American Death Cult: A Love Story

By Caleb SmithJuly 20, 2019

American Death Cult: A Love Story

Sacred Duty by Tom Cotton

TOM COTTON, THE ARMY VETERAN and Republican senator from Arkansas, has written a book. I can’t stop thinking about it.

If you’re not from Arkansas, you might not know much about Cotton, who is just making a name for himself as a standard-bearer for the far right in American politics — the “natural ideological successor to Trump,” according to National Review, and a “star,” according to Trump himself. As a candidate for Congress, Cotton was heavily funded by the Club for Growth, a right-wing organization focused on cutting taxes and deregulating industry. The day after he took office, in 2013, he voted against disaster relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy. He tried to take the lead in repealing the Affordable Care Act. He has, on at least one occasion, criticized the president’s policies for being too soft on immigration. Now he is agitating to attack Iran.

Cotton’s extraordinarily consistent record in Congress indicates a clear political mission: to build up the military while dismantling government programs (health care, nutrition, gun control) designed to nurture and protect his constituents’ lives. And yet Cotton does not come across as a zealot or a bully. In public appearances, he speaks in sensible, measured tones. “While the farm bill has many important provisions for Arkansas’ farmers and ranchers and foresters,” he tells the press, explaining why he will break ranks with the rest of the state’s congressional delegation to oppose the bill, “I was very disappointed at the lack of meaningful food stamp reform.” Cotton is no firebrand, and unlike Trump he deeply wants to see himself, and to be seen, as a decent person.

Looking over the record, it is tempting to view Cotton and his fellow hard-line Republicans as mercenary agents of military and corporate power, enabling the pursuit of profit without any compassion for the people who suffer the consequences. But in Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery, Cotton sets aside policy questions to talk about rituals and the feelings they inspire, giving voice to some of the conservative movement’s most cherished sentiments. He lifts a veil to expose not only how that movement thinks but also how it feels, not only its self-interested rationality but also its special styles of tenderness and desire.

Thanks to an endorsement tweet by Trump, Sacred Duty has become a best seller. Its message will surely be received enthusiastically by American conservatives. For those of us who feel that our lives are at stake in politics, the book is an occasion to set aside Trump’s crude aggressiveness and to look into the heart of the movement that Cotton represents. If we are going to reckon with this movement, we will need to see how, paradoxically, going to war abroad and enacting immiserating policies at home can feel, to the devoted, like acts of love. Reading Sacred Duty against the grain, we can begin to come to terms with the erotics of American militarism.

In Sacred Duty, Cotton indulges in feeling like a devoted caretaker of the nation. With special attention to the regiment that conducts military ceremonies at Arlington — the Army’s Third Infantry, known as the Old Guard, in which Tom Cotton served — he writes that its soldiers show “the tenderness and reverence that we would all want for loved ones.” Sacred Duty is a pretty bad book, thin on research and thick with platitudes, but it does reinforce a truth about the emotional side of politics in the United States of America: our low regard for real, grown-up, civilian life, with all its sins and struggles, can be accompanied, and covered up, by some sweet feelings about innocents and martyrs.


Where does it come from, this sentimentality about the dead that plays so well with a neglect for the living?

Tom Cotton was born in Arkansas in 1977, and so was I. If you want to understand how Tom Cotton thinks about life and death, I think you need to know a little bit about what our home state was like, back then. Coming of age as a white boy in Arkansas, you could feel very free and very unprotected, all at once. It was a beautiful place and a desperate one, too. It seemed old but also undomesticated. Its landscape, where the South stretched into the West, still had some wildness about it. I loved it there.

Arkansas was home to some of the richest families in the country, but it was afflicted by widespread poverty and the damage that impoverishment does to the living. A lot of the Arkansas men and women I knew had a side hustle or a swindle instead of a regular job. They might be pious about religion and family, but they could also be quick to violence and suspicious of outsiders. A Confederate state without much pretense to plantation gentility, Arkansas fostered the race pride of those whose whiteness was their most valuable property. The rural poor identified with the military because, offering a way out, it drew so many soldiers from their families — but also, I suspected, because their lives were marginal and precarious, because they were so routinely disrespected, and they found some consolation in feeling that the world’s most powerful military went to battle in their name.

