Although today's scholars often focus on the way religion serves as both a motivation and a justification for terrorist organizations and individual fanatics to undertake unspeakable acts of carnage and destruction, religion can have a diverse impact on the battlefield, including on the operations conducted by professional militaries. This observation might seem obvious to those familiar with military history, but—as Ron E. Hassner notes in this finely crafted and timely monograph—scholars have recently dismissed the important, albeit sometimes subtle, ways that religion can shape the course and conduct of individual battles or entire campaigns. Religion can exert an influence on the timing, location and conduct of battle—even when the combatants are co-religionists. Hassner begins his study by suggesting that religious practices and considerations can facilitate or inhibit military operations, depending on how they are viewed by friend, foe or third parties. When they bolster morale and unit cohesion, religious practices and chaplains can motivate troops to carry out their tasks, acting as a force multiplier. Sacred spaces and sacred times can also limit and channel combat, redirecting it away from locations and days of religious importance. When these constraints are violated in war—such as the allied bombing of the Abbey of Monte Cassino in the Second World War—a political backlash can occur where claims of military necessity are overpowered by the revulsion brought about by the loss of important religious monuments. Whenever possible, professional militaries as well as individual soldiers avoid harming religious sites and chaplains. This behaviour is prompted not only by the belief that it is morally wrong—or downright unlucky—to kill clerics or to destroy sacred places, but by the conviction that such attacks provoke the enemy. Hassner also highlights how the effects of religion in war can be subtle, difficult to anticipate and inconsistent. Japanese officers, for instance, selected a Sunday morning for their attack on Pearl Harbor, believing that ships would be in port and that their crews would be recovering from a night spent enjoying Honolulu's nightlife. The Japanese were spot on in their estimate, but they failed to anticipate the political reaction to the timing of their attack, which produced a ‘provocation’ according to Hassner's analytical framework. Over 75 years later, the fact that an opponent will stoop to exploit an idyllic Sunday morning to launch an attack reverberates in American strategic and political culture. By contrast, British and German bombing campaigns unfolded with reckless abandon during the Second World War, levelling urban areas and leaving populations more dazed than motivated by the loss of churches and buildings of religious significance. Religion on the battlefield concludes with a fine case-study of how religious considerations shaped the conduct and course of the 2003 invasion of Iraq—as well as highlighting the efforts developed by the United States to understand and to accommodate local religious practices and mannerisms. Chaplains were encouraged to serve as liaisons to local religious leaders and human terrain-mapping teams were sent out to document indigenous social networks, which reflected religious differences. Hassner notes that this sort of intelligence work is both difficult to undertake and to operationalize—it is not always possible to produce ‘actionable’ intelligence from local commanders based on mapping religious differences. Nevertheless, Hassner has produced a thoughtful and interesting survey that is of immediate political and strategic importance. In an age when social media can turn a minor local insult into an international crisis, soldiers and politicians alike ignore the impact of religion on war at their peril. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com.
International Affairs – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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