Religion on the Battlefield

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Ron E. Hassner
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , June
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ron Hassner’s Religion on the Battlefield is an exciting project that seeks to move beyond a simplistic causal relationship between religious ideology and war, and instead analyze the ways in which religious ritual and practices shape the battlefield. This review will briefly describe the trajectory of Hassner’s work and then provide a brief analysis from the three different lenses through which I read: as a scholar of religion, a former combat veteran, and a current military chaplain.

Chapter 1 sets the agenda for Hassner’s project. Most helpful in this introductory chapter is Hassner’s emphasis on the limitations of studying religious ideas, and on the importance of studying religious practices.

In chapter 2, Hassner takes on the question of sacred time and its impact on military conflict and strategy. He draws attention to several historical and modern-day examples in demonstration of his thesis that religious practice, not necessarily beliefs, impact combat in far more complex and important ways than by merely causing a war. Sacred time, according to chapter 2, can either benefit, delimit, or damage a group’s combat efforts.

Hassner’s third chapter moves into the realm of sacred space. He helpfully outlines the complexities of sacred space on the battlefield, namely, the challenge of gauging short-term and long-term impacts of destroying sacred space when it is utilized by or in close proximity to opposing combatants. This analysis is accomplished through several historical examples that helpfully demonstrate this complexity.

Chapter 4 asks how religious leaders, specifically military chaplains, impact “the discipline, efficiency, courage, and morale of military units” (87). This chapter is theoretically weaker than the previous two. However, it provides a thorough assessment of the multi-faceted nature of military chaplaincy.

Chapter 5, the final theoretical analysis in the book, deals with sacred rituals on the battlefield. Hassner demonstrates that lived rituals do not neatly map onto official rituals in combat. This is, of course, a reality not unique to the battlefield; it is found throughout the study of religion. In war, however, trinkets, relics, and prayers proliferate in the attempt to preserve life and reduce fear. This chapter contains a helpful assessment of the relationship between religion and the prevention of combat trauma and moral injury.

In Hassner’s final chapter, he applies his theoretical analysis of the ways in which religion shapes the battlefield to a modern case study: the war in Iraq between 2003 and 2009. This case study is one of the most helpful chapters in the book as it reveals the reality that religion does not conform to neat categories in war, and often manifests itself in unexpected areas. The final pages move into policy recommendations that arise from his research. Given the significant impact of religion on the battlefield, Hassner proposes the development of religious analysts who can evaluate “the prominence, centrality, salience, and impact of the sacred in a given conflict” (157). These analysts, according to Hassner, would improve the resilience of the fighting force through the identification of personal weak points, and “exploit their opponents’ religious vulnerabilities while remaining within the bounds of the law of armed combat” (157). 

As a scholar of religion, I was excited by his initial proposition: that lived religion shapes the battlefield and as such religious rituals and practices require analysis. Hassner proposes we step away from religious ideas as a cause of war, and step toward religious practices as a component of war. Unfortunately, as the chapters developed, the actual analysis was not as robust as I had hoped it would be. For example, his fourth chapter read more like a description of what chaplains do on the battlefield than as an analysis of how a chaplain’s presence shapes the way religion is conceptualized on the battlefield. There were also times when Hassner’s religious analysis was particularly weak, such as his use of religious history as a point of explanation, rather than as an example of history as social construction or memory making (40-42). Historical accounts of religious traditions don’t always inform us of what happened. They often (and usually) prescribe how their adherents ought to remember the past and see the present. 

As a current Army chaplain, I appreciated Hassner’s thorough analysis of how chaplains have functioned historically. This book serves as a fine introduction to the ways in which soldiers and leaders deal with religious questions in times of combat. However, Hassner’s recommendation for religious analysts seems unnecessary to me, since battalion and brigade chaplains are trained in providing much of the analysis he proposes at the US Army Chaplain Center and School, especially chaplains among the Army’s Civil Affairs Command.

As a former Marine and combat veteran, I was pleased by Hassner’s ability to bring up the complexities of religion on the battlefield. He provides examples of opposing forces using American religious sensibilities against them by employing mosques as ammunition storehouses. However, a significant weak point in this book is the absence of direct interaction with service members who have formed and been formed by religion on the battlefield. Hassner’s expressed desire to leave behind religious ideas and move toward religious ritual and practice was undermined by an exclusive focus on writings about religion; he ignored field work alongside service members who practice religion.

Overall, this book is a wonderful introduction to the complexities of religion and war. It uses historical examples alongside theoretical analysis to show that religion is a far-reaching and important topic in the study of war. It would be most helpful to chaplains and battalion and brigade commanders of the armed forces

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick G. Stefan is Visting Lecturer of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, DC and Chaplain for the US Army.

Date of Review: 
August 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

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



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