From civilians transformed to mindless titans to survey corps killed for the benefit of humanity, to genocide committed for the slights long passed, we examine the ethics of sacrifice. Is it inevitable? Is it worth it? Do the ends justify the means?
Hajime Isayama's Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyōjin) is a series beloved by anime and non-anime fans alike. It follows the story of Eren Yeager and how an attack by a Colossus Titan pushes him to join the Survey Corps to avenge his fallen mother. Humanity, as we know it, has been pushed to extinction by monstrous giants called Titans, who subconsciously eat humans in hopes that they will regain their humanity. With this, we're met with the overarching theme of the series; the cycle of violence, sacrifices, and how hatred is passed down by generation.
In the first season, Erwin places Eren in the center of the formation in his first mission as a member of Levi's squad. Even though he expected a titan's pursuit, he risked the lives of his subordinates for the off-chance that his deduction was right. And so, a lot of lives, including their most talented soldiers, were lost in what seemed to be a pointless battle. In short, it was a crushing defeat. Erwin was like a gambler but with human lives as his tokens of sacrifice.
Then there's Annie Leonhart. Annie kills Survey Corps members for Eren, as part of her job as a spy for Marley. Unlike Erwin, her greatest ambition is not for humanity but for herself. Annie longs to return to Marley and live a normal life. Ultimately, her loyalty was to herself and not to her fellow trainees, and not to Marley, either. She accepts her callous nature, calling herself a monster. She admires people like Armin who fight for the sake of others and not for herself. Thus, Annie spares Armin once she recognizes him.
Despite being on opposing sides, with different motivations, Annie and Erwin are very similar. They'll shed blood for their means. They are not afraid of sacrificing. Whether it was Erwin and his practical approach to helping humanity or Annie's apathy to kill actual human beings. As long as it furthers their goals, it doesn't matter. Now Annie and her self-centered goal are terrifying. But what is most horrifying are those like Commander Erwin, whose motivations stem from the belief of being right. These types of people are the ones whom the people are sacrificing themselves for.
It is here that Armin's words in the Titan Forest ring true. "The people capable of changing things are the ones who can throw away everything dear to them... they can even leave behind their humanity."
If one has gone into the story far enough, it would be easy to compare the Marley-Eldia war with the Israel-Palestine war. Both conflicts begin similarly, with one side being oppressed, slowly gaining power, and becoming oppressors themselves, with people dying hailed as a noble sacrifice for their land stolen. Of course, the conflict between Israel and Palestine has never truly ceased, but just like the fall of Wall Maria, the conflict was exacerbated by a catalyst. For our world, that catalyst was Hamas.
The Rumbling was caused by mindless adherence to an ideology—Eren sacrifices the lives of normal Marleyans in favor of the citizens in Paradis. The same thing happens with Israel and Palestine, with Israel committing war crimes while blaming Hamas and Palestine and, and Hamas bolstering their numbers by recruiting enraged Palestinians. These lives, too, will be sacrificed. In the end, the conflict would be oversimplified into right versus wrong, and each side believed they were right. In the end, both sides will forget that most casualties are not of the ardent believers, but from the passersby and innocents trying their best to survive before being bombarded by white phosphorus.
So is sacrifice worth it? Do we become selfish—uncaring for the greater good of the people in our community? Do we stop caring or trying to escape horrifying circumstances? Do we kill hope?
These answers would never be answered because the essence of sacrificing is to offer something to a deity. In the modern world, this deity would be our ideologies, religious enmity, racism, and hate.
No essay will ever drive these instincts away from humans. But we can start by offering ourselves to humanity itself. We should stop reveling in death and sing odes to wars won. There is never a good reason to offer one's life or annihilate the lives of others. It is simply a pattern of destruction that humanity, sadly, has never learned from history.
The cycle of violence and sacrifice is relentlessly driven by fear, hatred, and the desire for power. In Attack on Titan, we see this cycle play out in a brutal and tragic way. Ultimately, the only way to break this cycle is to reject the notion of sacrifice as a means to an end. Instead, we must strive to understand and empathize with those who are different from us and to find ways to resolve conflict peacefully. It is a difficult task, but it is the only way to create a world where sacrifice is no longer necessary.