G. I. Messiahs

To commemorate Memorial Day, this week's review unpacks the "ideal soldier" myth and its ongoing tension with civil religion in America

G. I. Messiahs: Soldiering, War, and American Civil Religion

Ebel, Jonathan H. Yale, 2015
241p index afp, 9780300176704 $40.00, 9780300216356

G. I. Messiahs: Soldiering, War, and American Civil Religion book cover

The US venerates soldiers through its construction of symbols, beliefs, and rituals, including parades, medals and citations, monumental cemeteries at home and abroad, and observance of Memorial Day.  A former naval intelligence officer, Ebel (religious studies, Univ. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) analyzes US understanding of ideal soldiers, who are usually viewed as young, strong, brave heroes who exhibit honor, courage, service, and sacrifice (a view reinforced by Hollywood films of the 1940s)—but he complicates the narrative.  He looks at six high-profile figures who failed to exhibit the noble qualities associated with soldiering. He cites examples of ordinary soldiers who regret their brutality in combat, returning soldiers who have difficulty reintegrating into society and sometimes turn to suicide, soldiers who confessed feeling coerced into their roles rather than serving voluntarily. Noting that soldiering carries “multiple interpretative options,” Ebel explores the topic as a neglected dimension of civil religion and draws analogies between soldiering and biblical themes. In Ebel’s telling, the soldiers are more than protectors; they are saviors of the nation. This insightful study brings to the fore important concerns related to evaluating national values and morality, understanding American identity in terms of empire or colleagues among nations, and the role of religion in national life.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers.
W. L. Pitts Jr., Baylor University
Subject: Humanities – Religion
Choice Issue: May 2016

Enjoy this week’s review? Check out more reviews of titles in the religion subject area: