Wartime Reflections: Plenty of Atheists in Foxholes

by | 14 Sep, 2017 | 12 comments

In recent years, I’ve felt like I’m living in the Matrix. Soldiers look about the same as they’ve always looked. They do about the same things. Higher even generates grandiose displays of virtue, pageantries of righteousness. We have unity walks, entire months dedicated to equality and the prevention of various afflictions. We blanket unit areas with displays reassuring ourselves of the sincerity of these endeavors.

It’s almost Orwellian. It’s a fraud.

Drug abuse, sexual crime, domestic violence, suicide and other godless woes paralyze entire units, occupy commanders who should be preparing their units for combat, and consume vast quantities of organizational energy. This proliferation belies the oft cited belief that there are no atheists in foxholes.

A Depraved Force

During a recent interview with Erico Tavares, he asked me about the disparity between the religious nature of the military ranks and the largely secular population. I conceded that the largely conservative flavor of the military generated the appearance of religion.

The majority of young men today are 2nd generation unchurched. They are one generation removed from active church attendance. At some point, their fathers, if they were even present, either walked away from the church (de-churched) or were unchurched themselves. As a result, young men today do not speak the language of the faith.

Concepts such as absolute truth, divine authority, sin, and repentance ring hollow, absolute gibberish to young men. As they constitute the bulk of the force, why wouldn’t godlessness pervade? The collective heart of the rank and file darkens continually as the common grace of the Gospel of Jesus Christ ebbs in proliferation.

But again, things look okay on the surface. Lift the veil and you’ll reveal the depths of depravity, especially concerning sexuality.

As an acting Brigade Commander, I had at one point, 19 cases of sexual assault. Soldiers raping civilians. Soldiers raping soldiers. Soldiers raping their children. Soldiers raping their special needs children. The sordid nature of these transgressions shocked my soul.

A coarseness permeates the collective heart, not the gruff coarseness one might think of concerning say, an infantryman. In that regard, a certain fragility pervades in the minds of young men, but a coarseness of perception, particularly toward the opposite sex. As we’ve abandoned biblical norms in regard to sexuality, we actually demote women to a level playing field with young men, rendering them unfortunately vulnerable to exploitation.

Many will dispute or disregard this idea out of a perceived obligation to popular but misunderstood concepts of equality. Consider that almost all military sexual assaults are young men assaulting young women, usually under the influence of alcohol.

Sexual licentiousness aptly reveals the depths of depravity, the extent of the godlessness.

A Traumatized Force

Absent the moral compass of Christ, young soldiers are left to lean upon the foundation built by absentee fathers, which circumstances testify is no foundation at all.

A great symptom is the proliferation of PTSD diagnoses. I will not impugn those who’ve suffered a moral injury and struggled to reconcile but perhaps the sheer lack of the moral compass, the foundation, contributes to the inability of some to reconcile. I’ve been made aware of a newer phenomenon, Garrison PTSD. Many soldiers diagnosed today have never actually engaged the enemy in battle.

Reboot Recovery is a great program addressing the roots of combat trauma and the response with a goal of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ and plugging the warrior into the local church—absolutely critical aspects of reconciliation. What they find is that once they start peeling the onion, most of these young men have trauma that goes back to their childhood. The most recent trauma is the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, a surface bruise upon a deeper scar.

Their greatest moral injury comes from fathers who either walked out or failed to disciple them, to bring them up in the way of the Lord.

A Desperate Force

In 2007, shortly after becoming a Christian, I wrestled with the call to preach. Who was I? What should I do? I was an active duty Army officer. I didn’t know what to make of this call.

My astute wife pointed out the great mission field surrounding me every single day. Every day I was surrounded by, in charge of, and had influence over, copious amounts of young men who didn’t know the Lord Jesus. What better mission field could I ask for? God called me and placed me exactly where I needed to be. (1 Corinthians 7:20)

The fields of the American military are so white for the harvest. (John 4:35)

I’ve made an interesting observation over the years that soldiers respond to the earnestness of Christianity. My unit had a heathen company, great fighters but notorious braggarts and hooligans. At the time, our unit chaplain was a great man of God, an ordained man of prayer who never hesitated to invoke the name of Jesus. Always proclaiming, he explained to me once, “I’m going to be accountable to a much higher power, so I’d rather err on His side.”

This particular company made him an honorary member, an honor not often bestowed. They detected and responded to his sincerity. They recognized the real thing when they saw it.

Christ resonates with soldiers. As they are 2nd generation unchurched, they’ve never heard of anything like Him before. He and his message boggles their minds. Messages grounded in selflessness and service as exhibited by Christ and frank assertions concerning spirituality and good versus evil pierces to their hearts. They respond.

After taking command a few years ago, I assembled various groups of subordinate leaders that same day, to discuss leadership philosophy and the direction of the unit, as is customary. At these meetings, I explained to the men that I was a man of faith, a follower of Christ, and if they wanted to know how I felt about something, I considered all things through the prism of Scripture.

