All War is Holy War

holy war

According to one anthropologist,[1] the Yanomami Amazonian tribe lives in a “chronic state of war”:  violence against outsiders and members alike is a normal way of life. Their culture is the exception — most require a shift from peacetime to wartime culture in order for maiming and murdering to be acceptable. The shift begins with a cause to rally around:

“It is hard, maybe impossible, to fight a war if the cause is viewed as bankrupt. The sanctity of the cause is crucial to the war effort.”

War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges (2002).[2]

Most cultures are governed by some version of “Thou shalt not kill,” but God and the gods are not so constrained — they can and do kill, and direct their followers to do so. Therefore, to justify the mayhem, the state must become religious, and its cause must be sacred.

“War celebrates only power — and we come to believe in wartime that it is the only real form of power. It preys on our most primal and savage impulses. It allows us  to do what peacetime society forbids or restrains us from doing:  It allows us to kill.”

In wartime, the state is anointed with the requisite elements of religious culture:  dogmas and orthodox language; rites of initiation and passage; songs, symbols, metaphors, and icons; customs and laws to honor heroes, demonize foes, discipline skeptics, and punish nonbelievers.

“Because we in modern society have walked away from institutions that stand outside the state to find moral guidance and spiritual direction, we turn to the state in times of war.

“We believe in the nobility and self-sacrifice demanded by war… We discover in the communal struggle, the shared sense of meaning and purpose, a cause. War fills our spiritual void.”

Religious anointing reverses the secular aversion to killing and death:

“War finds its meaning in death.

“The cause is built on the backs of victims, portrayed always as innocent. Indeed, most conflicts are ignited with martyrs, whether real or created. The death of an innocent, one who is perceived as emblematic of the nation or the group under attack, becomes the initial rallying point for war. These dead become the standard bearers of the cause and all causes feed off the steady supply of corpses.

“The cause, sanctified by the dead, cannot be questioned without dishonoring those who gave up their lives. We become enmeshed in the imposed language.

“There is a constant act of remembering and honoring the fallen during war. These ceremonies sanctify the cause.

The first death is the most essential:

“Elias Canetti [winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981] wrote, “it is the first death which infects everyone with the feeling of being threatened. It is impossible to overrate the part played  by the first dead man in the kindling of war. Rulers who want to unleash war know very well that they must procure or invent a first victim. It need not be anyone of particular importance, and can even be someone quite unknown. Nothing matters except his death, and it must be believed that the enemy is responsible for this. Every possible cause of his death is suppressed except one:  his membership of the group to which one belongs oneself.”

Dissent has no place in the culture of war. The nation’s institutions and citizens are expected to speak the language of war, which frames and limits public discourse.

“The adoption of the cause means adoption of the language of the cause.

“The state spends tremendous time protecting, explaining, and promoting the cause. And some of the most important cheerleaders of the cause are the reporters. This is true in nearly every war. During the Gulf War, as in the weeks after the September attacks, communities gathered for vigils and worship services. The enterprise of the state became imbued with a religious aura. We, even those in the press, spoke in the collective.

“The official jargon obscures the game of war — the hunters and the hunted. We accept terms imposed on us by the state — for example, the “war on terror” — and these terms set the narrow parameters by which we are able to think and discuss.”

Exaltation of the nation, faith in the cause, honoring of the dead, and conformity to the language of war make doubt and dissent damnable:

“When we speak within the confines of this language we give up our linguistic capacity to question and make moral choices.

“The cause is unassailable, wrapped in the mystery reserved for the divine. Those who attempt to expose the fabrications and to unwrap the contradictions of the cause are left isolated and reviled.

“The state and the institutions of state become, for many, the center of worship in wartime. To expose the holes in the myth is to court excommunication.

“When any contradiction is raised or there is a sense that the cause is not just in an absolute sense, the doubts are attacked as apostasy.”

In war, the state shares dominion with the gods. When war ends, the state’s leaders, intoxicated with power, may not release war’s grip on the culture:

“There is a danger of a growing fusion between those in the state who wage war — both for and against modern states — and those who believe they understand and can act as agents of God.

“The moral certitude of the state in wartime is a kind of fundamentalism… And this dangerous messianic brand of religion, one where self-doubt is minimal, has come increasingly to color the modern world of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.”

For the state to revert to peacetime culture, the moral shift that supported war must be reversed by both civilians and soldiers. This requires a harrowing withdrawal from addiction to wartime culture. We’ll talk about that next time.

