The Other Side of the Coin

The classicist Walter Burkert has argued that all cultures start in blood — the binding guilt of shared murder, periodically reenacted in ritual sacrifice. This is the kind of generalization that seems made to be refuted, and certainly one would like to be able to do so; but the identification of blood sacrifice with the sacred, to which the words themselves bear witness, is widespread enough to give Burkert’s theory an uncomfortable persuasiveness.

Most of today’s religions have allegorized or euphemized the killings that they used to offer up to their deities, though Moslems sacrifice a goat or sheep on Hajj and often at home on Eid al-Adha, a handful of surviving Samaritans continue to kill and eat a Paschal lamb each Passover, and Orthodox Jews still pray that the Temple service of constant ritual slaughter will be restored “speedily and in our days.” But what happens to these blood-forged ties once the wreathed rams and bulls are no longer brought to the alters of Olympus and after the mystical reenactment of Jesus’ sacrifice at mass elicits little in the way of transformative terror and guilt?

Perhaps we have relocated the ritual instead of abolishing it. We are reasonable, kind-hearted, and modern folk, so we evicted blood lust and blood guilt from our mosques, synagogues, and churches and turned it over to specialists. It has become the province of the military.

The military, in turn, has acquired the charisma of the sacred. This would explain the otherwise mysterious idealization of the American armed forces. No matter how impoverished or uneducated the pool of recruits, regardless of the fact that many join up in the desperate hope of escaping economic or social dead ends, our soldiers are now referred to as the finest citizens that the United States produces, the best our country can offer. They are heroes one and all, the occasional bad apple aside, of course — the kind of public relations cant that was much harder to take seriously in the days of the citizen army and Sergeant Bilko. Invasions and occupations are “missions,” it being impolitic to refer to them right now as “crusades.”

And the cult of the warrior, like any other religious cult, changes the character of public life. Institutional religions have always tended to create two tiers of religious life: the virtuosi,  actively engaged with the sacred, and the common folk, whose personal involvement slowly dwindles until it becomes the bare obligation to support the experts. Thus we have monks and laity or yeshiva-bochers and their supportive wives. This, too, can be found in today’s worship of the military. The army, Kipling’s thin red line, are the virtuosi of death, a band of brothers linked in sacred loyalty by their common task of killing and dying on behalf of the rest of us. Our social and political lives then shrink in proportion until nothing is left but the bare obligation to Support Our Troops. Any attempt at building human ties apart from that empty uniformity is as welcome as heresy was to mediaeval Rome.

We are now spared the sight of Apollo’s victim-to-be as they were led — dragged, more likely — to the altar, and we don’t have to face the far greater horrors that made up the religious and military business of the Aztecs. But as our sacred killing is professionalized, commercialized, yoked to the interests of capital and then exported, the home life that our heroes have sworn to protect fades into nothingness.

The cavernous emptiness of contemporary life, the hollowness of public discourse, the dread of experience itself, may all be just one side of a coin. On the other side is endless war, the highest calling of America’s best and brightest.

Michael Steinberg is the author of The Fiction of a Thinkable World: Body, Meaning, and the Culture of Capitalism published this year by Monthly Review Press and essays in professional journals in history, music, and law. He and his wife Loret, a photographer and professor of documentary photography, live in Rochester, New York, under the supervision of two domestic medium-hair cats. He will give a reading from his book on Thursday, October 6, 2005, at Robin’s Book Store (108 South 13th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107 — Tel: 215-735-9600).