Keep the Ends Out for the Tie that Binds

Today’s question is: How many ties does brotherhood need to bind it together?

You may have heard that Army Spc. Jeremy Hall has filed a suit against the US Department of Defense and Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, claiming his rights to religious freedom under the First Amendment were violated. Hall, a former Baptist who served two tours of duty in Iraq and who has a near perfect record, says he no longer believes in God, fate, luck or anything supernatural. And he says that because of his lack of belief in a deity, he was threatened by his fellow soldiers while on active duty, and that his military career was effectively ruined.

There were instances where Hall refused to pray at his table during mess, and was told to go sit somewhere else. At one point, he was nearly killed during an attack on his Humvee, and another soldier reportedly asked him, “Do you believe in Jesus now?” Plus, Hall was sent home early from Iraq and assigned to Fort Riley in Junction City, Kansas, to complete his tour of duty.

Fort Riley, Kansas? How much good can a soldier with two tours experience in Iraq do in Kansas?

Forget for a minute the constitutional implications of this case. Forget for a minute the religious and philosophical implications. I asked the initial question “How many ties does brotherhood need to bind it together?” because more than legal and philosophical issues, this case raises questions about the state of the US military in general.

If a person is going to be accepted into the military brotherhood, shouldn’t the main reason be his or her value as a soldier? Shouldn’t that trump and negate everything else, including his or her religious views? 

My younger brother is a Major in the United States Army. He’s a West Point graduate, and a decorated officer, having served in Iraq. I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting many of his classmates and fellow active officers. Now, it may be a function of their status as officers, but none of the men and women I have met seem tied together by any shared religious affiliation. They all, however, are intrinsically tied by the job, by being soldiers, by the training, by their duty, by the tasks that are expected of them. Religion is way down on the list of things from which their strong camaraderie springs, if it’s on there at all.

Certainly many of them are religious people, but it’s been my experience that that particular tie is not what binds them. Religion is not what holds their brotherhood together. So it’s disturbing to learn of incidents among the troops like the ones described by Hall in his lawsuit. He even claims in the suit that the United States military has become a Christian organization.

This idea is dangerous on more than one level. First, it belies the more important thread that should be shared by the men and women of the armed services; that being their duty to defend the American people and the rights inherent in the Constitution. And second, it doesn’t take a genius to see the historical ramifications of a military that identifies itself as a Christian organization at war in a mostly Islamic region.

Again, cases like Hall’s might be isolated, and relegated to mostly enlisted men and women. And the US military is of course not officially a religious organization at all. But there are undeniable theocratic tendencies among many leaders in Washington, including the current Commander in Chief. And the major ongoing US military conflicts are in highly volatile and heavily religious areas of the world. Can the US military afford to have religion be the main tie that binds the soldiers together?

What do you all think?

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. During my tour in Kuwait I noticed two things. Only the evangelical christians thought Bush was a good president. They thought we were in Iraq for a religous crusade. The other thing was how respectful everyone was of my atheism. I had zero trouble getting atheist on my dog tags. No one over there ever told me that I couldn’t be an atheist or asked the usual snide questions. Most people didn’t care at all. If they did we were able to have great and polite conversations about religion and about atheism. I am shocked and disgusted by the way Spc. Hall was treated.

  2. Oh, my picture (Avatar, is that right?) is of me in Kuwait. I’m hold a big ass spent shell I pulled out of a tank.

  3. @ Gabrielbrawley

    That is very encouraging to hear. Being so far removed from the situation, it’s difficult for civilians to really know what’s going on. I’m glad you were able to serve without any trouble.

    Oh, and thank you for that service.

  4. “Fort Riley, Kansas? How much good can a soldier with two tours experience in Iraq do in Kansas?”

    The answer is that he can win or lose a war for us.

    I don’t really mean to take offense, but it needs to be said that the success of the Armed Forces is largely a financial and logistical one.

    Yes, our soldiers, sailors and airmen are a fine, fine fighting force. But if we couldn’t equip them better than any army in the world, we would not have th successes we have had. By serving us in Kuwait, Gabrielbrawley did us a noble service, and that is whether he was a tanker, infantryman, or logistician. Never make a soldier apologize for the job he or she performs.

