Religion in the U.S. Military

This article is part of an occasional series by Marc Acton, Patrol's Iraq correspondent. Click here to read previous entries.

KIRKUK, IRAQ—Despite the steady secularist bent of American culture, the U.S. military is still very pro-religion. Almost every official military function—even those primarily designed as an excuse to partake of the grog bowl, an intentionally unappealing amalgamation of alcoholic beverages otherwise referred to as the “toilet bowl”—begins with a prayer from a chaplain. There are multiple chaplains on every post or base and chaplains deployed in the field with ground-pounding infantry units. Upon arriving at Basic Training we were issued a Bible and encouraged to “practice our religion,” whichever faith tradition that might be. As soldiers, we are often specifically encouraged to seek out chaplains when faced with tough personal circumstances or mounting stress.

Is all of this spiritual encouragement because the top military brass is concerned for their soldiers' spiritual well-being? Maybe partly. But it's also because it makes soldiers into better killers.

Almost without exception, the job of every Army soldier is either to kill, to help others do a better job of killing, or to protect those who are doing the killing. Even the Medical Corps' ultimate purpose is to maintain or return to health those who do the killing—to maximize our "force potential." That's the unfortunate nature of what an army does. The bottom line is that even in a peace-keeping mission like our current one in Iraq, we keep the peace primarily by demonstrating and strategically exercising our ability to kill.

My job as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot in a lift unit is to move people and supplies around the battlefield. We are here to "maintain the force," affording safe passage to those in harms' way and those who bring the harm to others. Ground convoys are one of the deadliest ways to travel in Iraq, but travel by air is exceptionally safe. At first glance, then, one might label my unit's mission as being a lifesaver, and to a certain extent you'd be right. But the big-picture, the ultimate end of my mission, goes beyond the care of my fellow soldiers. I do that, true, but it is all in order to maintain their potential to cause damage to the enemy.

So where does religion fit in to the Army's mission to destroy? It’s certainly been a hot topic this year. A sprawling feature in the May issue of Harper’s suggested that a sort of nationalist Christianity is sweeping the military, and other media organizations from Newsweek to Al-Jazeera picked up the trail. But the military’s relationship with religion isn’t really about creating a “Lord’s army.”

Many years ago, the Army discovered that a happy soldier is a better soldier. Just like any civilian, the more mentally and physically fit a soldier is, the better he will perform, no matter what his job. Over decades of experience, it was also determined that for many, spiritual well-being can often be an indicator of wellness. Essentially, as the soul goes, so goes the soldier. Cue the chaplains. Part preacher, part pastor, part counselor, the chaplain's job is not so much to win souls as to minister to them.

This morning I attended my first chapel service here on Forward Operating Base, or FOB (pronounced “fawb”) Warrior. It was weird and somewhat unsettling, and yet simultaneously peaceful. The service itself could have been transplanted from any small-ish Midwestern Protestant church service. There are several worship styles available throughout the week ranging from "gospel" and "liturgical" in the Christian tradition, to services for other religions as well, but the service I chose to attend was labeled "contemporary Christian," so I pretty much knew what to expect in the way of doctrine: starter-level, non-confrontational, often-generic-but-still-specifically-Biblical teaching. And I wasn't disappointed there. The building was generic, with concrete floors (not nearly as unusual here in country as it would be at home), normal church-like chairs, and a regular old pulpit. The pastor was a reasonably well-spoken guy, generally likable, and entirely unobjectionable. Even the music felt familiar. The worship team is made up of well-meaning volunteers, and according to one of the singers I talked to afterwards is sort of team-led, with no real leader. My new worship-team acquaintance was also probably accurate when he qualified it as "combat worship," which might be a good description of the whole experience. Maybe the weirdness can be explained best by calling it "Combat Church." This combat quality is where the experience departs from the norm.

The first oddity, and probably most glaring, was the presence of copious amounts of firearms. At least half of the congregation is strapped. Suffice it to say, had Armageddon come, and had Satan's minions been susceptible to small-arms fire, there were at least enough nine-millimeter pistols and fully-automatic machine guns to defend that little House of God for some time. Second is the near-complete lack of fellowship. While looking around, I did see a few polite hugs during the obligatory welcome-time between those who were obviously familiar with each other, and I did share some brief pleasantries with another guy that I sort of knew from my unit, but other than that it felt less like a church family and more like a collection of individuals all attending the same mandatory spiritual training session.

Along with those major weirdness factors, there were a few minor oddities that contributed to the whole experience: like nearly all buildings on FOB Warrior all the windows were blacked out to make the building less of a target for mortars at night and the fact that every person there was in uniform, wearing either the standard-issue physical training uniform of black shorts and grey T-shirt (with shoulder holsters for handguns, of course) or head-to-toe camouflage battle uniform.

But there's something to be said for simply finding a place of peace. The turning of one's heart towards God is always easier when the atmosphere is quiet and calm. And true worship does not require exceptional preaching or exceptional musicianship, only exceptional openness. Even something that provided weirdness was also a source of comfort in that the fact that I shared a uniform with all of these people meant shared experience, shared trials, and at least some shared goals. These were people in whom I could put immediate trust, and with whom I shared an immediate bond. In that respect, it had something that no civilian church ever could. And further, the weight of even the smallest pleasantries was increased—when the chaplain said he was glad we all could be there this morning, my mind immediately turned to the three soldiers from the FOB who were seriously injured this week, and I really believed that the chaplain was glad I was there.

So, how does my religious experience mesh with the reality that the service was provided to me as a way of enhancing my ability to perform my aforementioned mission? Maybe this is a case of the means justifying the ends. Does it matter why I was afforded the opportunity to worship? Does it matter that the same chaplain who preached to me from Luke on the importance of giving God glory by seeing miracles in everyday life might be the same chaplain who presides over the Muslim service? I don't think so. I think just as God can speak to each of us through nature, or non-spiritual circumstances, or can extract illustrations from even inanimate objects, I can listen for God’s voice in a blacked-out windowed, sandbag-fortified, armed-to-the-teeth chapel. Ultimately, if God's desire is for me to commune with Him, then the only factor that determines whether I can hear Him speak is if I'm willing to listen, and as long as the air-raid sirens are silent, the chapel on FOB Warrior in Kirkuk is as good a place as any.

And if going to church ultimately makes me a better fighter, then I guess that's a win-win, isn't it?

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