Magazine article Literary Review of Canada

The Fighting Faithful: Is There Still a Place for Religion in a Secular, Modern Military?

Magazine article Literary Review of Canada

The Fighting Faithful: Is There Still a Place for Religion in a Secular, Modern Military?

Article excerpt

Religion in the Ranks: Belief and Religious Experience in the Canadian Forces

Joanne Benham Rennick

University of Toronto Press

212 pages, hardcover

ISBN 9781442642874

The reverend john foote is one of the most inspiring figures in Canadian military history. A chaplain with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, Foote was part of the disastrous 1942 Dieppe raid and spent that terrible day carrying the wounded back under fire and ministering to the dead and dying. Several times Foote refused evacuation back to the safety of the ships. Given a final offer when he knew the alternative was captivity or death, Foote said he would be needed in the prisoner-of-war camps, and he walked back up the beach and into captivity. For his heroism, he was awarded the ultimate distinction for valour, the Victoria Cross.

Chaplains are a familiar aspect of military culture and history, especially the great battles of the Second World War. But what is their role in the modern world of improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers, where there are no fixed battle lines or even clear friends and foes? And in an increasingly secular and diverse society such as Canada, what is the place of religion in a modern military force?

Joanne Benham Rennick's Religion in the Ranks: Belief and Religious Experience in the Canadian Forces explores these questions. Rennick argues persuasively that while traditional religious practice may be declining both in the military and in Canada as a whole, religious and spiritual beliefs are more relevant than ever in the current military environment, a world of baffling conflicts and continual deployments, where the mission is often unclear and post-traumatic stress disorder lingers long after the return.

If John Foote is an inspiring figure of his era, no one represents the new context better than Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire. Powerless to stop the 1994 Rwandan genocide in his role as the local United Nations commander, Dallaire returned a shattered man, suffering from PTSD and ultimately attempting suicide before his rehabilitation. In the foreword to Religion in the Ranks, Dallaire writes that "it took religious language to explain my face-to-face encounter with evil" The Canadian military increasingly encounters situations of great anomie and suffering where no one can be trusted and individuals like Dallaire are caught in a moral vacuum. For many, only religion can provide certainty and answers for what they have experienced.

The importance of religion in the ranks may be somewhat surprising since the military is still made up largely of young men, who tend to be the least religious demographic in society, and, as one chaplain notes, "soldiers are not typically emotionally needy people" Rennick emphasizes the concept of "unlimited liability," in which servicemen and -women are ready to kill and to sacrifice their own lives, and the demands of military life, with long absences from home and constant readiness for action. She then documents how military personnel like Dallaire turn to religious language, resources and rituals to provide meaning and comfort in their stressful lives.

Yet religion is tricky in the modern military. Not only do most personnel consider themselves "spiritual" rather than traditionally religious, but the Forces are becoming ever more diverse. Statistics are not available, but the number of Muslims and Sikhs is growing, along with Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, pagans and even--seriously--Jedi Knights, and they join committed atheists, the generally agnostic, Jews and Catholics, Orthodox, mainstream Protestants and evangelical Christians. There are numerous difficulties in accommodating and respecting all perspectives, especially in military culture. Drawing a line between public roles and private faith is difficult on board ships where there is almost no private space, or in operational scenarios where every moment is intertwined with the mission at hand. …

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