I Guess There Are Atheists In Foxholes
Michael Cummings, an Army Captain who has served tours of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan makes some interesting observations about the religious habits of his fellow soldiers:
“There are no atheists in foxholes,” the cliché goes. It’s hard to imagine a soldier facing death who doesn’t believe in God. Maybe soldiers need hope; maybe they need the promise of an afterlife to face death. And when this friendly little aphorism was coined, it was probably true.
Now, religion is political. Polls in the MilitaryTimes seem to back up the religiosity of the Armed Forces. So you’d be forgiven if you viewed that the battlefield was also a religious place — every base loaded with a friendly chaplain, every troop in a foxhole silently speaking to God and every platoon doubling as a prayer group.
Because you’d be wrong.
About a week after arriving at the Korangal Outpost — after being in Afghanistan a month — the First Sergeant announced that the chaplain had shown up. He would be holding a (nondenominational) Christian service later that night. I expected a big crowd. When I told my men this news, they groaned.
About 10 minutes before the ceremony, I trudged up the hill, through three feet of snow, from our hooch to the service. I wore the usual kit for winter — ACU pants, a brown T-shirt, a black fleece jacket, an IBA (Improved Ballistic Armor) and a helmet — I carried a Bible in my cargo pocket.
Our chapel was the Dining Facility, which for us meant an olive-drab tent and wood benches, freezing cold in the wintertime. The tent had the Army version of indoor lighting, which was floodlights aimed awkwardly at the ceiling, running off the diesel generator outside — the only sound on an otherwise silent FOB.
As I entered, I thought for a moment I was in the wrong place. It was empty, save for two other soldiers.
Two months later my platoon left the Korangal Outpost. Our new (temporary) home was the Fortress, so named for the 40-foot walls that enclosed its troops.
At the Fortress, the new First Sergeant announced the arrival of the chaplain. The same thing happened, except this time the dining facility had dry wall, refrigerators and heating. Three soldiers, myself included, showed up for a base twice as big. (The Korangal Outpost was small, about 60 people at any given time. The Fortress had twice that, if not more.)
Again, the chaplain smoothed things over, and gave inspiring talks for the gathered faithful.
I shouldn’t have been shocked. Even at the biggest Forward Operation Base in Afghanistan, Bagram Air Field, I attended a service with only about 30 other people. Thirty people out of a base of 30,000. In fact, the only religious ceremony I attended that did have a lot people was at an Air Force Base in Qatar, well away from the sands, IEDs and insurgencies of Iraq and Afghanistan. If there are no atheists in foxholes, then why aren’t there any religious soldiers on our bases?
Maybe war is too busy. After cleaning weapons, running eight-hour patrols, and avoiding getting shot, it is just easier to lie on your bed and watch a movie than go to church. Maybe it was just too cold. Maybe it got too hot. Maybe soldiers are individualistic and they don’t share their faith.
Cummings goes on to hypothesize that it’s because religion isn’t considered “cool” among the 20-somethings that make up most of the combat force, but I think it’s more than that. While polls have consistently shown that more than 90% of Americans say they believe in a higher power of some kind. At the same, time less than half of Americans say that they attend church services on a regular basis, a number that is down significantly from where it was fifty or sixty years ago. The rates of attendance are even lower among those aged 18-29 and 30-49. Clearly, while Americans may believe in a god some some kind, they aren’t necessarily as religious as they used to be, and that is being reflected among Cummings’ fellow soldiers.
And, yes, it’s probably also the case that there are in fact atheists in foxholes.