Virtual Voices
U.S. Marines pray over a fallen comrade at a first aid point after he died from wounds suffered in fighting in Fallujah, Iraq.
Associated Press/Photo by Murad Sezer
U.S. Marines pray over a fallen comrade at a first aid point after he died from wounds suffered in fighting in Fallujah, Iraq.

What’s happened to the faith of American soldiers?

Q&A

WORLD published my Q&A with Stephen Mansfield in our March 8 issue, but I didn’t have room to include some of the author’s provocative thoughts about American soldiers. As we approach Memorial Day, here are excerpts from that part of the interview.

Tell us about your book, The Faith of the American Soldier. I had written The Faith of George W. Bush, and it had done very, very well, so a publisher came to be and said “What would you like to write next?” At that time, we were seeing newspaper articles in The New York Times about Marine units being baptized in the sands of Iraq and listening to Christian rock before they went into the field. There was a low-grade revival happening among people who weren’t churched when they were back here. This was also the first war involving the millennials, and they were absolutely blowing the minds of commanders who were saying, “These troops are as fine as we’ve ever put in the field.”

So you managed to get yourself embedded with the troops? I got embedded and spent some time over there traveling around, flying around. I had the harrowing experiences that so many journalists had, and looked as stupid in a vest as Geraldo Rivera does. But I really did see what is true in every war: Soldiers are almost always making some deeper religious journey. It may not be traditional, it may not be Christian, but they have to deal with the morality of killing the other side, the death of their friends, the theological issues of just war, in some form, even if they wouldn’t define it in Augustinian terms.

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A revival among many of the troops? A real deep religious thing was happening. I walked into a prayer meeting on the second day and the troops were all decked out to go out into the field. They couldn’t hold hands, so they butted fists and started to pray. It went something like this: “Oh Lord, we thank you for this blankin’ day, and we want you to help us blank these blankers up for your blankin’ glory.” I was not sure if it was a strip bar back in the States or a prayer meeting. But these were unchurched 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds who were having a profound experience in a real way and had never been discipled or churched. It captured to me the possibilities of this generation.

And out came a book … The book, published in 2006, describes their experiences, religious influences, even some issues like, “What do you do when soldiers are more influenced by what is on Fox or CNN—on the big screen TV in the dining hall—than their commander’s philosophy or their chaplain’s input, or maybe even their own beliefs before they got to war?” The nature of warfare is changing, and it’s becoming more religious, and yet it’s also becoming more non-traditionally religious. So part of command, I keep saying at the Naval Academy and West Point, is to contend with this unique religious fuse that a soldier’s getting from podcasts, television, and so on, that may be contrary to the doctrine of the country or the military philosophy. And its going to be a complex issue.

Which of those views that they are getting from television do you find most influential in their lives? The religious pastiche. They will love Jesus, check their horoscopes, believe in the vegetarianism of a Tibetan monk, believe in the positive-speak of a Deepak Chopra, and maybe be as mystically oriented as the Dalai Lama. All that gets packaged together with a couple of fortune cookies and some Yoda. They bring that onto the battlefield: What does that mean for how they are going to fight? What does that mean about what they believe about the other side? Conversely, if I am a soldier and only listening to the podcast of a rather radical anti-Muslim pastor, I might be more vicious in my fight, more vicious in how I pull the trigger, more vicious in how I command my squad.

Different from previous wars … Commanders used to be able to ignore the issue of religion. You know, Protestant? Catholic? Jew? Boom—you’re done. Nothing really affected the war. Now, a soldier with an iPad or his iPhone with earbuds is getting a completely different doctrine of the war than the military wants him to believe, and yet this is his First Amendment right. It’s going to affect how he fights in the field.

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