José Martinez grew up a devout Catholic. He was an altar boy and lived by the rule of his grandmother in their large family. A Eucharistic pastor, she impressed upon Martinez and his brothers the importance of faith. He would attend mass twice a week and held faith as one of two pillars in his world. The other was patriotism. Both of his grandfathers served in World War II, his father in Vietnam. If his life’s journey had two guarantees, it was being Catholic and serving in the US military.
Martinez eventually found himself in Army Special Forces; he liked that “they seemed to have a larger impact.” What came as a surprise was the eventual ease of killing. Of course, they did much more than “hunting down bad guys,” but the killing was part of the job. “When you’re doing that and you do it so often,” he said, “it becomes second nature. … And this is where I had my struggles.” He knew they were bad people; “they’d come in and cut both of our heads off if they could.” The trouble was that he began to enjoy it. He said:
“There’s no way to describe what it’s like when you save your own life or your buddy’s life by ridding the world of evil. … I mean, it’s pretty profound. And it’s different for everybody. Some guys, it haunts them. Some guys feel bad about it. I don’t. And I can say this with the utmost certainty, those are still some of the most joyous moments of my life.”
Joyous or not, he began to ask himself, “‘My gosh, am I a sociopath? Do I enjoy killing human beings?’ Like, ‘What the hell?’ I was taught not to do that. You’re not supposed to do that. It’s one of the Ten Commandments!” He sought a military chaplain for guidance. In one encounter, he remembered the chaplain saying, “‘You have a job to do. And the good Lord is pleased you’re here to do it.’” The chaplain reminded him of “good work” he was doing, building schools and protecting civilians; he was right where he needed to be. The chaplain explained, “Look, it’s going to be a journey. You’re going to figure it out. But don’t ever forsake God.” Martinez was able to reconcile his actions with his faith; he was doing God’s work after all.
I left my conversation with Martinez unnerved, but maybe also because I sympathized with him. War inevitably involves killing, and I could not assign him blame for seeking a chaplain that could still his disquiet. Indeed, the military is an institution that cannot escape moral concern. Moral dimensions infuse every decision in war because military action has wide-ranging consequences. Whether for good or ill, military actions burden the decision maker, brothers and sisters-in-arms, subordinates, civilians, and enemies. These concerns are not new. What became clear during the Global War on Terror (GWOT), however, was the use of religion — Christianity in particular — by the US military to alter the moral lives of its service members like that of Sergeant First Class Martinez.
USING CHRISTIANITY TO LEGITIMIZE SACRIFICE
The percentage of servicemembers who identify with some form of Christianity is not small. About 66% of the current US military claim some form of Christian affiliation, about the same as the general US adult population. What is unusual is the increasingly disproportionate representation of evangelicals among the military Chaplain Corps ranks. Between the three branches of military chaplains, the number of evangelical chaplains has grown from 1,964 in 2009 to 3,539 in 2017. By comparison Protestant Christians have grown from 646 to 1,119, non-Christians (including all Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Secular Humanitarian, or other military chaplains) from 38 to 111. All said, nearly 70% of the Chaplain Corps is evangelical. Only 13% of service members are.
Chaplains often frame combat or decisions about the use of force as good. The cost of this framework, however, was the actual physical and mental health of our troops.
Created by President George Washington in November 1775, the Chaplain Corps is older than the United States itself. Initially relegated to moral teaching, Sunday services, and education, military chaplains today are the primary source of counseling for service members at all ranks, even providing moral and strategic counsel to the most high-ranking officers. Except in the most remote areas, chaplains work with units to debrief missions, speak to troops after someone dies, and appear at major ceremonies along with other functions. More than that, chaplains are the walking, talking synecdoche for religion in the military. That they are majority and increasingly evangelical, White, and male ought to give us some pause.
The rise of evangelicals in the military began largely during the Cold War. Christian nationalist narratives flourished at the time, and political and religious leaders argued that the US was founded as a Christian nation. These narratives ignited an apparent need for white Christian nationalists to “save” the nation. Protestant and Catholic support for the war dwindled during the Vietnam War, and evangelical groups found an opening. As chaplain positions became hard to fill, evangelical endorsing agencies — the organizations that nominate chaplains for military service — split apart and multiplied, increasing the number of military chaplain slots they could fill. By the time GWOT began, evangelical chaplains far outnumbered any other group. Moreover, their ability to provide built-in justifications for participating in war for acts of killing in war simply resonated with military life. For many evangelicals and conservative Christian denominations broadly, military service is a Christian duty.
