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Do Spiritual People Really Make Better Soldiers?

Spiritual Fitness and Moral Sickness

by Rev. WILLIAM E. ALBERTS

Recently ABC World News aired a feature called “Spiritual Fitness”, which focused on “spirituality and the military,” and began with anchor David Muir saying, “Tonight we look at spirituality and the military, and we hear from those convinced that it can protect a soldier’s health long after war.”  The opening scene shows two big tanks, with the words ‘SPIRITUAL FITNESS’ under them.  Suddenly the tanks fire loud missiles that stream and scream across the sky, a sight startling enough to take “God’s” breath away.  After the two missiles disappear on the horizon, a military helicopter circles in the sky—another sight to help condition one to believe that “God” is in the army now.

Proof that war and worship go together is enshrined in the personhood of Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, whom ABC News reporter Jim Shuto introduces with, “General Rhonda Cornum knows something about combat stress.” The story shifts to Cornum, a renowned war hero, who appears and testifies, “I was sure I was going to die.  We were crashing, and I was sure it was unsurvivable.” Then reporter Shuto says why Cornum is the Pentagon’s primary authority on “spiritual fitness”: “A helicopter medic, who was in the Gulf War, she was shot down and captured, and threatened with murder.”  But Shuto could have said much more: Cornum, who has a Ph.D. and is a medical doctor, has received various medals for distinguished military service, including the Legion of Merit and the Purple Heart.  But Shuto made the point: “She said that her spirituality helped get her through it.”

The segment shifts to Brigadier General Cornum, who states without elaborating, “Psychologically resilient to include being spiritually fit, which was very important.”  Her words are followed by ABC reporter Shuto saying, “She is now Director of the [Pentagon’s] Comprehensive Soldier’s Fitness Program, as the latest military research confirmed what she learned from her experience.”  While Shuto is talking, the scene turns to two soldiers, in army fatigues, holding big rifles, sitting and bending over praying.  Another reminder of the affinity between guns and “God.”

The co-opting of spirituality by the Pentagon continues, with ABC News reporter Jim Shuto saying, “As part of the new program, soldiers are encouraged to analyze their own spirituality.  And,” he continues, “they’re even tested on it, and asked how much the following statements describe them: ‘I am a spiritual person’; ‘My life has a lasting meaning.’”  As Shuto is speaking, a scene appears of several soldiers in a row praying.

With repeated military/spiritual symbolism scenes as an introduction, ABC reporter Jim Shuto asks Brigadier General Cornum the defining question about “spiritual fitness”: “Why is it that spiritual people make better soldiers?”  Cornum answers, “That ethos that we adhere to: always place the mission first; never accept defeat; never leave a fallen comrade.  Those kinds of things require you to have belief in something bigger than yourself.”  (August 21, 2011)

“Spiritual people make better soldiers . . .[because they] place the mission first?”  What is the mission?  Brigadier General Cornum does not say.  But it is obvious that “the mission” is not determined by The Golden Rule but by the rule of the Pentagon and its political and corporate clients.  Here the Pentagon is the priesthood for believers. “Spiritual fitness” is about spirituality not only accommodating our government’s imperialistic criminal wars, but about spiritual people literally becoming “Onward Christian soldiers, marching . . . to war.”

Whatever happened to “Thou shalt not kill?” (Exodus 20: 13)  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God?” (Matthew 5:9)  “Love your enemies . . . so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends his rain on the just and unjust?” (Matthew 5:44, 45)  And the greatest commandments of all as taught by Jesus, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart . . . and your neighbor as yourself?” Matthew 22: 36-40)  Here is seen the frightening power of the Pentagon-political-corporate-media-and institutional religion-complex to transform “spiritual fitness” from peacemaking to warmongering.  An endangering legacy of the tragedy of 9/11 is the Bush administration’s intense militarizing of America and the intentional normalizing of perpetual war—for empire and profit.

“Spiritual people make better soldiers” [because they] never accept defeat?”  Here Brigadier General Cornum turns the admirable quality of self-determination into a rigid, destructive trait.  For U.S. foreign policy, “never admit defeat” really means never admit wrong.  This is the story of our government’s unnecessary, criminal pre-emptive war against non-threatening, defenseless Iraq.  The baseless pretext for this war of aggression was Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.  When none were found, former President George W, Bush shifted his administration’s pretext, putting the motivation for this immoral war squarely on “God’s” shoulders: “Freedom is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to every man and woman in the world.”

What was billed by the Bush administration, and its media cheerleaders, as an Iraqi-welcomed, low cost war of liberation, turned into the deadly opposite.  The wronged Iraqi people were the ones who never accept defeat.  And the Bush administration and its apologists would never admit wrong.  Morally evasive Republican and Democratic political leaders repeatedly reinterpreted this criminal war against the Iraqi people as “mistakes” of a “misguided policy.”

