The Gift of Life: A Soldier’s Death as Sacrifice

“And let me just say, one of the most humbling moments I've had as president was when I presented our nation's highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor, to the parents of one of those patriots from Fort Bragg who gave his life in Afghanistan.”

By Catherine Whittaker (Contributor)

In his 2011 speech (9) to declare the end of the Iraq War, the current President of the United States, Obama, used a common, but not trivial, phrasing: he conceptualised a soldier’s death in war as a gift to the nation. Implicitly herein, life is treated as an exchangeable object: as something which can be given and received. In respect of the gravity of this gift, the people of America, represented by Obama, awarded the Medal of Honor to the soldier’s family, in an attempt to recognise and alleviate their loss. In this particular quote, the word “gave” could easily be replaced with “sacrificed”. But should we think of a soldier’s life as a generous “gift”, and is it enough to repay it with a medal? Or is this a case of human “sacrifice”, comparable to unsavoury Aztec rituals? This question has far-reaching political implications, as we will see.

For the French sociologist Mauss, the distinction between gift-giving and sacrifice was vital. According to Mauss’s selective interpretation of the word “gift”, it is defined by 1) the obligation to give, 2) the obligation to receive, and 3) the obligation to repay (8). In other words, if you give me a birthday present, I must accept it, and will feel awfully guilty if I forget to get you one for your birthday. Where does this guilt come from? Mauss suggests your gift shames me, in that it is inalienable from you, its owner. This means that the gifted object is imbued with a “life” and a “personality” of its own, while being at the same time an intrinsic part of its owner’s identity. Moreover, gifts are not merely the object of economic exchanges, but are relevant to all spheres of sociality, even war:  “The circulation of goods follows that of men, women and children, of festival ritual, ceremonies and dances, jokes and injuries. Basically they are the same” (8).

Sacrifice is different because it is not merely a gift to the sacred (7) but “a means of communication between the sacred and the profane worlds through the mediation of a victim, that is, of a thing that in the course of the ceremony is destroyed” (7). This includes the example of the potlatch of the American North-West coast, in which “the whole clan, through the intermediacy of its chiefs, makes contracts involving all its members and everything it possesses” (8). In the potlatch rivalling clans come together to celebrate festivals, which are occasions for rites of passage and “sumptuous destruction of accumulated wealth in order to eclipse a rival chief” (8). The potlatch is a symbol of ultimate moral and economic superiority, as goods are destroyed without any expected return. The rival chief then has to destroy even more goods at another potlatch in order to save face. From this, we can say that the potlatch is a mechanism for negotiating status between clans. Although there is no direct exchange of gifts involved, “sacrificial destruction implies giving something that is to be repaid” (8). Conceptually, this is a contract between the clan and the ancestors or gods, who are “the real owners of the world’s wealth” (8). Hence, it is a religious duty to amass wealth and destroy it in order to avoid shame.

This dark side of gift giving highlighted by acts of sacrifice are a productive, though clearly limited, way to look at phenomena such as organ donation (11) and self-immolation (i.e. putting oneself on fire as an extreme form of protest) (12), as both cause ultimate shame in the addressees of the action that can hardly be repaid. This shame binds the recipient to the giver, creating a dependency from which he cannot free himself because of the impossibility of reciprocity.

Another point of tension is that a negative attitude in giving may have negative consequences for the recipient of the gift (8). Hence, murder poses a serious threat to social cohesion, as atonement is impossible. To give an example, nearly seven decades after WWII, German children are still institutionally taught to feel guilty for the lives taken by their great-grandparents through detailed education. The only way to escape this guilt to is to deny identification with the ancestors. Unsurprisingly, there is a strong anti-German subculture amongst German youths (10).


This logic of the unpaid gift may be seen as the origin of the common prohibition in human societal norms against killing. In warfare, ideological solutions need to be found to make killing possible, such as denial through misrepresentation of war as a “just cause”, e.g. for revenge or protection (1). Sacrifice presents an alternative strategy: in Ancient Mexico, human sacrifice, mostly of enemies captured in war, was perceived as necessary to sustaining the cosmological order, a way of nourishing the gods, who in turn provide life to the people (3). Here, we find a Maussian ritual reversal: in the words of the anthropologist Maurice Bloch, “the giving of an offering closely associated with the self may also be a form of self-identification with the victim and ultimately the recipient” (2). Through identification with their victims, the Aztecs symbolically gave their own lives to the gods, as a way of maintaining their relationship of mutual dependence. Accordingly, Aztec kings would also offer their own blood to the gods.

The soldier’s death referred to in Obama’s speech can be viewed as both a gift and a sacrifice. The soldier, like the Aztecs, gave his life for an ideological cause. The soldier died in furtherance of a nations war effort, the Aztec sacrifice in furtherance of their peoples relationship with ancestors. This deference to a higher logic is reminiscent of Marxian mystification: his life becomes an object in the context of war, to be given away in the name of a constructed cause, but conceptualised as a patriotic duty. By identifying with the soldier, the nation is victimised and the war is represented as legitimate defence. The ideology draws life from death. This is why we can speak of “given life” when – objectively speaking – death is all there is.

Catherine is a doctoral student in Social Anthropology, spare-time jazz singer, and native speaker of German, English and Italian with Irish-Chinese roots. She specializes, among other things, on Mexico, gender violence, and dragons.

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(2) Bloch, Maurice, 1992   Prey into hunter: the politics of religious experience. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

(3) Carrasco, David, 1999   City of sacrifice the Aztec empire and the role of violence in civilization. Boston: Beacon Press.

(4) Evans-Pritchard, E. E., 1940   The Nuer: a Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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(7) Hubert, Henri, and Marcel Mauss, 1981   Sacrifice, its nature and function. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.

(8) Mauss, Marcel, 1954   The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Ian Cunnison, tran. London: Cohen and West.

(9) Obama, Barack, 2011   Transcript: President Obama Iraq Speech. BBC NEWS, World, US-Canada., accessed December 6, 2012.

(10) Poschardt, Ulf, 2012   Deutscher Selbsthass : Antideutsche Erklären Dem Patriotismus Den Krieg - Nachrichten Kultur - DIE WELT. Die Welt., accessed December 7, 2012.

(11) Sharp, Lesley Alexandra, 2007   Bodies, commodities, and biotechnologies: death, mourning, and scientific desire in the realm of human organ transfer. New York: Columbia University Press.

(12) Strenski, Ivan, 2003   Sacrifice, Gift and the Social Logic of Muslim “Human Bombers”. Terrorism and Political Violence 15(3): 1–34.