Winning Souls and Minds: Confronting the Military’s “Religion Problem”*
time in the wake of the September 11attacks, there reportedly an interview with
General Norman Schwarzkopf, in which was asked if forgiveness had a place in
politics, whether it should be extended those involved in the attacks.
Purportedly, this was his reply: “I believe that forgiving them is God’s
function. Our job is simply to arrange the meeting.” Whether Schwarzkopf
actually said such a thing, the statement illustrates of the often minimalist,
hands-off approach to religion that pervades U.S military culture and more
broadly Western political thought. Not that the military is hostile to
religion—far from it. The
The problem of which I speak is that the military has for too long seriously overlooked the role of religion in international political life. A recent review of the literature in military journals, conducted while researching this paper, turned up scant evidence of any deep engagement with the religious challenges facing today’s military. One noteworthy exception was Raymond Bingham’s article entitled “Bridging the Religious Divide,” which appeared in the fall issue of Parameters, the journal of the U.S. Army War College. This is an important article, which I would commend to this audience and to all citizens. In it, Bingham successfully makes the case for what he calls “religious situational awareness.” He insists, “Policy makers, military leaders, and non-governmental strategic planners all benefit from understanding the influence of religion within a given region of conflict.” Bingham is one of a small but growing chorus of voices—some present here at this symposium—who are beginning to appreciate the military’s cultural problem, and the ways in which religion is enmeshed in culture. But I will define the “religion problem” more directly as the complex ways in which American foreign policies are enmeshed in political struggles, solutions to which require a sophisticated understanding of religion that the military currently is ill-equipped to provide.
To be very clear,
the military’s historical disregard for religion reflects the failed assumptions
guiding many secular institutions of the government and the views of many
citizens in western cultures. Figures such as former Secretary of State
Madeline Albright recently have gone out on a limb to say that religion needs
to play a more prominent role in the training of Foreign Service officers.
I will discuss some cases in which the military is seeking to overcome its
neglect of religion. This trend must continue, for by virtue of being at the
“tip of the spear,” members of the military face the most immediate and mortal
perils of not understanding how religion is part of the problem in the wars
they wage (and perhaps how religion might be part of the solution as well). The
“religion problem,” addressed in this paper, is a byproduct of the secularization
thesis that has dominated Western political thought beginning with the Peace of
Westphalia (1648) and culminating during the twentieth century. This view of
the world—which proposes that religion is (or should be) private, kept at safe
distance from political affairs—is showing its wear. As the West has learned
recently (and often painfully), many people in the world do not embrace such a
compartmentalized view of religion, and that includes people in the
religion,” then, means learning how to operate in environments where religion
is a crucial element in strategic and tactical “centers of gravity”—both our
adversary’s vulnerabilities and our own. If one lesson of Vietnam was that
“winning hearts and minds” was essential to victory in counter-insurgency
operations, then the emerging corollary for Iraq and other struggles in the
twenty-first century may be that “getting religion” is central to winning those
hearts and minds. To be sure, we cannot counsel that military members concern
themselves with literally “winning souls”—that would play too neatly into the
propaganda of religious extremists who portray as Christian or Zionist crusades
all Western involvement in the
In this paper, I first, consider briefly recent military efforts to take religion more seriously, to promote the kind of “religious situational awareness” that Bingham enjoins, particularly in regards to the tactical and strategic value of such efforts. But I wish to go a step further then, by arguing that religion should be a course of study, not simply an occasional elective, in the service academies and war colleges. For one cannot meaningfully begin to appreciate how religion fits into broader geo-political strategies and military vulnerabilities without some formal education, at least among the officer corps, involving the study of religion. Here the effort must go beyond mere “cultural training,” as important as that is, to include some foundational education about what constitutes religion; why religion important; and what a broad understanding of the methods and insights of religious studies contributes to political and military strategy and analysis. This is to say nothing of the related civic value of how religion opens up an understanding of the human condition and the world that we temporarily occupy. In short, it is time that, as a nation, we begin thinking about how we are going to educate the next generation of citizens and leaders, particularly those serving in military and government organizations.
