War as a Sacrificial Ritual

by Lloyd deMause

Preventive war is like committing suicide for fear of death.
-Otto von Bismarck


Historians and political scientists agree that war is a realistic, rational, utilitarian activity. This is termed "the Realist paradigm that states are rational actors, carefully calculating costs of alternative courses of action and seeking to maximize their expected utility."1 Rationality is simply assumed by Realists: "War is a rational process" and "leaders are rational expected-utility maximizers [who] never choose an action that is expected to produce less value-or utility-than some alternative policy."2 Even when they admit that "aggression seldom succeeds; aggressor states usually are contained or destroyed," this is only because "misperceptions are common."3 Misperceptions are viewed as having no cause. They are unmotivated. Irrational, self-destructive motives are unthinkable. That would be "doing psychology" - a forbidden activity.

Realists therefore tend to accept the statements of war leaders when they claim to start wars for rational economic reasons. When Hitler, for instance, says he has to attack the Soviet Union and other Eastern European nations because Germany needs more territory to grow food ("Lebensraum"), Realists nod and accept his claim. They ignore the more bizarre emotional reasons nations really voice while slaughtering millions of their neighbors, such as they have to kill them because they might turn into lice who will poison their blood (Jews, Poles), or because they have longer noses than they do (Tutsis), or because they smoke different cigarettes (Bosnia), or because they hang a different colored rag from their homes (flag), or because someone in their religion insulted them thirteen centuries ago (Muslim sects). The emotional meaning of these statements is never investigated by Realists, nor do they affect their theory that wars are always about obtaining economic resources. After all, says one, "if we are to regard war as pathological, then all conflict must be similarly regarded."4 Realists simply don't recognize the pathological portions of the right hemisphere.

Furthermore, Realists routinely overlook all the suicidal imagery that leaders voice as they actually make their decision to go to war. In the over a hundred wars I have researched in the past four decades, not one began by political or military leaders actually ever sitting down and adding up the economic costs and benefits of the war they are about to begin. More typically they voice suicidal, sacrificial motivations, like when Tojo called together his ministers before attacking Pearl Harbor and asked what would happen if Japan attacked the U.S. Each one forecast decisive defeat, so Tojo concluded: "There are times when we must jump off the Kiomizu Temple" [where Japanese regularly committed suicide].5 Hitler, who attempted suicide himself several times, said he would "not be in a position to hesitate because of the ten million young men I shall be sending to their death"6 as he took Germany to war against nations many times his size and potential power, even ordering that German cities should be entirely destroyed to no purpose as the war ended. The German people shared his suicidal motivations-in fact, the war ended with tens of thousands of Germans committing gratuitous suicide in 1945 in what Beisel calls the "largest mass suicide in history."7 Beisel calls WWII "The Suicidal Embrace."8 In fact, all wars are suicidal embraces. No mention of suicidal or sacrificial war motivations, however, can be found in Realist theories.


Nation-states go to war about every 25 years, as though each new generation must be thrown into the mouth of the bloodthirsty Killer Motherland to cleanse the accumulated sins of the people.9 The more economic progress achieved by the nation, the more likely it is to start a war to destroy it. Wars not only have occurred far more frequently after prosperous periods, but have been over ten times bigger during prosperity.10 Goldstein's studies have shown that wars are far more severe and more frequent when they occur during upward economic phases.11 In fact, no great-power European wars have been started during a depression for two centuries. LeShan summarizes his extensive research saying "We know conclusively that war destroys far more wealth than it produces."12 Wars are in fact prosperity-reducing, sacrificial rituals. Group behavior guaranteed to provoke revenge is not "aggressive"-it is self-destructive.

