The Language of "Sacrifice" in the Buildup to War: A Feminist Rhetorical and Theological Analysis

Article excerpt

Kelly Denton-Borhaug Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA


This article investigates the language of "sacrifice" used in official U.S. government communications to build up support for the Iraq war in the American public. Drawing on the rhetorical analysis of victimage rhetoric and framing, and feminist theological criticisms of Christian atonement metaphors in popular American culture, I argue that in the wake of 9/11, the familiar religious connotations of sacrificial language created a frame with deep emotional resonance that encouraged quietistic support for war, manipulated self-sacrificial identity inculcation in the American military, and enabled a comforting interpretation in the face of what seemed an incredible event. My analysis will demonstrate the importance of inclusion of theological inquiry as a part of a broad multi-disciplinary approach to adequately understand the dynamics of the present political and cultural moment.

Victimage Rhetoric, Framing, and the Language of Sacrifice

[1] Over fifteen years ago, biblical theologian Elsa Tamez articulated a critique of the devastating consequences of the discourse of "sacrifice" within neoliberal economic systems of Latin America. In her analysis, Tamez demonstrated that popular Christian understanding and devotional language of sacrifice was manipulated in the economic rhetoric of the Latin American context to manufacture a mystification of economic demands that were placed on the poorest of the poor, including austerity measures often imposed by global bodies such as the IMF to service foreign debt. [1] According to Tamez, the result was an economic reality in which ever-larger sectors of humanity increasingly were excluded from access to having basic needs met; most perversely, sacrificial language assigned responsibility for the cost of the economic system to those who did not have the means for participation in the market economy and were most injured by it.

[2] Given the powerful resurgence of the language of sacrifice in the U.S. in the period since 9/11 and the inauguration of the "war on terror," Tamez's analysis takes on renewed significance and is well worth reexamination. This article explores just these dynamics of sacrificial language in the wake of 9/11. Specifically, I argue that U.S. political rhetoric emphasizing familiar religious elements of sacrificial language was intentionally utilized to create a frame with deep emotional resonance, a frame that encouraged quietistic support for war, manipulated self-sacrificial identity inculcation in the American military, and enabled a comforting interpretation in the face of what seemed an incredible event. Awareness of this manipulation underscores the reality of ambiguity residing in the communicative dynamic of primary religious symbols and metaphors themselves such as "sacrifice." In the case of our own post-9/11 period, sacrificial language proved all too vulnerable to misuse and even abuse in the service of political (and commercial/economic) goals.

[3] The discourse of sacrifice was pushed to the forefront of political discourse in the United States following the attack on the Trade Towers to operate as a leitmotif of the Bush administration. For instance, in remarks addressing military families in Idaho, August 2005, the president said, "A time of war is a time of sacrifice, and a heavy burden falls on our military families . . . And America appreciates the service and the sacrifice of the military families." [2] He continued a bit later in his speech, "In this time of call-ups and alerts and mobilizations and deployments, your employers are standing behind you, and so is your government. The country owes you something in return for your sacrifice."

[4] Bush's stump speeches on the campaign trail before his re-election regularly featured sacrificial discourse:

The American spirit of sacrifice and service and compassion and love is alive and strong and therefore, I boldly predict that out of the evil done to America will not only come a more peaceful world, but out of the evil done to America will be a more compassionate America, where the great hope of this country, the great vibrancy of the American Dream, will be alive and well in every corner, in every neighborhood here in America. …


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