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The Army Fights "With God on Our Side"

07/31/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

An article in the Washington Post On Faith section in response to their question:
The ACLU has asked the U.S. Naval Academy to end prayers at mandatory meals, and yet all branches of the service employ chaplains. What is the proper role of religion in the military?

Speaking realistically, patriotism can't be divorced from religion. Every war is fought with God on our side -- on both sides. And the prevailing notion is always that the enemy is godless. The ACLU may prevail legally, on the basis of separating church and state, but psychology works massively against them. Soldiers know that they may die in battle, and the armed forces must create an ethos that protects their psyches from the impending danger of the conflict. Team spirit and protecting your buddy is one aspect of feeling safe. Trusting your weaponry is another. But so is the idea that God approves of your cause and implicitly will take you to Heaven if the worst befalls.

The entanglement of personal duty, troop morale, patriotism, and religion isn't simple. The ACLU's lawsuit will antagonize anyone on the inside -- besides the "us versus them" mentality about the enemy; there is an "us versus them" attitude toward the civilian public. And rightly so. No one on the home front can understand the searing experience of frontline fighting. Since Vietnam, an additional element has entered the situation: the resentment by soldiers that nobody appreciates their sacrifice. "Vietnam vet" has become synonymous with a new kind of forgotten man -- unsung, alienated, often psychologically scarred for life -- and society seems to feel the same way about Iraqi vets. One sympathizes with their plight; it would be inhuman not to.

That said, it is disturbing to know how deeply fundamentalist Christianity has sunk into the ethos of the armed forces. First noticed with alarm at the Air Force Academy, hard-core proselytizing is apparently rampant. Soldiers pray as they go into training exercises as well as into battle. Atheist and Jewish soldiers are ostracized or hit hard with pressure to convert. The simple notion that fighting for your country is the same as fighting for Jesus is endemic. Yet here, too, the solution isn't clear. Weeding out chaplains who encourage right-wing fundamentalism may do some good, but if cadets and enlistees come from the same Christian background, they have rights, too. Even though one may suppose that young men and women barely in their twenties, if that, are too susceptible to peer pressure and religious indoctrination, we consider them mature enough to go to war. Splitting the difference won't work.

In the end, this feels like a minor point of discord. The Army and Navy are adult institutions, not grade schools, and the admission or exclusion of prayer can be handled by each soldier as he or she sees fit. The armed forces should be left to develop their own ethos. Until we have a draft that puts war on a democratic footing and enlists a broad swath of the population, all of us are outsiders who contribute almost nothing to the Iraq war other than a flurry of words. American militarism is a serious problem that needs radical solutions. Pulling God out of the mess hall is beside the point.