Much of the problem of studying the true costs of going to war even in the unlikely event that the initiator wins is that "expected-utility" Realists routinely overlook all kinds of hidden but very real long-term costs of war.13 These include ignoring the costs of the hyperinflation and debt produced by war, the costs of gratuitous provocations of enemy allies, the costs of supposedly unmotivated "mistakes" that give other nations military advantages, the costs of maintaining troops in conquered nations (even producing net losses for empires), the loss of lifetime productivity of warriors and civilians killed and crippled during the war, the cost of interest on the money borrowed for the war, the costs of refugees, the increase in national product and trade often lost for decades, and so on.14 Add to these the costs of the usual crazy economic schemes that accompany wars, like the enormous costs of "purification" of Cambodia by the abolition of money and the forced deportation of the urban population by the Khmer Rouge.15 When some of these hidden costs are recognizedas when the U.S. invasion of Iraq is now estimated to eventually cost $2 trillion when some of the indirect costs are considered, four times the official cost estimate-it becomes obvious that there is no way the invasion could have been for "economic reasons."16

Even though some individuals make obscene amounts of money from wars, states do not. Nor do states often start wars for the reasons they are alleged to do, "because they are falling behind in military strength." In fact, "in each of the major wars from 1600 to 1945 war was initiated by a state with marked military superiority."17 Actually, states that begin wars often do not win them: "No nation that began a major war in the 19th century emerged a winner."18 So starting wars is a self-destructive activity when the real costs of war are included. That the U.S. currently spends over a half trillion dollars a year on its military-more than the rest of the world combined-is not a measure of its strength. It has the hidden purpose of making enemies worldwide, and of costing so much it makes the U.S. a debtor to the rest of the world.

The central failing of all Realist analysis of international relations is that they use a bizarre, totally backward theory of interpersonal relations. The arch-Realist Machiavelli stated it clearly in 1513: "If one has to choose between being loved and feared, it is better to be feared."19 As a theory of interpersonal relations, it claims that everyone would be better off arming themselves with guns and knives so as they walk around the street or visit people or live in their families they will be feared. It only overlooks one thing: the slightest disagreement between individuals in a totally fearful world will provoke violence. This state of endless violence Machiavelli calls "better than a state of mutual love." Realists agree with him on how to be successful in international relations: "The Realist paradox is that one must prepare for war to maintain peace; one must threaten war to avoid it and escalate a crisis to end it."20 Realism is a theory proclaiming the wisdom of continuously escalating paranoid provocations. It is a theory that is self-destructive to its core, so it is not surprising that the tens of thousands of politicians who follow it blindly find themselves putting their nations constantly on the edge of self-destruction, rarely negotiating or talking to any other state, constantly preparing to initiate "preventive" wars so they can be constantly feared, constantly making alliances that have been shown to lead to war and make wars deadlier and longer rather than preventing it.21 Realism is a theory that declines respect and avoids cooperation, a theory guaranteeing international self-destructive policies. As Vasquez courageously puts it, "Realist practices make war more likely rather than less likely because they increase threat and insecurity rather than ameliorating them."22 It is a theory maintained by people who have been abused as children and who are condemned to repeating this abuse on others and on themselves as adults.