[1] Napoleon Alphonseau Chagnon,

[2] All quotes in this article are from Chris Hedges’ book.

Marching to Pretoria

Marching to Pretoria  marching to Pretoria Smothers Brothers

I remember hearing it as a kid:  “Marching to Pretoria” – a jaunty, bouncy, up-tempo folk song. Something to get your feet going. The Weavers made it famous, the Smothers Brothers made it a comedy routine.

marching to pretoria - soldiers

The British soldiers sang it on their way to the Boer Wars in South Africa. There were two of them:  1880-1881 and 1899-1902. Together they erased 75,000 human lives — soldiers and civilians, men, women, and children —  given to battle deaths, disease, and the gruesome vanishing of concentration camps.

If you’re going to war, you give the crowd something to high-step about — ditties to sing as the boys step smartly by. But it’s way more than just a party, it’s a sacred ritual. It has to be:   war is a sacred time and space where humans get to act like the gods and ignore their own laws and moral sensibilities. In order to enter that holy other, the nation going to war must first be consecrated with the blood that will be shed, so that the combatants may commit and be victimized by the kind of murderous brutality that is not just illegal but unthinkable in ordinary reality, and so that those who stay home will be absolved of complicity.

“We call on the warrior to exemplify the qualities necessary to prosecute war — courage, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. The soldier, neglected and even shunned during peacetime, is suddenly held up as the exemplar of our highest ideals, the savior of the state. The soldier is often whom we want to become, although secretly many of us, including most soldiers, know that we can never match the ideal held out before us.

“But war is a god, as the ancient Greeks and Romans knew, and its worship demands human sacrifice. We urge young men to war, making the slaughter they are asked to carry out a rite of passage. And this rite has changed little over the centuries.”

This, and all other quotes in this post, are from War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges (2002) from

We must have the parades and catchy ditties, the rhetoric of outrage and inflammatory headlines, so that we may enter the ecstatic state where we embrace the Myths of War, which give us the clarity and conviction that we are the good guys and they are the bad, our cause is just and theirs is not, and God is on our side and not on theirs.

“Armed movements seek divine sanction and the messianic certitude of absolute truth. They do not need to get this from religions, as we usually think of religion, but a type of religion:  Patriotism provides the blessing.

“Patriotism, often a thinly veiled form of collective self-worship, celebrates our goodness, our ideals, our mercy and bemoans the perfidiousness of those who hate us. …

“Soldiers want at least the consolation of knowing that they risk being blown up by land mines for a greater glory, for a New World. Dimensions, questioning of purpose, the exposure of war crimes carried out by those fighting on our behalf are dangerous to such beliefs. Dissidents who challenge the goodness of our cause, who question the gods of war, who pull back the curtains to expose the lie are usually silenced or ignored.

“We speak of those we fight only in the abstract; we strip them of their human qualities. It is a familiar linguistic corruption.

“The goal of such nationalistic rhetoric is to invoke pity for one’s own. The goal is to show the community that what they hold sacred is under threat. The enemy, we are told, seeks to destroy religious and cultural life, the very identity of the group or state. Nationalistic songs, epic poems, twisted accounts of history take the place of scholarship and art.

“Once we sign on for war’s crusade, once we see ourselves on the side of the angels, once we embrace a theological or ideological belief system that defines itself as the embodiment of goodness and light, it is only a matter of how we will carry out murder.”

And then, once war is executed, we will mourn our own, but not theirs.

“War is not a uniform experience or event … war usually demands, by its very logic, the disabling of the enemy, often broadly defined to include civilians… While we venerate and mourn our own dead we are curiously indifferent about those we kill. Thus killing is done in our name, killing that concerns us little, while those who kill our own are seen as having crawled out of the deepest recesses of the earth, lacking our own humanity and goodness. Our dead. Their dead. They are not the same. Our dead matter, theirs do not.

Lastly, we will perpetuate the Myths of War, so we may do it again.

“And we all become like Nestor in The Iliad, reciting the litany of fallen heroes that went before to spur on a new generation. That the myths are lies, that those wo went before us were no more able to match the ideal than we are, is carefully hidden from public view. The tension between those who know combat, and thus know the public lie, and those who propagate the myth, usually ends with the mythmakers working to silence the witnesses to war.”

All this, to numb ourselves against the very real possibility that Johnny may not in fact come marching home again.

when johnny comes rolling home