Good news for Godless patriots who want to serve in the military, the Air Force recently dropped its requirement that service members pledge “so help me God” in their oath of enlistment. The decision brings the Military more in line with its veterans who have seen combat and found nothing sublime in war.
I’ve never quite understood what people meant when they say there are no atheists in foxholes. I think it’s only said by people already convinced of their faith who enjoy pointing out that everyone comes to their way of thinking in the end. Fear, they imply, makes people drop their sad little secular pretensions, their blasphemous imitations of immortality, and — in the terror of bullets cracking into the dirt around them and their friend’s bodies being torn apart — they finally allow God into their hearts.
I’ve been in combat and my experience has taught me the opposite. Nothing I’ve seen in my proverbial foxhole even remotely suggested what my religious counselors taught me to be faith.
Sure, war breeds superstition. Many of my soldiers began to treat bracelets, pictures, bibles and video games as if they had supernatural powers. And superstition might very well be — to quote Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair — the first step on the road to the faith. Yet superstition can also be, if my theology is correct, the first step in the other direction on that same road. When the religious-minded among us gloss over the way that war can shatter faith and harden belief in the profane, it does an injustice to those who take religion seriously.
And what does it say if we look to war as a crucible for religious belief? Perhaps that we are pretty desperate as believers if we take worship born out of and defined by terror to be religious faith. Maybe the soldier’s superstitions are a prelude to faith, but they belong as much to fear as to genuine yearning for salvation. The intense drama and loss of combat, the terror of killing and seeing others die, rather demeans the sacredness of human life, which, as I understand it, is also an important prelude to faith. Whatever epiphanies it inspires in the abstract, in war itself, life is not sacred.
Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the adage is the most obvious. War is ultimately about killing another human being before they kill you. However you choose to define this human being — as an insurgent, an infidel or an invader — does not make him or her any less human and the killing any less sinful. These deaths might be excused by the fact that a nation is at war, and I do not want to suggest that those who go to war are necessarily without God. I simply think it insensitive if not vulgar to equate war experience — an experience defined by slaughter, vengeance and soul-destroying ennui — with a nearness to God. If anything war, whether fought in muddy European foxholes or dry Afghan wadis, turns many people away from their faith, makes them willing to kill unthinkingly and dead to the fact that each time they push a button and send an explosive device into a city, there are people on the other side.
Georges Bernanos, a Catholic writer who fought in the First World War, once claimed that when God suddenly absents himself from us, “the howls raised by our disappointed flesh must astonish Hell.” I do not argue that war is the only place where this happens — Bernanos' own work is testament to the fact it can occur in quiet country villages as well as at the site of IED explosions — I simply put forward that this separation, this horrifying and truly awful moment of desolation, this moment of utter hopelessness and wretched despair, is just as likely to happen to someone driving around IEDs in Mosul — in a “foxhole” — as it is to people driving to work in Atlanta. To posit that the war brings us closer to faith is a sleight of hand that makes fools of us all. I highly doubt that anyone not already in a state of despair would look to war as an antidote to Godlessness.
So, as we embark upon yet another war in the Middle East, against a group of people who ardently believe war teaches faith and faith teaches war — even if their avowed religion teaches the opposite — it is important I think that we recognize that war is not a place where everyone necessarily comes to God. We must disabuse ourselves of this perhaps half-ironic but still telling aphorism. War, whether fought from a distance through drones and planes or with rifles and knives on the ground, does not bring one closer to God. If you watch a country ravaged by war long enough, if you linger on the sad euphemisms that come with war and that divide us from the hellish consequences of our actions, you begin to realize that foxholes seldom protect men from the devil; in fact, more often than not, they hide him from God, and sometimes condemn him to a life where God no longer seems a possibility at all.