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This summer marks 100 years since the guns of August 1914 signaled the eruption of an unprecedented global battle. Over the next four years, some two dozen countries would send more than 60 million soldiers to fight. When the guns at last fell silent in November 1918, 10 million men had fallen, and millions more were permanently maimed. Some 7 million civilians had also died, and the physically broken and psychologically scarred were beyond counting.
Shocked by its magnitude, its duration, and above all by its staggering human cost, contemporaries labeled the conflict simply the "Great War." In a historical tour de force, Baylor University's Philip Jenkins demonstrates that participants viewed it as a holy war as well. The story Jenkins faithfully retells in The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (HarperOne) is both engaging and disturbing.
Jenkins's central point is that we cannot comprehend World War I until we come to grips with its essential religious dimension. Religion is central to "understanding the war, to understanding why people went to war, what they hoped to achieve through war, and why they stayed at war." Just as important were the long-term religious consequences. The war triggered "a global religious revolution," Jenkins argues, and in the process "drew the world's religious map as we know it today."
"Holy war" is a loaded phrase, and Jenkins is careful to define what he means by it. It goes far beyond what theologians such as Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas meant by "just war." Just-war doctrine says that, in a fallen world, as a last resort one fallen nation may use deadly force against another to promote long-term peace and avert grave injustice. When nations embark on holy war, in contrast, all moral complexity falls away. The country's cause becomes God's cause. The nation is wholly righteous, its ...