Religious Awareness, Training, and Education
Last fall, a New York Times op-ed circulated that produced quite a splash. In it, reporter Jeff Stein shared findings of his various conversations with political leaders, congressmen, and federal intelligence and law enforcement officials in which he asked them whether they could tell a Sunni from a Shiite. His conclusion: “most American officials I’ve interviewed don’t have a clue.” Many of us in military circles and many Americans generally could not do much better answering this question even if some of us do possess some basic grasp of the differences. Yet the interviewer and those whom he interviewed all vociferously urged that understanding Islam is essential. As one respondent claimed, “al-Qaeda’s whole reason for being is based on their beliefs. And you’ve got to understand, and to know your enemy.” Of course, as President Bush has said, Islam is not the enemy. But one must certainly know enough about Islam to know who our enemies are and are not.
Cold War, the
Recent religious training initiatives in the military serve in some way to address this lacuna. The U.S. Army, Bingham testifies, has instituted a cultural awareness program “to address issues concerning traditions, customs, and religion. Cultural awareness training now includes lectures by outside experts, Arabic language lessons, and recommended readings.” Study programs in Islam and local customs; the sharing by commanders of techniques that successfully integrate cultural awareness into tactics; the expansion of resources and funding including Arab linguists and Muslim clergy—all of these measures successfully point up new efforts to increase “religious situational awareness.”
described in several recent studies proposes initiatives that would extend
formally the traditional role of military chaplains to become “religious
liaisons” in operations in the global war on terror where religion is a
Military chaplains, these studies claim, are uniquely trained, qualified, and
postured to handle the complex challenges involved in counter-insurgency
operations where religious and cultural mores are intricately involved. Several
military chaplains in
These recent religious awareness
initiatives and the trial cases using chaplains as religious liaisons are part
of a broader religious and cultural training program undertaken by the
military. Long gone—I hope—are the days when I was a midshipman, when Arabs
were without compunction referred to as “rag-heads” and “camel jockeys.” It is
a new day for our military. From the decision to assign female members of the
military to conduct searches of Muslim women at checkpoints; to the guidance to
soldiers to remove their sunglasses so they can establish eye contact with
local Arabs; to the appointment of military chaplains to lead the rebuilding of
a mosque damaged in combat—these measures aim to improve the military’s
consideration of religious issues. Such initiatives recognize that
The studies cited
present evidence that such hopeful reasoning may be true. However, the
The approach I am advocating, then, goes beyond efforts in religious and cultural training designed to expose or strike at the enemy’s “center of gravity” or vulnerability. In addition, the military needs to be concerned with religious education including how a minimalist treatment of religion reinforces the secular mindset and leaves exposed our own centers of gravity in both their secular and inescapably religious forms. To be more clear, the vulnerability of the secular mindset that characterizes political and military institutions is the assumption that, without a mature appreciation of what religion is and why it is important, we can nonetheless leverage religion to our advantage in the same we leverage our technological sophistication. But secular institutions like the military also possess their own religions. The inability to recognize this and step outside this religion—if only briefly—ensures that those within it remain unmindful of how others perceive them. Those who cannot examine and reflect upon their own religious “traditions” should not hope to profit from the study of others’ religion. I propose, then, actively debating the value of the academic study, interpretation, and analysis of religion, including religious beliefs, ideas, practices, theories, and movements. At the least, some basic introduction to the study of religion ought to be a central component of officer education in the twenty-first century. Just as a formal college education provides a basis officers’ technical training can build, education about religion must be part of the foundation on which officers receive in-theater religious and cultural training.
Islam: Necessary but Insufficient
The recent impetus to take religion more seriously stems directly from the recent curiosity in, and overall ignorance of, Islam in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the ensuing battles to fight terrorism. Affirms Bingham,
Iraqi insurgency clearly demonstrates the existing chasm between western and
eastern cultures. Understanding Arab culture and the culture of Islam is the
first step in bridging the religious divide that
The imperative to learn more about
Islam can be seen in the mass output of recent books on Islam and Arab culture
in particular. Nearly every university in the
an appreciation of the diverse methods needed for understanding religion, we
cannot begin to gain purchase on the diversity of religious belief. Imagine the
plurality of views and perspectives one would encounter in this country in
response to the question “What do Christians believe?” The answers would depend
upon who one asks: a mainline Protestant or a conservative Pentecostal; a
progressive Catholic or a conservative traditionalist; a liberal evangelical or
a fundamentalist; a Christian scientist or a Mormon. To map some standard
account of Christianity onto all of these groups would not suffice any more
than mapping some generic account of Islam onto Kurds, Arab Sunnis, Persian
Shiites, Indian Sufi, or Indonesian and Chinese Muslims. This is to say nothing
of the complexities involved in understanding why there is intra-Shiite
sectarian violence in
The study of religion, broadly speaking, offers at least three vital methodological approaches of value: what I will speak of as descriptive, critical, and constructive approaches to religion. These approaches can be brought to bear upon a number of domains, such as international politics, to help officers consider their place, and the place of their troops, in the global political scene. Descriptively or empirically speaking, officers can appreciate that religion’s place in the world today is pivotal to understanding new and emerging structures of international political life and the forces and struggles that threaten it. Efforts to cram these global changes into the prevailing secular molds of how religion should or should not shape public life, I suggest, will prove unsuccessful. Secondly, religious perspectives afford a unique critical vantage point—an ability to view a situation in a unique or unanticipated fashion—in ways that purely secular approaches cannot provide. Finally, the study of religion makes available constructive proposals for overcoming daunting political quandaries, especially the kind the military faces. Allow me, in the time remaining, to consider several ways in which these approaches edify us by focusing on military culture itself and the military relationship to religion.
