the sacrificed soldier gives rise to the reality of the nation. Killing and dying substantiate the idea that nations exist. The sound and fury of battle convince us that something profound and real is occurring, testifying to the existence of nations. Battle—the bodies of dead and wounded soldiers—anchors belief in material reality, persuading us that countries are more than social constructions. Surely we think to ourselves, human beings could not, would not, kill and die in the name of nothing.

John Horne analyzed the published letters of French soldiers who fought in the First World War. The current running through these letters was the idea of national sacrifice as a source of redemption and renewal. Shortly before his death, Robert Dubarle wrote of "the glorious privilege of sacrificing oneself, voluntarily." Looking at the warriors who had fallen around him, French soldier J. Saleilles wondered whether the “gift of their blood” was not the “supernatural source of the renewal of life which must be given to our country.” And if this were so, then it would be unacceptable to “wail and lament like pagans in the face of all these dead.”

F. Belmont, moved by attending a field mass with 500 soldiers, wrote that the war, like all great sacrifices, “at least has a purifying role. It is by sacrifice and suffering that regeneration occurs.” A Catholic priest serving as an ambulance man on the western front expressed a similar vision: “We await the decisive all-out assault. So many sacrifices! May they help bring the resurrection of a greater, more beautiful and truly Christian France.” Indeed, wrote Pierre-Maurice Massoon, a Catholic academic who was killed by a shell in Lorraine in April 1916, one needed an almost “religious faith in one’s country to accept such an immolation without revolt and moral disarray.”

From whence came this conviction that suffering and sacrifice would bring about the regeneration or “resurrection” of France? Why imagine that because soldiers die, the nation will be “delivered?” What does it mean to say that the renewal of the life of one’s nation depends upon the “gift of blood” provided by a soldier? Each of these expressions links the death of the soldier to the survival or more abundant life of one’s nation. What logic leads to the belief that a nation benefits by virtue of the death of so many soldiers?

The relationship between the death of the individual and life of the nation is expressed in concrete, physical terms by the soldier who suggests that it is the “gift of blood” that represents the “supernatural force of the renewal of life that must be given to our country.” This metaphor conveys the idea of death in battle as a transfusion—the moment at which the blood contained within the body of the soldier passes or flows into the body politic, functioning to energize the latter and to keep it alive. British political leader Lloyd George described the First World War as a “perpetual, driving force” that “shoveled warm human hearts and bodies by the millions into the furnace.” Just as the Aztecs believed that the hearts and blood of sacrificial victims were required in order to keep the sun god alive, so during the First World War millions of hearts and bodies were sacrificed in order to preserve the lives of nations.

Infantryman Coningsby Dawson fought in the First World War and published two books while the war was underway in which he attempted to convey the motives, experiences and suffering of British soldiers. These men, he said,

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.

By changing a single word in the passage above, it is possible to crystallize the logic linking the death of the soldier to the growth of one’s nation: "Bodies may die—therefore the spirit of England grows greater as each new soul speeds upon its way." A mathematic relationship or positive correlation is suggested: as the number of one’s own soldiers who die in war increases, so does one’s nation become greater.



In December 1915, Douglas Haig was appointed commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force. The British believed that Haig was someone with the courage and resolve to sustain the heavy losses that would be necessary to break through the German line. On July 1, 1916, after an eight-day artillery bombardment in which 1537 British guns fired 1,723,873 rounds. Haig began the attack meant to bring the Allies victory. At 7:30 am, whistles blew, and the men went ‘over the top’. The generals had ordered the men (carrying up to 80 pounds of equipment) to walk in straight lines across No Man’s Land, advancing as though forming a military parade.

The British soldiers were slaughtered, torn and ripped apart by the German guns. “They went down in their hundreds. You didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them,” wrote one German machine-gunner. British casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme were 20,000 dead and more than 35, 000 wounded—probably more than in any army, in any war, on any single day. Despite the disaster, Douglas Haig—from his headquarters in the chateau at Valvion, 50 miles behind the lines—remained confident. He continued the attack, following the same plan and with the same results, for four months. Only on November 18, 1916, as winter set in, did the battle grind to a halt. Only 6 miles of ground had been taken. The final casualties were: British 415,000, French 195,000, Germans perhaps 600,000.

Although his tactic of persistence in a futile battle strategy drew criticism, 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 received encouragement and support from the King and a substantial part of the British populace. The following letter was found among Haig’s papers:

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. And you shall break through with the cavalry of England and France for the greatest victory that history has ever known. Drive on, Illustrious General!

The anonymous note was probably preserved because it echoed Haig's own feelings. It, and similar messages, reinforced his belief that there existed a great mass of people who shared his willingness and determination to pursue victory even at the cost of the lives of hundreds of thousands of men.

