Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War

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Overview

An ALA Notable Book A New York Times Notable Book

In Blood Rites, Barbara Ehrenreich confronts the mystery of the human attraction to violence: What draws our species to war and even makes us see it as a kind of sacred undertaking? Blood Rites takes us on an original journey from the elaborate human sacrifices of the ancient world to the carnage and holocaust of twentieth-century "total war." Sifting through the fragile records of prehistory, Ehrenreich discovers the wellspring of war in an unexpected place—not in a "killer instinct" unique to the males of our species but in the blood rites early humans performed to reenact their terrifying experience of predation by stronger carnivores. Brilliant in conception, rich in scope, Blood Rites is a monumental work that will transform our understanding of the greatest single threat to human life.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Ehrenreich has outdone herself in breaking with conventional history, and the result is thrilling in that seeing-the-world-anew way."-Susan Faludi, The Nation

"Splendid . . . .A fascinating perspective on our staunch devotion to mass, mutual slaughter. Blood Rites is that rare animal, a nonfiction page-turner."-Newsweek

Megan Harlan

War ... What is it good for? Well, lots of things. In this exhilarating, far-reaching and often startlingly insightful query into the human race's passion for organized killing sprees, Time magazine columnist Barbara Ehrenreich claims that war has "a life of its own," and examines that life -- from its ancient birth to its current incarnation, as well as its possible futures. Ehrenreich, noted for her gender- and class-related social criticism, clearly revels in her status as "reckless amateur," rushing in "where the prudent scholar fears to tread." She proffers a 300-book bibliography with dizzyingly cross-disciplinary entries -- on everything from cannibalism to Nazism, Goddess worship to physical anthropology -- only a handful of which, she notes, directly tackle theories of "the passions of war." It's this presumed gap that she attempts to fill, and she does so, quite often brilliantly.

In the first and more provocative half of the book, "Predation," Ehrenreich dissects both what war is and those theories of war that she finds wanting. The inadequate explanations include that old stand-by: some human -- and particularly male -- instinct towards violent aggression. As Ehrenreich puts it, "Wars are not barroom brawls writ large ... Most of war consists of preparation for battle." And most men, as any drill sergeant knows, must be carefully trained to become killing machines. Nor does "aggressiveness" explain war's peculiarly collective spirit -- inspiring, in many, feelings of honor, community and a distinctly religious fervor that provides "one of humankind's great natural 'highs.'"

Ehrenreich posits, instead, a human relationship with war so old that we have forgotten its origins and ancient logic; consequently, it might seem jarring, even contradictory, to contemporary sensibilities. At the core of Ehrenreich's complex argument is humanity's fear of predation -- of being hunted by animals, of being prey. As she says, "the sacrilization of war is not the project of a self-confident predator ... but that of a creature which has learned only 'recently,' in the last thousand or so generations, not to cower at every sound in the night." The logic goes like this: Humans slowly and painfully transformed themselves from quivering prey to canny hunters. About 12,000 B.C., skilled hunters had so depleted the once mighty animal population that they started warring with each other. This elite hunter-to-warrior class -- with the special privileges it once earned for fending off very real bloodthirsty beasts -- has survived to this very day, as have the vestiges of its underlying psychology (which include deeming the enemy "Other," bestial and subhuman).

Ehrenreich traces these fascinating vestiges, perhaps too swiftly, throughout the rest of human history -- from the age of medieval knighthood, when war and religion became inextricably intertwined, to contemporary nationalism and women's involvement in warfare. The book clocks in at a mere 241 pages, and the content sometimes shows some strain in its breeziness: Ehrenreich's provocative, intuitive ideas simply aren't given enough room to fully cohere. But her explanation for war is the last thing one might expect -- satisfying -- because her equation includes both the subtleties of human nature and a stunningly wide range of human experience. -- Salon