Certain mainstream media repeatedly redefined this blatant war crime against humanity as “the struggle for Iraq.”  Even recently a New York Times editorial referred to America’s unwarranted violation of Iraq and Afghanistan’s sovereignty and sanctity as “two disastrously mismanaged wars.” (July 2, 2011)

Now comes former Vice President Dick Cheney, a self-serving and-justifying architect of both criminal wars, with his memoir called In My Time, which is about never admitting defeat—or wrong.  Cheney is the tragic personification of the rigidity of anti-introspective people whose inability to admit wrong is rationalized as “never admit defeat.”  This “ethos” of so-called “spiritual fitness” flies in the face of Jesus’ emphasis on introspective soul-searching: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3)  Ironically, often one’s neighbors are believed to be only those who live near and look like and believe as one does.

“Spiritual people make better soldiers . . . [because they] never leave a fallen comrade.?”  Such battlefield loyalty is most laudable.  Unfortunately, it presently serves those who profit from endless war, by diverting attention from the fact that there was no need for any comrades to fall in the morally and spiritually corrupting wars against Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Never leave a fallen comrade?”  James Petras broadens this “ethos” to include the millions of American comrades who have fallen and are falling as a result of our government’s unnecessary criminal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In a piece called, “Multi-Billion-Dollar Terrorists and the Disappearing Middle Class,” he writes,

The crumbling empire has depleted the U. S. Treasury.  As the Congress and White House fought over raising the debt ceiling, the cost of war aggressively erodes any possibility of maintaining stable living standards for the American middle and working classes and heightened inequalities between the top 1 percent and the rest of the American people.  . . .   The military and financial elites’ pillage of the economy and treasury has set in motion a steep decline in living standards, income and job opportunities.  . . .The entirely political establishment is bizarrely oblivious to the  fact that their multi-hundred-billion-dollar pursuit of an estimated 50-75 phantom  Al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan has hastened the disappearance of middle income  jobs in the U. S.  The Democrats and the Far Right are united as they pursue multiple  wars while they curry favor and funds from the super-rich whose wealth has grown so dramatically during the crisis. (Z Magazine, September 2011)

“Spiritual people make better soldiers [because] these kinds of things require you to have belief in something bigger than yourself?”  These assumed qualities of “spiritual fitness” actually depend on unquestioning “belief in something bigger than yourself.”  “Something bigger” like the Pentagon, or “God” who requires one to be smaller, to not think for himself or herself, to not question authority and power, but rather equate them with truth and right.  It is not “spiritual fitness” that makes the best soldiers, but hallowed obedience to those in authority and power who define “the mission.”

”Religious symbolism permeates ABC’s story on “spiritual fitness.”  In such a scene, reporter Jim Shuto stands in the Pentagon chapel and says, “Just as military chapels, like this one at the Pentagon, are intended to be non-denominational, accommodating soldiers of all faiths or no faith at all, the military says the assessment is not intended to test soldiers’ religious belief but their overall mental health.” One would assume that there would be strong opposition to the Pentagon’s blatant hijacking and prostitution of spirituality in the service of America’s imperialistic wars.  There is opposition.  One would think it would come from the nation’s religious leaders, with their biblically-inspired and self-assumed roles as prophets and peacemakers.  But they are not heard from in the segment. The challenge to the Pentagon’s perversion of spirituality comes from a most unlikely source: “Atheists in Foxholes.”

The ABC News segment on “spirituality and the military” ends with reporter Jim Shuto introducing a spokesperson for those opposed to the Pentagon’s Comprehensive Soldier’s Fitness Program: “For Sargent Dustin Chalker, an Iraq veteran, Purple Heart winner and avowed atheist, the program is actually a thinly veiled religious endorsement, and un-American.”  Chalker follows with, “When you have a commitment to what you sign up for, you believe in, supporting and defending the Constitution, and then you’re given a test that’s in direct contradiction to that, there’s a sense of betrayal.”  Shuto then reports that “more than 300 other soldiers agree; and a group of them are planning to sue the military in a federal court.”

ABC News gives the military the last word.  The segment ends with reporter James Shuto saying, “The military says no soldier is required to follow the program tips for spiritual fitness. Though it stands by the assessment, which it calls valuable in treating the stress of war.”

I am well aware of the untold numbers of soldiers—and their families—who have found their spiritual faith most sustaining in the face of the stress of war.  And in this regard, military chaplains provide an invaluable service in enabling soldiers to deal with the stress of war.  The intent here is not to minimize or denigrate the important role spirituality plays in their lives.  The aim is to show how the militarizing of America, especially since 9/11, with its intended normalizing of war is having a corrupting influence on religion– and a dehumanizing and destructive influence on America itself.

Spiritual fitness is about putting all people first.   It is about self-awareness that is able to accept and learn from defeat—and from being wrong, and make it right.  It is about love of neighbor that does not want any comrade anywhere to fall.  It is about belief that everyone’s humanity is bigger than any one individual or group’s assumed exceptionalism and entitlement.  Spiritual fitness is about The Golden Rule.

Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy.  Both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics, religion and pastoral care.  He can be reached at wm.alberts@gmail.com.