God and Uncle Sam: Religion and America’s Armed Forces in World War II
The Boydell Press £30
Church Times Bookshop £27
THE Rector of the parish where I first served after ordination had been an army chaplain in the Second World War. This was clearly one source of the parish’s great devotion to him, which gave me a personal interest in learning more of what he would have experienced. Reading Michael Snape’s study of religion and the American Armed Forces during the war proved rewarding both personally and in terms of broader historical interest.
Snape relates the war era to its context: a period of relative decline in American religion during the 1920s and 1930s, and one of great resurgence in the late 1940s and 1950s. There are chapters on military chaplaincy (a matter of particular concern to national leadership), on the historically close relationship between religion and American military culture, on the ways in which religion in the military intermeshed with its Home Front counterpart, on the quality and evaluation of faith under the pressure of combat, and on the exposure of vast numbers of young Americans to a much larger world and its religious differences.
A final chapter looks at the disorientating effects that war had on the moral bearings of young Americans in the military, including instances of looting, rape, and other serious crimes.
The book draws heavily on the words of actual participants, including personal diaries as well as official reports and journalism. Their abundance can make for slow reading of a massive volume. Short quotations are crowded together with sometimes inadequate transitions, and one tends to lose track of the individual behind widely scattered comments. Still, it has the advantage of immersing us in the language and concerns of the period itself.
One interesting omission, perhaps because of the silence of the sources, is the issue of homosexuality in the Forces. The period is now seen in the US as a turning-point in terms of the self-awareness of gay men and lesbians.
Snape has a done a good job of capturing the wrenching transition from the relatively isolationist America of the 1930s, under the shock of the Pearl Harbor attack, to a nation that embraced its task as a vindicator of world democracy and human rights (even though it was still not fully prepared to guarantee the same to its own African-American and Japanese-American citizens).
He also qualifies the American cultural memory of the Second World War as “the Good War” with acknowledgement of the fundamentally corrupting effects even of a war fought on behalf of laudable principles against brutally tyrannous regimes.
This volume will be a fruitful source for historians. Perhaps the author might consider writing a briefer and more readable version for the broader audience.
The Revd Dr L. William Countryman is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.