Responding to the Soldier as Sacrficial Victim
To begin, it is important to understand humans comprehend the world by breaking information down into manageable pieces. We do not think outside of “the box.” Instead, we draw our own boxes and those boxes are universally valid when we can use them to communicate our thinking. The sacrificial ritual model discussed in Richard Koenigsberg’s, “The Soldier as sacrificial victim” is one box, or frame, that can be useful.
Unfortunately, simply looking at war as a sacrificial ritual offers readers little in terms of applicable insights due partly to the culturally specific, symbolic nature of the underlying psychoanalysis used to explain the model. As such, it is probably more useful to interpret the sacrificial nature of war in terms of conflicts of interests and motivation.
Wars occur when two or more social groups have conflicting interests and cannot resolve those conflicts through nonviolent means. In that sense, wars are external conflicts where “foreign” soldiers are killed versus willing victims sacrificed by their societies as Koenigsberg argues. At the same time, wars also serve as rallying points for group unity; therefore, those willing to sacrifice themselves for the perceived interests of the group are glorified.
As such, war can serve as a sacrificial ritual when national leaders use war to achieve their goals of unifying their people and solidifying their power, i.e. Koenigsberg’s argument then becomes valid. Instead of ritualistic sacrifice stemming from an inherent social or individual need for violence as Koenigsberg suggests, however, ritualistic sacrifice is a consequence of society/leadership pursuing its interests or leaders using the practice to manipulate the masses.
The seemingly senseless loss of life due to faulted military tactics in pre-World War II conflicts, as an example discussed in the Koenigsberg paper, is better understand as a failure to consider the interests of the troops. Society, i.e. people en mass, has certain interests (wants and needs) that it will seek to fulfill while those at the top of society, i.e. the powerful, have their own interests that they will seek to fulfill.
When the interests of the powerful are misaligned with the interests of society, conflicts occur. In order to avoid conflict, the powerful will often distort what the actual interests of society are, so the interests of the powerful will be served. In doing so, the powerful can neglect the interests of the masses, but avoid conflict by manipulating those whose real, versus perceived, interests have been neglected.
Furthermore, duty, honor, and nobility are examples of deeply rooted emotions, which can be used as social control mechanisms that enable the powerful to serve their interests at the expense of the less prominent. In the case of war, leaders seek what they perceive to be the interests of the state then convince their troops to serve those interests, whether or not those interests are trivial and cost the troops dearly.
The underlying reason why British soldiers in wars before WWII were trained to throw themselves into a battlefield, which more often than not resulted in massive causalities, hinges on the fact that this is how military commanders believed wars were won. Before guns, this was more or less true, but the world views of military leaders were not updated until later wars when easily reloaded guns resulted in far too many casualties, thus the interests of the troops could no longer be ignored.
What I would argue happened from the preWWI and WWII eras into the modern day era is that leaders began to do far more to take the interests of their troops into consideration. The monarchs of old Europe would start wars over the most insignificant, trivial matters, including personal tiffs; whereas, modern governments must offer convincing justifications for war and consider the interests of those fighting the wars, i.e. the brutality of war must be calculated when deciding to go to war.
Understanding the sacrificial nature of war, however, hinges on an observer’s ability to understand the reasons individuals are willing to become sacrificial victims. The motivation behind any individual’s actions can be framed in terms of economical, i.e. the pursuit of self-interests, emotional, and social incentives; therefore, the motivations behind an individual’s willingness to become a sacrificial victim can be better understood through the use of these three frames.
In all cultures, troops receive financial compensation and/or special accommodations for their service. Where most modern governments pay their military personnel, countries lacking formal economies, such as North Korea or the American tribes, provide their troops increased food rations and other goods. In addition to financial compensation, the US and other modern governments promise to provide life-long medical, educational, and other fringe benefits to servicemen and women. In doing so, the potential loss of life or decrease in quality of life due to a serious injury, i.e. sacrifice, is compensated for economically, thus troops are paid to be willingly sacrificed.
