Monday, September 13, 2010

Godless, Country, Corps

I suppose I should start with credentials.  I joined the Marine Corps at 18 and spent 5 years and 19 days on active duty, which included several deployments to Latin America and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I then spent 7 years in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, which included an all expense paid trip to a Katrina-devastated Big Easy. On a scale of one to ten, with one being a determined belief in a deity and ten being a determined disbelief in a deity, I’m a nine.  I say a nine only because, while I do believe that lack of evidence is evidence of absence, I’m willing to change my mind if empirical evidence were presented.

After thinking about this post and how I wanted to go about it, I realized there was a long and short of it.  The short being my personal experiences during my 12 odd years in the military, and the long being insights into the current events involving religion and the military.  I’ll tackle my experiences first in this post, and then cover some of the more recent events in posts to follow.

The United States Marine Corps is steeped in tradition; even the screw-ups who get kicked out will speak proudly of being a Marine.  It goes without saying that along with tradition comes “that old-time religion”.  My first Sunday on Parris Island, SC, we were brought to the Protestant services, one and all.  No one was given a choice that first week, and I was subjected to what was a very Southern Charismatic service with lots a hand-clapping and recruits being possessed by the “Holy Spirit”.  After that we were given a choice between Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Church of Christ, Mormon and I believe even Buddhist, among others.  Those of us who didn’t want to go to religious services stayed back at the barracks prepping uniforms for inspection, writing letters, and sometimes cleaning.  There was no overt punishment for not going, but being one of a handful of recruits left behind meant you were visible to scrutiny.  Those who went to services were able to talk freely amongst each other, and didn’t have to worry about punishment once a week, even if it was only for an hour or so. 

I took the opportunity to escape drill instructor scrutiny and explore the minority faiths while I was there.  I wore a yarmulke and prayed Adon Olam with the Jews, sang a cappella with the Church of Christ and got totally weirded out by the Mormons.  I attempted to go to the Muslim service, but received unwelcome looks, so I went back to the Church of Christ service, because they had grape juice.  I was in boot camp during the Jewish High Holidays, and Jewish recruits were allowed off base (with a DI escort) to go to a synagogue for services.  I attempted to go along, but since I had put down “no preference” (atheist wasn’t an option) on my paperwork, the idea wasn’t even entertained.

Graduation was, of course, accompanied by a benediction from a Christian chaplain, and I quickly learned how deeply religion permeated the Corps.  Promotion warrants and awards all included “In the Year of Our Lord”, tattoos and t-shirts proclaimed “God, Country, Corps” and every unit had a chaplain.  A note on chaplains, by the way- James Madison was against them.  If you don’t believe that the author of the First Amendment believed in separation of church and state, read this.   So there it is, Sean Hannity.

From boot camp I went on to Marine Combat Training, the Defense Language Institute, Goodfellow AFB and finally Camp Lejeune, NC.  It was at Lejeune that I truly learned what religious discrimination was.  Our battalion Sergeant Major had monthly Prayer Breakfasts, which were not compulsory, but highly encouraged and conducted during the week.  He once asked the company commanders for a list of non-attendees, and their reasons for not attending.  Then, of course, there was the time during my Pros and Cons(a periodic performance review) that I was told I could never be a good Marine, because I hadn't accepted Jesus.

I never had an issue with the reason behind going to Afghanistan, and honestly I have been disappointed by the half-assed way we have conducted that war.  Iraq, on the other hand, filled me with reservation from the beginning.  In the military, there are three options for confidential counseling: the chaplain, a military psychologist/therapist and your friends.  The third option is sometimes risky, and does not really fulfill the need for an outside opinion.  Going to see a psychologist can be career suicide in the military, especially if you have a security clearance, and it is generally frowned upon.  The only socially acceptable “professional” counseling in the military is the chaplaincy.  Looking for someone to talk with about my doubts (which were apparently justified), I went to the battalion chaplain.  After airing my concerns, I was told, and I quote, “We just have to trust that God is working through the President.”  No shit, that’s what he said.  And your tax dollars paid for this sage advice.

I ended up going to Iraq, after spending 40 days on the USS Saipan listening to Christian prayers over the 1MC(ship’s PA) every night, and being hassled in northern Kuwait for a month by Chaplain Charlie and His Traveling Clown Show(thanks to Morris for that one!). 

They say there are no atheists in foxholes.  “They” are idiots.  Never once did I pray or beseech, nor did I hear or see others doing so in the field, except at the behest of a chaplain.  Even when I heard artillery coming in on top of us (our own, by the way), my “last thought” was a resounding, “Ah, shit.”  I had long since accepted my eventual oblivion and, while I did not welcome it, when I thought the moment had come I did not make a plea to some imaginary being. 

I got off active duty about a month and a half after I got back from Iraq, moved to Philadelphia, and joined the PA Army National Guard.  Being a weekend warrior, I didn’t see the chaplains very often.  That changed when I was called up during Hurricane Katrina.  While I tried to avoid them, I couldn’t avoid their literature, which they had strewn about the abandoned department store that we were living in.  There was a book by James Dobson written specifically for the military that popped up on every level surface.  Dave, another freethinker, and I would hide copies of it in each others’ gear.   When handing out food I was told, “God bless you” several times.  He certainly hadn’t extended that courtesy to them.  One woman said we were a godsend.  I wanted to tell her that we had been sent by Ed Rendell, and he is definitely no god. 

In high stress situations, especially when life and limb are on the line, people do tend to fall back on irrational beliefs for comfort and consolation, and the military is no exception.  If a Marine, soldier, sailor or airman wishes to rely on an imagined deity and the hope of eternal reward they have that right, but to force it on those of us who see reality through the hard, empirical lens of science is both immoral and unconstitutional.


Erica said...

Great post!