Michael Sherry
One of today's most original writers has tackled one of humankind's most intractable subjects....Properly awed by her subject, she seeks to nudge and provoke readers, not overpower them. -- New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Ehrenreich The Snarling Citizen) has a well-deserved reputation as a trenchant critic of contemporary American society. Her new book goes beyond the class and gender parameters that have shaped her previous work, however. Here, Ehrenreich argues that war is a self-replicating activity independent of both economics and culture, that it is a collective denial of victim status for a species that has been prey far longer than it has been predator. And even more important to war's appeal, she contends, is its call for self-abnegation. Ehrenreich compares war to religion in that both emphasize ritual sacrifice, although she views killing enemies as less important than offering and giving one's life in a community-sanctioned matrix. This "religiosity," Ehrenreich argues, makes war essentially impervious to moral rebuke. War's passions are righteous to those experiencing them. They are sufficiently strong in that from being the province of a special "priesthood," war has been democratized. It is arguably being degendered as well, with women accepted as full participants in what had been a defining male activity. Ehrenreich's concluding assertion that mass participation in war has begun to generate mass opposition to war is an undeveloped variation on Henry James's 19th-century call for a "moral equivalent." In addition, Ehrenreich tends to overlook alternate interpretations. Donald Kagan's On the Origins of Wars, for example, convincingly presents honor rather than sacrifice as central to the psychology of war. Nor does Ehrenreich address the complex interactions of governments, societies and armed forcesthe Clausewitzian triad that still retains significant credibility as a model for war's origins. But while Ehrenreich's study may not qualify as first-rate history, its provocative hypotheses will stimulate the kind of debate and inquiry that her work seldom fails to generate.
Library Journal
Social critic and Time magazine essayist Ehrenreich (The Worst Years of Our Lives, LJ 4/15/90) turns her attention here to anthropology, delving into the causes of man's age-old interest in war. Her remarkable thesis is that primitive peoples were defined not so much by a killer predatory instinct as by their role as prey for other animals. Social constructs such as war and ritual sacrifice then developed as ways to reenact the primal emotions of being preythe terror of facing a hungry beast. Her thesis is fascinating, and the anthropological exposition is well written and convincing, if mainly speculative. Ehrenreich's last section, which uses scattered examples from modern history to illustrate the "sacralization" of war, is also intriguing (if somewhat less convincing). Recommended for both public and academic libraries.Robert Persing, Univ. of Pennsylvania Lib., Philadelphia
Kirkus Reviews
An iconoclastic study in which social commentator and Time essayist Ehrenreich challenges accepted notions of why human beings wage war.

In her tenth book Ehrenreich (The Worst Years of Our Lives, 1990, etc.) takes a multidisciplinary approach in her investigation of "the feelings people invest in war and often express as their motivations for fighting." She makes a thorough examination of a wide range of historical, psychological, sociological, biological, and anthropological literature to come up with her unique theory: that the accepted view that human beings engage in wars because of an innate aggressive, warlike instinct—especially in men—is untrue. Instead, Ehrenreich persuasively argues that the "roots of the human attachment to war" can be found in feelings and emotions that are imprinted on all of us due to events that took place many millennia ago, when our earliest ancestors spent most of their waking hours in fear of being devoured by predators. What Ehrenreich calls humankind's "sacralization of war" (the tendency to invest the emotional trappings of religious fervor in war) stems from the evolution of humans from prey into predators, the feelings engendered in "a creature which has learned only 'recently,' in the last thousand or so generations, not to cower at every sound in the night." The human predilection for war, as Ehrenreich puts it, can be viewed "as a way of reenacting the primal transformation from prey to predator." Also key was "a global decline in the number of large animals, both `game' and predators, for humans to fight against." In making these original arguments, Ehrenreich challenges long-held theories of evolution and psychology promulgated by Darwin, Freud, and other scholars.

Ehrenreich's work is convincing, at least to the general reader. Her ideas likely will be challenged by those whose theories she seeks to discredit.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805057874
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/15/1998
  • Edition description: REV
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.04 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Meet the Author

Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich is the bestselling author of Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch, Bright-sided, This Land Is Their Land, and Dancing in the Streets, among others. A frequent contributor to Harper's and The Nation, she has also been a columnist at The New York Times and Time magazine. She is the winner of the L.A. Times Book Prize for Current Interest and ALA Notable Books for Nonfiction.  Ehrenreich was born in Butte, Montana, when it was still a bustling mining town. She studied physics at Reed College, and earned a Ph.D. in cell biology from Rockefeller University. Rather than going into laboratory work, she got involved in activism, and soon devoted herself to writing her innovative journalism. She lives and works in Florida.

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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

So elemental is the human need to endow the shedding of blood with some great and even sublime significance that it renders the intellect almost entirely helpless.

