Faith Battling Fear: Military Chaplains and the Regulation of Fear during World War II

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 2:30 PM
Superior Room B (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Andrew Polk, Florida State University
Over four hundred thousand soldiers of the United States died during the Second World War.  They died from starvation, dehydration, and disease, as well as at the ends of bayonets, from snipers’ bullets, and in the sights of machine gun emplacements.  However, tens of thousands of soldiers also died after an enemy they had never seen fired weapons the soldiers could only hear as they peered through the thick fog of war.  This invisible enemy and the long-distance killing of the war created a new, and potentially deadly, sense of fear in the soldiers.  This fear defied previous measures of control, chiefly because it took all control from the soldiers themselves.

            In my essay, I explore the nature of this fear and the unusual, and highly unexpected, way the U.S. military found to manage it: military chaplains.  Rather than calm the soldiers through promises of divine protection, the chaplains taught them a faith that offered power over their fears and a sense of control in a seemingly anarchic world.  The chaplains told the soldiers that God would give them the power to overcome their fears and prove themselves to be brave American soldiers, a duty that quickly became equated with service to God.  Religion thus served a utilitarian function in the eyes of the military establishment, yet became a unifying element among the soldiers themselves.  The essay demonstrates the often intimate connection between religion and war, yet in a way that is too often missing from both the historiography and the popular imagination, and which has profound implications for the way we understand the religious revivals of postwar America.

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