I had a line of curious sergeants and officers outside my office that afternoon wanting to know exactly what I meant.

To wit, we should not proselytize on the government’s time card. Save that for after work, but effective leaders must frame life through the lens from which they see it. If that lens happens to be Christ, then so be it. Too many Christ followers, who are leaders, keep their faith a secret, when their soldiers are so desperate for that which they cannot fathom.

I’ve received exactly one negative response. From a command climate survey. “Rear-detachment (Brigade) commander [me] routinely endorses Christianity in speeches that come across as preaching. After making a division-level EO complaint the behavior did NOT stop. The speeches came across as specifically designed to foment religious fervor and give the impression that [our unit] is an organization of crusaders waging a holy war.” I thought he made an accurate assessment.

Spiritual darkness and the light of Christ come into glaring confrontation while deployed. Deployment confronts the soldier with all manner of godlessness. In contrast, the light of Christ burns that much brighter.

I’ve had some of my most spiritual times while deployed, a small band of brothers assembling to worship and study amidst the harshness of combat. I’ve loved the fellowship we’ve had to the point of almost not wanting to redeploy. In combat, men lose the pretenses, dispatch with the superficiality, and confront the rawest life questions inevitably leading to nowhere else but God.

The blood of combat waters the ever-ripening fields.

A Potential Force

Maybe there aren’t that many foxholes these days. I’ll not despair as the darkened force trumpets opportunity. These men need good, godly leaders to serve them and they will respond. I pray for a revival in the ranks, that God would continue to raise up such leaders, to give these men what they so desperately need. Would you be the one?


  1. Jim

    Every time I read your entries I get convicted and encouraged.

    Im the father of 4 boys.
    One of them is studying to be a Baptist pastor. I need to be a consistent testimony of God’s fantastic work in my life so I don’t become a stumbling block to them.
    You see I struggle with baggage from before I was saved in my 20s.
    There was chemical and sexual addiction that is still harassing me today.
    I want Gods best for them please pray for us.
    Keep up the Gods work!

    • Bradford Smith

      Jim, praying for you. Thanks for that word of testimony. We serve a God who is in the business of changing lives. Continue to pursue Him! God bless you in your pursuit.

  2. WRW

    Spot on!

  3. Greg C.

    I don’t comment often but always enjoy and am enlightened by your work. It was honor to serve with you and great to see that you are still a leader, in and out of uniform.
    You hit on something I’ve always believed…that the roots of PTSD lie deeper than the more recent combat trauma. While going through almost two years of rehab after combat injuries I struggled with why I was “ok” and loving life even more when some of those around me in the wards and halls were having trouble coming back to life. What some have termed Post Traumatic Growth. I realized that it was my upbringing, outlook, and being surrounded by positive warriors that made the difference, which you put down much more eloquently. And as I raise my own teenage son now I understand his thirst for more spiritual meaning which I need to work harder at cultivating.
    Keep leading, believing, and sharing. God bless you and yours.


    • Bradford Smith

      Greg, good to hear from you and thanks for sharing that. I have learned a lot over the last couple of years researching for “Brave Rifles” which comes out at the end of October. It addresses this issue in much more depth. I would be interested in your take on it. Great to hear from you!

  4. Rick

    Thanks brother. This is very challenging; as it should be.

  5. Greg

    Can’t wait to read it! I hope it will be out on Amazon, or at least order directly from you.


  6. Drew

    Brad, thanks for your accurate spiritual assessment of our ranks and inspiring charge to preach the Gospel to them in word and deed. I return to the harvest with renewed vigor.

  7. Michael Coyle

    While I was in Vietnam our outfit changed it’s mission from coastal patrol to inland waterway interdiction. That happened in October 1968. In the next nine months I was in a firefight about once a week. I deployed with 59 other sailors and came out with 10 of them. Before that I tried to attend Sunday services but after that I went through my own “darkening”. I found out what it meant to be a cold-blooded killer.

    Luckily for me, my wife stuck by me and I think I had a number of people praying for me. But it took more than six years and a number of small miracles for me to not only warm up again but to also forcibly reject the cold and start to come back to Christ and life. Combat and extended combat operations change you Pastor, no matter how grounded in faith you might think you are and no matter whether your father was there for you or not. And it’s been my experience that words of faith don’t help as much as prayer and the actions of faithful people like my wife and my Mom.

    I love and agree with your premise and the thrust of your article but I think I would have laughed in your face back in January of 1969.

    • Bradford Smith

      Michael, thank you for that candid response. God definitely puts people in our lives such as your wife and your Mom to speak to us and minister to us on our journey. Amen for that. I’m sure there are many who would laugh, even today! God bless, Sir. Again, thanks for sharing.


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Bradford Smith

Bradford Smith

Author - Founder

Soldier, Pastor, Author – Bradford stays busy, with his wife Ami, raising their 9 children, serving the nation, pastoring, preaching, and writing books (#3 is due out October ’17).


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The call that sounds for the incredible need of emotionally and physically abandoned and orphaned children and one that when answered manifests the love of Christ.

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