MARTIN VAN CREVELD

1

THE ECSTASY OF WAR

Different wars have led to different theories of why men fight them. The Napoleonic Wars, which bore along with them the rationalist spirit of the French Revolution, inspired the Prussian officer Carl von Clausewitz to propose that war itself is an entirely rational undertaking, unsullied by human emotion. War, in his famous aphorism, is merely a "continuation of policy ... by other means," with policy itself supposedly resulting from the same kind of clearheaded deliberation one might apply to a game of chess. Nation-states were the leading actors on the stage of history, and war was simply one of the many ways they advanced their interests against those of other nation-states. If you could accept the existence of this new super-person, the nation, a battle was no more disturbing and irrational than, say, a difficult trade negotiation—except perhaps to those who lay dying on the battlefield.

World War I, coming a century after Napoleon's sweep through Europe and northern Africa, led to an opposite assessment of the human impulse to war. World War I was hard to construe as in any way "rational," especially to that generation of Europeanintellectuals, including Sigmund Freud, who survived to ponder the unprecedented harvest of dead bodies. History textbooks tell us that the "Great War" grew out of the conflict between "competing imperialist states," but this Clausewitzian interpretation has little to do with the actual series of accidents, blunders, and miscommunications that impelled the nations of Europe to war in the summer of 1914. At first swept up in the excitement of the war, unable for weeks to work or think of anything else, Freud was eventually led to conclude that there is some dark flaw in the human psyche, a perverse desire to destroy, countering Eros and the will to live.

So these are, in crude summary, the theories of war which modern wars have left us with: That war is a means, however risky, by which men seek to advance their collective interests and improve their lives. Or, alternatively, that war stems from subrational drives not unlike those that lead individuals to commit violent crimes. In our own time, most people seem to hold both views at once, avowing that war is a gainful enterprise, intended to meet the material needs of the groups engaged in it, and, at the same time, that it fulfills deep and "irrational" psychological needs. There is no question about the first part of this proposition—that wars are designed, at least ostensibly, to secure necessaries like land or oil or "geopolitical advantage." The mystery lies in the peculiar psychological grip war exerts on us.

In the 1960s and '70s, the debate on the psychology of war centered on the notion of an "aggressive instinct," peculiar to all humans or only to human males. This is not the place to summarize that debate, with its endless examples of animal behavior and clashes over their applicability to human affairs. Here I would simply point out that, whether or not there is an aggressive instinct, there are reasons to reject it as the major wellspring of war.

Although it is true that aggressive impulses, up to and including murderous rage, can easily take over in the heat of actual battle, even this statement must be qualified to take account of different weaponry and modes of fighting. Hand-to-hand combat may indeed call forth and even require the emotions of rage and aggression, if only to mobilize the body for bursts of muscular activity. In the case of action-at-a-distance weapons, however, like guns and bows and arrows, emotionality of any sort can be a distinct disadvantage. Coolness, and the ability to keep aiming and firing steadfastly in the face of enemy fire, prevails. Hence, according to the distinguished American military historian Robert L. O'Connell, the change in the ideal warrior personality wrought by the advent of guns in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, from "ferocious aggressiveness" to "passive disdain." So there is no personality type—"hot-tempered," "macho," or whatever—consistently and universally associated with warfare.

Furthermore, fighting itself is only one component of the enterprise we know as war. Wars are not barroom brawls writ large, or domestic violence that has been somehow extended to strangers. In war, fighting takes place within battles—along with much anxious waiting, of course—but wars do not begin with battles and are often not decided by them either. Most of war consists of preparation for battle—training, the organization of supplies, marching and other forms of transport—activities which are hard to account for by innate promptings of any kind. There is no plausible instinct, for example, that impels a man to leave his home, cut his hair short, and drill for hours in tight formation. As anthropologists Clifton B. Kroeber and Bernard L. Fontana point out, "It is a large step from what may be biologically innate leanings toward individual aggression to ritualized, socially sanctioned, institutionalized group warfare."

War, in other words, is too complex and collective an activity to be accounted for by a single warlike instinct lurking within the individual psyche. Instinct may, or may not, inspire a man to bayonet the first enemy he encounters in battle. But instinct does not mobilize supply lines, manufacture rifles, issue uniforms, or move an army of thousands from point A on the map to B. These are "complicated, orchestrated, highly organized" activities, as social theorist Robin Fox writes, undertaken not by individuals but by entities on the scale of nations and dynasties. "The hypothesis of a killer instinct," according to a commentator summarizing a recent conference on the anthropology of war, is "not so much wrong as irrelevant."