Citing Bouthoul, Franco Fornari suggests that war represents a “voluntary destruction of previously accumulated reserves of human capital, an act performed with the implicit intention to sacrifice a certain number of lives.” He compares war to the institution of the potlatch, an “act of ostentatious destruction the aim of which is to intimidate the rival and, ultimately, to give prestige to the donor or destroyer.”

The proud claim made in the letter written to Haig--that the soul of the British Empire will “afford 500,000 casualties”—conveys this sense of war as a form of potlatch or “ostentatious destruction.” By offering up hundreds of thousands of lives, Britain affirms its nobility and greatness before the world. World War I may be characterized as a monumental kind of competition whereby nations vied to demonstrate their willingness to send their young men into battle as proof of their power. As each nation displayed its greatness, soldiers became sacrificial victims.



Writing in the midst of the war, writer Maurice Barres praised the French soldiers for dying on a daily basis:

Oh you young men whose value is so much greater than ours! They love life, but even were they dead, France will be rebuilt from their souls. The sublime sun of youth sinks into the sea and becomes the dawn which will hereafter rise again.

Soustell notes that the Aztecs believed that the warrior who died in battle or upon the stone of sacrifice “brought the sun to life” and became a “companion of the sun.” Uitzilopochtli, the conquering sun, was the “reincarnation of a dead warrior.” Barres speaks about the French nation in terms nearly identical to Aztec descriptions of the life of the sun. He declares that French soldiers, the “sublime sun of youth” will sink into the sea to become the “dawn which will rise again.” Like the rising of the Aztec sun, France would be resurrected from the souls of dead warriors.

According to Brundage, Aztec warriors who died or were cremated on the field of battle “spilled their blood on the bosom of mother earth and then in flames ascended to enter the sun god’s entourage.” P. H. Pearse, founder of the Irish Revolutionary movement, claimed similarly that nations were invigorated when “warmed with the red wine of the battlefield.” An enthralled Pearse observed the outbreak 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. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country.

The soldiers who died in the First World War, Pearse declared, represented an “offering to God,” the homage of “millions of lives given gladly for love of country.” If Pearse’s interpretation is correct, the difference between the Aztec sacrificial ritual and the First World War appears only in the magnitude of the slaughter.

Many people claim to be astonished by modern terrorists who blow themselves up in the process of attempting to kill their enemies. Many would also find the Aztec ritual of heart extraction shocking and painful to contemplate. Yet we barely reflect upon our own suicidal political rituals, for example the First World War in whish nine million people were killed and twenty-two million wounded. The vast casualties were the results of millions of men acting precisely like contemporary terrorists, allowing their bodies to be blown to bits at they attempted to blow up the bodies of their enemies.



Franco Fornari called war the “spectacular establishment of a general human situation whereby death assumes absolute value.” The ideas for which we die must be true, because “death becomes a demonstrative process.” Willingness to die shows sincerity; death in battle becomes the ultimate testimonial to an ideology’s truth. The connection between death and truth grows out of our feeling that if someone goes so far as to give their life for an idea, then there must be something to it. Surely human beings would not die for nothing.

Dead and mangled bodies on the field of battle imply the existence of some “thing” that was the source of the frenzied activity and destruction. The soldiers’ bodies testify to the reality of this thing. If nations were fictions, merely social constructions, certainly human beings would not allow themselves to be “scorched, blown to atoms, gassed and tortured.” That which can generate so much death, pain and destruction must be real.

The above-mentioned British infantryman Coningsby Dawson tried to explain what kept British soldiers going in the First World War in the face of the horrors that they encountered. One motive that kept them at the front he said was a “sense of pride.” Yet Dawson saw “something else,” something essential to the soldiers’ endurance:

It seems a mad thing to say with reference to fighting men, but that other thing which enables you to meet sacrifice gladly is love. It’s the love that helps us to die gladly—love for our cause, our pals, our family, our country. Under the disguise of duty one has to do an awful lot of loving at the Front.

Similarly, Fornari states that war, to soldiers, symbolizes destruction put into the service of the “preservation of what they love.” Those who make war are driven not by a hate need, but “by a love need.” Men see war, Fornari says, as a “duty toward their love object.” What is at stake in war is not so much the safety of the individual as the safety of the “collective love object.” The collective love object for which men die and kill is the nation.

Elaine Scarry claims that war performs a “demonstrative” function. The dispute that leads to war initiates a process whereby each side “calls into question the legitimacy and thereby erodes the reality of the other country's issues, beliefs, ideas, and self-conception.” War comes into being as each side attempts to “reassert that its own constructs are ‘real’ and that “only the other side's constructions are ‘creations’ (and by extension, ‘fictions,’ ‘lies’)."