As de Maistre pointed out: "Human sacrifice is a universal human institution. All human cultures believed in a universal guilt and the need for ceremonies of sacrifice to repair the broken relation between humanity and divinity ...a voluntary sacrifice of the innocent who sacrifices himself to the divinity as a propitiatory victim."23 As we have seen in Chapter One, the "innocent" who is sacrificed is the innocent child, who is sacrificed as a Bad Self to the abusive Killer Mother, the "divinity." The innocent sacrificed victim is the scapegoat in every tribe, every religion, every early state, who serves to cleanse the group of sin, to purge the fears embedded in the mind during child abuse, to repeat the traumas inflicted by the family in early years. Whether the sacrifice is staged by witches or female shamans or male priests who dressed in maternal robes, Killer Mother representatives have restored group wholeness ever since the Paleolithic as groups switch into their dissociated violent alters and trance themselves into a religious frenzy while cutting themselves, murdering sacrificial victims, and going to war. The sacrificial war ritual is a wholly internal need.24 "Enemies" can always be found when needed for the ritual. When the Aztecs felt their bloodthirsty Killer Goddess needed victims, they said they "longed for death" and sacrificed themselves by becoming warriors and fighting anyone, even at times dividing themselves into two groups to kill each other or even simply committing suicide, in order to "renew" their Killer Mother Goddess and "rebirth" their society.25 The ritual repeated the horrible traumas they had endured as children, since Aztec children were routinely cut, bled, burned, battered and tortured for their Killer Goddess and told they would soon die, like the children they watched actually sacrificed and eaten by their parents.26 The innocence of their war victims was essential, since as children they were in fact innocent, even as their mothers regularly pierced their genitals and faces in order to "cleanse the world." All enemies are chosen because they are innocent and helpless, like children, which is why most people who are killed in wars are civilians. Hutus slaughtered a half million Tutsis who for centuries had been innocent, friendly next-door neighbors. Easter Islanders had no neighbors, so they joyfully slaughtered each other until they had reduced the population of their island to 111 persons.27 Innocent children have been at the center of most early sacrifices in history, from the infants sacrificed to cleanse ancient Israel and Egypt to the little girls sacrificed at Woodhenge.28

The childhood innocence of sacrificial victims explains why "world wars begin with a major state intimidating or attacking a minor state...all of the wars that have expanded have involved minor states in their initial stages."29 They were symbols of weak children. That these warrior states then provoked a second major power to oppose them is just a measure of their suicidal need to self-destruct. Leaders promise "sacrifice," not gain, when starting wars; as John Adams said as the American Revolution began, war with England was the only way "to prevent luxury from producing effeminacy...30 Individuals say they have to commit suicide to "find peace," just as nations say they fight wars to "find peace"-peace from internal despair. As Korner declared during the Napoleonic Wars: "Happiness lies only in sacrificial death.31

Shneidman's study of "The Suicidal Mind" shows they say that suicide solves the problem of stopping the unendurable pain inside them that comes from loss of love, either because someone close rejected them or because their inner parental alter rejected them as useless. They leave suicide messages like "I just cannot live without you. I might as well be dead. When you left me I died inside. I have this empty feeling inside me that is killing me. I just can't take it anymore."32 Suicide promises "a great peace" that "reminds them of how small" they are-a child again-and how helpless, but "gives them the upper hand" in ending everything, making them "in control if I die."33 Wars give the same feeling of being "in control" and triumphing over feelings of rejection and helplessness. Some military leaders admit the suicidal goal of war: as General Sir John Hackett put it: "The whole essence of being a soldier is not to slay but to be slain."34

Studies of powerful politicians show that the sexual fantasy they most request of call girls is masochistic, being dominated and hurt, not sadistic.35 War leaders begin their nation's sacrificial ritual when their dissociated alters begin to call for mass suicidal and homicidal actions. Most of the people killed are actually their own citizens: Rummel shows that battle deaths in the twentieth century were 34 million, while over 170 million were civilians killed in the century by their own government.36 Robins and Post term the dissociated internal alter the "hidden executioner." They show that "the pain of being under attack by an internal persecutor cannot be overstated. One solution is suicide...the hating introject calls out for the execution of the evil self...A solution for this intolerable burden is to disown the internal persecutor. This is what the paranoid does. He projects the internal persecutor onto an outside presence against which he must defend himself. It is rare that a paranoid openly commits suicide. More commonly he attacks his perceived enemy."37 And that "perceived enemy" has all the characteristics of the Bad Self that was abused and neglected by the parents.

