God Bless Our Troops?

If soldiers were to begin to think, not one of them would remain in the army. ~ Frederick the Great

You see it on bumper stickers, church signs, and the ubiquitous yellow ribbons — God Bless Our Troops. You hear it prayed from the pulpit and the pew — God Bless Our Troops. You hear it uttered by Evangelicals, Catholics, and nominal Christians — God Bless Our Troops.

Why should He?

Because they are in harm’s way? Because they are brave? Because they are protecting our freedoms? Because they are fighting for democracy? Because they are fighting terrorism? Because they are righteous and the enemy is evil? Because “God is love”? Because some of my relatives are in the military? Because a soldier is an honorable profession? Because “the Lord is a man of war”?

American Christians are either naïve or just plain stupid. Don’t they realize that the citizens of other countries incorporate the same slogan into their signs, prayers, and speeches? How is God supposed to bless the troops on both sides? Oh, that is simple, says the typical American Christian: God is not supposed to bless the troops on the other side. In fact, he will not bless them, not as long as they are fighting against American troops.

So the real answer to the “why should he” question is because they are American troops. American troops must be especially dear to the heart of God. They are made up for the most part of professing Christians (except for the Buddhists in the military who now have their own chaplain, Lt. j.g. Jeanette Gracie Shin), and supported by professing Christians. They defend this great “Christian” nation, they perform humanitarian acts, they help spread democracy and American values, they fight against terrorism and evil, they protect our freedoms, they keep us safe.

So what could possibly be wrong with asking God to bless our troops?

Christians will generally agree with you if you denounce some of the more outrageous abuses of the government; most will concur if you condemn the welfare state; many will go along with you if you disparage one of the presidents (excepting, of course, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and George WMD Bush); some will put up with you if you criticize the U.S. global empire; a few will even tolerate you if you denigrate the warfare state; but once you question the military in any way — its size, its budget, its contractors, its bureaucracy, its efficiency, its purpose, and especially its acts of death and destruction as the coercive arm of the state — many Christians will brand you as a pacifist, a liberal, a communist, an anti-war weenie, a traitor, a coward, an appeaser, or an America-hater.

How about a sane, rational, individual?

Conservative Christians that consider Bush to be a stupid biblical illiterate and a sorry excuse for a Christian, that don’t support the United States engaging in foreign wars, that rail against American troops being in Iraq, and acknowledge that we are in an unconstitutional, undeclared war nevertheless win the prize for being the most insane and irrational when they maintain that there is nothing wrong with a Christian joining the military and going to Iraq to kill people as long as the government says that is where he should go. What makes this so nonsensical is that it is not a question of a Christian being drafted or in some way forced to go into the military and then being told by his pastor that he should “obey the powers that be,” it is purely voluntary.

The Christian in the military is not exempt either. Christian soldiers who bomb, interrogate, and kill for the state cannot hide behind the lame excuse that they are just following orders. The Christian soldier in the U.S. military is there by choice. He was not drafted. He was not forced to enlist at the point of a gun. If he can read then he has no excuse for being ignorant of the folly of the hundred-plus years of U.S. wars and interventions abroad. If he can see then he has no excuse for joining a military that does everything but actually defend the country.

Why do conservative Christians have such a love affair with the U.S. military? Andrew Bacevich, in his fascinating new work, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (Oxford, 2005), has a whole chapter on the subject. This is a book that all conservative Christian apologists for the military ought to read. Yet, most of them will never read it even though the author is a conservative, religious, a West Point graduate, a Vietnam veteran, and a former professional soldier. And sadly, many of them will never even know the book existed, including the very people who claim to be so well-read. How many Christian critics of my book, Christianity and War and Other Essays Against the Warfare State, have ever bothered to read any of the books listed at the end under “For Further Reading”? Some pastors who claim to be bookworms that are so well-read are in actuality way behind the times.