the historical-descriptive approach that the study of religion affords. American
military history usually begins with the Revolutionary War—to be sure a
truncated starting point if we are to appreciate the ways in which religion has
shaped military history. Why not begin with the Protestant origins of military
culture that emerged in the Cromwellian period and the religious wars in
it was an order based on command and requiring a rigid discipline; it resembled the order that a sovereign God had established in his church…Protestants strove to introduce the discipline of the reformed churches directly into the army…for the Calvinist discipline and the new army regulations were responses respectively to disorder and melee.
Walzer goes on to recount how military drill was the exercise of saintly soldiers, and he recounts the preference that was showed for volunteers over those impressed to fight, those of strong character loyal to the state over those simply in it for the money.
We could, of course, go back a bit further in the study of discipline as a military virtue to the days of the first military orders during the crusades. The Knights Templar and the Hospitallers of St. John were in fact religious orders but they had military missions. In too many ways to mention, particularly in their religious devotion and personal discipline, members of these orders were quite distinct from other nobles and peasants who went on crusade. All of this is to say in a quite overstated way that the history of military discipline far precedes the formation of service academies, the establishment of “core values,” the passion for virtue ethics, or, more generally, the inculcation of good order that characterizes the education and training of American military forces.
In addition to an historical approach that studying religion brings to our understanding of the military, we might also consider a more anthropological or sociological approach to religion and the military. Social scientific methods tend to engage the ways in which creed, ritual, myth, practice, totem, and taboo reflect a community or culture’s understanding of the sacred. If members of the military seek to understand other peoples’ religions, the best hope might be to begin by examining their own. To be clear, the military’s religion is not like the Christian, Jewish or other religions to which its members individually adhere. Yet, there are clear ways in which the military services possess their own religion that fundamentally shapes and forms those who belong to it. Let me speak about the service I know best, the U.S. Navy. There are, to begin with, a Navy hymn, numerous sailors’ prayers, at-sea burials and other rituals, blessings for the commissioning of ships and officers (not unlike the blessings of crusaders and their weapons received when they went to battle in the Middle Ages). The daily routine of a ship, announced by the boatswain piping, not only enforces personal discipline (e.g., the commencement and completion of ship’s work) but also enshrines sacred rituals like the rendering of salutes when the colors (American flag) are raised in the morning or lowered in the evening. The American flag is the supreme totem, or revered symbol, though there is a Navy flag as well. Those who drag these emblems across the deck of the ship will quickly learn the religious significance of taboo as well.
The U.S. Navy has its own saints—John Paul Jones, Oliver Hazard Perry, Admirals David Farragut and George Dewey—complete with hagiography or sacred biography of their lives which preserve the ethos and culture of Navy tradition. Sacred lore—“I have not yet begun to fight”; “Don’t give up the ship”; “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead”—serve as powerful myths. They are not untruths, but the historical merit of the sayings themselves is far less relevant the traditions’ highest ideals which they represent. They are myths, living truths that sailors in combat live by; we gird our loins with such sacred lore in the same way one might appeal to Martin Luther’s defense at the Diet of Worms when, beseeched to recant, he proclaimed “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Creeds, such as the sailor’s creed, or vows and oaths taken upon commissioning, enlistment, and promotion all point to the solemn duties and sacred causes that one pledges to uphold—“so help me God”; these serve to enshrine the U.S. military’s religion. Yet the pledge one takes is to uphold the sacred writ of the Constitution.
