File spoon-archives/bourdieu.archive/bourdieu_2004/bourdieu.0411, message 6

Subject: [BOU:] Aztec Warfare, Western Warfare
Date: Mon, 15 Nov 2004 12:00:00 -0500


Human beings once believed that the sun revolved around the earth. Based on
what one perceives, it did and does appear that this is the case. It turns
out, however, that our perception does not reflect reality. The sun only
appears to be revolving around the earth. 

War seems to be an occasion in which one group of people "attacks" another
group in the name of conquering that group, plundering it, or defending
one's own group from a real or imagined threat. Relying on what one
perceives, we say that warfare revolves around "aggression." 

The fundamental purpose of Aztec warfare was to capture warriors in order to
bring them to the sacrificial block--where their hearts were extracted by
priests. According to Lopez Austin, "As long as men could offer blood and
the hearts of captives taken in combat, the power of the sun god would not
decline, and he would continue on his course above the earth." To keep the
sun moving in its course so that "darkness should not overwhelm the world
forever," Jacques Soustelle says, it was necessary to "feed it every day
with its food, 'the precious water'-that is, with human blood." 


The complete paper by Richard A. Koenigsberg is now available on-line. 

To read: AZTEC WARFARE, WESTERN WARFARE: The Soldier as Sacrificial Victim,



Unlike the Aztecs, we in the West do not conceive the purpose of warfare to
be sacrificial. Rather, we imagine that wars are fought for "real" reasons
or purposes. We understand the death or maiming of soldiers in battle as
by-products or "collateral damage" occurring as human beings attempt to
achieve practical or political objectives. We do not say that wars are
initiated in order to produce sacrificial victims, although the result of
every war is dead soldiers. 

Based on analysis of the First World War, I suggest that it is worthwhile to
entertain the hypothesis that Western warfare--like its Aztec
counterpart--represents a form of sacrifice. During the four years that this
war was waged-1914-1918-- men were asked to get out of trenches and to
advance toward the enemy line where they were met with machine-gun fire and
artillery shells. The result was perpetual slaughter. It is estimated that
nine- million men were killed in the First World War, nearly twenty-two
million wounded and eight million captured or missing.

The death toll for one five month period in 1916-- during which the Battle
of the Somme and Battle of Verdun took place--was almost a million men. This
represented more than 6,600 men killed every day, 277 every hour, and nearly
five each minute. To this day, historians find it difficult to comprehend or
explain the bloodbath.

Writing in the midst of the First World War, writer Maurice Barres praised
the French soldiers for dying on a daily basis:

Oh you young men whose value is so much greater than ours! They love life,
but even were they dead, France will be rebuilt from their souls. The
sublime sun of youth sinks into the sea and becomes the dawn which will
hereafter rise again.

Soustell notes that the Aztecs believed that the warrior who died in battle
or upon the stone of sacrifice "brought the sun to life" and became a
"companion of the sun." The conquering sun was the "reincarnation of a dead

Barres speaks about the French nation in terms nearly identical to Aztec
descriptions of the life of the sun. He declares that French soldiers-- the
"sublime sun of youth"--will sink into the sea to become the "dawn which
will rise again." Like the rising of the Aztec sun, France would be
resurrected from the bodies and souls of dead warriors.

P. H. Pearse, founder of the Irish Revolutionary movement, claimed that
nations were invigorated when "warmed with the red wine of the battlefield."
An enthralled Pearse observed the outbreak of the First World War:

The last sixteen months have been the most glorious in the history of
Europe. Heroism has come back to the earth. Such august homage was never
before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly
for love of country.

If Pearse's representation of this war as a form of "august homage" offered
to God and country is accurate--then the primary difference between Aztec
warfare and the First World War lies in the magnitude of the carnage.

Many people claim to be astonished by terrorists who blow themselves up in
the process of attempting to kill their enemies. Many would also find the
Aztec ritual of heart extraction shocking and painful to contemplate. Yet we
barely reflect upon our own suicidal political rituals, for example the
First World War in which nine million people were killed and twenty-two
million wounded. The vast casualties were the result of millions of men
acting precisely like contemporary terrorists: allowing their bodies to be
blown to bits as they attempted to blow up the bodies of their enemies.

In our conventional way of thinking, we say that a soldier has been killed
by the enemy. When French or British soldiers got out of trenches during the
First World War, ran toward enemy lines and were massacred, we say that
Germans killed them. When Germans got out of trenches and ran toward the
enemy line, we say that they were killed by the English or French. 

Wouldn't it be more parsimonious to say that the French soldiers were killed
by the French nation and its leaders-who asked them to get out of trenches
and run into artillery shells and machine gun fire? Wouldn't it be more
accurate to state that German soldiers were killed by the German nation and
its leaders-who also asked their soldiers to get out of trenches and run
into artillery shells and machine gun fire? In the West, we disguise the
sacrificial meaning of warfare by pretending that the other nation is
responsible for killing soldiers.

Joanna Bourke, in her book Dismembering the Male, observes that the most
important point to be made about the male body during the First World War
was that it was "intended to be mutilated." We view war as a drive for
conquest and outlet for energetic activity even as its fundamental purpose
and inevitable consequence is injury and death. We encourage the soldier's
delusion of masculine virility and call him a hero-in order to lure him into
becoming a sacrificial victim. 


Phone: 718-393-1081 

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