The holy and the sacred in war

Gerard and Levinas somewhere distinguish the sacred from the holy. Holy is what is utterly set apart from secular or profane use, sacred is that which asks for ultimate dedication, and so immediately raises the question of what we would kill or die for. For Levinas, this leads to the idea that God must be holy but not sacred. True, to die for something is not the same thing as to kill for it, but something worth dying for, as heroic as this is, is also something worth killing for.

It is impossible to entirely divide (1) holy from the sacred, or, within the sacred itself,  to divide (2) something worth dying for from (3) something worth killing for. The problem arises presiely when we try to divide them, though this is most familar to us by the attempt to divide 3 from all the rest. Logically, we must first lose sight of 1, for we cease to see anything set apart from secular or profane use. The state invokes the authority to kill for its own sake, quite apart from any holy thing worth preserving. That said, the state will continue to appeal to things in (2) – it will raise the ideals of the state to absolutes worthy of total self-surrender, even if there is nothing holy referenced by the surrender. At this point we make divinities of abstractions, that is, we make slogans: liberty, equality, brotherhood, Unite!, Overcome! Question! Freedom!

But the slogans and the abstractions easily lose their saltiness and we appropriate the power to kill even apart from anything holy or worth dying for. The war ceases to be for anything, including even the desire to win it. At this point we get spectacles like the last few years of Vietnam or of the recent wars in Afganistan and Iraq.

But this decadence only describes those watching the war, whether as politicians or the public at a safe distance. For those actually fighting, what they are fighting for is never a vague abstraction and cannot be lost- you’re fighting for the guy next to you, and you know he is doing the same.   What you would both kill and die for is always concrete and at hand. Teilhard somewhere talks about the sense of transcendence that falls over men when they know the mission will happen tomorrow – the sense of being utterly outside oneself and unified in a sort of charity. This is the feeling of total transcendence within unit cohesion that made the Greeks think that war was reality and that peace was nothing but a fluke or preparation time for it. Even wars that are culpable in relation to the corrupt and decadent Statesmen who declare them can still give a true and bona fide experience of the sacred to the men who fight in them. This is something that we should venerate in all of them, and that, even if it is not exactly right to say we envy it, we can still see as something that places them above those of us haven’t had to go into the breech or out on patrol or into the field.



  1. Wade McKenzie said,

    May 28, 2014 at 2:32 pm

    “This is the feeling of total transcendence within unit cohesion that made the Greeks think that war was reality and that peace was nothing but a fluke or preparation time for it.”

    While it isn’t exactly true that President Obama is an “antiwar” president simpliciter, he surely came into office promising a great deal of restraint in regard to making war and he has largely kept that promise. In a certain sense, this means he is trying, insofar as is possible, to keep our national life in a state of permanent “fluke or preparation time”, preparing for that which ideally will never happen–that is to say, a kind of unreal preparation.

    To the degree that contemporary America is a moral cesspit, the antiwar policy keeps us as a people mired in permanent moral stasis, a kind of suspended animation from which we can never awaken and from which none of our citizens ordinarily can escape (I exclude the very rare case of the philosophic citizen). Only through war–even quagmires like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq–can any of us ordinarily ascend from the authentic quagmire, the domestic quagmire of socially enforced moral agnosticism, to the real and the transcendent.

    In spite of his many flaws, there is a very real sense in which President Bush, by his daring to make war on Iraq despite the tremendous international controversy it aroused, conferred a blessing on hundreds of thousands of American men who were thereby enabled to transcend the defective polis that is the USA and to touch the transcendent and the real.

    In fact, if the Greeks were right to “think that war was reality and that peace was nothing but a fluke” there has been no country in modern times with a greater orientation to the transcendentally real than Nazi Germany.

  2. May 29, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    “That said, the state will continue to appeal to things in (2) – it will raise the ideals of the state to absolutes worthy of total self-surrender…”

    And isn’t this precisely because of the kind of thing the state IS? The fact that human beings are fallen and yet is such an intrinsically “high” thing is what makes it so terrible when it makes mistakes, which it frequently does (and when it does, people often die as a consequence). In much the same way that ultimately theologians/priests/the Church killed Christ. The mistake of the pacifist or anarchist is to respond to these claims by denying the underlying claim the state has to the sacred completely.

    I don’t think it is possible or desirable for government to refrain from appealing to such things. What is interesting here is that the Greeks, or anyone else, for that matter, never solely justify death in battle based on what you say here (which I think is well said and true). It seems to me that the primary justification is always and can only be the common good or some variation on the theme – for the Greeks and everyone else.

    All these abstractions are, to varying degrees, ways of speaking about the or a common good (whether they are truly connected to it or not is another question). While it is true that this experience remains at a basic level because you fight for the person next to you, and we watchers are in awe of it or at least respectful of it if we aren’t impudent children, it certainly seems as if people can and do act in war in different ways depending on their understanding of how connected it is to the common good.

    Letters of soldiers from the north who died, for example, show a change in the reason they see themselves as fighting as they enter the south (it goes from putting down rebellion and explicitly NOT being about anything else to overwhelmingly including the notion that slavery is a terrible evil and must be eradicated). Even if one thinks this wasn’t true, it certainly seems to me to have changed morale.

    The common good IS the way one justifies the ultimate self-surrender of the individual in war for the sake of the polis. It is what justifies execution. Or what has been used to justify these things since the beginning of time. And the awareness of how the state (or religion) might misuse this deep desire in our souls seems to me to be a major reason for the birth of liberalism write large, whatever one thinks of it. But, of course, this only extends or prolongs or adds another layer to the problem if one thinks liberalism is truly “neutral.”

    – Abraham and Isaac need to be brought in somehow, but I’m not sure how.

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