The Faith of the American Soldier

By Stephen Mansfield, pub. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin 2005

By Maggie Helwig (reviewer) | 2006-01-01 12:00:00

This is one of those books that makes itself almost immune from criticism by embracing its strange and narrow worldview so entirely. Mansfield (author also of The Faith of George W. Bush) argues that American soldiers need a "moral vision" of a religious but fairly vague nature, amounting, more or less, to "God is on your side and wants you to kill the other guys." For some reason, he believes that having such a "moral vision" will prevent atrocities like My Lai and Abu Ghraib, which--though this may surprise many--apparently came about because soldiers felt insufficiently supported by Jesus.

Whatever the religious state of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib, I am fairly confident that the Crusaders had a clear and convincing belief that God was on their side, and they seem to have pioneered a wide range of atrocities. But Mansfield is not very interested in historical perspectives. He seems impressed with himself that he can remember as far back as the Vietnam war.

There is no point in saying that Mansfield's analysis is lacking in even the most rudimentary theological content; as far as he's concerned, that's the great thing about it. He does, early in the book, gesture towards a kind of multi-faith stance, but by the later chapters it is clear that his "moral vision" is all about Christianity--or rather, a kind of generic Jesus-cult, entirely detached from anything to do with the life or teachings of Jesus. The fact that he mentions Jesus frequently as a kind of good luck charm (riding next to you in your Humvee and so on) but never, at any point in the book, refers to a single passage from the New Testament is not, as he sees things, any kind of problem.

What is a problem, to Mansfield, is the state of the military chaplaincy, which is apparently the root of all ills in the US army, what with some chaplains being "theologically liberal," and some of them, horrifically, being women, sometimes even non-white women with "heavy accents," whereas what we apparently need is larger numbers of white male Baptists willing to tell soldiers that their opponents are "simply committed to an ideology fully at odds with Western culture and with the Christianity that gave birth to it." With this in place, soldiers will behave nobly and fight bravely and there will be no more Abu Ghraibs.

So that's sorted, then.

Reviewed by Maggie Helwig, a Toronto-based novelist and activist.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2006

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2006, page 29. Some rights reserved.

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