Atheists in Foxholes, Bunkers, and Barfights

Name: Jos Flachs
Branch: Koninklijke Marechaussee (Royal Netherlands Military Constabulary)
Rank: Marechausee 2nd class (lance corporal)
Term of service: 2 years as volunteer; 5 years as member in the National Guard (1979-1987)

Are there atheists in foxholes? Sure there are. I’m one of them. No, I haven’t been under enemy fire, if by “enemy” you mean a foreign national. But if by “enemy” you mean anyone trying to harm you badly, then yes. Lots of times, it comes with the job.

During basic training, we went to the firing range to throw live hand grenades for the first time. We were sitting in a bunker waiting for our turn to get out and do it. Every one of us was scared. Really scared. That ain’t fireworks out there, it is the real thing. Every time you hear one explode, it sounds like a giant oaken door being slammed shut. Almost my turn. WHAMMM!!!! This one sounded a LOT closer. Awfully close. Right after that, some drill instructors came running in, looking for first aid stuff. Later I found out that a trainee freaked out, and threw his frag wrongly. It rolled back. His life was saved by his drill instructor, who threw himself overthe boy and shielded him from the worst. Both were injured, but survived.

And then, it was my turn… was I scared? Shitless, as they say. I don’t know how, but I managed to do it. Though I was raised Roman Catholic, it didn’t occur to me for even a second to pray. Far too busy worrying about other matters, like not dropping those grenades, and throwing them as far as I could – trying to stay alive! Did “God” gave me the strength to go out and do it? Not at all. More like the ridicule of my classmates or the anger of my drill instructors if I didn’t.

Later I was quite often in Germany, on Military Police duty. The Dutch army trains a lot there. Over the weekend, all exercises are postponed, and troops are “at liberty”. No liberty for us MP’s, though. We have to maintain law and order, especially when troops are boozing up. Ever seen a bar fight? Except for a few trouble seekers, most people would try to avoid it like the plague.

That’s not an option for us. We have to go in there, arrest those troublemakers, calm things down. Believe me, the first few times, you are really really scared. More often than not, police presence aggravates matters; the troublemakers unite against this new and common enemy.

We are out there alone, when we do our work. Plenty of bystanders, but help or support, none at all. Far from it: if a drunken soldier tries to stab your face with a broken beer bottle, people say “the poor boy, he had a few pints too many…” For us, there are no such excuses. Use your riot stick one time too many on that person trying to maim you, and it’s “excessive violence, police brutality, power abuse,” etc., etc. Something forgotten by all lawyers and judges: they have months to consider the decision we have to make in a split-second. You are facing two enemies: the troublemaker trying to maim you, and later on, his lawyer trying to capitalize on police violence. Compare that to a traffic accident, when plenty of bystanders are very helpful. Or when on traffic patrol duty, many people help you, for example by offering a hot cup of coffee. Not so with bar fights. Plenty of onlookers, but from a very safe distance.

The first few times, you go in as if in a trance. Did I pray? Nope, I didn’t. Already discovered it doesn’t work. I have to do my job, not some kind of god or gods, whatever or whoever he or they might be. At that time, I didn’t even give it much thought.

I was young and eager to do my job. It has always struck me as odd that I was expected to pray for something, like passing an exam, and if I passed by studying long and hard, people say, “God heard your prayer! It was God who let you pass.” But if I did not study, and consequently failed, it was my own mistake. Same here in the army. When you do your job, do it right, and don’t get harmed (at least not excessively, hopefully), then “God sent an angel to protect you”. I did a good job, didn’t get hurt, and all by my own efforts, thank you very much!