The lasting impact of Christian nationalism on the military is that constitutional frames of non-establishment take a backseat to the promotion of white Christian nationalist policy and promotion. To that end, military chaplains have found their roles expanded well beyond the confines of Sunday services. That expansion can be mapped atop the rise of evangelicals’ expanded influence over military elites and policymakers along with the formalization of chaplains as officers in the military.
It is critically important to see the ways expanded influence has been consistently constrained by policies promoting pluralism and maintaining the establishment clause, effectively relegating chaplains to functionaries of the American civil religion. This is, in fact, baked into rules and regulations of the military. Army Regulation 165-1, for instance, explains:
“[T]he Army chaplaincy, in providing religious services and ministries to the command, is an instrument of the US government to ensure that soldier’s religious ‘free exercise’ rights are protected. At the same time, chaplains are trained to avoid even the appearance of an establishment of religion.”
In other words, chaplains exist at the junction between free exercise and establishment. They must be able to minister to everyone but not establish their own religion. At face value, then, this regulation guarantees constitutionality and pluralism. Tacitly, however, it frees the military up to use chaplains toward the end of promoting American civil religion. The regulation continues, “Military and patriotic ceremonies may require a chaplain to provide an invocation, reading, prayer, or benediction. Such occasions are not considered to be religious.” As such mandatory military gatherings take place, the military uses chaplains to facilitate religious practices that ought not be considered religious. However, the use of chaplains in this role at all establishes them as functionaries of the American civil religion — a neutral deistic and nationalistic one. Religion is still happening at military ceremonies and gatherings, just not an explicitly evangelical Christian one.
Chaplains, originating in the civilian sector and accredited by a civilian endorsement agency, enter the military ready to serve the religious needs of service members, yet they are re-oriented toward strategic aims of the military, reshaped to support and disseminate the institutional frames of the military organization. By taking existing civic religious materials, ordained and endorsed chaplains, the military re-socializes their public roles along with the symbols of religion to channel the Chaplain Corps toward its strategic ends. The result is thousands of military chaplains who are ministers of the American civil religion to service members, influencing their participation in the military in both tacit and explicit ways. An essential part of that narrative that chaplains promote is the notion that sacrifice is good.
A FALSE COMPATIBILITY
Martinez was hardly alone among the 53 veterans, service members, and military chaplains I interviewed. Framing military strategic ends as universally beneficent was part and parcel for those who interacted with chaplains. As one retired Protestant chaplain explained to me, “The assumption was we’re totally part of the military system. Anyone who would say that we’re not, like it’s just ridiculous. We’re so embedded in the system.” He explained that, for most chaplains, military goals and faith were completely compatible. When they were not, however, he said, “they did not stay long.”
Decisions in war, even those about killing, that benefitted the strategic aims of the military were consistently framed as “good.” In one interview, a Marine Colonel, Owen Gray, reflected on his military career, beginning with his first job in the military as a logistics officer. “In the Marine Corps, everybody wants to be an infantry officer. Well, I didn’t care to be. I didn’t really care to go shoot at people or be shot at. Not that I was afraid of it, but it just wasn’t what I really wanted to do.” The thought of making decisions about the use of force was untenable for Gray. As a logistics officer, he oversaw support roles and provided essential resources to keep infantry running smoothly. He enjoyed his work. Importantly, it kept him out of combat.
He first resigned in 2000, but then 9/11 happened. “I quit my job and went back into the Marine Corps, so I was one of those guys. I thought it was the right thing to do.” Again, he began as a logistics officer, but he was eventually forced to become an infantry officer. “In the Marine Corps, every officer is what we call unrestricted, so they can make you go do any job they want to make you go do.” He was not afraid of the change, but it presented new challenges: life or death decisions for combatants and civilians.
