A familiar story from the Bible, of Abraham (also known as Abram), the patriarch of Western Civilization, willing to obediently slay, at the order of God, his only, long-awaited offspring, Isaac, before the unfolding of the great history of the tribe from whence Judaism, Christianity and Islam all grew.
In the time of Abraham a couple thousand years B.C., it should be pointed out, there was no high ground for any kind of morality, save for self-preservation, which hardly qualifies as morality. The best of what some might call morality came in the form of powerful and honorable leadership in the striving of one tribe over another. But self-preservation and tribal self-preservation were accounted as the measure for all actions and of course that involved an almost unbroken sequence of wars. In other words, killing other human beings was the standard.
There was no such thing as the modern concept of pacifism in the general population, as much as accommodation for a priestly class was sometimes provided.
If you didn’t kill, you’d get killed, and often by your own tribesmen if your reluctance was deemed bad for morale and success.
In war, it is the older generation that has always used its offspring as fodder for its preservation and success. The old forcing their own young to fight and die for them has always been the way it was done.
Yet, there has been in all this time no commonly held term for the genocide of sons by their fathers. There are homicide, genocide, fratricide, even suicide, but no common term by which we identify this most prolific of all forms of systematic taking of human life down through the course of history.
It was not until World War I, the Great War, which saw to the slaughter of tens of millions of the most civil and educated lads that humanity had ever spawned that surfaced at all the expression of even some doubts about war in general and even derived from it dad’s entitlement to kill junior.
From “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1929), to Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957) to “Johnny Got His Gun” (1971) and others arose not just a general critique of the unfairness and brutality of war, but of its very idea in the first place. Yet even so, they fall short of getting at the core dynamic behind war.
No, it was not until an intergenerational collaboration between a young poet of the Great War who died on the battlefield only weeks before it ended, Wilfred Owen, and his much younger British composer of music, Benjamin Britten, who put many of Owen’s poems to the music of his War Requiem, first performed in 1962, that a new appreciation was first struck.
Mixing Owen’s “Anthem for a Doomed Youth” and the Latin Mass of the Dead, Britten conjured an alternative to the savagery of civilization built out of its very own core tradition, the Biblical sacrifice by the patriarch Abraham of his son Isaac.
Go these words, “Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
“And builded parapets and trenched there, And stretched forth the knife to slay his son. When lo! an angel called him out of heaven, Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,Neither do anything to him. Behold, a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
“Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him. but the old man would not so, but slew his son, And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
The first part recites the Biblical account, coming down to the last two lines, which are altered dramatically, “But the old man would not so, but slew his son. And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
It is an immensely powerful indictment of humanity’s unwillingness to adhere to the core morality of the new thing that was being introduced to humanity by the Abrahmaic tradition.
God orders his principal man to not kill his son! That was how God intended for his people to go forth into the world. Yet nowhere in our long tradition has this been explicitly acknowledged. Instead, swept under the rug.