Death, the Profane, and Memory in the Military : The Sacred Dead

by Kenneth Martin, PhD Candidate, Concordia University

“..there will be another number for the one who had a name…”

Stars, “Celebration Guns”

As Canadians, we have seen a sudden change in the conception of the military. Over the past decade, it has been pushed into the centre of the debate on Canadian identity.   A key part of this has been a revision and a re-emphasis on how we imagine our dead, with a rise in public commemorations of military anniversaries, the highlighting of cenotaphs and memorials[1], and the increase of military imagery in our national symbols. The dead of war – our military dead – serve a central role in this process, as we sanctify their sacrifice through rituals and memory. However, I argue that how we remember our dead is a selective process of forgetting and deletion of their humanity, and this forgetting as practiced, serves instead to degrade the operational ability of the Canadian Armed Forces to respond to modern threats in complex environments, limits us as an evolving democratic society and people, and in fact profanes the dead that we profess to sanctify. 


Military organizations, despite banal day to day practicalities and occasional brutal rationality, remain a human organization and therefore must include management and acknowledgement of the emotions of its members. Militaries also exist within a wider society, and what functions the military serves, and for whom, are a contested and normal part of domestic politics.

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) are undergoing two broad crises of identity.   The first springs from domestic politics, and is driven by the effort of the current Government to ‘re-imagine’ the role and place of the CAF[2]. This raises the profile of the CAF in Canadian society, and is broadly modeled on the role the American military plays in the United States, as the carrier of the banner of patriotism and the centre of gravity of national identity. This re-imagining also privileges the role that the military has played in our history, and works to re-brand the military more prominently in a broad effort to revise Canadian history. This process, while politically contentious, is normal[3], and an extensive literature exists already on similar processes.

The second crisis is external to Canada, and requires the CAF respond, organizationally, conceptually and politically, the evolving threat environment of the post-Cold War world. This is an exogenous stress – conflict is changing, and militaries find themselves responding to civil conflicts, humanitarian crises, and deploying in multinational coalitions – as well as a domestic stress, as the government struggles to fit the tool of the professional modern military to problems it may not be designed to solve. The first crisis is driven by identity politics within Canada and is fought in terms of names, narratives and labels, and would seem separate from the latter. However, understanding the military as somehow ‘sacred’, the broad target of the general push of the current Government’s re-branding process, will degrade the CAF’s operational effectiveness in modern conflict. This is a multi-faceted debate over many terms and structures, but one remains key in my analysis. We must be wary of continuing to understand death in the military in the same way that was used to create and reinforce political structures for hundreds of years, where death was turned into something that served the functions of a given state. This functionality is driven by forgetting individuality, both of ‘the enemy’ and of ‘us’.


Any military organization, in its essence, is human management of violence and death – its most effective delivery upon others, and the limiting of the detrimental effects on our own side. The effects of witnessing, causing and suffering death are, of course, serious : to protect our morale, our ethical foundations as humans, the agreement that the state ‘serves’ interests that are worthy of the loss of life and the taking of life, the violent deaths of humans must be explained. This explanation must justify these deaths in the short term and the long term. They must be convincing enough for the sustainment of ongoing or planned military operations as well as the wider existence and continuation of the military within society. This explanation is therefore always a selective process of remembering and forgetting. This explanation serves historical and social functions that are well documented[4] : strengthening the line of us/the Other, and thus allowing soldiers to overcome social barriers to killing; serving to create the nation-state as something ‘immortal’, sacred, and worthy of defense; and the continuation and perpetuation of the military’s special place within society.

We, as rememberers, forget the existence of any personal doubts they may have had about their mission or the context in which they joined the military (personal zeal, desire for professional experience, conscription, lack of other employment options, etc), and turn them into what we wish to see. More exactly, we turn messy reality of their lives into a manufactured memory that serves the function of the continuance of the state and military, instead of remembering them as themselves. We delete their individuality, their humanness, in the service of a social function and social institution, and we employ the religious terms of the ‘sacred’ – Arlington Cemetery is the United States’ “most sacred shrine”[5]– to define the role and importance of their memory. The deployment of religious language in defense of a state organization also serves to render questions about it, and the humans who died within it, as heretical.

