James Carroll: War on Terror as Girardian “Slaughter of Innocents”

James Carroll’s recent editorial in The Boston Globe is a thinly veiled criticism of the West’s efforts to combat fundamentalist Islam. He uses Rene Girard’s scapegoat theory of ritualized violence to equate jihadi terror and the West’s response, claiming war ultimately turns into violence  for violence’s sake, devoid of real rationale or strategic underpinnings. He reads Girard literally and uncritically, and does not deal with possible strategic reasons for military decisions he describes. 

THE INTERPLAY of religion and violence is considered by some a mark only of primitive culture. When the jihadist cries “God is Great” before detonating his explosive vest, or when, conversely, the Crusades are invoked to justify assault on radical Islam, secular critics can indulge a satisfying sense of superiority over believers, clinging to holy war.

Carroll is suggesting that the response to radical Islam is comparable to the terrorist’s violence itself. One is a religiously-inspired campaign of violence that in which Islam is the central and critical feature, the other is a secular, rational defense, even if the word “crusade” has been used a couple of times in the past six years.  

In the United States, the once common religious references of the Bush administration – the war on terrorism defined in categories of good and evil, for example – seem discredited, if only by failures of policy. War-justifying appeals to the rhetoric of faith are suddenly out of fashion, but that does not mean that a subliminal link between religion and violence no longer exists. The “secular” is not all that secular.

In archaic religion, violence and the sacred were explicitly joined.

And are still joined in fundamentalist Islam. 

That fact is significant because archaic religion is itself the source of culture, which is why violence – acknowledged to be irrational, yet perceived as virtuous – remains a mark of the human condition.

Take one example. The boundary between animals and humans is drawn by what the anthropologist René Girard calls the “victimary process,” the deliberate selection of an innocent outsider to undergo elimination for the sake of the community. The “scapegoat mechanism” in Girard’s phrase, by which generalized antipathy toward a chosen victim is acted out, serves to quench an otherwise insatiable animal appetite for violence.

This form of violence, that is, amounts to a control on violence. “Redemption” is the social calm that follows on the elimination of violent urges when they are “appeased” through ritualized killing. A social need is satisfied. Sacrificial violence (whether directed at an Aztec virgin, or the goat of Leviticus or Jesus) serves the cause of peace. This process becomes “religious” when the social need is attributed to a deity, to whom the victim is “offered.”

Despite the secular assumption that such impulses belong to a primitive past, they are universally at work whenever humans go to war. This comes clear with a closer look at the event commemorated in Europe and America this week – World War I.

The greatest mystery of that conflict was how the high commands of both sides could have so long persisted in the evident futility of infantry assaults across No Man’s Land against defensive lines that were, finally, never breached by either side. Technology (the machine gun) totally favored defense, but commanders never yielded their absolute preference for offense because the waste of life was, to them, no waste

That millions of soldiers died for no discernible purpose can be explained only by the irrational belief in the salvific power of sacrifice as such.

Not really. There are many who argue that both sides believed that the other would fold when faced with the prospect of unprecedented casualties. The strategy, while horrific, was calculated and rational.

The Tommies, Micks, Jocks, Doughboys, Frogs, and Jerries who went endlessly “over the top” only to be mowed down were, in effect, a legion of scapegoats.
The nations that glorified them were in the grip of a displaced faith in the power of sanctioned death, operating in a realm apart from any conceivable war aim. The trenches became Europe’s altar. A brutal god was being appeased. Otherwise, parents would never have sent their innocent sons off to that carnage. Their innocence was the point.

The scapegoat mechanism shifted in World War II from soldiers to civilians, whose innocence was even sharper. The masterpiece form of this dynamic was, of course, the Nazi genocide of Jews.

That crime was unique, but the mass bombing of civilian population centers was, under all the “strategic” justifications, also an exercise in the irrational belief that bloody sacrifice for its own sake could somehow be redemptive. There is no other way to account for the all-out spasm of killing from the air that marked the last six months of the Allied war effort, especially in Japan.

How about trying to get an enemy that believed in fighting to the death to surrender without using ground troops?

The primitive impulses of our ancestors live on in us. War always operates at two levels – one apparent and rational, the other hidden and irrational. At a certain point, the first gives way to the second, which is why the violence of war inevitably continues past points of tactical and strategic meaning.

