Monday, June 20, 2016

Ron E. Hassner's "Religion on the Battlefield"

Ron E. Hassner is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of War on Sacred Grounds and Religion on the Battlefield, and editor of Religion in the Military.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Religion on the Battlefield, and reported the following:
How does religion influence the modern battlefield? The preoccupation with religiously-motivated terrorists has focused our attention on religion as cause of war, motivating suicide bombers or ISIS militants, for example. But we should not forget that religion has been just as influential in conventional wars between professional armies. Soldiers pray too. And not just during the Crusades. In Religion on the Battlefield I look at how religion has constrained and enabled 20th century interstate wars.

For example, a respect for holy places influenced American bombing campaigns during World War II (including the ludicrously impossible task of bombing strategic targets in Rome without hitting any churches). Or, during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, calculations about sacred time affected Egyptian conflict initiation, which is why we know this as the “Yom Kippur War”. These calculations turn out to occur quite often (did you know that the Tet Offensive was timed with the Vietnamese New Year, aka “Tet”)? Even when religion is not a cause of war, as in the World Wars or conflicts during the Cold War, religious sites and the religious calendar tend to “interfere” with battle and have to be taken into account. Shrewd military leaders can learn to exploit these factors, as they would any other environmental factor like the weather or topography. Japanese decision makers timed their attack on Pearl Harbor with Sunday, not because they cared about American religion per se but because they knew that the Navy would not move it ships on a Sunday and because many sailors would be on shore leave.

I dedicate yet another chapter in my book to religious rituals, showing that many of the ceremonies and rites that we attribute to medieval wars characterize armies today: praying together, battlefield baptisms, religious charms and relics, or the blessing of weapons. The picture on the cover of Religion on the Battlefield, for example, shows a priest sprinkling holy water on Ukrainian soldiers in 2004.

Page 99 deals with yet another pervasive religious presence on the battlefield: chaplains. Beyond their pastoral duties, 20th century chaplains were charged with motivating troops but also with acting as a moral check on commanders. They have done a lot of the former but, puzzlingly, none of the latter. Page 99 in Religion on the Battlefield tries to tackle this puzzle:
A 1969 survey of RAF chaplains bolstered these findings. Most chaplains surveyed perceived no moral conflict between their religious and military duties. Those that did, resolved such tensions in favor of their military obligations. The chaplains questioned explained that their moral authority focused on personal, family and sexual issues, such as swearing, drunkenness and prostitution, and not on military matters. When it came to military decision making, they put their full trust in the judgment of military authorities. For example, two thirds of the RAF chaplains interviewed stated that they considered large-scale civilian bombings to be justifiable, or outside their prerogative to judge, or deplorable but something one had to resign oneself to. Those few who did consider protesting against military policy felt that their protest would have no impact and would thus be a waste of time.
Learn more about Religion on the Battlefield at the Cornell University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: War on Sacred Grounds.

--Marshal Zeringue