The detail about the individuality of each human killed is forgotten in opposite ways – ‘our’ dead are glorified in cenotaphs, monuments, and national stories, while ‘their’ dead are vilified and allowed to fade into the background noise of history. Our dead are unproblematic heroes – they were never unable to march in step properly, never were scared, always gave their all, never misused their authority or power, and were always taken care of by their military. They never had useless tasks, officers who led them into danger poorly or uselessly, or were bored out of their minds. Their dead are the faceless, forgotten, mass of the enemy – who were always in the wrong, never fought for their families, never believed in their cause or their God, always followed evil leaders blindly, and spoke strange languages and had barbaric customs.

If our dead are sacred, died for causes that were worthy of their sacrifice, and these causes were espoused by our state and our military, then the strongest manifestations of loss, grief and anger that we feel at their deaths are turned away from questioning why they died. No one wants to think their loved one died for nothing, and the narrative of the state fits neatly into this gap[6]. Instead, these feelings are transmuted towards defending the sacredness of the dead, and by extension, the sacredness of their service and the state. The mass death of the Other – civilian or soldier – is also far less problematic, less morally repugnant, and requires us to ask less questions of our government, than it would have otherwise been due to our ability to forget them as complexly human.

If we question the state’s essential rightness in directing military force, or correctness in applying force that led to the deaths of particular humans in a particular campaign or battle, we also ask implicitly if their deaths meant anything. Ascribing meaning, especially sacred meaning, to the deaths of humans we loved allows us to accept their deaths as ‘worth something’. Critically, we use the term “sacrifice” for the deaths of soldiers in war – sacrifice, said by itself, is not worthless.  The authority of the state gains much by this process, as it legitimizes itself as the rememberer of a soldier of the state who has taken the place of the human that existed. The state literally washes away its own complexity, that of its wars, and that of the individuals it has sent to death, in blood and makes everything simple, straightforward, and sacred. If it is up to the living to make meaningful the sacrifice of the dead, then certain actions – fight on to total victory! – are prejudged as better, as they respect ‘our dead’ in ways defined by the state’s narrative.


However, in an era of increasingly complex conflicts – where the diffusion of state authority, increasingly varied relations of groups across borders, ethnicities and other ‘greyness’ abounds – that the functions of the dead are not just more obviously irrational[7], they are counter-productive to the conduct and resolution of complex conflicts and the effective deployment of the Canadian Armed Forces in these conflicts. Imaging ourselves and our military in the same way as our predecessors did – as a profession that expresses the national will in a mythic way – continually reinforces the image of the military as was true[8] two hundred years ago, a tool for fighting other professional state militaries and for reinforcing the state’s authority. Today however, this image serves to reinforce the cognitive dissonance the military experiences when planning for humanitarian operations, peacekeeping missions, counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, or other missions revealingly termed “Operations Other Than War” (OOTW) or “low intensity operations”, despite these missions forming the bulk of what the CAF actually does[9]. This self-image also restricts our ability to develop new structures beyond those of a professional mass force that could effectively respond to complex conflicts.

Imagining other actors in these conflicts as the Other – as terrorists, OPFOR, Adversary, etc – in the same way that we have done so for hundreds of years means we forget or delete their particularity. Identifying, engaging with, and integrating into complex social conflicts that are founded in human complexity is precisely what is required for effectiveness in “OOTW”, and precisely what we remove from our toolset when we fit the Other, and their dead, into a one-dimensional space. Abuses by military personnel when operating within foreign complex environments stem from, in part, the dissonance between how the Enemy ‘should’ be, according to the narrative of the Other, and the observed and messy lived reality of operations. Understanding the military as flatly sacred damages operational performance and limits our capabilities unnecessarily.

Furthermore, selective forgetting also does not sanctify the personal memory of humans who have served, or serve, in militaries. In addition to professionally, it also socially and morally limits us. It limits our evolution as a society – we forget the complex human nature of soldiers who have died, and instead transmute them into one dimensional symbols of enduring loyalty, sacrifice and bravery. Their revised memory now serves to perpetuate one single understanding of what a military is and should do – and with each sacrifice of a newly nameless detailess hero/ine, we are forced away from any decisions that are perceived to ‘devalue’ their ‘sacrifice’. These decisions may be operationally necessary – combining one Regiment into another is decried as forgetting its storied history and demeaning its dead – but they will be resisted emotionally, to the eventual detriment and risk of the personnel of the CAF. We can only question the actions or decisions of the dead with great difficulty, and we therefore limit our ability to adapt and evolve in an era that requires adaptation and evolution at a greater pace than before.

