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War for Men's Minds

Atheists in a Foxhole
by Byron E. Garcia

There are no atheists in a foxhole.” -Lieutenant General Lewis “Chesty” Puller, USMC

From the first day I was recruited into the military, I found another organization trying to recruit me: Christianity. No, not just any other religion, but Christianity in particular. I found this ironic since the First Amendment of the Constitution I swore to defend implies a separation of church and state. The last time I checked, the military was part of the state.

One day four years ago, I found myself sitting at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) waiting for the bus that would take me to boot camp. I was waiting along with dozens of other recruits in an office just after swearing the Oath of Enlistment. As an Objectivist, I was grateful we were not all required to say the very last words of that oath, “So help me God.” To my surprise, in walked a group of Gideon missionaries who were distributing to everyone the “Good News Bible”. Not the Torah, not the Koran, but the "Good News Bible" (which does not even include the Old Testament). I had read that it was a military tradition that has been in place since the Second World War but it caught me off-guard nonetheless. As off-guard as my recruiter was when he asked me on my application what my religious preference was and I replied “atheist.” I take it he did not hear that response too often, so instead he wrote “No Religious Preference,” or NORELPREF in military jargon. I later learnt that your religious preference was etched on the dog tags, to let the Decedent Affairs people know what Last Rites they should administer upon your death. When it came time to pick an occupation, the detailer was about to offer me to become a Religious Program Specialist (or RP) before she quickly noticed my response on the application. I became a Hospital Corpsman instead. For you civilians, Navy corpsmen are like Army combat medics, only better.

In boot camp, religious services were offered on Sunday as a respite from the 24/7 training. A recruit has but three choices: attend the Protestant service, attend the Catholic service, or remain behind the barracks and behave like a good recruit at the mercy of the sadistic drill instructors. It is not surprising that some of my fellow NORELPREF and non-Christian recruits chose to go to one or the other Christian service.

Beginning with the boot camp graduation ceremony, every military ceremony I have been in gets started with a chaplain (always a Christian one) delivering the invocation (i.e. prayer). Per military protocol, every uniformed person in attendance is required to bow his or her head. What I feel about it is irrelevant, of course. In the service, you go where you’re told to go and do what you’re told to do.

Upon checking in to my first unit in Okinawa, Japan, one of the offices I had to visit was the office of the chaplain. The purpose was to discuss the religious services offered on the base as part of my orientation. Needless to say, my conversation with the chaplain was brief and to the point, though I was surprised to learn that there was one Muslim chaplain on another base. I was not sure whether he cared if he had my undivided attention. He gets paid the same regardless of how much time he spends with me which, as a commissioned officer, is about twice more than I get paid. I would not mind so much if more chaplains were gung-ho enough to run and gun in the mud and sand with their Marines. To their credit, some do, but not all. The Religious Program Specialist assigned to them does the dirty work. Little did I know when I was first offered that position by the detailer that a RP is a bodyguard for the chaplain who is, after all, a non-combatant. The funny thing is, corpsmen are technically non-combatants too and I do not remember ever getting a bodyguard. It could be just me but administering medical care to an injured or sick Marine works a lot better than praying over them. If you asked a dying Marine on the battlefield whom would he would rather see first, a corpsman or a chaplain, I would bet my entire paycheck on what he was going to say. Then again, I have seen more than one Marine try to refuse medical care that could save his life because of some religious belief. Not everyone who checked in with me to Okinawa saw things my way. They say in Okinawa you become one of four things: a barracks rat, an exercise freak, an alcoholic, or a religious fanatic. Perhaps it is the isolation one cannot help but feel, living among a population where the majority of people do not speak English and do not want you there. I saw the same thing here in Twentynine Palms, a base in a desert in the middle of nowhere. I saw the same thing when I was deployed to the Middle East, where many found solace in the weekly chapel services.

That is where religion takes root. It plants seeds in people when they are at their loneliest and weakest, offering them something they can look forward to. It could be the recruit at MEPS shitting his pants when he hears the boot camp bus pulling in. It could be the boot camp recruit tired of being yelled at by his superiors. It could be the junior enlisted man checking in nervously to his first unit stationed in some foreign land not knowing what to expect. It could be the rifleman hunkering in a foxhole while mortars, rockets, and grenades are exploding around him. All these are ripe ground for the evangelist to sow his seeds and reap the harvest. That is why you do not see too many atheists in a foxhole. The Muslim fundamentalists have had the same success on our enemy. That is how a religion that preaches “turn the other cheek” pacifism markets to an organization dedicated to fighting against those who do more than slap us in the cheek.

It does not matter that their religion is rife in contradiction without explanation. It is next to impossible to explain some of the horrors I have witnessed in my career and, in my darkest hours, I myself have longed for something higher to look up to. After the fear washes away, I realize I did not need a God to see me through. It was my love of life here on earth that did. It was my desire to go home to my friends and family knowing that I helped make the world a safer place. If there were a better place like Heaven, I would not hesitate to jump on top of the grenade, so to speak. I did not. I pushed my mind and body to the limits, keeping my Marines alive and in one piece while they did the same for me. In spite of what some may say, I did not see it as a sacrifice to some collective, but as a benevolent mutual trade by individuals for mutual benefit. So maybe there are no atheists in a foxhole, but there sure as hell is at least one Objectivist. The Christians and theists may have won the first battles, but this war is far from finished.
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