The gods of war
Posted February 20, 2009on:
I write from Sri Lanka where the military conflict, spanning three decades, is once more in the global news. This is largely due to the successes of the army in recent months, and the plight of several thousand civilians trapped in the north-east corridor of the island still controlled by the Tamil Tiger insurgents. These civilians have been repeatedly displaced, subjected to constant shelling and bombing from all sides, and suffer from a shortage of food and emergency medical care.
At the national conference of the student movement, FOCUS, two weeks ago, participants signed a letter addressed to both sides urging protection for the lives of these civilians and to ensure their unhindered passage to the safety zone demarcated by the government. At the present time the only organization allowed in the conflict area is the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Tigers use the Tamil civilians as human shields while claiming to be their protectors. Many people are reluctant to leave as their children have been conscripted into the fighting ranks of the Tigers; while others who have received mandatory training in the civil militias run by the Tigers are fearful of what may happen to them at the military-run detention centres. The soldiers, in turn, are on edge following the recent infiltration of a refugee convoy by a suicide-bomber who blew herself up when searched at an army check-point.
Suicide-bombers, child soldiers and other such grotesque cruelties have become the stuff of war. We have all read about the Nazi’s Final Solution, but less well-known is the Final Sacrifice, the horrendous disposal of thousands of teenagers- the Hitler youth- by SS officers in the last months before the fall of Berlin in 1945. Gerhard Rempel’s book, Hitler’s Children: The Hitler Youth and the SS chronicles how starving, bewildered children between the ages of eight and seventeen were used by the SS to shore up collapsing defences in the city and sent on suicidal missions as the “final sacrifice to the god of war”. What astonished observers was the determination of many of the older children “to do their duty until they were literally ready to drop. They had been fed on legends of heroism for as long as they could remember. For them the call to ‘ultimate sacrifice’ was no empty phrase.”
The gods of war are fuelled by the gods of nationalism. Both the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tiger insurgents claim to be defending the integrity of their “nation”. Both sides are propelled by “nationalists” whose children are settled abroad. The politicians live behind urban fortresses while the foot soldiers, recruited from the teeming ranks of the rural unemployed, are sent to the battle front. The military command of the Tigers have been shown to be living all these years in air-conditioned, well-fortified and well-equipped underground bunkers, while dispatching women and children on suicide missions. Who is making sacrifices for whom?
The gods always demand sacrifices from their devotees. Christ was handed over to the Romans by the Jewish leaders -in a paradoxically pagan move- as a sacrifice to preserve the nation’s security (John 11:47-51). This was the classic politics of sacrifice and “means-end” reasoning. In accepting the status of a disposable victim, Christ identifies with all such victims in history. He confronts the powers of evil in total vulnerability, exposing the falsity of a peace built on terror and torture. The triumph of Easter was, among other things, God’s judgment on the sacrificial system of politics, reversing the verdict on his Christ and the human attempt to suppress the memory of the victims.
But, in defiance of Easter, today’s discourse of war and politics still aspires to a pagan divinity: the language of “sovereignty” and “sacrifice” have been moved from their original theological setting into the realm of politics. Can we re-imagine a politics that moves beyond the language of sacrifice and sovereignty to responsibility and accountability? And what would it cost us to unmask these false gods?
 Gerhard Rempel, Hitler’s Children: The Hitler Youth and the SS (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989) p.241