Wartime Reflections: Plenty of Atheists in Foxholes
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?
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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