Hey, soldier, grunt if you love God

armsandman2The Wall Street Journal ran a book review today that raised way more questions than it answered, including a possble hard-news hook to the ongoing tensions among the chaplains who serve the various branches of the U.S. military. Click here for a flashback on those stories.

The book by Robert Kaplan is called Imperial Grunts and the headline on Daniel Ford’s essay has a kicker phrase that will certainly catch the eye of anyone interested in religion news: “God-Fearing Spartans: A look at America’s ‘imperial grunts.’”

So you are reading along and then you crash into this summary paragraph:

One of the more surprising of Mr. Kaplan’s findings is that evangelical Christianity helped to transform the military in the 1980s, rescuing the Vietnam-era Army from drugs, alcohol and alienation. That reformation, together with the character-building demands of Balkans deployments of the 1990s (more important, in his judgment, than the frontal wars against Saddam Hussein), created our “imperial grunts.”

Whoa. What in the world does all of that mean?

And later we meet a soldier who takes the whole “God, country, honor, duty” equation up to a whole different level. Who are the new “grunts”? We are told that they are the heart of America’s military and are dug in deep out in the overseas battlefields that they call “Injun Country,” an environment in which the grunts say that moral absolutes are easy to see and defend (according to those interviewed for this book).

“We’re the damn Spartans,” explains Maj. Kevin Holiday of Tampa, “physical warriors with college degrees.” A civil engineer with three kids, he is a National Guardsman with an attitude. “God has put me here,” he tells Mr. Kaplan. “I’m a Christian. . . . You see this all around you” — the dust, deprivation and anxiety of Injun Country — “well, it’s the high point of my life and of everyone else here.”

And believe it or not, that is about where things stop. Hey, folks, can you tell us more?

It is my hope that, somewhere at the WSJ news desk, some editor who works with the newsroom’s celebrated column-one feature team read these paragraphs this morning, spit out her or his coffee, and said: “What? Can somebody get me some hard numbers on this thing about ‘evangelical Christianity helped to transform the military in the 1980s’ and all of that?”

There’s a story here. I hope that the talented people on the news side at the WSJ report it, find out if this editorial claim is true and then print the results. Just do it.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • ECJ

    Imperial (Christian) Grunts – with the parenthetical insertion added to supply the appropriate context – is an annoying phrase. It feeds the “Bush invaded Iraq because those damned evangelicals want to Christianize the world by conquest” fantasy. But it isn’t true.

    More than anything else, it is the AVF that has transformed the Armed Forces. Military service is now self-selected, and whole sections of the population have simply opted out. So perhaps the “Evangelical transformation” is simply reflective of the fact that evangelicals are more likely to serve. If this disturbs the cheese-eating surrender monkeys in the MSM, perhaps they should put down their mighty pens, and pick up a rifle. Yes, that is going to happen REAL soon.

    In the meantime, they could at least investigate who joins, who doesn’t and why. I suspect the answer to ‘why’ wouldn’t be too flattering to the upper east side, however.


  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    I’m hoping that somebody tells Maj. Kevin Holiday more about the historical Spartans. They had some practices that wouldn’t jibe with the US military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

  • tmatt


    Righto. More grist for the Kinsey sliding scale of sexual behavior debates…

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd Dan Berger

    And this matters how, Avram?

    I wrote something for the ANGLICAN list about a year ago in which I pointed out that one of the major contributions of Western Christianity to military culture was the realization that loyalty between comrades-in-arms didn’t require them to be getting it on.

    Otherwise, these guys are just like the Spartans: simple, straightforward, rigidly loyal to each other, and preferring to die rather than desert their comrades.

    Been there, seen that.

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd Dan Berger

    I meant “simple” in the sense of uncomplicated, not ‘tupid, in case anyone wanted to interpret it that way.

  • Peter Nicholson

    By comparison, the New York Times’ review of Imperial Grunts didn’t exactly leave me humming “Onward Christian Soldiers”. But did have another intriguing Kaplan quote:

    “He compares the panoply of Indian tribes in 19th-century America to the multitude of “warring ethnic and religious militias spread throughout Eurasia, Africa and South America in the early 21st century.”

    Now, Kaplan may be thinking of Shiite militias in Iraq (“religious” being code for “Muslim”, perhaps?), but it’s quite possible to take him at his ecumenical word. One example of a Christian militia is Uganda’s “Lord’s Resistance Army”; Sudan has others. I’m pretty sure there’s a religious back-story in “Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Colombia, and the Philippines” as well.

    It would be intriguing the content of the training US Special Forces receive in understanding and respecting religious belief and customs. What would happen if the suspiciously-evangelical US Army was deployed for peacekeeping in, say, some African country, attempting to adjudicate between one renegade Christian militia led by a charismatic prophet; another militia advocating Islamic law, and a nominally secular central government? Or what about church services held on base in countries where Christianity and other religions are forbidden? I’d say there’s material here for another book.

  • http://www.chasclifton.com/blogger.html Chas S. Clifton

    I think it’s called the New Model Army.

    I never if I’m living in the 4th century CE or the 16th.

  • http://www.chasclifton.com/blogger.html Chas S. Clifton

    Excuse me, that should be 17th century, of course!

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com Matt

    “Can somebody get me some hard numbers on this thing about ‘evangelical Christianity helped to transform the military in the 1980s’ and all of that?”

    That is exactly what I thought. I was in the military in the 1980 and now that I look back, most of the NCOs who had been in Nam were pretty immoral. But most of the young officers weren’t much better. What I saw (and my field of vision was limited to the 101st Airborne) was that the young NCOs were the morally straight ones who almost always thought about how to be good and how to make their men good. And of course, I did have a drill sergent in Basic training who made us march to hymns and only gave us time off to go to chapel services.

  • Micah Weedman

    Someone get the WSJ a copy of Jarhead by Anthony Swofford. Apparently, the Marines have yet to be reformed.

  • Tim Russ

    Robert Kaplan is no friend to Christianity. What he is happy about is that certain Christians are displaying a mindset that is of use in promoting his own ideas which are hostile to religion.

    Robert Kaplan wrote a book called “warrior politics: why leadership requires a Pagan Ethos” in 2001 in which he blasted Christian Morality as any sort of basis for decision making in public life. As a replacement, he offered the Pagan Morality of the Roman Empire. In many of his books, he accepts the conclusions of Edward Gibbon in “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” blaming Christianity for the fall of Rome.

    Kaplan’s new morality says that you judge right and wrong by your goals rather than what you have to do to accomplish the goals. He also talks in his book about getting people to “think the unthinkable” in terms of fighting wars.

    As far as the military in the 1980s, Kaplan wasn’t around the military then and has no expertise in talking about what happened after Vietnam or much of anything before 2000.