Stephen Mansfield, a former pastor, has written several histories and biographies, including The Faith of George W. Bush and Never Give In: The Extraordinary Character of Winston Churchill. Stan Guthrie, CT's senior associate news editor, interviewed Mansfield about his latest volume, The Faith of the American Soldier, based on fresh research with hundreds of American soldiers. Guthrie also interviews authors on his own website.
Why did you write this book?
I wrote this book for three basic reasons. I come from a long line of military leaders and wanted to honor that heritage. Secondly, I am inspired by the new generation that is at war, and I hoped to capture their unique approach to faith on the battlefield. Finally, I believe the battles over the role of religion in American public life are having a profound effect on the military yet, in ways that most Americans know nothing about.
What was your methodology?
The Pentagon gave me permission to be embedded with our troops in Iraq, and I spent several weeks after Christmas 2004 interviewing soldiers at places like Camp Victory and Camp Seitz just outside of Baghdad. I also talked to officers at West Point, to soldiers just returning from combat at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and to a number of strategists and chaplains from CENTCOM at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. My research team and I interviewed a wide variety of military personnel, from wounded ex-soldiers to commanders still in the field to retired generals. It was the most fascinating research process I've ever been involved in.
What happens to the religious or spiritual beliefs of soldiers when they go to battle?
When a soldier goes into battle, he is immediately faced with the prospect of his own death, with the death of his comrades, with the morality of killing his enemies, and with the question of the righteousness of his cause. This presses him against his faith. If he has come into the field with a religious faith, he usually deepens in that faith. If he has come to battle without a defining belief system, he usually gravitates to the spirituality he finds among his comrades. When I was in Iraq, more than a few men and women who had gone to war as atheists told me that they hadn't quite decided to believe in God but they did draw strength from the faith of their fellow soldiers. I didn't meet anyone in the field who wasn't progressing toward a deeper spirituality of some kind.
How does faith correlate to issues of abuse by soldiers, such as at Abu Ghraib?
The Abu Ghraib scandal has a faith back story. 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 if they needed something. 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.
What issues do soldiers face when they return home?
Soldiers will always have challenges in adjusting when they return home from battle. I sat with one soldier who cried in the hours before he returned home and said, "I don't know if I will ever have the feeling of purpose I had over here. Is the rest of my life just going to be common?" Questions like this haunt soldiers when they return.
What we now know for certain, though, is that there is a connection between post-traumatic stress and a soldier's feelings about the morality of his war. If he believes in his nation's cause, he often has less trouble adjusting to civilian life. If he is riddled with guilt and comes to believe that his nation's cause is immoral, he will suffer trauma and have great difficulty in settling into civilian life. A soldier's sense of having done the right thing in war is critical to his adjustment after the war.
Do soldiers need to believe they are serving in a "just war"?
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 the nation's purposes in war.
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