Two books in one

by | Jul 14, 2015 | Book Reviews

Unlikely Warrior
A Pacifist Rabbi’s Journey from the Pulpit to Iwo Jima
Lee Mandel
Pelican, 2015
368 pp., $28.95
ISBN: 978-1-455619887

To a child growing up at the end of the 20th century, the epic battles of the Second World War were 50 years in the distant past (almost ancient history) and the tragic failure of national will in Southeast Asia was but a dim recollection of a previous generation. Conversely, a child coming of age just after the First World War, reflecting on the death of 20 million people with no resolution of the ills these deaths were meant to cure, might, more than likely, embrace one of two movements: pacifism or isolationism.

Isolationists supported a national policy of abstention from political or economic relations abroad. Pacifists believed that any violence is unjustifiable for any reason whatsoever. Not identical by any means, there were many similarities—enough to make odd bedfellows of ideologues of the left and right. Even today there are fringe groups such as the American Freedom Union, which calls for the arrest of the bellicose Senator John McCain as a war criminal.

Lee Mandel, a retired Navy Medical Corps Captain with a penchant for research and writing, became intrigued by the text of a eulogy given by Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, the first Jewish chaplain assigned to the U.S. Marine Corps. The speech, entitled The Purest Democracy, received national notoriety in 1945 and was often referred to as the “Gettysburg Address of WWII .” Rabbi Gittelsohn’s remarkable story, reconstructed from his existing notes, unpublished memoirs and interviews with his surviving children, begins with his family’s emigration from the Pale of Settlement at the end of the 19th century. It continues through the rabbi’s ordination, his development as a congregational rabbi with a predilection for passionate sermonizing (particularly pacifist), and the epiphany that guided his decision to become a Navy chaplain in WWII .

Rabbi Gittelsohn’s pacifism, strident at times as pictured by author Mandel, is somewhat trying to the reader; the brilliant young rabbi occasionally comes off as somewhat immature. But the ‘meat’ of Unlikely Warrior is the build up to and execution of the invasion of Iwo Jima, the most costly battle ever fought by the U.S. Marine Corps.

Unlikely Warrior is almost two books in one. The first is an incomplete biography: Rabbi Gittelsohn graduates from seminary, marries, begins a family, takes a congregational position, goes to war, returns to congregational life and the story pretty much ends there. However, by this time the reader has developed an interest in his life and wishes to know more.

The ‘second’ book is riveting at times. Mandel, in treating the political struggle of Admiral Nimitz, Fleet Admiral in charge of all military services in the Pacific, facing critics of his combat strategy, and in providing the reader with a clear view of the late stages of preparation for ending the war in the Pacific, is at his best. And his portrayal of the highly opinionated young rabbi, growing up fast, will stimulate the reader’s attention.

Rabbi Gittelsohn, now Chaplain Lt. Gittelsohn, faces more than mere danger while functioning in an active combat area. He must cope with anti-Semitism both at the peer level and the institutional level. Fellow chaplains came in two flavors: true believers who respected his particular view of God and worked to find commonality, and those who dwelled on differences and exhibited petty jealousy over work assignments. Nothing in his education, training or life experiences could possibly have prepared him for dealing face to face with the mortally wounded, the dreadfully disfigured, the blankets containing scraps of bones and viscera for burial.

Ever the seeker of peace, Rabbi Gittelsohn, in his famous eulogy at the 5th Marine Division cemetery at the foot of Mount Suribachi, noted that the purest democracy resided with those dead boys who asked neither the religion nor race of their fallen comrades. He later acknowledged that his mistake as a pacifist was that ‘peace was his God’, forgetting that peace can come along only with truth and justice.

We remain ever mindful that the iconic flag-raising on Mount Suribachi, commemorated in the Marine Corps War Memorial in bronze and stone at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery, honors the 26,000 U.S. Marine casualties in the battle of Iwo Jima, of which 6,800 died—more than twice the number of fatalities on 9/11.

—Hal Sacks is a retired Jewish communal worker who has reviewed books for Jewish News for more than 30 years.