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Bringing God to Men

American Military Chaplains and the Vietnam War


Jacqueline E. Whitt


Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014

Paperback. xii+298 p. ISBN 978-1469612942.  $34.95


Reviewed by John D. Laing

Havard School for Theological Studies, Houston (Texas)


Jacqueline Whitt’s Bringing God to Men is a helpful and unique addition to the study of the American military chaplaincy because it provides both historical and sociological analysis of chaplains’ experiences of the Vietnam War, along with a discussion of its precursors and its aftermath as they pertain to American religious life generally and military chaplaincy specifically. She begins by discussing the relationship between patriotism, military service, and civil religion in the Cold War era, along with the religious overtones of much of the emerging civil rights movement, and how they set the stage for the differing religious responses to the conflict in Vietnam and chaplaincy service during the War, liberal and mainline denominations expressing disapproval for the War and conservative groups expressing support. She then moves to a more detailed examination of military chaplaincy during the war, noting that for most chaplains, a primary emphasis on pastoral ministry to service members (i.e., bringing God to men) colored the wartime experience. That is, while chaplains had their own denominational distinctives, political views, conceptions of morality of war (in general and Vietnam specifically), and the like, they tended to put the lion’s share of their effort and attention on conducting worship services, offering spiritual counsel, visiting outlying posts, performing religious rites, and developing relationships with those they served. Whitt sees this pragmatic focus as the key to understanding how chaplains in Vietnam were able to reconcile the seeming conflicting roles they were asked to fill as clergy serving in an increasingly unpopular war. She argues that a careful analysis of the military chaplaincy during Vietnam will overturn two popular notions about the relationship between religion and the war. First, it demonstrates that the critique of chaplaincy based on the concept of role conflict is too simplistic, and second, it counters the “dominant narrative of religious dissent and protest about the war” [225]. Finally, she explores the lasting impact of the Vietnam heritage upon the military chaplaincy, noting that by and large, the chaplaincy emerged from the war more committed to the religious work of ministering to military service members, but also more professional in its military bearing.

The work has a number of strengths. First, Whitt’s work serves as a significant contribution to the study of the Vietnam War and the role religion played for many involved in the conflict. While the book is primarily interested in how chaplains balanced their various roles, most importantly as clergy and officer, military and civilian, it also touches on religious concerns with the war, religious factors in the drive to war, and religious responses to the war in both the private and public spheres. It will prove invaluable in the ongoing scholarly reflection on the significance and impact of the Vietnam War for America’s place in the world in the twenty-first century.

Second, and more broadly, the book is valuable in its recounting of the experiences, feelings, hopes, disappointments, successes, and struggles of military chaplains in the midst of an increasingly unpopular conflict. Her appropriation of chaplains’ stories adds a layer of specificity to the work that enables readers to identify with the narrative and the situations it describes. It portrays chaplains as real persons of faith, and overturns the popular stereotypes of chaplains as miracle-performing saint, militaristic war-monger, and incompetent-but-well-meaning do-gooder. Whitt presents chaplains as persons who had struggles similar to those with whom they served and to those on the home front, and who returned to their faith for answers to those struggles. These stories of vulnerability and redemption may prove life-imparting to those readers who still struggle with the ghosts of war. In addition to the specificity that allows the reader to connect to the chaplains’ experiences, the stories also have a timeless appeal because the challenges and goals of the chaplains serving in Vietnam during the conflict are no different from those of chaplains serving today. In this respect, it may prove a helpful tool for reflection and development of currently serving chaplains.

Third, and perhaps the greatest contribution of Whitt’s work, is in her challenge to the prevailing sociological analytical tool used for understanding the military chaplain, the concept of role conflict, in which it is assumed that the two roles one plays—in this case military officer and religious cleric—are necessarily at odds such that one must supervene on the other (or worse, simply override or destroy the other). Whitt consistently argues that such an analysis of military chaplains is too simplistic and fails to take into account the complex factors involved in the chaplains’ spiritual life, theology, and practice.