In fact, throughout history, individual men have gone to near-suicidal lengths to avoid participating in wars—a fact that proponents of a warlike instinct tend to slight. Men have fled their homelands, served lengthy prison terms, hacked off limbs, shot off feet or index fingers, feigned illness or insanity, or, if they could afford to, paid surrogates to fight in their stead. "Some draw their teeth, some blind themselves, and others maim themselves, on their way to us," the governor of Egypt complained of his peasant recruits in the early nineteenth century. So unreliable was the rank and file of the eighteenth-century Prussian army that military manuals forbade camping near a woods or forest: The troops would simply melt away into the trees.

Proponents of a warlike instinct must also reckon with the fact that even when men have been assembled, willingly or unwillingly, for the purpose of war, fighting is not something that seems to come "naturally" to them. In fact, surprisingly, even in the thick of battle, few men can bring themselves to shoot directly at individual enemies. The difference between an ordinary man or boy and a reliable killer, as any drill sergeant could attest, is profound. A transformation is required: The man or boy leaves his former self behind and becomes something entirely different, perhaps even taking a new name. In small-scale, traditional societies, the change was usually accomplished through ritual drumming, dancing, fasting, and sexual abstinence—all of which serve to lift a man out of his mundane existence and into a new, warriorlike mode of being, denoted by special body paint, masks, and headdresses.

As if to emphasize the discontinuity between the warrior and the ordinary human being, many cultures require the would-be fighting man to leave his human-ness behind and assume a new form as an animal. The young Scandinavian had to become a bear before he could become an elite warrior, going "berserk" (the word means "dressed in a bear hide"), biting and chasing people. The Irish hero Cuchulain transformed himself into a monster in preparation for battle: "He became horrible, many-shaped, strange and unrecognizable," with one eye sucked into his skull and the other popping out of the side of the face. Apparently this transformation was a familiar and meaningful one, because similarly distorted faces turn up frequently in Celtic art.

Often the transformation is helped along with drugs or social pressure of various kinds. Tahitian warriors were browbeaten into fighting by functionaries called Rauti, or "exhorters," who ran around the battlefield urging their comrades to mimic "the devouring wild dog." The ancient Greek hoplites drank enough wine, apparently, to be quite tipsy when they went into battle; Aztecs drank pulque; Chinese troops at the time of Sun Tzu got into the mood by drinking wine and watching "gyrating sword dancers" perform. Almost any drug or intoxicant has served, in one setting or another, to facilitate the transformation of man into warrior. Yanomamo Indians of the Amazon ingest a hallucinogen before battle; the ancient Scythians smoked hemp, while a neighboring tribe drank something called "trauma," which is believed to have induced a frenzy of aggression. So if there is a destructive instinct that impels men to war, it is a weak one, and often requires a great deal of help.

In seventeenth-century Europe, the transformation of man into soldier took on a new form, more concerted and disciplined, and far less pleasant, than wine. New recruits and even seasoned veterans were endlessly drilled, hour after hour, until each man began to feel himself part of a single, giant fighting machine. The drill was only partially inspired by the technology of firearms. It's easy enough to teach a man to shoot a gun; the problem is to make him willing to get into situations where guns are being shot and to remain there long enough to do some shooting of his own. So modern military training aims at a transformation parallel to that achieved by "primitives" with war drums and paint: In the fanatical routines of boot camp, a man leaves behind his former identity and is reborn as a creature of the military—an automaton and also, ideally, a willing killer of other men.

This is not to suggest that killing is foreign to human nature or, more narrowly, to the male personality. Men (and women) have again and again proved themselves capable of killing impulsively and with gusto. But there is a huge difference between a war and an ordinary fight. War not only departs from the normal; it inverts all that is moral and right: In war one should kill, should steal, should burn cities and farms, should perhaps even rape matrons and little girls. Whether or not such activities are "natural" or at some level instinctual, most men undertake them only by entering what appears to be an "altered state"—induced by drugs or lengthy drilling, and denoted by face paint or khakis.

