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.