  5. I was in the Royal Canadian Air Cadets (that’s like pretend military for teenagers) and when we went to camp there was “forced” church. Everyone went to church on Sunday and if you didn’t go you had to do something with your time like drill or cleaning the barracks. So of course we chose to go to church, atheist or not. The fact that there’s an available church service for those who want to go is wonderful, but to enforce it on everyone as a mandatory outing is abhorrent – especially since the only choices at the time were “protestant” or “catholic”. That was over 10 years ago and I’m not sure of the state of things now, but I hope they have improved things enough to offer non-denominational and non-mandatory services. What’s the problem with playing the non-religious kids a movie or something?

    My (atheist) partner is currently in the Canadian military and the issue of religion hasn’t really come up yet. That may be because it’s not a big deal, it’s the nature of his trade, he has not been in combat yet, or something else entirely. Luckily though we haven’t had to worry about it. Although he has encountered a number of conspiracy theorists who believe that 9/11 was staged, for example. But that’s another can of worms entirely.

  6. I saw the beginnings of this in the Navy in the late 80’s and early 90’s. It wasn’t overt, but the evangelicals were definitely starting to infiltrate the day to day aspects of military life.

    I’ve read that the Air Force Academy is really in bad shape on this issue…I’d be interested in hearing from someone who has direct recent experience there.

  7. I don’t really mean to take offense, but it needs to be said that the success of the Armed Forces is largely a financial and logistical one.

    Understood, and I didn’t mean to imply that some jobs aren’t as important as others. But Hall’s record in Iraq is near perfect, and it just seems suspect to remove a valuable soldier with two tours of experience in an unstable conflict from that conflict to finish his tour in Kansas.

  8. I have a friend who got started as a Marine and he expressed rather similar sentiments-that the degree to which Christianity, just war theory, and presidential worship were blended and idolized at the expense of a basic understanding of their place in the great democratic enterprise was disturbing. One reason said friend is not a Marine anymore.

  9. Kimbo Jones:“…when we went to camp there was ‘forced’ church.”

    A former co-worker of mine said that when he took basic training in the U.S. Army, even the atheists went to church because it was the only place where the drill sergeants left them alone.

  10. A former co-worker of mine said that when he took basic training in the U.S. Army, even the atheists went to church because it was the only place where the drill sergeants left them alone.

    So, there may be atheists in foxholes, but there are no atheists in boot camp.

  11. Sam Ogden:“So, there may be atheists in foxholes, but there are no atheists in boot camp.”

    I suspect that there are more atheists in church than most people suspect…in boot camp and elsewhere.

  12. Aristothenes, would this friend happen to have the initials M.S.? Just curious. I recently came across an old friend on youtube who has been making anti-young-earth-creationist videos…he was once a marine (a fact which really blew my mind, as he was a highly pierced RPG kind of teen). It would be totally weird if it was the same guy.

  13. I can second the comment about going to church during boot. At Parris Island, we all went.

    Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure we were just asked which service we wanted to go to. We all just thought it would be a nice break for an hour.

  14. When I was in boot camp (and an Atheist), we all went to church on Sunday. The service was sort of a watered down all paths lead to God sort of thing. Most of the interactions I had with Champlains were pretty general, vague, etc. Aside from boot camp, I don’t recall being “forced” to go church or otherwise participate in religous activities. Most of the people I knew in the Military were athiests also. I knew a couple of Buddists. I don’t recall them talking about any issues either. I suppose it depends on the people you are around.

  15. I’m a military spouse living in Japan, and I think this is a very real issue, and it’s not at all limited to enlisted ranks. My partner is an officer, and I regularly see Christianity being pushed at the highest levels, all the way up to the base commander. Christian prayer at every meeting, religious signature lines, Prayer of Jabez being given out to people new to the base, religious music played on the one military run radio station, biased ads (e.g. “the other side” used to describe the one liberal talk show, but “Dr” Laura is praised), I could go on and on and on. Now, I’ve never experienced personal antagonism for being atheist, not that I’ve ever admitted it in mixed company, but I have felt strong pressure to conform to the evangelical mold. I’m bombarded daily with some piece of religion, whether through an official outlet or in conversation with a military member (enlisted or officer) which serves only to remind me how much of an outsider I am.

