“When soldiers step upon the battlefield, they immediately confront the kind of horror and hardship that has moved men through the centuries to reach for the spiritual,” writes Stephen Mansfield. Death and destruction, “the loneliness and the fear, the boredom and the rage” all “drive men to the invisible; each forces the soldier to decide what he truly believes, making the battlefield as much a test of faith as it is a test of arms.”
In his new book, The Faith of the American Soldier, New York Times-bestselling author Stephen Mansfield looks at the role religion plays in the lives of American servicemen. NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez talked to him this week about the book, our military, and Mansfield’s time in Iraq.
National Review Online: How important a role does religion play in the life of the typical American serviceman?
Stephen Mansfield: Servicemen who live stateside reflect the populace as a whole in their religious lives. It is when they go into battle, face death, see their comrades killed, and have to grapple with the morality of killing the enemy that they reach for faith with new intensity. When I was embedded with the troops in Iraq toward the end of 2004, I did not talk to one soldier who was not seeking a stronger connection to God and his hand of protection.
NRO: Are there no atheists in foxholes?
Mansfield: I’m sure there are some atheists in foxholes, but not many. Wars press issues of faith into the lives of those who fight them. From the question of the morality of the war itself to the simple quest for protection from harm, soldiers are constantly reaching for understanding, comfort, and protection from a supernatural source. For the vast majority of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, this means pursuing God like never before.
NRO: Are there any stats on such things: How the military population compares religion wise to the rest of the country?
Mansdield: The military has largely stopped relying on statistics regarding religion in the ranks because most soldiers simply put “undeclared” or “no-affiliation” when asked about their religious preference. The chaplains in Iraq estimate that some 85 percent of the soldiers in country are in some form Christian with the next group being Jewish and other faiths filling out the last 5-10 percent or so. As a whole, though, the military is more oriented to traditional values, faith, and patriotism than the general population
NRO: For the military–for chaplains, in particularly–is it a hard balance? Dealing with the church-state thing?
Mansfield: Military chaplains have a very difficult role. First, they walk a fine First Amendment line and they know it. They are paid by the state to tend the religious lives of soldiers in a society that is almost preoccupied with the separation of church and state. Even though these chaplains are ordained members of recognized religious groups, they often have to exercise caution in how aggressively they preach the truth of their denomination or its views of other religions. Every chaplain I talked to in the field struggled with the definition of his job as a result.
The chaplains are also hampered by the military policy that often forbids them from “crossing the wire,” from going into battle. The military’s concern is that soldiers might be distracted from their mission while protecting unarmed chaplains on the frontlines. The result of this, though, is that soldiers frequently express the feeling that chaplains don’t know what they are going through because the chaplains aren’t exposed to fighting. Still, I found the military chaplains to be among the most hardworking and courageous people in the field.
NRO: How are chaplains different today than in Vietnam?
Mansfield: Military chaplains are not chosen according to a denominational quota system as they were during the Vietnam era. They are chosen according to a “best qualified” standard. This means that the chaplains serving today are deeply committed to ministering to the fighting man and woman and have met very high standards for entrance into the corps. Some of them are even decorated warriors themselves who left the military and then returned as chaplains. They are doing a hard job gloriously.
NRO: Have you followed the complaints about the Air Force Academy? If so what do you make of them?
Mansfield: I think the complaints about evangelicals at the Air Force Academy are misguided. The fact is that our service academies are drawing fine young men and women, many of whom want to serve God by serving their country. If they are eager to share their beliefs while they train for their noble task, so much the better. I recently lectured at West Point and found a large body of Christian cadets there, as well. This should be celebrated, not ridiculed.
NRO: What does honor mean for the American on the battlefield?
Mansfield: Honor on the battlefield results from living by a code that rescues the warrior from barbarism and elevates the profession of arms. It means understanding soldiering as a spiritual service as much as a martial role. Honorable soldiers are devoted to the moral objectives of their nation in war, are willing to lay their lives on an altar of sacrifice, are courageous in subduing the enemy yet compassionate to civilians and prisoners, are devoted to a godly esprit de corps, and are eager to master the art of arms by way of fulfilling a calling.
NRO: How important was it that the Iraq war be addressed in theological just-war terms?
Mansfield: It is vital for a government to establish the morality of a war before sending soldiers into battle. The traditional just-war concept has to be satisfied. Soldiers don’t want to fight simply to defend a nation’s vanity or to support a corrupt vision. They want to know they are doing good. This is essential for them and for the nation that is going to welcome them home again. I have talked to hundreds of soldiers during the research of this book. Almost every one of them mentioned his or her need to believe in the goodness of their nation’s purposes in war.
NRO: Is Abu Ghraib a symptom of a non-faith-based warrior code?
Mansfield: The Abu Ghraib scandal has a faith backstory. The chaplain who was at Abu Ghraib during the scandals was told not to be in the way but to let the soldiers come to her. There was no moral presence and little spiritual influence during the time of the scandals. Chapel attendance was low and many soldiers later said they did not even know who the chaplain was. When that unit was replaced, the chaplains of the new unit were told to be present at prisoner interrogations, at shift changes and in the daily lives of the soldiers. The entire atmosphere changed. Chapel attendance reached into the hundreds and the prison became a model operation. This makes the case for continuous moral influence upon soldiers at war and for a faith based warrior code as a hedge against future abuses.
NRO: Is there a good model for a faith-based warrior code?
Mansfield: Though I know there were excesses, the chivalric code of the medieval knights is probably the best attempt in Western history at a noble warrior code. I open my book with a description of the knight’s vigil for this reason. I’m hoping we can create a code that draws from these knightly values but that also fashions them into something more applicable to modern warfare.
NRO: How much time did you spend over in Iraq? What’s one story every American should know from your time over there?
Mansfield: I was in Iraq for several weeks. I discovered many moving stories of faith and heroism, but they are all summarized in the comment a journalist made to me on the C130 flying out of Baghdad International Airport. He said, “I came over here expecting Animal House and Debbie Does Dallas. Instead, I found Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan.” That captures a good deal of what I experienced.
NRO: Does the commander in chief’s openness about his faith affect the troops in any practical sense?
Mansfield: Both while I was in Iraq and in interviews we conducted here in the states, soldiers spoke often about believing that George W. Bush’s faith and character were important to them. There were many references to the near depression in the military during the Clinton administration. Yet, with the Bush presidency, soldiers began to feel as though they were valued and that they were an extension of the president’s moral resolve. Even among soldiers who were disillusioned by supply problems or wearied by their hard months in the field, the belief that the president is a moral man conducting the war for righteous reasons made all the difference in their fighting spirit. Character really is the core of leadership.