According to one anthropologist, the Yanomami Amazonian tribe lives in a “chronic state of war”: violence against outsiders and members alike is a normal way of life. Their culture is the exception — most require a shift from peacetime to wartime culture in order for maiming and murdering to be acceptable. The shift begins with a cause to rally around:
“It is hard, maybe impossible, to fight a war if the cause is viewed as bankrupt. The sanctity of the cause is crucial to the war effort.”
Most cultures are governed by some version of “Thou shalt not kill,” but God and the gods are not so constrained — they can and do kill, and direct their followers to do so. Therefore, to justify the mayhem, the state must become religious, and its cause must be sacred.
“War celebrates only power — and we come to believe in wartime that it is the only real form of power. It preys on our most primal and savage impulses. It allows us to do what peacetime society forbids or restrains us from doing: It allows us to kill.”
In wartime, the state is anointed with the requisite elements of religious culture: dogmas and orthodox language; rites of initiation and passage; songs, symbols, metaphors, and icons; customs and laws to honor heroes, demonize foes, discipline skeptics, and punish nonbelievers.
“Because we in modern society have walked away from institutions that stand outside the state to find moral guidance and spiritual direction, we turn to the state in times of war.
“We believe in the nobility and self-sacrifice demanded by war… We discover in the communal struggle, the shared sense of meaning and purpose, a cause. War fills our spiritual void.”
Religious anointing reverses the secular aversion to killing and death:
“War finds its meaning in death.
“The cause is built on the backs of victims, portrayed always as innocent. Indeed, most conflicts are ignited with martyrs, whether real or created. The death of an innocent, one who is perceived as emblematic of the nation or the group under attack, becomes the initial rallying point for war. These dead become the standard bearers of the cause and all causes feed off the steady supply of corpses.
“The cause, sanctified by the dead, cannot be questioned without dishonoring those who gave up their lives. We become enmeshed in the imposed language.
“There is a constant act of remembering and honoring the fallen during war. These ceremonies sanctify the cause.
The first death is the most essential:
“Elias Canetti [winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981] wrote, “it is the first death which infects everyone with the feeling of being threatened. It is impossible to overrate the part played by the first dead man in the kindling of war. Rulers who want to unleash war know very well that they must procure or invent a first victim. It need not be anyone of particular importance, and can even be someone quite unknown. Nothing matters except his death, and it must be believed that the enemy is responsible for this. Every possible cause of his death is suppressed except one: his membership of the group to which one belongs oneself.”
Dissent has no place in the culture of war. The nation’s institutions and citizens are expected to speak the language of war, which frames and limits public discourse.
“The adoption of the cause means adoption of the language of the cause.
“The state spends tremendous time protecting, explaining, and promoting the cause. And some of the most important cheerleaders of the cause are the reporters. This is true in nearly every war. During the Gulf War, as in the weeks after the September attacks, communities gathered for vigils and worship services. The enterprise of the state became imbued with a religious aura. We, even those in the press, spoke in the collective.
“The official jargon obscures the game of war — the hunters and the hunted. We accept terms imposed on us by the state — for example, the “war on terror” — and these terms set the narrow parameters by which we are able to think and discuss.”
Exaltation of the nation, faith in the cause, honoring of the dead, and conformity to the language of war make doubt and dissent damnable:
“When we speak within the confines of this language we give up our linguistic capacity to question and make moral choices.
“The cause is unassailable, wrapped in the mystery reserved for the divine. Those who attempt to expose the fabrications and to unwrap the contradictions of the cause are left isolated and reviled.
“The state and the institutions of state become, for many, the center of worship in wartime. To expose the holes in the myth is to court excommunication.
“When any contradiction is raised or there is a sense that the cause is not just in an absolute sense, the doubts are attacked as apostasy.”
In war, the state shares dominion with the gods. When war ends, the state’s leaders, intoxicated with power, may not release war’s grip on the culture:
“There is a danger of a growing fusion between those in the state who wage war — both for and against modern states — and those who believe they understand and can act as agents of God.
“The moral certitude of the state in wartime is a kind of fundamentalism… And this dangerous messianic brand of religion, one where self-doubt is minimal, has come increasingly to color the modern world of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.”
For the state to revert to peacetime culture, the moral shift that supported war must be reversed by both civilians and soldiers. This requires a harrowing withdrawal from addiction to wartime culture. We’ll talk about that next time.
 All quotes in this article are from Chris Hedges’ book.
Kevin Rhodes draws insight and perspective from his prior career in law, business, and consulting, from his studies in economics, psychology, neuroscience, entrepreneurship, and technology, and from personal life experience. View all posts by Kevin Rhodes