Although far removed from the ancient reality of sacrifice, the modern idea of a soldier’s sacrifice for his or her country can be a beautiful testament to courage, self-denial, and love of others. However, like everything in this world, it can also be turned to darker purposes. In particular, the rhetoric of sacrifice can be used to glorify war and thus justify the gruesome cost of political decisions.
An example of this is found in a scene from the sci-fi series The Expanse, season 3, episode 3 (“Assured Destruction”). In the lead up to this scene, the planetary governments of Earth and Mars are caught in a rapidly escalating spiral of violence. The leader of Earth—U.N. Secretary-General Esteban Sorrento-Gillis—is being urged by some of his advisors to launch a preemptive strike against Mars, while others warn him that this might backfire and prompt Mars to retaliate with a devastating attack on Earth.
While his mind is in the grips of this dilemma, Sorrento-Gillis leaves the war room and goes to his office to consult with Anna Volovodov, a friend who advised him during the early days of his political career. Although she long ago left politics to pursue a career of helping others as a Methodist pastor, he has called her in to help with communications strategy in the midst of this crisis. He trusts her and values her spiritual perspective and ability to speak frankly to him.
Volovodov shows the Secretary-General a speech she has been drafting for him, which is unrelated to the momentous decision he now faces (she is unaware of the proposed preemptive strike). He glances at it, offering some weak praise, but in his present state of preoccupation, his focus is elsewhere. As his mind revolves around his grave dilemma, he suggests changing the theme of the speech completely:
Sorrento-Gillis: “What if, instead, the focus was on defying fear?”
Volovodov: “Defying fear?”
Sorrento-Gillis: “We are witnessing the greatest event in human history [i.e., mankind’s first alien encounter, which recently occurred]. We should feel something other than fear—of it, of each other, of the difficult choices we sometimes have to make.”
Volovodov: “You mean the choices you have to make.”
Sorrento-Gillis: “Yes. The necessity of hard choices, of sacrifice.”
The Secretary-General’s mind is taken up with the risk of large-scale death and destruction possible if he makes the wrong decision about the proposed preemptive strike. He is consumed with fear, and without revealing the secret plans, he seeks comfort and guidance from his spiritual advisor, by means of this pretense of proposing a speech to address the fears of the public. Grasping for some sense of justification, he brings forward the idea of sacrifice, which (as we’ve seen in prior posts) is the modern universal tool for rationalizing loss and violence. He is attempting to sublimate his political and military calculations into a kind of secular piety by reframing them in terms of sacrifice. However, the pastor will have none of it:
Volovodov: “Sacrifice literally means ‘to make sacred.’ Do you think that’s what’s going on here?”
Sorrento-Gillis: “Yes. Sacred losses.”
Volovodov: “You’re carrying a burden; I’m not going to lighten it for you. Maybe this war was inevitable; maybe there was no way to avoid it; but you want it to be holy, and it’s not. . . . How many sacrifices can you stomach and still tell yourself you’re doing God’s work? A hundred? A million? A billion?”
As Volovodov makes clear, the religious language of sacrifice is being used by the Secretary-General to glorify wartime death and destruction. This reflects a common way modern people justify military casualties, and it is a specifically modern way of speaking, having no real connection to the ancient reality of sacrifice. Calling wartime deaths sacrifices seems to have begun only in the eighteenth century, having grown out of the Reformation-era reinterpretation of sacrifices as acts of violence. Since then it quickly gained currency.
This sacrificial notion of war reached fever pitch in the writings of Joseph de Maistre, a nineteenth-century political philosopher, who wrote:
The earth cries out and asks for blood . . . Thus is carried out without cease, from maggot to man, the great law of violent destruction of living things. The entire world, continuously saturated with blood, is nothing but an immense altar where all that lives must be slaughtered without end, without measure, without slackening, until the devouring of all things, until the extinction of evil, until the death of death . . . War is therefore divine, in and of itself because it is a law of the world . . . War is divine in the mysterious glory which surrounds it, and in the no less inexplicable attraction which draws us to it.1
Although Maistre was a radical and early example of this line of thought, the rest of the Western world was not too far behind him. Sacrifice was part of a romantic idolization of war throughout Europe, which came to a disastrous climax as nations rushed headlong into the First World War (1914–19). On the eve of that war, in 1908, the idea of sacrifice was proclaimed by General Lucien Cardot (an influential teacher at the French national war college) to be the essential means of motivating men to fight: “We must find the means to lead the people to the death; otherwise, no war will be possible; this means is familiar to me; it lies in the spirit of sacrifice, and nowhere else.”2 Throughout the Great War that followed, sacrifice was preached on both sides by clergy, politicians, and others as they urged men to charge starry-eyed into the fray.3
That war’s disastrous outcome—tens of millions dead or maimed—would seem to have discredited such idealism, but the idea of patriotic sacrifice rose again to fuel the Second World War. Even the similarly futile outcome of the Vietnam War couldn’t completely silence the rhetoric of wartime sacrifice. Despite the carnage of all these twentieth-century wars, sacrificial rhetoric continues to be used to justify and promote war, if only as an echo of its former boisterousness.
It is one thing for a soldier to understand his own service as a sacrifice of love for his country or people; it is another for others to urge this mentality on soldiers and citizens for their own purposes. The latter is an example of using sacrifice to selfishly justify harm to others, a phenomenon we observed in a previous post. Doing so reminds me of a similarly cynical statement in the movie Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa: “Men, there is no sacrifice greater than someone else’s.” Although this comment brings a laugh in the movie, the wartime equivalent is unspeakably evil. Cynically manipulating others to rush to their deaths is truly heartless.
However, an even more serious problem is the shadow this rhetoric casts on the true sacrifice of Christ. In the Christian (or post-Christian) West, declaring death in battle to be a sacrifice necessarily links it to Christ’s archetypical sacrifice. It does so in order to co-opt the righteousness and glory of His Cross to justify war, but it instead tarnishes the Cross with the gruesomeness and futility of the actual experience of war. This is, perhaps, why church attendance and religious conviction plummeted in Europe after the First World War. The rhetorical ploy backfired and pulled churches down with it.
There is a lesson for us here. We must be careful how we speak of sacrifice, presenting it in the true, biblical light. Using this word lightly or, worse, manipulatively, risks undermining the gospel and driving people away from salvation in Christ.
1 Les soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg, ou entretiens sur le gouvernement temporel de la providence, vol. 2, trans. in Wolfgang Palaver, “Sacrificial Cults as ‘the Mysterious Centre of Every Religion’: A Girardian Assessment of Aby Warburg’s Theory of Religion,” in Julia Meszaros and Johannes Zachhuber, eds., Sacrifice and Modern Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 84.
2 Hérésies et apostasies militaires de notre temps, trans. in Daniel Rosenberg, “Joseph de Maistre on War and Peace: Ritual and Realism,” The Philosophical Journal of Conflict and Violence 3, no. 2 (2019): 47–48. https://trivent-publishing.eu/img/cms/3-%20Daniel%20Rosenberg_OA.pdf.
3 See Patrick Porter, “Slaughter or sacrifice? The religious rhetoric of blood sacrifice in the British and German armies, 1914–1919” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Oxford, 2005), https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:bb102bb6-adc8-436f-aec8-7a5513a565db.