Bacevich wastes no time in his Preface, but gets right down to business: “This is a book about the new American militarism — the misleading and dangerous conceptions of war, soldiers, and military institutions that have come to pervade the American consciousness and that have perverted present-day U.S. national security policy.” Chapter 5, “Onward,” specifically addresses why the military is held in such high esteem by too many Christians. In a word: Vietnam:

For conservative Christians after Vietnam, the prerequisite for fulfilling America’s mandate as divine agent was the immediate reconstitution of U.S. military power. In the aftermath of Vietnam, evangelicals came to see the military as an enclave of virtue, a place of refuge where the sacred remnant of patriotic Americans gathered and preserved American principles from extinction.

Because of the cultural upheaval and moral crisis that was triggered by and coincided with the war in Vietnam, “Militant evangelicals imparted religious sanction to the militarization of U.S. policy and helped imbue the resulting military activism with an aura of moral legitimacy.” “Moreover,” says Bacevich,

Some evangelicals looked to the armed services to play a pivotal role in saving America from internal collapse. In a decadent and morally confused time, they came to celebrate the military itself as a bastion of the values required to stem the nation’s slide toward perdition: respect for tradition, an appreciation for order and discipline, and a willingness to sacrifice self for the common good. In short, evangelicals looked to soldiers to model the personal qualities that citizens at large needed to rediscover if America were to reverse the tide of godlessness and social decay to which the 1960s had given impetus.

Evangelical Christians could not have made a bigger mistake.

Bacevich faults Billy Graham and other evangelical leaders for “courting politicians and being romanced in return.” Graham supported U.S. policy in Vietnam, saying that “Americans should back their President in his decision to make a stand in Viet Nam.” At the same time, Jerry Falwell, one of the most loyal supporters of Bush’s war in Iraq, touted the U.S. soldier in Vietnam as “a champion for Christ.”

There soon developed an unholy alliance between evangelical Christians and the military. Bacevich dates the ratification of this “entente” as May 1, 1972, when Billy Graham was given the Sylvanus Thayer Award by the Association of Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy. This is awarded annually at West Point to a citizen “whose outstanding character, accomplishments, and stature in the civilian community draw wholesome comparison to the qualities for which West Point strives, in keeping with its motto: u2018Duty, Honor, Country.'”

So, should an American Christian pray for God to bless our troops? Not when blessing our troops means allowing them to injure, maim, kill, and destroy property while they themselves come out unscathed. American Christians should pray for an end to this foolish war. They should pray for the troops to be brought home. They should pray for Congress to end funding for this war. They should pray for Bush to leave office in disgrace for being a lying, bloody warmonger. They should pray for Congress to follow the Constitution and reign in presidential war-making ability. They should pray for the healing of the thousands of U.S. soldiers who have been injured in this senseless war. They should pray for the end of military recruiters preying on young, impressionable students. They should pray for the dissolution of the alliance between the Religious Right and the Republican Party. They should pray for the resignation of Christian “leaders” who defended this immoral war. They should pray for pastors to have the guts to stand before their congregation and denounce Bush and the war, specifically, not just in generalities. They should pray for pastors to stop recommending military service to their young men. They should pray for Christians to stop blindly following the state. They should pray for Christian families to stop supplying cannon fodder to the military. Yes, there are many things Christians can pray for, but certainly not “God Bless Our Troops.”

Let there be no mistake about the extent of my criticisms of Christian soldiers and the U.S. military. I don’t want to see any American soldiers killed in Iraq or anywhere else. And yes, if someone is going to die, I would rather see an Iraqi soldier die than an American soldier die, but only for the same reason that I would rather see a person die in someone else’s family than in my own family. I don’t want to see any American soldiers die in Iraq for the same reason that I don’t want to see anyone die in a car accident or because they slipped in the bathtub.

It is bad enough when Christian pastors moonlight as cheerleaders for Bush and his war, but those pastors who oppose Bush’s pseudo-Christianity, his socialist domestic policies, and his interventionist foreign policies are woefully inconsistent when they encourage (or do nothing to discourage) the young men in their church to join the military and then “obey the powers that be” when it comes to bombing, interrogating, and killing for the state.

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