The military even
shares with religions what some would perceive as an irrational belief, a faith
in sacred causes, in the case of the
Some of you might worry that the approach I am offering here sounds critical. Indeed, we must think critically, especially self-critically, if we are to understand how religion pervades our world today. That is, we cannot hope to begin simply by studying other peoples’ religions. We must also become students of our own religions, particularly if we hope to understand how others perceive us. The scholarly study of religion provides a repository of tools and methods that can be brought to this task.
Military culture also requires that we distinguish critical thinking from criticism. I for one would not want to challenge or change any of the rituals, myths, or creeds discussed above. Patriotism and devotion to service are not antithetical to critical thinking; indeed, I would go so far as to say that deep patriotism depends upon it. The faith of a child and the faith of an adult may be equally genuine, but the foundations on which they depend vary in important ways. True believers and true patriots need room to question, scrutinize, even doubt their beliefs—less for the need to escape them than for the possibility of strengthening their commitments.
I have spoken about the historical and critical resources available in the study of religion. But we cannot stop there. We must go on to consider the constructive possibilities that religion affords. Inculcating deep historical knowledge and critical reasoning skills is something that academics generally do well. If deconstruction is the academy’s virtue, then its deficiency may be the capacity to think constructively: what values shall we affirm; what stances shall we take; what solutions will we adopt to the human problems we create and face. Here, the military with its pragmatic resourcefulness generally fares well. But many forget, including some who study religion, that religion offers constructive resources of its own—the study of ethics theology, and philosophy being the most prominent forms. Let me close by providing a few brief examples of how religious ethics and theology help the military in this task. I hope this further illustrates why the military’s concerns with religion are broader than simply why some religious extremists are wreaking violence in Muslim and other societies.
reflection on war and peace has been an abiding concern in the field of
religious ethics—far longer than it has been in our service academies and war
colleges; thankfully, though, moral reflection on war is institutionalized and
taken seriously among many in these settings. Just war theory has experienced a
renaissance in this country in the last fifty years and has been brought to
bear upon numerous conflicts from the Cold War and
The attitudinal and dispositional character of the just war tradition must be preserved in order to undergird its core principles. That is to say, just war cannot simply be a practical casuistry that provides moral justification for political decisions to use force determined on other grounds as when national interests are at stake. The rueful task of killing requires not only that those who kill do so under lawful justifiable conditions; just war is equally concerned with the character and dispositions of those who kill. One certainly may take great pride in one’s profession and the successful accomplishment of one’s duties and mission. Yet, at the same time, a full appreciation of just war also urges those who bear arms to appreciate the misery of that vocation. A job performed well can always be celebrated but the acts that it presupposes— the unintentional killing of non-combatants or even the intentional killing of enemies— never may be.
While such counsel pertains to the individuals who wage war, a public moral philosophy also must underwrite such concerns. Those who kill in war often possess the clearest understanding of the moral ambivalence of their profession. During the Middle Ages, those returning from war, including from just wars, undertook penance as a way to atone for the guilt and grief their killing produced. Our society today, oriented around the valorization of war heroes and victory celebrations, generally pays scant attention to the kind of measures either that would prepare its fighting men and women for the guilt they may or should experience or to address their moral confliction when they return. The religious dimensions of war and the religious origins of just war thought remind us that we must attend to these moral ambiguities of war if we are to treat just war in its moral totality. When moral reflection on war centers exclusively on the legitimate causes for the wars we undertake or the legal rules that circumscribe them, this is perhaps the clearest evidence that just war thought is being severed from its religious roots.
Finally, in addition to a concern with religious ethics, the study of religion also involves the theology. Philosophical arguments for the existence of God, theological disputes over God’s attributes, Christological debates about the divinity and humanity of Jesus, or ecclesial deliberation about the Eucharist or other sacraments—all of these topics seem a bit far off from the concerns of today’s military. Yet, I would argue that the oxygen that ethereal theologians often breathe is part of the same air on which military culture depends. Take for example early medieval Christian debates with Manichaeism. Those familiar with the debates will recall the radical dualism that Manicheans perceived divided the world: between light and darkness, good and evil; soul and the body. For the Manichaean, we occupy an age in which the cosmic battle between good and evil is waged on earth. This age ultimately gives way, the doctrine goes, to a final age in which light is completely and permanently separated from darkness. Light recedes entirely from darkness: “the dark world-soul sinks away in the depth, which is then closed forever and eternal tranquility reigns in the realm of light, no more to be invaded by darkness.”
