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The Boston Globe

Primitive Impulses of War

The interplay of religion and violence is considered by some a mark only of primitive culture. When the jihadist cries "God is Great" before detonating his explosive vest, or when, conversely, the Crusades are invoked to justify assault on radical Islam, secular critics can indulge a satisfying sense of superiority over believers, clinging to holy war.

In the United States, the once common religious references of the Bush administration - the war on terrorism defined in categories of good and evil, for example - seem discredited, if only by failures of policy. War-justifying appeals to the rhetoric of faith are suddenly out of fashion, but that does not mean that a subliminal link between religion and violence no longer exists. The "secular" is not all that secular.

In archaic religion, violence and the sacred were explicitly joined. That fact is significant because archaic religion is itself the source of culture, which is why violence - acknowledged to be irrational, yet perceived as virtuous - remains a mark of the human condition.

Take one example. The boundary between animals and humans is drawn by what the anthropologist René Girard calls the "victimary process," the deliberate selection of an innocent outsider to undergo elimination for the sake of the community. The "scapegoat mechanism" in Girard's phrase, by which generalized antipathy toward a chosen victim is acted out, serves to quench an otherwise insatiable animal appetite for violence.

This form of violence, that is, amounts to a control on violence. "Redemption" is the social calm that follows on the elimination of violent urges when they are "appeased" through ritualized killing. A social need is satisfied. Sacrificial violence (whether directed at an Aztec virgin, or the goat of Leviticus or Jesus) serves the cause of peace. This process becomes "religious" when the social need is attributed to a deity, to whom the victim is "offered."

Despite the secular assumption that such impulses belong to a primitive past, they are universally at work whenever humans go to war. This comes clear with a closer look at the event commemorated in Europe and America this week - World War I.

The greatest mystery of that conflict was how the high commands of both sides could have so long persisted in the evident futility of infantry assaults across No Man's Land against defensive lines that were, finally, never breached by either side. Technology (the machine gun) totally favored defense, but commanders never yielded their absolute preference for offense because the waste of life was, to them, no waste.


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That millions of soldiers died for no discernible purpose can be explained only by the irrational belief in the salvific power of sacrifice as such. The Tommies, Micks, Jocks, Doughboys, Frogs, and Jerries who went endlessly "over the top" only to be mowed down were, in effect, a legion of scapegoats.

The nations that glorified them were in the grip of a displaced faith in the power of sanctioned death, operating in a realm apart from any conceivable war aim. The trenches became Europe's altar. A brutal god was being appeased. Otherwise, parents would never have sent their innocent sons off to that carnage. Their innocence was the point.

The scapegoat mechanism shifted in World War II from soldiers to civilians, whose innocence was even sharper. The masterpiece form of this dynamic was, of course, the Nazi genocide of Jews.

That crime was unique, but the mass bombing of civilian population centers was, under all the "strategic" justifications, also an exercise in the irrational belief that bloody sacrifice for its own sake could somehow be redemptive. There is no other way to account for the all-out spasm of killing from the air that marked the last six months of the Allied war effort, especially in Japan.

The primitive impulses of our ancestors live on in us. War always operates at two levels - one apparent and rational, the other hidden and irrational. At a certain point, the first gives way to the second, which is why the violence of war inevitably continues past points of tactical and strategic meaning.

Sacrifice for its own sake takes on mystical significance that, in a secular age, can no longer be described - or defended. But it can be discerned, for example, in the anguished hope that troops will not have died in vain if others follow them. Once these subliminal currents are openly acknowledged, they can finally be left behind. In America lately, God is banished as an open sponsor of the war, but if God does not will this slaughter of innocents, who does?

James Carroll

James Carroll

James Carroll, a TomDispatch regular and former Boston Globe columnist, is the author of 20 books, including the new novel The Cloister (Doubleday). Among other works are: House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power and Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age. His memoir, An American Requiem, won the National Book Award. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He lives in Boston with his wife, the writer Alexandra Marshall.


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