I took a lot of pleasure in roaming rural Arkansas’s wide open spaces, but I came to see it as a place lagging in the past. I admired the fierceness of the men and women I grew up around, their independence and their practical skill, but I feared the resentments that seemed to haunt them. In time, I came to harbor my own shame about Arkansas’s provincialism and its old-fashioned ways. The forces of secularism and racial integration and the more polite forms of civilization, even the law, seemed not to have taken hold, at least not all the way, at least not yet. I imagined that we were waiting to catch up with the modern world.

But for people like Cotton, Arkansas was something else. It was a vision of the future.

By the 1990s, when Cotton and I were in high school, our little state seemed to be taking over the world. Our governor Bill Clinton, from Hope, won the presidency. Wal-Mart, the discount chain from Bentonville, became the largest retailer and the most powerful employer in the country. Tyson Foods, the poultry operation out of Springdale, rose to dominance in American meat production. Arkansas trucking companies controlled the interstates. Even Cotton rode the wave, making his way to Harvard and a corporate law firm before he enlisted in the Army.

Some of these ascendant Arkansans were Democrats, and some were Republicans. They disagreed about plenty of things. But they had made their fortunes in the same environment, and whether they acknowledged it or not they had a project in common: they would dismantle social welfare programs, replacing them with policies more friendly to big business, and they would make huge investments in the penal system and the military. The neoliberal dream of totally unregulated capitalism resonated with their fantasies of frontier toughness. They would deliver to everyone the unprotectedness that felt like freedom to them, and they would back it up with force. Watching their rise to power, over the past quarter century, I have often thought that they were remaking the country in the image of Arkansas.

Arkansas has become Trump country, but Trump country has a lot of Arkansas in it, too. And this is one reason why I can’t stop thinking about Tom Cotton: he seems to stand for the worst things about a place that he and I both cared about in different ways, a place we both said goodbye to so that we could pursue an education elsewhere. For my part, I am left wishing that the wildness and beauty of our home state could have animated a better kind of politics — not the death cult of Trump or the biopolitics of the Clintons but a version of freedom in love with life.


“[T]his is not a political book,” Cotton says in Sacred Duty. What he is trying to say is that patriotism should transcend partisan disputes. But what he really means is that war is more important than making a world where people can live together.

“We live in politically divided times, to be sure, but the military remains our nation’s most respected institution, and the fields of Arlington are one place where we can set aside our differences.” As he sees it, government programs will always be matters of corrupt and petty politics, but war, especially the ritualized honoring of fallen soldiers, is above all that. A military funeral is the purest expression of the nation’s spirit.

Cotton promises his readers a history of Arlington and the Old Guard. What he writes, however, is not history; it is a mythology, repressing anything that might feel too controversial (too political). For example, Cotton refers to Arlington as “Lee’s old farm,” a folksy way of saying that, back before the Civil War, the land had been Robert E. Lee’s plantation until he joined the rebellion and federal troops seized his property. Lee famously criticized the evils of slavery, but at Arlington, under his ownership, enslaved families had been broken apart, children sold away from their parents. When some tried to escape, according to their own testimony, they got lashes across their backs and brine in their wounds.

As for the Third Infantry that Cotton celebrates, its history is one of genocidal violence and imperial conquest. Established in 1784, the regiment fought its first battles in the Northwest Indian Wars. And then he writes, “as the nation’s frontier moved westward, so did the 3rd Infantry,” which manned the front lines of Manifest Destiny. It traveled down to Florida for the Second Seminole War. A few years later, “as war clouds gathered with Mexico,” the regiment joined the Army of Occupation in Texas. It fought under Pershing to put down rebellions in the Philippines, a counterinsurgency campaign that, in Cotton’s eyes, foreshadowed the War on Terror. After 1948, the regiment took up its ceremonial business at Arlington, where “funerals are the Old Guard’s highest-priority mission.” But when the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. provoked riots in the capital, the Old Guard was called out to police the streets and, to quote Cotton’s euphemistic phrase, “restored order.”