Sacrifice for its own sake takes on mystical significance that, in a secular age, can no longer be described – or defended. But it can be discerned, for example, in the anguished hope that troops will not have died in vain if others follow them. Once these subliminal currents are openly acknowledged, they can finally be left behind. In America lately, God is banished as an open sponsor of the war, but if God does not will this slaughter of innocents, who does?

Carroll is suggesting that the fact that the U.S. is still willing to absorb casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan means that America’s leaders are motivated by the irrational belief in the scapegoat mechanism. It seems much more likely that the U.S. is trying to win a war, and to do so, soldiers inevitably will die. There is nothing tactical in surging the troop numbers? Or engaging the Taliban in Afghanistan? Carroll reads Girard absolutely literally, and assumes his theory to be the model for explaining the rationale in war.

Or, perhaps, he finds it a convenient, sophisticated-sounding means of criticizing the war of fundamentalist Islam.  

4 Responses to James Carroll: War on Terror as Girardian “Slaughter of Innocents”

  1. TimH says:

    There is nothing quite as moronic as someone taking something huge and complex (war in homo sapiens) and reducing it to a “root” cause. Why didn’t Carroll also say wars are caused by testosterone, or evil corporations that make weapons? Or class conflict? Or some other flakey bugaboo theory of the left? Its like Carroll is nudging us and telling us what’s “really going on” since he’s “in the know.” Truly idiotic.

    On a different note: I’ve been following al Dura quite closely (the day the rushes were viewed I kept checking this site for updates every 1/2 hour…). Is there any public news on how the good guys are going to proceed regarding the missing two scenes in the tape?

  2. Rich Rostrom says:

    Carroll is grossly ignorant of WW I. While most of the major attacks on the Western Front failed, there were some breakthroughs. The Germans broke the Allied front in spring 1918 and forced the Allies to retreat 60 km in places. The Allies barely held on till American troops arrived that summer. Then Allied attacks broke the German front in several places, forcing the German army into retreat all along the front. (See August 8, 1918 – the “Black Day” of the German army.)

    It’s also amusing that he seems to think the entire war took place on the Western Front. (That very name implies there were other fronts.) The British army drove the Turks out of Palestine, Syria, and Iraq; Russia defeated the Turks in Armenia. The Germans and Austrians broke the Italian line at Caporetto in 1917; in 1918 the Italians broke the Austrian line at Vittorio Veneto. There were huge back-and-forth struggles on the Eastern Front, covering 100s of km, before Germany and Austria brought down Russia in 1917.

    It’s also amusing that he dismisses Allied strategic bombing in WW II as an irrational spasm of killing: a position vigorously advocated by Nazi apologists like David Irving, because it promotes moral equivalence of the fascist states with the democracies. The bombing of Germany was directed against war industries that were located in urban areas. These industries were supplying a war machine that was still very powerful and dangerous even in the six months before V-E Day. (Carroll might remember that in December 1944, the Germans launched the Ardennes offensive with 250,000 men and 1,100 tanks.)

  3. Athos says:

    Lazar is spot on in his critique of Carroll’s lop-sided usage of Rene Girard’s mimetic theory. Granted: self-serving politicians will inevitably make hay and use soldiers as fodder (as WWI more than WWII shows). But the fact is the template of Islam is one of sacred violence.

    Judaism and Christianity have struggled to move out and away from the anthropological realities of world religions; Girard and others have shown the ubiquity of human sacrifice in traditional cultures. With Abraham not sacrificing Isaac, Judaism turned a corner. The New Testament follows the same impetus and makes the truth claim that God in the person of Jesus allowed a bloodthirsty humanity kill him on a cross to vindicate once and for all the true nature of God. Namely, that it isn’t GOD demanding the blood of human beings, but humans who are doing it.

    Have Judaism and Christianity carried out this good news? It is always two steps forward and one back. Every schoolkid has a laundry list of western atrocities done in God’s name; but the biblical faiths are always — always — repenting and trying to move AWAY from sacred violence.

    How about Islam???

  4. fp says:

    carroll is an excellent example of what ignorance and laziness coupled with the status of a “journalist” leads to “deep analysis” about “root causes”, and application of theories without a clue about them. It’s so typical of american journalism.

    These people cannot interpret and contextualize events that are happening in front of their eyes, cannot see through obvious propaganda, but understand the “root causes” of wars and mimetic theory? give me a break.


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