Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War
by Jonathan H. Ebel
Princeton University Press, 2010
|Chapel, U.S. St. Mihiel Cemetery|
Having just returned from France where the graves of American soldiers dot the rural landscape, Faith in the Fight helped me sort out the philosophical contradictions of total war. As historians learn very early in their educations, actions are relatively easy to understand compared to motivations. The role that religion played in the lives of American soldiers and war workers is crucial to an understanding of that generation’s commitment to an unprecedented war effort.
The author, Jonathan Ebel, recognizes that individual expressions of faith as well as descriptions of wartime experiences are a messy lot. But he observes that "War made a soldier feel alone and, alone with this faith, led him to draw on the elements of faith that were of the greatest importance to him, and in which he found the greatest comfort." Using wartime narratives and articles from the Stars and Stripes, the official newspaper of the AEF with a circulation at its peak of 522,000 copies, Ebel has attempted to analyze the oft-romantic words of the soldiers and war workers as they faced adversity unknown to their family and friends at home.
The author looks at two groups whose motivations and experiences differ from those of white males. One chapter is devoted to black soldiers’ war experiences. He points out that the desire to end racism and the hope that exemplary military service might lead to that event contributed to the hope of religious redemption.
Ebel also looks at the meaning of womanhood and the roles women played during the war in a separate chapter. He assigns women to three groups: War Wives and Mothers, Sisters in Arms, and New Woman Warriors, believing that these categories help to place women within the context of war. However, he is quick to point out that women always served within a domestic sphere even as they drove a truck filled with medical supplies to an aid station close to the front.
In two different chapters, Ebel uses the soldiers’ own words to examine how they made sense of death. He discovered that “the suffering and bleeding, writhing and dying. . .were modern forms of martyrdom. . .which brought salvation to the fallen.”
Certainly the emotion one feels walking about in an American military cemetery in France echoes that sentiment. Images of sacrifice and martyrdom dominate the memorials and chapels that see few visitors but stand as testaments to the fallen.
|Chapel, U.S. Meuse-Argonne Cemetery|
Although Faith in the Fight was published six years ago, its relevance has not diminished. It is an important part of the intellectual canon for what it says about the Great War and also for what it says about ALL war.
Margaret Spratt, PhD