The world in which we live today and the struggles that vex and torture us are often portrayed in such Manichaean ways. To cite Bingham again,
It must be remembered that, after
many rigorous church disputes, the Christian Church rejected Manichaeism as a
heresy in spite of those Manichaean Christians who continued to embrace it.
Augustine reminds those of us who remain concerned with evil that we are every bit as much part of the problem as part of the effort to confront it. The world we face today, as the world has always been, is not black and white but, rather, constituted and made glorious by an infinite palate of colors. The pall of sin casts innumerable shades of gray which blanch the color of human life and threaten its beauty. We must be attentive to the gray, which can never be removed entirely since we ourselves are of it; but the darkest shades must be stemmed so as to preserve the color of life as best we can, not perfectly, indeed quite imperfectly. But dividing the world into good and evil, friend and foe, irresponsibly frees us to ignore the arrays of gray in between where the real battles are waged, won, and lost. Our strategic center of gravity, the supreme vulnerability to which the military and many in the West are most prey to succumb, is our willingness and complicity to embrace a Manichaean view of the world.
I close in a tenor reminiscent of the great American theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr, who was informed by Augustine’s wise counsel. If we hope to adopt a “religious situational awareness,” one that makes use of tactical religious training in our effort to know the enemy, to win hearts and souls and minds, and to achieve military victory in religiously-laden conflict—if this is what we seek—we must first have the temerity to confront our adversaries, the forbearance and grace to engage our potential allies, and the humble discernment to know the difference.
* I am grateful to Joel Shepherd for providing crucial research assistance for this article.
 Raymond Bingham, “Bridging the Religious Divide,” Parameters (Autumn, 2006): 50-66.
 Ibid., 55.
 Charlotte Hunter, “Training for Diversity: Religious Issues in U.S. Military Operations” unpublished paper, June 8, 2006; Steven R. Corman and Jill S. Schiefelbein, “Communication and Media Strategy in the Jihadi War of Ideas,” Report #0601, Consortium for Strategic Communication, Arizona State University, Apr 20, 2006; Col. Maxie McFarland, USA (Ret), “Military Cultural Education,” Military Review (Mar-Apr, 2005), 62-69; Montgomery McFate, “The Military Utility of Understanding Adversary Culture,” Joint Forces Quarterly 38, pp. 42-48 and “Anthropology and Counterinsurgency: The Strange Story of their Curious Relationship,” Military Review (Mar-Apr, 2005), 24-38; Lt Col. Robert H.E. Gooren, Royal Netherlands Army, “Soldiering in Unfamiliar Places: The Dutch Approach,” Military Review (Mar-Apr, 2006, 54-60.
 Jeff Stein, “Can You Tell a Sunni from a Shiite?” New York Times, Oct 17, 2006.
 Bingham, 60.
George Adams, CHC, USN, “Chaplains as Liaisons with Religious Leaders: Lessons
 Bingham, 50-1.
 I discuss in more detail the vantage points that religion provides onto international politics in in John D. Carlson and Erik C. Owens, “Reconsidering Westphalia’s Legacy for International Politics,” Introduction to The Sacred and the Sovereign Religion and International Politics, John D. Carlson and Erik C. Owens, eds., (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2003), ____ .
 Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics (New York: Atheneum, 1971), 285.
 Walzer, 286.
Napier describes as follows the ascetic mantle of the Knights Templar: to “live
as monks, take vows of chastity, observe discipline at home and on the
battlefield, eat in silence, and hold everything in common,” The Rise and Fall of the Knights Templar
(Kent, UK: Spellmount Ltd, 2003), xi. See also Hellen J. Nicholson, Love, War, and the Grail (
 See for example Jay Glenn Gray’s powerful wartime reflections The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, 2d ed. (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1998).
 Bingham, 56.
consideration of Manichaeism’s relationship to war, see Timothy M. Renick, “Manichaeism,”
in Gabriel Palmer-Fernandez, ed., Encyclopedia
of Religion and War (1st ed.) (Routledge, 2004), Routledge Reference
Resources online. Taylor & Francis Publishing Group.