Are nations that start wars paranoid? Yes, every one of them entertains openly paranoid group-fantasies of being attacked by "enemies" who are in fact not about to attack. But the question of psychiatric designations of groups or leaders of groups is a tricky one. Psychiatrists have constructed a highly selective mental disorder list, DSM IV, that simply eliminates anything but select individual disorders, which is why every book I have read on leaders at war-even Hitler, even bin Laden-declare they are "normal." Even when obviously pathological groups commit suicide in unison-like the 900 Jonestown religious individuals who killed themselves and their children at the direction of Jim Jones-psychiatrists proclaim them "not insane ...they showed no signs of psychopathology."38 Yet, given that those who are driven to individual violence are listed in DSM IV as "sociopaths," might one conclude that those who need to commit mass violence should be considered "bellipaths"? Or "war addicts"? That people who slaughter harmless neighbors and sacrifice their own people by the millions are pathologically disturbed will some day become evident, even if they are not now listed in DSM IV.

It is useful to think of going to war as having similar motivations as other self-destructive activities, such as the self-cutting rituals that people do to relieve inner despairs. Self-cutters too are in pain from having lost the approval of an inner parental alter, and deliberately injure themselves by making shallow razor cuts to their forearms or thighs so they feel that they themselves are in control of their inner pain and loneliness. This produces a calming flow of opiates in the brain, which overpowers the inner sorrows.39 As wars start, one can see the "high" produced by this flow of opiates, making leaders fantasy that their nations are far more powerful than they are and that the war will be quickly won. Winston Churchill often noted the unwarranted optimism of leaders going to war for ephemeral reasons, with disastrous consequences to tens of millions of their citizens, saying: "Almost one might think the world wished to suffer."40 Opiates work for a time. That is why suicide, homicide and anxiety disorder rates generally decrease during wars: the population is "high" in their war trance.41 Warriors throughout history regularly fantasy that they are about to suffer "not just a necessary but a noble and beautiful death" and they will achieve a "death that was a magnificent triumph over death," a martyrdom precisely like that of the Japanese kamikaze pilots or the Islamic terrorists who imagined their deaths would finally give them the love of their deity (their rejecting caretakers).42 It is as sacrificial martyrs that both warriors and terrorists willingly die for their holy Motherland deities. They are responding to their inner maternal alter voice that continues to tell them "You are so selfish! You never think of ME! I wish I never had you!"

The self-destructive motivations for war are the reasons why most wars are initiated by "superpowers fearing decline."43 Realists are puzzled by why the strongest states so regularly fear decline that they start "preventive wars" that they did not need to start, why they feared they were about to decline, and why they so regularly ended up losing.44 As Copeland puts it, "in every one of the thirteen major wars...covered in this book, conflict was initiated by a state fearing decline...All major wars...therefore must be preventive wars."45 Copeland and other Realists never do explain why this should be, since they cannot "do psychology" and discover that even when states are superpowers that is a reality only for the more rational left hemisphere of their brain, but when before wars they switch into the right hemisphere's dissociated emotional alters they see themselves not as powerful at all, but as helpless children anticipating attack by the power of their Killer Mothers projected onto the enemy. The next chapter examines the psychodynamics of going to war, only this time not leaving out the self-destructive sacrificial motivations and activities involved in each of the seven phases that all wars exhibit.