In order to certify the reality of its beliefs, each side will “bring forward and place before its opponent's eyes and, more important, the eyes of its own population, all available sources of substantiation.” According to Scarry, the fundamental characteristic of warfare (as compared with other activities that take the form of a contest) is “injuring.” Wars and battles occur not only to determine a winner or loser, but also to provide an arena for injuring, thus allowing “derealized and disembodied beliefs to reconnect with the force and power of the material world.”

Wars occur when nations—responding to doubt about their belief-systems and unable to draw upon “benign forms of substantiation”—seek to allay their anxiety by other means. Scarry describes injury in battle as the

Mining of the ultimate substance, the ultimate source of substantiation, the extraction of the physical basis of reality from its dark hiding place in the body out into the light of day, the making available the precious ore of confirmation, the interior content of human bodies, lungs, arteries, blood, brains, the motherlode that will eventually be reconnected to the winning issue, to which it will lend its radical substance, its compelling, heartsickening reality, until benign forms of substantiation come into being.

When doubts about the truth of a society’s ideology become acute for those who embrace this ideology, a war may be the vehicle for putting doubt to rest. The injuries or wounds that soldiers suffer in battle, as well as the deaths that occur, function to validate a culture’s belief system: “Look, men still are willing to be mutilated and to die for our beliefs! They must be true.” Or, as Scarry puts it, the interior content of the soldier’s body, “lungs, arteries, blood and brains” that ooze “into the light of day” constitute the “motherlode” that substantiates the issue for which the war is being fought. The content of the wounded soldier’s body are displayed on the field of battle: the “precious ore” of confirmation.

In war, Scarry suggests, the “incontestable reality of the body—the body in pain, the body maimed—the body dead and hard to dispose of”—is “conferred on an ideology.” The ideology thus achieves for a time the “force and status of material ‘fact’ by the sheer weight of the multitudes of damaged and opened human bodies.” War, in short, is that cultural activity which seeks to produce dead and wounded soldiers in order to establish the truth of a society’s ideology.



In Mexican warfare, the Aztec city-state fought other city-states to obtain victims that would become sacrificial offerings to their gods. The other city-states also needed sacrificial victims in order to feed their own gods. At a typical battle’s end, Aztec warriors reported to their King, Moeteuzcoma:

They said how they had taken a goodly number of captives. Of their own warriors 370 had died or been lost through capture. And Moeteuzcoma said to the embassy, "Behold, brothers, how true was the word of the ancestors who taught us that the sun, Talteutli, the god of battles, feeds alike from both sides."

Winning or losing was one dimension of Aztec warfare. However, as Brundage observes, “from the god’s point of view neither side could win or lose.” Whatever the outcome of a battle, the gods would be fed with the blood and bodies of sacrificial victims.

In the West, the sacrificial mechanism contained within the institution of warfare has up to now been disguised. We insist that the death or maiming of soldiers constitutes kind of “collateral damage,” a by-product of the pursuit of “real” objectives. The First World War gives the lie to this theory. If we allow ourselves to encounter the reality of what actually occurred, it is difficult to avoid concluding that nations acted to sacrifice their own soldiers.

In our conventional way of thinking, the soldier has been killed by the enemy. When French or British soldiers got out of trenches during the First World War, ran toward enemy lines and were slaughtered, we say that Germans killed them. When Germans got out of trenches and ran toward the enemy line, we say that they were killed by the English or French. Wouldn't it be more parsimonious to say that the French soldiers were killed by the French nation and its leaders—who asked them to get out of trenches and run into artillery shells and machine gun fire? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to state that German soldiers were killed by the German nation and its leaders—who also asked their soldiers to get out of trenches and run into artillery shells and machine gun fire? In the West, we disguise the sacrificial meaning of warfare by pretending that the other nation is responsible for killing soldiers.

In her groundbreaking book, Blood Sacrifice and the Nation, Carolyn Marvin suggests that “our deepest secret, the collective group taboo" is knowledge that society depends on the “death of its own members at the hands of the group.” At the behest of the group, according to Marvin, the lifeblood of community members must be shed. Soldiers constitute the “sacrificial class,” to whom we delegate the shedding of blood. The soldier is our chosen victim. When he dies for the country, Marvin says, he dies for all of us.

We continue to describe war as a form of violence and insist that if only we could control our aggression by becoming more civilized, we could put an end to war. This conception functions as a smoke-screen. Gwynne Dyer concludes his study of war by stating, "You offer yourself to be slain: This is the essence of being a soldier.” By becoming soldiers, men “agree to die when we tell them to."

Joanna Bourke, in her book Dismembering the Male, observes that the most important point to be made about the male body during the First World War was that it was “intended to be mutilated.” We represent war as a drive for conquest and an outlet for energetic activity even as its fundamental purpose and inevitable consequence is injury and death. We encourage the soldier’s delusion of masculine virility and call him a hero—in order to lure him into becoming a sacrificial victim.


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