Gray’s first combat deployment to Iraq presented moral dilemmas immediately. On convoys, he began taking fire, which forced him to return it. He describes it:
“In a lot of cases, our enemy would put women and children out as barricades. They would literally hide behind women and children and shoot at us, and what do you do? You return fire and suppress their fire, and you protect your Marines. But at the same time, you take a chance and likely will kill civilians.”
He had moments of providence:
“At times, I would choose to hold off fire and just hold my breath to get through the ambush zone, and when I wouldn’t have any casualties, I knew that God had helped me with that. God had given me the guidance to hold out fire.”
Other times were harder: “When I would suffer casualties, or … return[ed] fire into areas where I knew that civilians were likely to be harmed, that was something which was hard to live with.” Those experiences shook Gray. He was not sure how to move forward. “I saw a lot of things that I never wanted to see, never expected to see and did things that I didn’t really want to do.” He was only ever supposed to be a logistics officer.
He sought out a military chaplain and attended services to pray with them for “guidance to do the right thing.” The hierarchical structure of the military demanded he “maintain this stoic appearance and not let [his] men know that [he] had the same issues and the same internal conflicts they did,” but chaplains shared similar rank. Gray could lower his guard with them. One chaplain became a close friend, and that chaplain’s counsel boiled down to this:
“You’re doing the right thing, and sometimes you have to make decisions and just, again, look internally and do the right thing. And if you do the right thing, then whatever happens, God will understand, and God will forgive you as long as you’re doing the right thing and asking … God for help.”
This reframing of his work as good work resonated with Gray, and he adapted to his combat role, finding forgiveness for perceived sins when collateral damage occurred.
The chaplain’s counsel helped Gray, and his faith grew. “I did become a little bit more religious at that point in time. I kind of sought out God for some advice and … felt closer to Him during that time.” New resonant beliefs helped, but they did not necessarily remove all doubt when new challenges arose. “We would be in locations and would have to paint targets for aircraft to come in and drop ammunition. Every time, you’re praying that … there’s not going to be a lot of civilian casualties associated with your having ammunitions dropped on that target.” A difficult balance between doing his job and considering the lives of civilians remained: “It’s difficult. It’s difficult to balance the self-preservation and caring for your Marines and, again, those ethics and the protection of civilians.”
He simultaneously had to embody the Marine identity while also struggling with dissonant Christian moral frames. Nevertheless, the words of his chaplain had an impact. “I felt like we were doing the right thing for those people, and sometimes, yes, there were inadvertent consequences. But I believed that we … not believed. I know that what we were doing was the right thing.” Besides, he was a good man otherwise. “I didn’t go steal. I didn’t cheat. I tried to be a good person and abide by the rules of the Bible.”
This cycle of chaplains framing combat or decisions about the use of force as good came up again and again. In some cases, the cost of this framework was the actual physical and mental health of our troops. SFC Martinez went on to describe another instance of seeking chaplains for help. Martinez developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, suffered a traumatic brain injury, and had begun to develop Parkinson’s and other issues. When he sought the chaplain’s counsel, the chaplain explained, “Look, you have a job to do. As a Special Forces Green Beret your job is getting through this. The Lord has placed something in front of you [that] you have to negotiate. It’s an obstacle. It’s not a disability.” Martinez took the chaplain’s advice and continued to serve despite having severe conditions that ought to have allowed him to medically retire. He continued fighting despite all these conditions being linked to an increased risk of suicidal ideation. He continued fighting because he was doing God’s work.
This is a complex issue in a war deeply characterized by religious dimensions. If there is any lesson from the GWOT and the ways the US military uses religion to aim servicemembers at strategic ends, it is this: The well-being of the individual service member ought to matter a hell of a lot more. Providing them with actual mental health counselors and medical practitioners would be a good start. Reframing military action as necessarily tragic and having nothing to do with what God wants would be a great one.
Dr. Thomas H. “Ben” Suitt III is a contributor for the Costs of War Project at Boston University and Brown University. His scholarship investigates the role of religion in the lives of US military veterans as they navigate between competing identities and cultures amid the disruptive experiences of war and trauma.
“The Long Tunnel” is a series of articles reflecting on the impact of September 11 and how it has shaped the world we live in today. You can read more in the series here.