Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century, The

Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century, The

Brittain, Christopher C

The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century. Edited by Doris L. Bergen. Critical Problems in History. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004. xiv + 298 pp. $37.50 (cloth); $18.00 (paper).

This collection of twelve essays embodies the same ambiguity present in the book’s title, which is taken from a battle cry at the fall of Jericho in the book of Judges: “For the sword of the Lord and for Gideon.” The principal impression suggested by the volume is that the role of military chaplains is often disputed and unclear; the chaplains attempt to serve two masters-God and Country-but are forced to choose between them. The studies generally observe that, despite seeking to follow in the footsteps of the soldier-prophet ideal of the Hebrew Bible, chaplains often find it easier to serve either the “Sword of the Lord” or a more immediate “Gideon” figure, rather than both simultaneously.

The book is a good introduction to the history and basic challenges of military chaplaincy. The chapters range across historical periods as distinct as the Roman Empire, the Crusades, the American Civil War, both World Wars, and Vietnam. It will be of interest to chaplains and military historians, who are its principal audience. The diverse chapters are generally well written, serving to identify principal trends among chaplains from a variety of historical contexts, although all chapters focus exclusively on the West and, with one Jewish exception, on Christians. Only Duff Crerar’s study of Canadians in World War I raises historiographical questions, noting the difficulties of relying on memoirs and first-person recollections of wartime experiences as sources for historical investigation.

The various essays describe the many challenges and tensions facing clerics in the military: the struggle for credibility and recognition as noncombatants in a hyper-masculine and aggressive context; the seemingly contradictory role of encouraging religious thought and practice in the face of violence and death; and the temptations of ideology and the advancement of national propaganda. These themes are intriguing in themselves, but they are seldom subjected to lingering analysis. Although it is instructive to note the historical shifts in the role of clerics on the battlefield-from carrying relics and artifacts into combat, to invoking religious ideals to raise troop morale, to a twentieth-century American concern for “character guidance” and the humanizing of military life-one will have to look to other studies to analyze these shifts in a wider sociohistorical context. The collection of essays effectively illustrates the “ironic position” occupied by chaplains (p. 8), while leaving aside a fuller explanation and analysis of such tensions.

The authors generally avoid cliché and idealism, although there are occasional slips (“there are no atheists in foxholes,” “ministry of presence,” and so on). German chaplains receive particularly critical treatments in the two chapters covering the entirety of modern German history, while the chapter on American chaplains in Vietnam is the book’s weakest and most idealized. Those concerned with the identity and role of contemporary military chaplaincy will find Crerar’s balanced account of Canadians in the Great War of interest, and especially Anne C. Loveland’s examination of developments in the U.S. Army during the second half of the twentieth century. Loveland’s chapter in particular stands out as a description of the tensions inherent among confessional chaplains working in modern pluralistic institutions, as theology and moral specificity give way to counseling and a focus on human relations.

Michael Baxter’s closing reflection on the legacy of William Corby, a Catholic priest who served in the Union army during the Civil War, offers an interesting challenge to simplistic ideals regarding military chaplaincy. As many of the previous essays suggest, Baxter argues that in some circumstances, chaplains will have to decide whether their first loyalty is to the church’s identity as a distinctive “concrete flesh-and-blood community” called to “embody Christ,” or to the nation-state of whose army they are members (p. 263).


Atlantic School of Theology

Halifax, Nova Scotia

Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Fall 2005

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