Telling these stories, Cotton strains the language to hide the political decisions that set the course of American empire. The nation’s frontier moved, and war clouds gathered, he writes, as if war were a force of nature or an act of God. He buries the history of arguments for and against invasion. “Political debates mattered little to the soldiers of the 3rd Infantry,” he says, as if such debates were not, for the soldiers, matters of life and death.

In one especially colorful chapter, Cotton describes an Old Guard custom known as Twilight Tattoo, a kind of pageant about military history. The soldiers put on period costumes to reenact the Army’s most famous battles. “More than anything,” Cotton observes, “Twilight Tattoo resembles a Broadway musical.” The storytelling that goes on in Sacred Duty itself is not a serious historical inquiry but a nostalgic reverie.

In saying this, I mean no disrespect to the people who have fought and died in America’s wars. I think that they deserve better, braver, more honest books than Sacred Duty.

Although women play virtually no part in its story, whose most vivid form of intimacy is the one that Cotton calls “brotherhood,” the family Sacred Duty does describe is the Old Guard, with all its peculiar customs and ways. “We have a weird job, playing Taps all day long,” one Third Regiment soldier says to Cotton, and he is right. The best parts of the book are its accounts of the elaborate costumes, ceremonies, and disciplines that make service in the Old Guard so enjoyable for the author:

Putting on our ceremonial belts — or “blousing up” — was a two-person operation. The guidon bearer pulled the pleats of my blouse tight in the back, I buckled my belt, and then he smoothed the fabric under the belt and tucked away excess material. I did the same for him, as the other soldiers did for each other.

There is a sweetness in the writing here; it is about dressing up, but it is also about taking care. And this is the other reason I can’t stop thinking about Tom Cotton’s bad book — because of how it imagines in the Army’s memorial services not just a tribute to the dead but a way of life. Sacred Duty doesn’t just honor fallen heroes; it eroticizes discipline.

“Though never the biggest or strongest soldier, I excelled in tests of stamina and mental toughness,” Cotton informs us. This is an embarrassing kind of bragging, but it is also a rare occasion when he expresses something like a sense of pleasure. Under the scrutinizing gaze of his commanding officer, Cotton allows himself to gaze at his own body, to appraise it and delight in its capacities. When he is completely transformed into a component in a war machine, when he perfectly submits to the discipline of ritualized grieving, he feels most alive.

In the end, what Cotton learns at Arlington is a way to love his country without giving up his hostility to its government. He practices a style of mourning that does not commit him at all to the nurture of the living. He dreams up a kind of genealogy and attachment across the generations, but one that takes women almost entirely out of the picture. Heaven on earth, for Cotton, is a place of nationalism without the state, community without difference, and family without sex. Sacred Duty is “a love story,” the author confesses, and here, for once, he is saying something meaningful and surprising. It is, in its way, a book about love — about America’s romance with death.

Sacred Duty ends with a quotation from an unnamed “foreign military leader” who visits the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and says to the Americans, “Now I know why your soldiers fight so hard. You take better care of your dead than we do our living.” I suppose that Cotton would like his readers to understand that America’s way of honoring its dead reflects a broader commitment to life and dignity, but his politics suggest the opposite. If he has his way, our military will continue to salute fallen heroes, and many more of them will fall, while our government abandons the living. We take care of our dead: this, it appears, is the highest praise that Cotton can imagine for the United States, his best hope for the future we might have in common.


Caleb Smith is professor of English and American Studies at Yale University and the author of The Prison and the American Imagination and The Oracle and the Curse.

LARB Contributor

Caleb Smith is professor of English at Yale University. He is the author of The Prison and the American Imagination (Yale University Press, 2009) and The Oracle and the Curse: A Poetics of Justice from the Revolution to the Civil War (Harvard University Press, 2013). His essays on contemporary culture have appeared in BOMB, Paper Monument, Yale Review, and His homepage is


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