The point of such transformative rituals is not only to put men "in the mood." Returning warriors may go through equally challenging rituals before they can celebrate victory or reenter the community—covering their heads in apparent shame, for example; vomiting repeatedly; abstaining from sex. Among the Maori, returning warriors could not participate in the victory celebration until they had gone through a whaka-hoa ritual, designed to make them "common" again: The hearts of slain enemies were roasted, after which offerings were made to the war god Tu, and the rest was eaten by priests, who shouted spells to remove "the blood curse" and enable warriors to reenter their ordinary lives. Among the Taulipang Indians of South America, victorious warriors "sat on ants, flogged one another with whips, and passed a cord covered with poisonous ants, through their mouth and nose." Such painful and shocking postwar rites impress on the warrior that war is much more than a "continuation of policy ... by other means." In war men enter an alternative realm of human experience, as far removed from daily life as those things which we call "sacred."

The Religion of War

Not only warriors are privileged to undergo tile profound psychological transformation that separates peace from war. Whole societies may be swept up into a kind of "altered state" marked by emotional intensity and a fixation on totems representative of the collectivity: sacred images, implements, or, in our own time, yellow ribbons and flags. The onset of World War I, for example, inspired a veritable frenzy of enthusiasm among noncombatants and potential recruits alike, and it was not an enthusiasm for killing or loot or "imperialist expansion" but for something far more uplifting and worthy.

In Britain, the public had been overwhelmingly opposed to involvement until the moment war was declared, at which time screaming crowds poured into the streets and surrounded Buckingham Palace for days. In Berlin, the crowds poured out "as though a human river had burst its banks and flooded the world." In St. Petersburg a mob burned the furnishings of the German embassy while women ripped off their dresses and offered them to soldiers in the middle of a public square. When the United States entered the war, on April 6, 1917, the audience at the New York Metropolitan Opera House stood up and greeted tile announcement with "loud and long cheers."

Hardly anyone managed to maintain their composure in the face of the oncoming hostilities. Rainer Maria Rilke was moved to write a series of poems extolling war; Anatole France offered to enlist at age seventy; Isadora Duncan recalled being "all flame and fire" over the war. Socialists rallied to their various nations' flags, abandoning the "international working class" overnight. Many feminists, such as England's Isabella Pankhurst, set the struggle for suffrage aside for an equally militant jingoism, and contented themselves with organizing women to support the war effort. "The war is so horribly exciting hut I cannot live on it," one British suffragette wrote. "It is like being drunk all day." Even pacifists like the German novelist Stefan Zweig felt a temptation to put aside their scruples and join the great "awakening of the masses" prompted by war. In India, young Gandhi recruited his countrymen to join the British army; even Freud, as mentioned above, briefly lost perspective, "giving all his libido to Austria-Hungary."

But Freud failed to reflect on his own enthusiasm; otherwise he would never have hypothesized that men are driven to war by some cruel and murderous instinct. The emotions that overwhelmed Europe in 1914 had little to do with rage or hatred or greed. Rather, they were among the "noblest" feelings humans are fortunate enough to experience: feelings of generosity, community, and submergence in a great and worthy cause. There was little difference, in fact, between the fervor that greeted the war and the emotional underpinnings of the socialist movement, which promised land (or bread) and peace. As historian Albert O. Hirschman has written:

[For] important sectors of the middle and upper classes ... the war came as a release from boredom and emptiness, as a promise of the longed-for community that would transcend social class.

Just after the war, the American psychologist G. E. Partridge observed that the mood of war had been, above all—and despite the wars acknowledged horrors—one of "ecstasy." Drawing on the work of early-twentieth-century German psychologists, he enumerated, in a way that can now only seem quaint, the various "ecstasies" associated with war: that of heroism, of "taking part in great events," or of victory ("Siegestrunkenheit"); the "joy of overcoming the pain of death"; and, summing up all the other ecstasies, the "social intoxication, the feeling on the part of the individual of being a part of a body and the sense of being lost in a greater whole." The thrill of being part of a vast crowd, of abandoning ordinary responsibilities in order to run out into the streets, of witnessing such "great events" as declarations of war: This was "ecstasy" enough for the millions who would never see actual combat.

It was the sense of self-loss, Partridge opined, of merger into some "greater whole," which showed that war was an attempt to meet the same psychological needs otherwise fulfilled by "love, religion, intoxication, art." A historian of our own time, Roland Stromberg, would agree, writing of the men who volunteered to fight in World War I:

Doubtless they found hell, but they did not go seeking it; rather than an itch to kill, hurt, or torture their fellow men, as Freud claimed, they felt something much more akin to love.

