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The Ambiguity of Sacrifice in a Post-Heroic Nation: A Military Perspective

The following paper was presented at the Third Biennial Telos in Europe Conference, held on June 16–17, 2016, in Berlin, Germany. The conference was co-sponsored by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and the Theology Faculty of Humboldt University-Berlin. For additional details about upcoming Telos conferences and events, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

Most people think that the military is all about killing other people. I, on the contrary, follow van Creveld. He states that serving in the military means more to be prepared and willing to risk one’s life then to endanger other lives.[1] You could argue that military technology provides tools that have kinetic effects over huge distances without any risk for one’s personnel. Drones, for example, are such weapons.[2] However, can you win a war with only drones? We have relearned the lesson that it takes “boots on the ground” to win “the better peace,” as Clausewitz carefully worded it. It takes soldiers on the ground to control an area, to protect the population, to de-escalate a situation, and to win hearts and minds.

So, with the use of military force, soldiers have to risk their lives and must be willing to sacrifice. There are three major effects of that attitude to be discussed:

1. The effect inside the military forces itself
2. The consequences concerning the political and strategic level in a conflict
3. The effects with regard to civil–military relations

1. The Effect of Sacrifice for the Forces

A second popular misunderstanding is that soldiers are willing to die for a political idea. In fact, they are willing to risk their lives primarily for their comrades (and for their military leaders). Sebastian Junger spent twelve months in Afghanistan with a U.S. company of airborne infantry. In his book War[3] he delineates the relationships between the servicemen within the unit. The obvious, and more than once proven, willingness to risk their lives for each other formed a band of brothers. The last part of Junger’s book has the title “Love.” Or to say it in the words of the bible: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

The same applies to leadership. A study on the Vietnam War clearly highlights the difficulties encountered if leaders do not share risks with their subordinates: “To a great extent then, military cohesion can be seen as a function of the quality of the officer corps, its skill, dedication and its readiness to sacrifice.”[4] So, the willingness to sacrifice is indispensable for the cohesion and morale of any armed forces.[5]

2. The Politico-strategic Effect of Sacrifice within Conflict

With three little historical cases I would like to discuss the political and strategic dimension of sacrifice:

1. Leonidas and his 300 warriors are a perfect example for military operations where soldiers had been sacrificed for a higher objective. In this case, the brave but unwinnable Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC followed the idea to gain time. This allowed the Greek city-states to successfully regroup and organize their defense against a superior enemy. So, the sacrifice of Leonidas and his 300 probably made the difference in order to ensure the survival and freedom of thousands of inhabitants, and probably of the Greek culture as a whole.[6]

2. Second historical case: Why did the British Army win the fight against the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Northern Ireland? The Army had more casualties then the IRA. Yet paradoxically that is why they won this conflict. The sacrifices by the British Army had been seen and accepted by the local population. If this theory is correct, the IRA was obviously not able to underline strong enough their “claim to power” by bringing sacrifices.[7]

3. Third case: In the first years of ISAF commitment in Afghanistan (AFG) the German (DEU) military strategy focused on avoiding casualties—the so-called “zero losses policy.” As a consequence, the members of the Afghan national security forces (ANSF) didn’t rely on their DEU comrades in the same way as they did on the U.S. or UK forces.[8] It became obvious that the acceptance of the foreign soldiers was significantly correlated with their willingness to take risks.

This changed fundamentally when, in 2008, DEU took over the so-called Quick Reaction Force (QRF), a battalion-sized fighting unit in the North—no longer avoiding battles, but attacking the Taliban in their strongholds. The QRF suffered casualties; however, their reputation in the ISAF community and among the AFG Security Forces improved significantly. And since the partnering strategy was based on intense cooperation between AFG and ISAF Security Forces, the mutual respect was a prerequisite for a successful strategy.

To put it in a nutshell: From a military viewpoint a zero losses policy, a strategy without the willingness of making sacrifices, is the way to defeat.[9]

3. Sacrifice and the Civil–Military Relationship

As often described, the German public has shifted the meaning of the word “Opfer” from “sacrificium” to “victima.”[10] Even the military casualties in AFG had been “victimized.” A lot of Germans think these “accidents” could have been avoided by better concepts of “safety at work.”

It has been argued that this attitude was a kind of “lessons learned” from the twentieth century, where millions had been sacrificed “on the altar of the Fatherland.” Whatever the reasons are, the willingness for sacrifices has clearly been on a reverse trend in the whole Western world after World War II, especially in so-called post-heroic societies. And, Germany is probably the most post-heroic country on this planet.[11]

Being a staff officer I experienced the ambiguity between the civil post-heroic and the military heroic perception in different echelons of command. As a commanding officer I told my soldiers that their courageousness—so, their willingness to sacrifice—is meaningful and necessary. Within the Ministry of Defense, however, I had to euphemistically rephrase my sentences in order not to unsettle the post-heroic society. Think of the effects on the motivation of the soldiers: If their sacrifice is only seen as an unintended, negligible, trivial accident, does it make sense to be a soldier?