    To get ahead, as in any field, it’s all about networking. In this community, all that networking is done in a church. So, if you’re not attending, you know that that will negatively affect your career progression. As much as I hate being in church, I’ve volunteered to go with my partner if he feels this is a career since that’s what he’d have to do to get ahead. According to him, the military is the only career where the more education a person gets the more conservative they become (he got this from some study, but I don’t know which one). This might explain why many of my friends are fairly young and uneducated enlistees because despite our differences in education and life experiences we are much more similar in our (lack of) beliefs. When you live in a small and isolated community like we do, the difference in beliefs tends to influence social interactions more than it ever has in other places I’ve lived.

  16. I served in the pre-Bush days, and at the time, if you’d asked, I would have said that religion wasn’t pushed very heavily. At the time, I also would have told you that in my entire life, I’d spent less than a year outside of the state of Texas, all combined. I was more offended by the non-smokers having to do extra work to pick up the slack ten minutes of every hour than I was about having to either go to church or do an hour and a half of extra work every Sunday in boot.

    Now, I’m pretty much equally pissed about both of those. I also realize just how much Christianity was pushed on us. I grew up living in the buckle of the bible-belt and I thought the pushing wasn’t very heavy. When someone whose entire life has been nestled between Southern Baptists and Catholics even noticed Christian teaching being pushed, it’s FAR too heavy by half.

    It never affected my promotion schedule (my opinion of and reaction to authority handled that quite well enough), but I did have the Left Behind series dumped in my lap by the chaplain after a religious discussion we had during Table VIII.

  17. Okay, now I feel kinda stupid. I should have made it clear I was a sailor (in the desert) working as part of a logistics command. I did customs and agriculture inspection on returning personell and equipment. I had a really easy war. I don’t think anything I did was all that special.

  18. I grew up in Military family and, as I remember it, back then religion was really very talked about or important among the guys. Of course I should mention, my dad was a green beret and as far as ties that bind go, those guys are pretty damn loyal to each other no matter what. Still, reading the news and hearing stories from people who are in now or did tours in Iraq this war, it seems like there is a much bigger evangelical presence than there was when I was a kid and if true that is seriously messed up. It reminds we of integrating the military in the fifties and how that was supposed to have helped the civil rights movement because in combat soldiers put racism aside and looked out for each other. It is really disturbing that soldiers would think they are fighting a holy war and therefore not protect atheist, or other non-Christian soldiers. I wonder how Muslim soldiers are doing.

  19. It reminds we of integrating the military in the fifties and how that was supposed to have helped the civil rights movement because in combat soldiers put racism aside and looked out for each other.

    Exactly. Keep each other alive and work to defeat a common enemy. That should supercede, if not render irrelevent, a fellow soldier’s race or religion.

  20. I’d rather have a pragmatic no BS, no supernatural anything type solder in the fox hole next to me as opposed to a religious one. Better to trust in training, rational decisions and thinking under pressure and not have fate, prayer or the will of sky buddy Jeebuzzz as a fall back when things get difficult.

  21. This really bothers me. I was in the USArmy from ’95 through to 2000, and in spite of the fact that I self-identified as agnostic with very non-christian leanings at the time, (and made no secrete of it), I never had any problems at all due to my religious beliefs.

    Yeah, every Saturday night and Sunday morning I had the knocks on my barricks door asking me if I wanted to join people for church, (well.. at least until that preacher decided I was in with Satan and gave a sermon about how I was dangerous to even talk to), but nothing like described in this story.

    Hell, my first Platoon Sgt. said it best,

    “I want you all to get something through your thick skulls right now!

    You, all of you, are no longer a ‘Blood’ or a ‘Crip’, you’re no longer ‘white’, ‘black’, ‘red’, or ‘yellow’; and you had better forget all about who is Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or satanist and you had all better forget about it right now!

    Because none of those things apply to any of you any more. Not when you put on that uniform.

    You are all now in the U.S. Army! That means that your only Gang is THE ARMY! The biggest damn gang in the world.

    Your only color is Green!, your gang colors? Green and Tan! and your religion when you wear that uniform IS the Uniform Code of Military Justice!

    Any one of you who can’t accept those things doesn’t belong in MY Army, and if I find out about it I’ll damn well do my best to get you discharged.”….. Plt. Sgt. Schneideer

    It’s almost twelve years since I served under Sgt. Schneider, and I left the military nearly eight years ago. But I still remember every single one of his words at that formation and I still agree with the sentiment of them. Yeah.. I’ll be really upset if any of this is true. *sigh* The problem is that I suspect that it all probably is.

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