The mass feelings inspired by war, many noted right after World War I, are eerily similar to those normally aroused by religion. Arnold J. Toynbee, the British historian, had been caught up in World War I like most of his peers, and produced several volumes of "atrocity propaganda" as his contribution to the war effort. Later, repenting for that brief burst of militarism, he argued that war had in fact become a religion, moving in to fill the gap left as the traditional forms of worship lost their power over people. "Man," he wrote, requires "spiritual sustenance," and if man was now less inclined to find it in a church, he would find it in the secular state and express it as a militant nationalism in which "the glorification of War [is] a fundamental article of faith."

To say that war may be, in an emotional sense, a close relative of religion is not to pass moral judgment on either of these ancient institutions. We are dealing with a very basic level of human emotional experience, which can be approached just as well at, say, a labor rally as at a nationalist gathering or a huge outdoor mass. Coming together in a large crowd united by some common purpose, people feel a surge of collective strength, and they may project this sense of power onto God, the Nation, or the People. El pueblo unido, goes the left-wing chant,jamas sera vencido (The people united cannot be defeated). As the nineteenth-century theorist of crowd psychology, Gustave Le Bon, observed, somewhat haughtily:

In crowds the foolish, ignorant, and envious persons are freed from the sense of their insignificance and powerlessness, and are possessed instead by the notion of brutal and temporary but immense strength.

Individually we are weak, but with God, or through "the fatherland" or "the working class," we become something larger than ourselves—something indomitable and strong. Even those of us who will never experience battle, or for that matter, God, can know the thrill of being swept along with a huge and purposeful crowd.

This is one of humankind's great natural "highs," and is, perhaps paradoxically, as likely to be experienced at an anti-war demonstration as at a pro-war rally. But it is a high that can be most reliably experienced in contemplation of an enemy—the "Viet Cong" or, for that matter, the military-industrial complex—which both excites our adrenaline and serves to unite us. All "minor" differences (as, for example, of class) disappear when compared to the vast differences (construed as moral, cultural, and sometimes racial) that supposedly separate us from the "jerries," the Communists, the Arabs, or the Jews.

Through the mass rally or the spontaneous gathering in the streets, large numbers of people can experience something analogous to the transformation that makes a man into a warrior. Just as the ancient warrior fasted, took drugs, danced all night, and even became a monster, the crowd, too, leaves mundane things behind and transmutes itself into a new kind of being, larger than the sum of its parts, more powerful than any single individual. Consider the British psychologist Roger E. Money-Kyrle's eyewitness description of a Hitler rally:

The people seemed gradually to lose their individuality and become fused into a not very intelligent but immensely powerful monster, which was not quite sane and therefore capable of anything. Moreover, it was an elementary monster ... with no judgment and few, but very violent, passions.... [W]e heard for ten minutes about the growth of the Nazi Party, and how from small beginnings it had now become an overpowering force. The monster became self-conscious of its size and intoxicated by the belief in its own omnipotence.

But there is more to the "religion" of war than the thrill of the mass rally or of the battle itself. In between wars, there are ample reminders of the collective high induced by the threat or actuality of war. The tribal war chieftain had his collection of skulls or similar trophies to contemplate in times of peace; the ancient emperor had his stelae commemorating victories, his temples to Mars or Minerva. In the modern European world, according to historian George Mosse, war cemeteries and monuments serve as the "sacred spaces of a new civil religion" lovingly tended and solemnly redecorated year after year. The grave of the "unknown soldier" is an especially stirring reminder of the moral transcendency of war: In war the individual may be entirely obliterated for the higher cause, made nameless as well as dead. Yet even in this abject condition, he, or at least some remnant of the "glory" associated with his passing, lives on forever, symbolized by a perpetual flame.

By the twentieth century, war, and the readiness for war which is so much a part of nationalism, had become the force unifying states and offering individuals a sense of transcendent purposefulness. Today, even in peacetime, the religious side of war is everywhere manifest. No important state function can go forward without the accompaniment of drumrolls and soldiers at attention. The inauguration of presidents, the coronation of monarchs, the celebration of national holidays—these events require everywhere the presence of the soldier as a "ceremonial appurtenance." Where there are no true soldiers, exclusively ceremonial ones may be maintained: Even the Vatican—which, one might imagine, needs no further embellishment with quasi-religious pompery—has its Swiss Guard.

