“Foxhole conversions are not real Christian conversions,” and, “It is virtually impossible for Christians to serve in the military and remain faithful.” These are the words of a professor I experienced in seminary. It always seemed odd to me a professor at a Wesleyan – Arminian seminary wanted to keep people outside of saving grace. But quotes like these can be attributed to a fear in associating religion with the affairs of state. In addition, it is also the belief that the mixing of any form of national service and faith is entirely corrupt.
There have been several high profile publications of late that have dealt with spirituality on the battlefield. Many books and articles have dealt with faith and heroics, spiritual revivals, and spiritual warfare on the front. Faith of the American Soldier, by Stephen Mansfield, and A Table in The Presence, by Lt. Cary Cash, are two that immediately come to mind. But spiritual themes are also covered in the saltier and more profane, Generation Kill, authored by Evan Wright, which chronicled the initial invasion into Iraq by Marines. Religious revivals and accounts of war of course are not new. Spiritual revival heavily influenced many of the soldiers in the Union and Confederate Army during the American Civil War.
W. Thomas Smith Jr. has a piece for National Review Online titled “God Bless and Semper Fi”. Smith says in the piece:
As I’ve said before: though some members of Congress might cavalierly suggest U.S. soldiers and Marines are “cold-blooded killers,” the very nature of their work — something few Americans fully grasp — demands they be some of the world’s most moral men if they are going to be effective at what they do. That doesn’t mean soldiers are perfect. But it does mean many of them have been forced to face God in a way most of us have not, and it’s often reflected in their characters and unconscious behavior.
Second: Combat soldiers and Marines prayed openly and unashamedly, as did their officers. Not all of them mind you, but a noticeable number. Even the ones who cursed, pardon the cliché and the reference, like sailors.
The next quote may make sense for those who have lived in the Middle East. Having lived in Cairo myself, what the author says is plausible:
I’m convinced this openly expressed spirituality is one of the reasons Army and Marine officers seem to be making greater headway in terms of ground-zero diplomacy with sheiks and tribal elders than the rank-and-file civilian diplomats. The Iraqis simply trust American soldiers, their word, and their sincerity, because of their spirituality.
Oftentimes the caricatures of the mixing of faith and nationalism are entirely overblown. The view by some in the religious left and other camps, that some U.S. soldiers think of themselves as modern day Christian Crusaders fighting the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan is in fact grossly exaggerated. U.S. military chaplains are extremely mindful of Church and state roles, which can be more complex in a military setting, than say a local church. I remember covering an event held by the far left Institute on Progressive Christianity for The Institute on Religion and Democracy. During this conference a participant expressed the belief that the Pentagon was forming its foreign policy from the book of Revelation. In fairness to the IPC, their speaker downplayed the belief Pentagon officials were using rapture and apocalyptic teachings as a guide. A link to the IRD article can be found here.
When my brother was serving in Iraq, a Marine from his unit was awarded the Silver Star for his combat leadership. As a reservist, Dennis Woullard was also a an associate Baptist Minister on the Mississippi Gulf Coast at the time. I wrote him a letter, telling him I was praying for him and was proud of the unit. Woullard wrote back, downplaying his own heroics and praising the men who served under him. It was the typical response from a U.S. Marine.
For Marines and other service men and women, faith is so often an integral part of the psychology and survival of combat. Making sense of violence, evil, and death is magnified on the battlefield. It was Confederate General Robert E. Lee, when recalling the battle of Fredericksburg, who declared, “It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we would grow too fond of it.”