Sacred&Profane: American Martyrdom

“War! What is it good for… ?”

Absolutely nothing, according to the anti-Vietnam War anthem originally performed by Edwin Starr in 1968. But war has played a vital role in human history, shaping the destinies of individuals, families, societies, and empires, and inspiring religious fervor with real-world impact.

Last year President Bush used the occasion of Memorial Day to tie the war dead from places like Kandahar, Baghdad, and Ramadi to the flourishing of national life in a secure world. In his sixth ceremony as a wartime president at Arlington National Cemetery, Bush set the terms of this deal plainly in his speech on that day:

“From their deaths must come a world where the cruel dreams of tyrants and terrorists are frustrated and foiled—where our nation is more secure from attack, and where the gift of liberty is secured for millions who have never known it.”

Contrary to the sentiment expressed in Starr’s anthem, war is good for something—absolutely everything—in the mind of this president. At stake in this conflict are the most sacred, inviolable principles to national sustenance and continuity: peace, security, liberty. For Bush and the original neo-conservative masters of war—Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz—the rallying cry after 9/11 is a cold, hard social equation: soldiers must die for liberty.

United States history, I’m afraid, is on their side, and Memorial Day is now an annual reminder to concentrate collectively on the relationship between the war dead and national life.

American history is a tale of death and destruction from the get-go; a warrior’s story unfolding in the New World with the earliest English settlers establishing warfare as a fundamental ingredient of social progress and as fundamentally religious in its social consequences. The present terror war is no exception. The lifeblood of the nation, its spiritual vigor and moral convictions that move the social body onward in time, is nourished by broken bones and bodies of soldiers who die violently in bloody combat or preparation for battle.

Memorial Day is the day to remember their sacrifice, individual bodies who give their lives protecting the integrity of the body politic.

From the Revolutionary War against foreign evil agents preventing the birth of a new body politic; on through a Civil War with competing assertions about the evil oppressors existing within the body politic; up to this very moment, with war being waged against unseen terrorizing evil agents bent on the ultimate destruction of the body politic, America defines itself through identification of evil mortal enemies and by shared grief for glorified heroes who die in the battle against them. America is one of the most violent nations in the world, a country gripped by fears of violence from others, propped up globally by threats of violent force, and fascinated by graphic depictions of violent acts from early Puritan sermons to contemporary interactive computer games.

Even though many glorious counter-examples of compassion and peace from the nation’s history can be listed, this penchant for violence in times of peace (but especially in wartime) pays many social dividends that are essential to American life—economic, political, and religious, though perhaps in some unexpected ways.

The intimate, troubling connections between religion and violence have preoccupied historians, filmmakers, theologians, poets, anthropologists, novelists, and others long before 9/11, a day now seared into consciousness and forever marked on the terrestrial and imaginative landscapes. But we would be overlooking so much of human history if we made this an exceptional case of religious extremism, an act of terrorism that can only be understood as the expression of delusional fanaticism.

Anyone familiar with the general contours of human history must acknowledge this fact, for the past is undeniably delineated by endless religious persecutions, hatreds, and wars that brutally kill young and old, innocent and guilty, in the tens, hundreds, thousands, and millions. So if violence is indeed an inescapable reality in social life, war can be good for a great many things in human cultures. Can the violence of modern war be sacred? Is it ever anything but religious when the lives of so many are at stake?

Every time America goes to war, theological questions about whether or not the current engagement counts as a holy war arise, leading in many cases to public debates and institutional disagreements over God’s role in all the cruelty and carnage. This discussion, however, is missing the larger point: all wars are holy with or without God, inherently religious because the violence of war places everything that matters into bold relief, values and territory tied to group identity, of course, but also more immediate life or death concerns for the individual soldier.

The old adage that there are no atheists in foxholes is on to something, though not about how mortal fear drives unbelievers to God, but about how warfare is intrinsically sacred.

First and foremost is the sacrificial principle at the heart of any war. The idea that an individual soldier’s violent death has special power for the larger group, is indeed noble but holy as well, a form of modern-day martyrdom not simply for the glory of God but for the glorious nation as well. More than just an idea, however, this principle is put into practice in every American war, when presidents and other leaders establish the spiritual truth that young men and women who give their lives fighting to preserve national ideals, such as freedom and democracy, do not die in vain.

Instead, in the famous words of the sixteenth president Abraham Lincoln while standing among fallen Union soldiers at Gettysburg, only the dead have the power to consecrate—to make sacred—the physical landscape and also the military resolve to continue fighting and dying for the ultimate cause, national continuity and progress.

War is a sacrificial ritual that simultaneously promises social chaos and human destruction as well as moral inculcation and miraculous transcendence. This single ritual act transforms individual death into a source of cultural regeneration, cruel acts of violence into noble acts of virtue, and gratuitous killing into a vehicle for social revitalization. But the religious potentialities of warfare are not limited to the sacrifices of men and women who are willing to exchange their individual lives for the good of the country and for the promotion of national values.

Violence in war establishes sacred bonds between the living and the dead that are foundational to national life and public memory, for sure, but it also creates a special kind of sacred community for soldiers within the military itself, one built on the close, intimate reality of death, the complex relations and rituals among soldiers and officers, and a peculiar form of love, all of which lives in the phrase, “brothers in arms.”

As attentive as we are to individual stories of lives cut short by roadside bombs and sniper fire, with biographies of the war dead who now number over 4,079 easily accessible through websites and cybermemorials, online media sources and social networking pages still brimming with life, the anonymous war dead and unknown soldiers have been the bread and butter of religious nationalism in the United States.

The generally anonymous military dead represented most poignantly and ceremonially at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier have been easily assimilated into triumphant, effective political discourse over much of US history, with presidents convincingly persuading American mothers and fathers, husbands and siblings, that death in the field of battle has redemptive power for the national family even as individual families struggle with more intimate forms of loss and heartache.

George W. Bush thought that in the post-9/11 world the War on Terror being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq would unite the nation, if not the world, in religious common cause to protect the most sacred of human ideals: freedom. He proclaimed the need for human sacrifices to protect this ideal as well as to ensure that the civilized world is not threatened by uncivilized terrorists. His political rhetoric was religious in tenor and tone, sometimes explicitly as when he called it a “crusade,” but often implicitly, linking the violence of war with sacred ultimate values.

It didn’t take long for Bush to lose the support of most of the world, falling from a post-9/11 approval rating of over 90% to a sub-30% record-setting low last month. Now he and the other neo-conservative masters of war must live with the legacy of their actions—a legacy that more and more Americans understand as including the ultimate profanations in a democracy: the sacrifice of freedoms in the fight for freedom; economic ruin in the name of ever-expanding military power; the deterioration of governmental checks and balances in the interest of presidential authority.

Ironically, the most openly religious American President of all time has inflicted the worst kinds of sacrilege on the body politic, and utterly underestimated the spiritual demands of growing numbers of Americans who are beginning to question his authority to shape how we remember the individual bodies who died under his command.