Still, the greatest strength of the work also proves to be its greatest weakness, for Whitt’s case is not as strong as it could be. Whitt does not adequately address what I take to be the primary reason the role conflict model does not really hold for an accurate understanding of military chaplains, namely theological persuasion. At times, she hints at this as a factor, but it is vague and comes rather late in the text. For example, she cites the critique of chaplaincy by sociologist Waldo Burchard, who argued that Christian military chaplains must experience role conflict because the doctrines of love, universal brotherhood, peace, non-resistance to evil, as well as the prohibition on killing cannot comport with military service, but instead of noting that he has assumed a particular meaning of those doctrines, she argues against the claim by referencing the voluntary nature of military chaplain service, presumably to show that chaplains themselves do not see such a conflict [79-80]. While her point is a valid one, it does not directly address Burchard’s claims regarding the fundamental problem of chaplaincy for Christians. It is not until the middle of the book that she first suggests that a problem with the role conflict approach is “based on a too-narrow conception of the ‘Christian’ worldview” [101], but even here, she defaults to the chaplains’ focus on the pragmatic issues as the primary factor; their understanding of their primary purpose as priestly rather than prophetic is what drove their actions. Later, she traces some of the historical developments (e.g., the influence of Bonhoeffer and Cox) that led mainline and liberal Protestant groups to emphasize the prophetic over the priestly role, but she never addresses the explicitly theological differences that allowed evangelical and conservative Christians to support the war and to emphasize the priestly role / ministerial functions. What is it about an experience-based theology that led to criticism of the war, and a Bible-based theology that led to greater support? What can we learn from these trends in belief for future controversies regarding military service among religious persons?

She does, however, do a fine job of highlighting the historical factors—political, socio-economic, social, etc.—that led to the rise of the Religious Right and how it influenced the shape of the post-Vietnam chaplaincy. Perhaps my criticism here is misplaced and I am asking a historian to take on the persona of theologian. Perhaps, to be fair, I should couch my complaint more in terms of areas for further study to which Whitt has pointed, than in terms of shortcomings of this largely impressive and helpful work. To be sure, Whitt has offered a valuable analysis of how the experiences of chaplains serving in the Vietnam War and their subsequent reflection upon successes, failures, theology, morality, justice, and politics, have helped to shape the military chaplaincy of the twenty-first century.

A somewhat minor editorial point that could prove a source of irritation to some readers is the seeming overly-critical eye Whitt casts on personal accounts, particularly those that paint the chaplain in a positive light [e.g., 67, 68-69]. While it is obviously true that chaplains—and anyone else for that matter—will have a desire or tendency to portray themselves and their work / ministries as positive influences in the military, it need not be the case that every positive recounting includes exaggeration, embellishment, or (worse) fictitious events, interactions, or outcomes. It almost seems that Whitt feels a need to present herself as skeptical to gain the respect of the scholarly community, perhaps due to her challenge to the prevailing analysis of military chaplaincy. However, two comments are in order. First, her point could have adequately been made with a sentence or two regarding the chronicler’s tendencies toward embellishment of the narrative, justification of his own work / actions, reconciliation of conflicting material, and the like, at the beginning of the work. (One of the chaplains she cites even admitted in his memoir that his own memory may have led him to recall things the way he wanted them to have gone rather than the way they actually went [173].) Second, some of the stories actually ring true, at least to one who has served as a chaplain in combat. For example, the story of a rocket attack ending at the precise moment a chaplain concluded a communion service for the threatened soldiers seems quite plausible [117-118], as do the stories of a soldier killed within minutes of saying confession to a chaplain priest [120], and of a unit preserved when a helicopter crash caused the men to abandon their Easter service to check for wounded, just before an artillery shell exploded near the location of the worship service [129]. Whitt labels these “exaggerated” and “hyperbolic” in their claims with no evidence for doing so, save her own presumptive skepticism. This is not to say that every seemingly miraculous event need be interpreted religiously, but it is to say that coincidental events can and do happen. Even the non-religious recognize this possibility, so there is little need to question the veracity of every story that seems to allow for a supernatural interpretation on the part of the chaplain, especially given the number of chaplains serving and the length of the war.

Despite these rather minor weaknesses, the work is still a major achievement. It covers an impressive amount of material, from civil religion to chaplain strategies for adjusting liturgies for diverse congregations, to political movements, to social developments in late twentieth-century America. Whitt has provided an excellent resource for understanding the impact of Vietnam on the modern chaplaincy, and an excellent defense of chaplaincy against its critics. All military chaplains, especially those in supervisory roles, should read this work and take to heart the lessons of our forebears.


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