I do not argue that this process is being orchestrated by the Government or the military itself – the sacredness of the dead and of the institution they served is received from previous generations. It is the dominant narrative both inside and outside the military, and should not be considered as some sort of deliberate plan. Individuals may choose to perpetuate it to increase the importance of the institution, or to re-imagine what ‘Canada’ means through the use of remembering and forgetting. However, those who perpetuate this idea only damage the CAF’s ability to respond to modern threats, and also restrict all Canadians from having an open and current debate on the role, needs, and uses of military force in our society. They also limit military professionals from questioning basic organizational assumptions and structures, which may need to evolve in response to pressing operational needs or to strategic over-the-horizon threats. Should the CAF absorb more constabulary roles or directly in domestic operations, should the CAF protect Canadian economic interests abroad, should the CAF retain or shed personnel? – these are all questions that are influenced by how ‘sacred’ we view the military, despite it simply being a constructed and flawed human institution .


Finally, forgetting the individuality of military dead serves to continually privilege one historically rooted understanding of social organization, the state, over others that may or may not be the best model for promoting human rights, democracy, social justice, or other values that we have written into the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I am not arguing that the state is detrimental to humanity, but instead that burying the ability to ask the question under the weight of the sacred dead damages our society, restricts our ability to succeed in foreign affairs, and puts CAF personnel at risk. It also limits us as Canadians in our debates and struggles for a more equitable and free society.

In the end analysis, forgetting the individuality of soldiers is a normal historical process that has been, and will likely continue to be, a key part of the toolbox of the dominance of the state as a political structure. Despite this pressure, modern complex conflict and modern complex society both demand that we as citizens and those of us who are soldiers constantly think critically and question received knowledge. We must be aware constantly that forgetting our dead’s human particularity limits us as a society in development and limits the profession of arms itself, by limiting our ability to imagine ourselves as seen by others, to respond effectively to complex conflicts, and to evolve in response to future needs. Forgetting also serves one conception of the state among others exceptionally well by channeling grief that could instead demand hard questions, and transmutes grief into impassioned defense of the state’s right to exist, govern, and use military force. We must also remember that, as humans, forgetting any individual human being’s self with all its particularity, faults, and strengths, is not sanctifying them. It is instead profaning them and their now forgotten humanity in order that they may serve the imagined needs of one organization among others.

Opinions expressed in the articles remain those of the author and do not represent those of the Department of National Defence, Government of Canada, or Canadian Armed Forces.

[1]The Vimy Memorial, as a key example.

[2]Including, most recently, adding the term “Armed” to the name of the Canadian Forces, adding “Royal” to the Royal Canadian Navy, and the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the overall push for the re-imagining of the role of the war of 1812.

[3]In the sense of commonly done by governments throughout history. Objectively, what defines a nation is not a permanent narrative, and is changed by groups within society – often governments – for their own reasons and benefits.

Without specifically citing authors, generally the field of sociology deals most with this process – Anderson’s “Imagined Communities” is especially incisive on the use of monuments for this purpose. See also Grossman’s “On Killing” and Hedges’ “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” for a historical and literature take on the general process, as well.

[5]Sign upon entry to Arlington National Cemetery, VA, USA.

[6]There are rituals associated with this, which mirror religious ones in telling ways. The gold stars in the window of the USA in the Second World War, the giving of a flag to the next of kin, etc, but they are always rituals which use the symbol of the state. Indeed, military funerals literally wrap up the dead in the state’s emblem – not the individual’s own life story.

[7]I do not argue that it has ever been objectively “good” – however, the rationale for these functions serving the needs of survival of a mass citizen army and supporting nationalist identity strengthening the nation-state is clearer and makes more ‘sense’.

[8]This is of course arguable, as military forces have always had a variety of roles, organisatons, and narratives throughout history beyond the ‘official’ version.

[9]This is not an argument for or against the deployment of the CAF in complex conflicts – this article is not pro or anti Powell Doctrine. However, when we examine what the CAF does as a proportion of time, this cognitive dissonance is clearly problematic, and leads to the CAF disregarding hard won lessons about complex conflict.

Image by  DVIDSHUB via Flickr.

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