Münkler argues that one cannot wage war without any kind of political explanation for war casualties. If there is “nothing to kill or to die for,”[12] one cannot use military force at all. However, doing nothing is also a kind of decisive action one has to account for. And, there will always be reasons for others to kill. However, if there is no more reason to die for, you will not have anyone to stop the violence. As a consequence, you have always to be an observer in genocides like Rwanda or Bosnia.

From my point of view, the archetype of the modern soldier is the katéchon, “the one who restrains.”[13] A deeper discussion on Bonhoeffer’s[14] and Schmitt’s[15] thoughts on the katéchon is not possible here. But I would like to highlight one aspect: the katéchon implies always the willingness to sacrifice.

Dr. Rolf von Uslar is Colonel (MC, GS), Bundeswehr Command and Staff College, Hamburg. This essay solely reflects the position of the author.


1. See Martin van Creveld, The Transformation of Warfare (Free Press, 1991). See also Herfried Münkler, “The Wars in the 21st Century,” Revue Internationale de la Croix-Rouge/International Review of the Red Cross 85, no. 849 (March 2003), pp. 7–22.

2. See Herfried Münkler, “Neue Kampfsysteme und die Ethik,” Heinrich Böll Stiftung.

3. Sebastian Junger, War (London, 2010).

4. Richard A. Gabriel and Paul L. Savage, Crisis in Command: Mismanagement in the Army (New York, 1978), p. 36.

5. See Rolf von Uslar and Marc-André Walther, “Kampfmoral: Voraussetzung für das Bestehen im Kampf,” in Uwe Hartmann, Claus von Rosen, and Christian Walther, eds., Der Soldatenberuf im Spagat zwischen gesellschaftlicher Integration und sui generis-Ansprüchen: Gedanken zur Weiterentwicklung der Inneren Führung, Jahrbuch Innere Führung 2012 (Berlin, 2012), pp. 73–87.

6. See Barry S. Strauss, The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece—and Western Civilization (2004).

7. Overall there was approximately a three-to-one kill ratio in favor of the terrorists. See Martin van Creveld, The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq (New York, 2008), p. 235. See also Martin van Creveld, “On Counterinsurgency: How to Triumph in the Age of Asymmetric Warfare,” The Henry Jackson Society, February 26, 2008.

8. See Anthony King, The Transformation of Europe’s Armed Forces: From the Rhine to Afghanistan (Cambridge, 2011), pp. 278–81.

9. See also Edward Luttwak, “‘Post-Heroic Warfare’ and Its Implications.”

10. See Herfried Münkler and Karsten Fischer, “‘Nothing to kill or die for…’: Überlegungen zu einer politischen Theorie des Opfers,” Leviathan 28, no. 3 (September 2000), pp. 343–62; and Herfried Münkler, “Der asymmetrische Krieg: Das Dilemma der postheroischen Gesellschaft,” Der Spiegel, no. 44 (2008), pp. 176–77. See also Bernhard Schlink, “Das Opfer des Lebens,” Berliner Theologische Zeitschrift 33, no. 1 (2016), pp. 55–68. As far as the German military sacrifices go, see Herbert Kremp, “Tod in Afghanistan: Es war kein Busunglück,” Die Welt, November 26, 2005.

11. See Münkler, “Der asymmetrische Krieg,” and Michael Klonovsky, Der Held: Ein Nachruf (Munich, 2011).

12. Münkler and Fischer, “‘Nothing to kill or die for…'”

13. See Jochen Bohn, “Pflichterfüllung nach dem Ende der Ideen,” in Jochen Bohn, Thomas Bohrmann, and Gottfried Küenzlen, eds., Die Bundeswehr heute: Berufsethische Perspektiven für eine Armee im Einsatz (Stuttgart, 2011), pp. 43–58.

14. See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethik, ed. Ilse Tödt (Gütersloh, 1998), pp. 122–24.

15. See Carl Schmitt, Der Nomos der Erde im Völkerrecht des Jus Publicum Europaeum (Berlin, 1988), p. 29.

1 comment to The Ambiguity of Sacrifice in a Post-Heroic Nation: A Military Perspective

  • Prof. Andreu Ginestet

    Hi Rolf,
    I am a peace mediator, ready to deliver my life for the greater good too and doing it from the other side, converging. There is a good reason to be cautious on both sides, yours and mine, in exactly the terms you suggest.