Religion In Combat Essay

910 words - 4 pages

Journalist Michael Herr wrote poignantly of the difference between organized and personal religion in combat in Vietnam: "The Soldier's Prayer came in two versions: Standard, printed on a plastic-coated card by the Defense Department, and Standard Revised, impossible to convey because it got translated outside of language, into chaos—screams, begging, promises, threats, sobs, repetitions of holy names until their throats were cracked and dry, some men and bitten through their collar points and rifle straps and even their dog-tag chains." Using Herr's observation as a starting point, this paper examines soldiers' explicit rejection of traditional organized religious practices and ...view middle of the document...

Ultimately, I argue that for some soldiers, the explicit rejection of traditional religious symbols, values, and practices helped them create meaning and order in the midst of the chaos of combat by defining war as a site of exception. Philip Caputo wrote, “It was the dawn of creation in the Indochina bush, an ethical as well as a geographical wilderness,” and that sense of emptiness provided ample space for the rejection of traditional religion and the creation of new interpretations, rituals, and practices that center on meaninglessness, brutality, and profanity. Profanity, brutality, and nihilism allowed soldiers to consciously separate the realm of combat and war from "the world," and specifically the sense of propriety and decorum associated with it. These actions especially when employed in relation to traditionally sacred language and imagery, soldiers highlighted and, rejected, then worked to make sense of the apparent gulf between the sacred and profane in war.

Again, none of this is to say that soldiers’ participation in organized religious rites and services was not significant and meaningful. In his study of American combat troops in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, Peter Kindsvatter writes, "Organized religion supported in varying degree all the wars of the draft era. America's fight against the barbaric Hun or Godless Communist was a righteous one," Kindsvatter continues, "The secular-minded soldiers of the draft era, however, were as leery of religious proselytizing about "crusading" as they were of saber-rattling political pronouncements. Chaplains were caught in the middle of this paradox. Soldiers were deeply faithful, but not terribly religious (if this audience will indulge me this broad and problematic distinction), and chaplains could lose their tenuous credibility quickly if they did not take on the same burdens and...

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