The word "sacrifice" summed up the religious passion of war for generations of Europeans and Americans. In the rhetoric of religious militarism, killing the enemy was almost an incidental outcome of war compared to making "the supreme sacrifice" of one's own life. Dying in war was not a mishap inflicted on the unfortunate, but the point, almost, of the whole undertaking. "Happiness," the German poet Theodor Korner declared at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, "lies only in sacrificial death." Mosse has commented on the extensive "cooptation of Christian symbolism and ritual to sanctify the life and death of the soldier" in World War I. The war was compared to the Last Supper, the soldier's death to the martyrdom of Christ—in, for example, postcards showing angels hovering over handsome, contented-looking, and apparently unwounded corpses.

Not all Europeans, at all times, have seen war as an occasion for a beautiful, sacrificial death, of course, but the notion is a widespread one and not only among urban, industrialized cultures. In his ground-breaking study of "primitive" war, the American anthropologist Harry Turney-High offered numerous examples of similar sacrificial fervor among tribal peoples. He reports dryly that on Mangaia, for example, in Polynesia,

[the] high-born, noble Tiora did not shrink when informed by the war priests that their god demanded his sacrificial death at the enemy's hands. He went against the foe alone and they obligingly killed him, unaware that his immolation was intended to accomplish their own defeat.

Caesar reported that the Aquitanians had an elite society of fighters called solidurii, or "bound-by-duty," who were sworn to share one another's deaths in battle or else to kill themselves. There were similar "no retreat" societies among North American Indian tribes. A Crow could "vow his body to the enemy," which meant he was prepared to die in an attack against hopeless odds.

Self-sacrifice is perhaps the least "rational" of all human undertakings. Anthropologists may debate whether it is rational, in a self-serving sense, to fight for land or women or to avenge some wrong. But there is no straightforward biological calculation that could lead a man to kill himself, like one of the solidurii, or to die—possibly unwed and childless, like the Crow warrior—because he has sworn a vow. "At bottom, the reason why fighting can never be a question of interest," the military theorist Martin van Creveld writes, "is—to put it bluntly—that dead men have no interests."

A cynic might dismiss the religiosity of war as a mystification of its mundane, ignoble aims, all the rhetoric of "sacrifice" and "glory" serving only to delude and perhaps intoxicate otherwise unwilling participants. At some level, the cynic would be right: The results of war—the burned villages, bombed cities, sobbing orphans and captives—are the same whether the war was undertaken in the noble spirit of self-sacrifice or was driven by less worthy motives, like vengeance or greed. Thus most scholars have no doubt felt themselves justified in slighting the high-flown rhetoric and rituals of war to concentrate on its technology and impact. Of all the volumes on war listed in the bibliography of this book, only a half-dozen at most concern themselves directly with the passions that have made war, to so many of its participants, a profoundly religious undertaking.

But there are at least two reasons to take seriously the religious dimension of war. First, because it is the religiosity of war, above all, which makes it so impervious to moral rebuke. For millennia, and long before the Enlightenment or even the teachings of Jesus, people have understood that war inverts all normal morality; that it is, by any sane standard, a criminal undertaking. Buddhism, arising in the fifth century B.C., condemned war, and one of the most bluntly reasoned anti-war arguments ever made comes to us from the Chinese philosopher Mo Ti in the fourth century B.C.:

When one man kills another man it is considered unrighteous and he is punished by death. Then by the same sign when a man kills ten others, his crime will be ten times greater, and should be punished by death ten times.... Similarly if a small crime is considered crime, but a big crime such as attacking another country is applauded as a righteous act, can this be said to be knowing the difference between righteousness and unrighteousness?

But war, as Mo Ti must have realized, enlists passions which feel as "righteous" to those who experience them as any of the arguments against it.

The other reason to study the religiosity of war is for what it has to say about us as a species, about "human nature," if you will, and the cliched "problem of evil." Other creatures, including our near relatives the chimpanzees, have also been known to kill their own kind with systematic zeal; certain species of ants even do so on a scale and with a tactical ingenuity fully deserving of the label "war." But of course no other species exhibits behavior we recognize as "religious," and none can be said to bring exalted passions to their acts of intra-species violence.

So, we might well ask of ourselves: What is it about our species that has made us see in war a kind of sacrament? Not all wars, of course, have excited the kind of passion aroused by World War I. But does the fact that humans can and often do sacralize the act of killing mean that we are more vicious than any other creature? Or is it the other way around, with our need to sacralize the act of killing proving that we are, deep down, ultimately moral creatures? Which are we: beasts because we make war, or angels because we so often seek to make it into something holy?