  1. Stephen Van Evera, Causes of War: Power and the Roots of Conflict. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999, p. 7.
  2. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, The War Trap. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 19, 20, 29.
  3. Stephen Van Evera, Causes of War, p. 9.
  4. Michael Howard, The Causes of Wars and Other Essays. Second Edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983, p. 11.
  5. John Toland, The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945. New York: Random House, 1970, p. 112.
  6. Hermann Rauschning, The Voice of Destruction. New York: Putnam's, 1940, p. 80.
  7. David R. Beisel, "The German Suicide, 1945." The Journal of Psychohistory 34(2007): 303.
  8. David R. Beisel, The Suicidal Embrace: Hitler, the Allies, and the Origins of the Second World War. Nyack, N.Y.: Circumstantial Productions, 2004.
  9. Lloyd deMause, The Emotional Life of Nations. London: Karnac Press, 2002, p. 158.
  10. Ibid., p. 141.
  11. Jack S. Levy, "The Causes of War: A Review of Theories and Evidence." In Philip E. Tetlock, et al, Eds. Behavior, Society, and Nuclear War: Vol. One. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 124.
  12. Lawrence LeShan, The Psychology of War: Comprehending Its Mystique and Its Madness. New York: Helios Press, 2002, p. 33.
  13. Ibid., p. 246.
  14. Joshua S. Goldstein, Long Cycles: Prosperity and War in the Modern Age. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988; John Mueller, The Remnants of War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004, p. 42; Joshua S. Goldstein, The Real Price of War: How You Pay for the War on Terror. New York: New York University Press, 2004; Peter Liberman, Does Conquest Pay?: The Exploitation of Occupied Industrial Societies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
  15. Eric D. Weitz, A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003, pp. 150-155.
  16. Tom Regan, "Iraq War Costs Could Top $2 Trillion." Christian Science Monitor, January 9, 2006, p. 1.
  17. Dale C. Copeland, The Origins of Major War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000, p. 236.
  18. John G. Stoessinger, Why Nations Go To War: Second Ed., New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978, p. 223.
  19. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince. New York: Norton, 1964, p. 145.
  20. Russell J. Leng, Interstate Crisis Behavior, 1816-1980: Realism Versus Reciprocity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 4.
  21. John A. Vasquez, The War Puzzle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 159-163, 167.
  22. lbid, pp. 114-115.
  23. Ivan Strenski, Contesting Sacrifice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002, p. 39.
  24. George Victor, "Scapegoating - A Rite of Purification." The Journal of Psychohistory. 30(2003): 273-288.
  25. Burr Cartwright Brundage, The Fifth Sun: Aztec Gods, Aztec World. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979
  26. Lloyd deMause, The Emotional Life of Nations, p. 312.
  27. John Keegan, A History of Warfare. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, p. 26.
  28. Patrick Tierny, The Highest Altar: Unveiling the Mystery of Human Sacrifice. London: Viking, 1989, p. 14.
  29. John A. Vasquez, The War Puzzle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 230.
  30. Michael C. C. Adams, The Great Adventure. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990, p. 51.
  31. Barbara Ehrenreich, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War. New York: Henry Holt, 1997, p. 18.
  32. Edwin S. Shneidman, The Suicidal Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 15.
  33. Ibid, p. 102.
  34. Gwynne Dyer, War: The Lethal Custom. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004, p. 129.
  35. Sam Janus, et al, A Sexual Profile of Men in Power. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice Hall, 1977.
  36. R. J. Rummel, Death By Government. New York: Transactio Publishers, 1997, p. 57.
  37. Robert S. Robins and Jerrold M. Post, Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997, p. 79.
  38. Ibid., p. 115.
  39. Thomas Lewis et al, A General Theory of Love. New York: Vintage Books, 2000, p. 94.
  40. Gabriel Kolko, Century of War: Politics, Conflicts, and Society Since 1914. New York: The New Press, 1994, p. 16.
  41. Rush W. Dozier, Jr. Fear Itself: The Origin and Nature of the Powerful Emotion That Shapes Our Lives and Our World. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998, p. 106.
  42. Lloyd deMause, "'If I Blow Myself Up and Become a Martyr, I'll Finally Be Loved."' The Journal of Psychohistory 33(2006):300-307.
  43. Dale C. Copeland, The Origins of Major War. p. 177.
  44. John A. Vasquez, The War Puzzle, pp. 155ff.
  45. lbid, pp. 2, 12.

Lloyd deMause is Editor of The Journal of Psychohistory, Director of The Institute for Psychohistory, Treasurer of the International Psychohistorical Association, and author/editor of seven books, including The Emotional Life of Nations. He can be contacted at psychst@tiac.net . His website is The Institute of Psychohistory

This article is chapter 4 of the forthcoming book, The Origins of War in Child Abuse.

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