Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

A Swim in Denial

The Sacred Trance

The ecstasy of enforcement.

Posted Oct 26, 2017

In a controversial press conference on October 19, White House chief of staff and retired Marine general John Kelly despaired that America has lost the supreme value: the sacred. It’s a vague, uplifting word and because it can falsify life, potentially vicious.

In his briefing, Gen. Kelly defended a controversial condolence call Mr. Trump made to the widow of a U.S. soldier killed in Niger. Reporters sympathized with the general because his son had been killed in Afghanistan in 2010. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a longtime friend of the family, had heard the condolence call on a speakerphone and felt Mr. Trump’s message was callous. Perhaps misunderstanding the circumstances, the general attacked Rep. Wilson using false information about her. This is where he introduced the word sacred:

And I thought at least that was sacred. You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life, the dignity of life, is sacred. That’s gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well...But I just thought, the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that that might be sacred.

And when I listened to this woman [Rep. Wilson] and what she was saying, and what she was doing on TV, the only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go and walk among the finest men and women on this Earth. And you can always find them because they’re in Arlington National Cemetery. I went over there for an hour-and-a-half, walked among the stones, some of whom I put there because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.

As Gen. Kelly used it, sacred describes the supreme value that should be protected from criticism or disrespect. Anything involving a dead soldier, he suggested, is sacred, and therefore he used the word to punish Rep. Wilson for criticizing the official condolence call. 

The word sacred implies a social order. God commands veneration or worship of the sacred. “The Lord” destroys those who disobey: they suffer everlasting death or Hell. Enforcing obedience, the Lord’s representative on earth—a priest, say—uses sacred as a weapon when condemning or casting out sinners.

The secular and sacred worlds overlap. TMT experiments show that the thought of death spurs us to embrace the flag and the cross. Like a priest, the general commands veneration for dead soldiers when he honors as heroes “the finest men and women on this Earth.” We imagine that dead soldiers “live” in memory, though we know this is not strictly true. They live in memory either because we love them as family or praise them as public heroes (or as jihadists would say, martyrs).

John Kelly is both a general and the father of 2nd Lieutenant Robert Kelly, killed in Afghanistan. We are inescapably ambivalent about warriors’ deaths. Generals order “our” children to fight and die. As family, we abhor and grieve it. Gen. Kelly may have used sacred as a tool for managing that cruel stress. This has much to tell us about America and our own lives.

The word sacred is ultimately an enabling fiction; an idea beyond proof but useful. To console families and soldiers, we “honor” dead soldiers by praising them. Walking in Arlington Cemetery, Gen. Kelly says he walked “among the finest men and women on this Earth.” Though it may ease grief and our own fear of death, this is a fiction of course.

In fact, the general was walking among corpses and stones, religious symbols and names. Officially, dead soldiers are “the fallen” who “gave their lives” for us. They act on "selfless devotion." But these are euphemisms. The cemetery holds a mix of humans, not necessarily “the finest.” They fought to the last breath to stay alive. Their personalities are gone.

Even so, says Gen. Kelly, his “casualty officer” reassured him that a dead soldier “was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. And when he died, in the four cases we’re talking about, Niger, and my son’s case in Afghanistan—when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends.”

But soldiers die in all sorts of ghastly ways. And what if they love combat but are fighting in a foolish or evil war? And if the soldier “was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed,” is it actually a sacrifice?

This consolation makes death a promotion and social climbing. By dying, the soldier achieves maximum self-esteem “by joining that 1 percent.” Realistically, the living flatters the dead. Arlington Cemetery becomes a Wagnerian Valhalla, even as the dead heroes qualify for a Fifth Avenue address like the celebrity rich 1 percent.

Despite consolations, in the end, generals are small bipeds like the rest of us. They get confused. They make fatal mistakes. They face guilt and loss. “You have to understand,” Gen. Kelly insists, “That these young people—sometimes old guys—put on the uniform, go to where we send them to protect our country. Sometimes they go in large numbers to invade Iraq and invade Afghanistan.” 

The post-9/11 invasions go on without end. They have been futile, filling cemeteries and refugee camps to no one’s benefit. Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney rationalized the invasion of Iraq with falsehoods. The military emphasized remote-controlled weapons. Fewer soldiers died than in Vietnam, but of course, they’re just as dead.

Gen. Kelly has plenty of inner conflicts to manage. The word sacred may have helped him because it clarifies or even dispels ambivalence. And after all, we are insolubly ambivalent: it’s how we’re built. Taboo insulates the sacred from all doubts and criticism. If ambivalence does persist, holiness neatly splits it apart, making one pole supremely holy, the other sinful and demonic. In everyday life, the idea of the sacred shuts up disturbing voices in your head and on Main Street.

If the sacred silences opposition, you can’t be challenged. The sacred has no limits: it's an illusion of purity. A mist of glory. You feel righteous and important. You feel as if you have conquered human ambivalence. What you stand for will go on forever.

If it doesn’t work, as in a complex modern world that thrives by asking questions, then the word sacred has something sinister about it. If the word doesn’t work in a complex world, Gen. Kelly did the next best thing. For an hour and a half, he walked in Arlington Cemetery. Alone, on the move, keeping pace, he had no voices nagging him. No one talked back. As long as he stayed entranced, he could have concentrated on his own argument, keeping the sacred real.

At the same time he was sharing in the heroic dream, Mr. Kelly could have been, ambivalently, a grieving parent sympathetic with Jean-Marie Crocker, in Ken Burns's documentary Vietnam, who had her son buried at Arlington because otherwise, she confessed, she would want to claw at the earth trying to share his warmth.

Describing the retreat from Caporetto in A Farewell to Arms (1929), Hemingway ruefully deflated the glorious abstractions that justify death in war. The passage is justly famous. With the country almost continually at war, history keeps telling us that humans tragically overestimate leaders. We want to believe as they believe, maintaining the pace, keeping the trance alive.


Sources used in this essay:

Ken Burns and Lynne Novick, Vietnam.

This essay applies some of the concepts in my Psychology of Abandon (Leveller's Press, 2015).

Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (Scribner's,1929)