This short but powerful book could have been even more powerful had the author made it shorter still. Jonathan Ebel, who teaches religious studies at the University of Illinois, has an annoying habit of circling a point endlessly before making it and then stomping on that point with both feet lest the reader somehow miss it. This particular reader kept muttering to himself, “Yes, yes, I get it! Now can we please move on?” Yet that unhappy writing tic detracts only slightly from the author’s very considerable achievement.
Ebel’s subject is the role that the soldier—especially the fallen soldier—plays in American civil religion. As the title, G.I. Messiahs, suggests, he sees that role as central. In the eyes of many—most?—Americans, the soldier represents “the Word of the nation made flesh” and by extension “the second person of an American godhead.” “American civil religion seems to require this incarnation,” Ebel writes. Where American soldiers fight and the spot where the fallen rest become, in the eyes of their fellow citizens, sacred ground. Seated metaphorically “at the right hand of the father,” soldiers personify all that the nation as a whole is or ought to be. As exemplars, they possess and on occasion wield vast moral authority. In that regard, the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington may be said to contain the “modern martial embodiment” of Jesus himself.
Ebel’s examination of this phenomenon—“the soldier as savior,” if you’ve not yet gotten the drift—begins with World War I and extends up to the present day. The material he employs as evidence ranges from cemeteries and monuments to movies, literature and political rhetoric. Together, if taken at face value, these underpin a civil theology based on a trinity of “service, sacrifice, [and] salvation,” its three elements indistinguishable and inseparable.
One abiding feature of this narrative is its pristine simplicity, which allows little room for nuance and none for doubt. So, for example, in considering European cemeteries maintained as the final resting place of Americans killed in the two world wars, Ebel describes perfectly aligned white crosses arrayed on exquisitely manicured grounds that depict those interred there as “uniformly noble, uniformly sinless, uniformly saved.” In some instances, he points out, the crosses themselves are arrayed in cruciform. Through a process of sacralization, all the dead thereby merge into a single identity intended, in Ebel’s view, to validate the wars in which they fought and the nation that sent them to fight. The point of the exercise is to encourage visitors “to imagine an ideal soldier, an ideal army, an ideal America,” the wars thereby escaping scrutiny and the state accountability.
Yet as Ebel makes clear, the lived experience of actual soldiers complicates this preferred narrative. Real soldiers are real people. Some may be saints; most are not. Few who make the “supreme sacrifice” do so of their own volition. Those who do—their lives not so much offered as taken—are not uniformly noble and uniformly sinless.
Nor are those who survive. For soldiers who experience war at firsthand, life after may not be pristine or even tolerable. Ebel writes of one hero, winner of the Medal of Honor, who returns from World War I celebrated by all and then quietly and inexplicably commits suicide. Another Vietnam-era soldier, also a recipient of the Medal of Honor, spends time in a mental hospital before meeting his end in a failed holdup of a liquor store in Detroit.
Indeed, Vietnam posed an acute challenge to the soldier’s assigned role as paladin of America’s civil religion. Ebel characterizes the result as a “Christological crisis.” Certainly it was difficult to see the perpetrators of the My Lai massacre as Christ-like figures. More problematic still were the actions of soldiers who turned against the war, portraying it as immoral and denouncing the state that in their view had coerced them to serve. By indicting the nation, groups like Vietnam Veterans Against the War “invert[ed] civil religious performance,” Ebel writes, causing great consternation among their fellow citizens disinclined to see the United States as anything other than God’s agent of righteousness.
Salvaging America’s civil religion and restoring soldiers to their assigned place required that the divisive Vietnam War end and with it the draft. In the new all-volunteer force, soldiers ostensibly served of their own volition, thereby refuting charges of coercion. By the 1990s, the restoration of civil religion seemed an accomplished fact, with the soldier once more occupying an exalted place. If any doubts remained in that regard, the events of Sept. 11 removed them. As the global war on terrorism commenced, Americans—for the most part rooting from a safe distance—reflexively depicted their warriors as fighting on God’s side.
Today, Ebel contends, the theology that places the soldier at the center of America’s civil religion “is as vigorous as it has ever been.” If so, that theology has become blandly generic, having long since shed its specifically Christian character.
Moreover, complicating facts continue to crop up, as Ebel’s account makes clear. Consider the case of Pat Tillman. One of the very few members of the American celebrity elite to enlist after Sept. 11, Tillman gave up a lucrative career in the National Football League to join the military elite as an Army ranger. When Tillman lost his life in Afghanistan, the Army wasted no time depicting him as a hero—covering up the fact that he had been killed by friendly fire. The cover-up soon unraveled. Worse still were subsequent revelations that Tillman considered his comrades a sorry bunch, questioned the war’s legality and was adamant in his own rejection of religion.
Likeminded members of Tillman’s family refused to play along with his secular canonization. In death, he was not one with God. He was, instead, a corpse in a box underground—so they insisted with vehement bitterness. As they saw it, his death had served no purpose. It had been a waste.
For adherents to America’s civil religion, such disbelief is disturbingly subversive. For those inclined to see America’s civil religion as a particularly pernicious form of heresy, disbelief may offer a first step toward enlightenment. God and country are not one and the same. The sooner Americans come to terms with that reality the better.