Quote from a book I have only recently discovered, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, by Eric Hoffer:
Dying and killing seem easy when they are part of a ritual, ceremonial, dramatic performance, or game. There is need for some kind of make-believe in order to face death unflinchingly. To our real, naked selves there is not a thing on earth or in heaven worth dying for. It is only when we see ourselves as actors in a staged (and therefore unreal) performance that death loses its frightfulness and finality becomes an act of make-believe and a theatrical gesture. It is one of the main tasks of a real leader to mask the grim reality of dying and killing by evoking in his followers the illusion that they are participating in a grandiose spectacle, a solemn or light-hearted dramatic performance.
Hitler dressed eighty million Germans in costumes and made them perform in a grandiose, heroic, and bloody opera. In Russia, where even the building of a latrine involved some self-sacrifice, life was an uninterrupted soul-stirring drama going on for thirty years, and its end is not yet. The people of London acted heroically under a hail of bombs because Churchill cast them in the role of heroes. They played their heroic role before a vast audience—ancestors, contemporaries, and posterity—and on a stage lighted by a burning world city and to the music of barking guns and screaming bombs. It is doubtful whether in our contemporary world, with its widespread individual differentiation, any measure of general self-sacrifice can be realized without theatrical hocus-pocus and fireworks…
The indispensability of play-acting in the grim business of dying and killing is particularly evident in the case of armies. Their uniforms, flags, emblems, parades, music, and elaborate etiquette and ritual are designed to separate the soldier from his flesh-and-blood self and mask the overwhelming reality of life and death. We speak of the theater of war and of battle scenes. In their battle orders, army leaders invariably remind their soldiers that the eyes of the world are on them, that their ancestors are watching them, and that posterity shall hear of them. The great general knows how to conjure an audience out of the sands of the desert and the waves of the ocean.
Glory is largely a theatrical concept. There is no striving for glory without a vivid awareness of an audience—the knowledge that our mighty deeds will come to the ears of our contemporaries or “of those who are to be.” We are ready to sacrifice our true, transitory self for the imaginary eternal self we are building up, by our heroic deeds, in the opinion and imagination of others.
Compare this to the testimonials of contemporary American soldiers in Iraq I've blogged about. Two things different but related things are going on here. In Hoffer's case, leaders evoke the idea of theater, or play, in order to enable everyday people to risk death in ways they otherwise might not. In the case of these soldiers in Iraq, the metaphor of killing-as-a-game occurs spontaneously—rising up in the minds of the soldiers, at the moment of existential and moral crisis, as a coping mechanism.