A psychologist might offer one sort of answer, based on the anxieties that seem built into the individual life cycle, hut here I am interested in another kind of answer, drawn from efforts to reconstruct our collective biography as a species, our history and prehistory. Since the search for prehistoric "origins" has become distinctly unfashionable among contemporary anthropologists, I should explain, first, that the kind of origin I seek is not a hypothetical event, or "just-so" story, like the mythical rebellion, in Freud's Totem and Taboo, of the "primal horde" against its patriarchal leader. "Antecedent" may be a better word for what we are after here: Hunting is an antecedent of war, almost certainly predating it and providing it with many valuable techniques; here we seek a similarly long-standing antecedent to the sacralization of war.

Second, it should be acknowledged at the outset that to know the origin of something is not, of course, to know why it persists or plays itself out, over and over. But in the case of repetitive, seemingly compulsive patterns of behavior, the first step to freedom may be to know how it all got started. Like a psychologist facing an individual patient, we need to uncover the original trauma.

We begin, in the next chapter, with the most clear-cut case of sacralized violence that human cultures have to offer: religious rituals of blood sacrifice. Even in times of peace, the religions of many traditional cultures were hardly aloof from the business of violence. In fact, their rituals have very often centered on the act of killing, either mimed or literally enacted, of humans or animals. As Rene Girard emphasized in his classic Violence and the Sacred, violence was, well into the historical era, at the very core of what humans define as sacred, and the first question we will address is why.

In the conventional account of human origins, everything about human violence is explained as a result of our species' long prehistoric sojourn as hunters of animals. It is the taste for meat and the willingness to kill for it that supposedly distinguish us from other primates, making us both smart and cruel, sociable and domineering, eager for the kill and capable of sharing it. We are, in other words, a species of predators—"natural born killers" who carried the habit of fighting over into the era of herding and farming. With the Neolithic revolution, wild ungulates were replaced as prey by the animals in other people's herds or the grain stored in other villages' fortresses; and the name for this new form of "hunting" was war. In this account, the sacralization of war arises only because the old form of hunting, and probably also the sharing of meat, had somehow been construed as sacred for eons before.

No doubt much of "human nature" was indeed laid down during the 2 1/2 million years or so when Homo lived in small bands and depended on wild animals and plants for food. But it is my contention that our peculiar and ambivalent relationship to violence is rooted in a primordial experience that we have managed, as a species, to almost entirely repress. And this is the experience, not of hunting, but of being preyed on by animals that were initially far more skillful hunters than ourselves. In particular, the sacralization of war is not the project of a self-confident predator, I will argue, but that of a creature which has learned only "recently," in the last thousand or so generations, not to cower at every sound in the night.

Rituals of blood sacrifice both celebrate and terrifyingly reenact the human transition from prey to predator, and so, I will argue, does war. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of wars that are undertaken for the stated purpose of initiating young men into the male warrior-predator role—a not uncommon occurrence in traditional cultures. But more important, the anxiety and ultimate thrill of the prey-to-predator transition color the feelings we bring to all wars, and infuse them, at least for some of the participants, some of the time, with feelings powerful and uplifting enough to he experienced as "religious."

Having made that case—convincingly, I hope—in the first half of this book, Part II will consider the sacralization of war in historical times, and its evolution from an elite religion observed by a privileged warrior caste to the mass religion we know today primarily as nationalism. It is in our own thoroughly "modern" time, we will see, that the rituals and passions of war most clearly recall the primitive theme of resistance to a nonhuman threat.

AMERICAN NOMAD
Pop visions, restless politics and apocalyptic memories at the end of the millenium


By STEVE ERICKSON

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1997 Steve Erickson. All rights reserved.
TAILER

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Foreword 1
Part I: Predation
1. The Ecstasy of War 7
2. Sacred Meat 23
3. The True Mark of the Beast 36
4. The First Blood Sacrifice 58
5. The Rebellion Against the Beast 77
6. When the Predator Had a Woman's Face 97
Part II: War
7. "A Rough Male Sport" 117
8. Fearful Symmetries 132
9. The Warrior Elite 144
10. The Sacralization of War 159
11. Guns and the Democratization of Glory 175
12. An Imagined Bestiary 194
13. Three Cases of War Worship 204
14. The Further Evolution of War in the Twentieth Century 225
Notes 243
Bibliography 267
Index 281
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