As Koenigsberg noted, the post Vietnam War era was marked by a hypersensitivity to risk when it came to the lives of US servicemen and women. In terms of balancing interests, Americans were more willing to neglect US interests served by military intervention, often endangering and costing the lives of many more non-Americans as well as long-term US security interests, in favor of safeguarding the lives of US troops, a.k.a. the sacrificial ritual was no more.
Where the interests of those fighting wars had been thoroughly neglected in the past, America over focused on the interests of its troops to the point military service lost its sacrificial component. During the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, however, this trend was reserved to the point where the interests of the troops were being neglected to a degree for a faulted mission.
Meanwhile, military service invokes and cultivates strong emotions, specifically pride. At the same time, servicemen and women are trained to sacrifice themselves. Emotionally, this means learning to disconnect from the fear of death and neglect personal interests. For some, this process can lead to emotional instability, especially if these individuals have experienced traumatizing events during their deployment.
In many regards, learning to emotionally disengage from personal interests, experiencing absolute pride in one’s actions, and learning to give unquestioned loyalty is traumatizing as military servicemen and women are being asked to temporarily sacrifice their individuality, i.e. the ability to choose and reflect on their actions.
When these individuals’ military service ends or their absolute loyalty is violated, individuals can become more susceptible to emotional issues. In turn, these underlying psychological issues accentuate any difficulties these servicemen and women might already have when transitioning between the military subculture and civilian life.
Aside from economic and emotional interests, service members are expected to sacrifice themselves for the social incentives afforded them. Those in the military might be regarded as a sacrificial class; however, the sacrificial nature of their social position also leads to these individuals serving as a privileged and isolated class. In general, a perceived failure to show proper respect to US servicemen and women is met with great distain to the point there are times when criticism of the military has been considered taboo. A lack of political will and courage to stand up to faulted military policies has been problematic as certain policies and contracting decisions have endangered personnel and missions.
On the other end of the extremes, public support for the military and troops evaporated during the Vietnam War era when widespread misconduct by a relative minority of troops was allowed to fester. With the loss of social prestige, i.e. social incentives, the military was weakened.
Meanwhile, the military culture is an isolated subculture, versus as “insider turned outsider” class as Koenigsberg argues, due to its command structure, i.e. abnormal social environment, training requirements, stressful deployment schedules, and other responsibilities it places on servicemen and women. Like many subcultures of a society, the military social environment forces members to adopt its own rules and protections.
Unlike an un-assimilated immigrant minority, as one example, the transient and sacrificial nature of the voluntary commitment means servicemen and women must eventually relearn how to function in our broader society. Those leaving the military, who lose their privileged status and purpose, can very well have problems functioning after they are discharged for this reason alone, especially if they find themselves without a meaningful role in our society. This is where Veteran’s Affairs can provide a useful support structure for former members of the military.
Looking at the current sexual assault epidemic in the US military, as another example, it is also possible to understand how the interests of the broader American culture and the American military culture can conflict. Where our society has learned to treat sex crimes as serious social issues, the US military is struggling to address its conflicting interests. The sacrificial nature of military service creates a situation where we are inclined to want to overlook the wrongdoings of US servicemen and women, especially when those wrongdoings occurred in a war zone. After all, extreme stress pushes people to engage in behaviors they would otherwise never consider.
At the same time, the isolated nature of the military subculture encourages military commanders to protect their subordinates from the outside world as the outside world has sacrificed them for its security interests. In doing so, the perpetrators of sexual assaults are protected at the expense of victims. For military personnel, who are victims of sexual assaults, these injustices are doubly harmful as such victims have been “sacrificed”/abandoned by our broader society and their adopted subculture.
In closing, volumes could be written on each of the subjects raised in this discussion; however, the sacrificial ritual model explained in terms of conflicting interests and motivation clearly provides insights into potential problems servicemen and women might experience when transitioning from active duty to civilian life. Meanwhile, it affords us the ability to understand how and why our broader culture might conflict with the military subculture.
It also demonstrates why organizations like Veteran’s Affairs provide a valuable buffer for veterans attempting to bridge the two cultures. Moreover, military service can be seen as a sacrificial ritual; however, the modeling is valuable only if it is used to understand the conflict of interests that exists between our broader culture and the military subculture.
Previously published on Shadows in the Cave in summer of 2013 under the name, Matthew J. Geiger