We’ve all heard that old saw: “There are no atheists in foxholes.” It’s a nice thought for some, I suppose; that at the first sign of mortal danger all people suddenly discover hidden beliefs in eternal salvation and in a higher deity, usually somehow of the Christian faith. But of course, as with most adages, it is quite false.
The military, it turns out, is not monolithic. It is a blend of persons from all walks of life; all backgrounds; all races; all genders; all faiths. At its heart, it is a bureaucracy of idealism. We uphold virtues, values, and creeds – all encased in the throttling confines of regulations, doctrine, and rank structure. It is the old – the heritage of the past – meeting the new – the ever-changing nature of war. And it is a flawed human institution. So, in many ways, it is like the Catholic Church.
When I first looked at joining the military, I leaned towards the Marine Corps. I was drawn to it for the same reason that young men are drawn to sports cars: shiny, fast, lots of power, and has the possibility of causing very poor decisions from an over-inflated ego. I also had read that the Marine Corps has a large percentage of Catholics in its ranks, which appealed to my idealistic overly Catholic worldview of the time. And while I found that, yes, there were plenty of nominal Catholics in the Marines – and in the military as a whole – most of the people who decided to let you know very soon that they were Catholic were not people that you wanted to be sharing a foxhole with.
Because here’s the thing. The military in and of itself is already a semi-religious cult as it is. Mix in religious overtones, and it gets, well, dangerous. Back in the days of Pope Boniface VIII, there was the theory of the two swords: the spiritual and the temporal. As he said it, “The first is wielded by the Church; the second is wielded on behalf of the church. The first is wielded by the hands of the priest, the second by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the wish and by the permission of the priests.” Kids, these days we call that a theocracy and as a historian I can lift the curtain on the macabre stage of history and point to the long lines of blood that trail from theocracies. There’s nothing like saying “My god told me to do it,” to exculpate one’s self from the death and suffering of multitudes of people.
So yes, theocracies=bad news bears. And those who loudly reference their religion while emphasizing their uniform are those who would seem to be wanting to take up both the spiritual and temporal swords at the same time; often with a target already in sight. Now, this is not to say that religion in uniform is automatically bad. Far from it. It can be a solace in times of trouble, a rock during trials, and a source of courage when courage is especially needed. And lastly, in a profession where the act of dying is a specified job hazard, the hope of life everlasting is most definitely a huge plus.
Which is kind of what makes the realization that atheists and agnostics do this whole military thing that much all the more amazing. And let me tell you, I’ve served alongside some incredible soldiers who also happened to be atheists. And speaking as a very confused Catholic coming from a Jewish background, what is often fascinating to me is that where we often do good deeds because they’re a central tenet of our faith, atheists and agnostics do them because they know that it’s just the right thing to do; to try to make the world a little better, one step at a time.
Yes, Virginia, there are atheists in foxholes. Thank God.
As a side note, welcome to this new column, where we’ll explore faith in the military, history, and probably end up at some point comparing monastic orders to Jedi knights, because hey, like the God of the Old Testament, I am who I am.
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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He writes at The Angry Staff Officer. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare. Support this blog’s Patreon here.
Image: Fighting with the 2nd Inf. Div. north of the Chongchon River, Sfc. Major Cleveland, weapons squad leader, points out Communist-led North Korean position to his machine gun crew. November 20,1950. Pfc. James Cox. Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.