Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Military Ritual, Responsibility, and Mercenaries

My wife always worries that I will overstep my bounds on this blog, be it the bounds placed upon me as a military officer or those represented by the expectations of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the UUA. It is good that she worries about such things, because sometimes it causes me to think a bit more deeply about an issue before I write about it. Sometimes it allows me to see a connection that I might not have seen without that reflection. It also has kept me from sticking my foot in my mouth a few times.

The topic of the privatization of military force and the responsibility to civilian control is one of those topics that has the potential to raise eyebrows among those who will decide if I get to be a Military Chaplain as well as those who get to decide if I am granted ministerial fellowship, and so I have not written about it yet. I have publically spoken on it, both within the military as well as in Unitarian Universalist circles.

However, with the recent news that elements in the private military organization formerly known as Blackwater might have been involved in domestic murders as well as their questionable actions overseas, it might be time for me to bring those thoughts to Celestial Lands. I think it is deeply appropriate for me to speak on it now, considering the reports that the entire company was founded upon a mission of serving as Christian Crusaders, taking call-signs from the Knights Templar, and viewing their involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan as a holy war.

I have the privilege to speak with many liberals and progressives on the issue of the military, of war, and of militarism. When I visit a church or activist group to speak or preach on anything, I know that I will get questions on these topics, and so I always set aside time for that usually after the main meeting/worship. In one conversation, a progressive who grudgingly admitted the need for a military still decried the cost of all of the “trappings” of being a soldier… the dress uniforms, the ceremonies, the medals and awards. If we had to have an Army, fine… but we could have it a lot cheaper, first by getting rid of all this “glorification of militarism”.

I think my response was surprising to them. I replied that we needed all of those “trappings”, all of the dress uniforms and ceremonies, to remind soldiers every day that they are soldiers, not mercenaries. In fact, I think we need more ceremonies, more dress uniforms, more marching and bugle calls and tradition than we currently have, to continually remind soldiers that this is not just a “job”… that they are not civilians. We need to constantly remind them that though they are taught and expected to use violence, they are responsible to something other than themselves in that use. We need the ceremony to remind soldiers that the purposes they serve are not their own, but that of “the People” as decided by their elected politicians.

In short, Military Ceremony reminds our soldiers that they are not mercenaries.

The mercenary provides their own meaning for why they choose to risk their life, why they use violence, and they are primarily responsible to themselves or to other mercenaries. The most common conception is that the mercenary finds meaning in the pay they receive… but of the meanings they might find this is a fairly benign one. In a system that glorifies capitalism, this type of mercenary seems to fit right in with our cultural norm.

But it is not the only meaning that can be found for the service of a mercenary…

If the reports are true, for many in the Blackwater organization the meaning was found not primarily in money, but in a Dominionist understanding of Christianity. Their risk and service was made meaningful by an understanding of themselves as holy warriors, fighting a culture war against an opposing religion.

This understanding, this source of meaning is outside what is appropriate to United States Military and related forces. It is detrimental to our national interest, and to our stated goals of creating a stable and self-sustaining governmental system in the areas we are currently involved. This source of meaning for the mission of Blackwater can be traced to attitudes which lead directly to some of the most controversial aspects of the company’s actions in combat zones.

And most importantly, it was a source of meaning decided and implemented by someone other than the American Taxpayer through their elected representatives… even though it was being paid for with U.S. tax dollars.

The issue of responsibility is why I question efforts to privatize aspects of military culture and life, from the privatization of combatants to the privatization of chaplains. Not responsibility for how well they do their job (although issues of KBR and electricity may beg that question) but responsibility for why they are willing to do the job at all. For soldiers, no matter what their personal views are, they are a part of a system that continually reminds them, through ceremony, through their uniforms, through the oaths they take, through their command structure, … through about every aspect of military life… they are reminded that they are primarily responsible to the People of the United States of America.

Even in soldiers I see a disturbing trend of personal motivations for service being more important than serving the people… and this is why I want more ceremony, more dress uniforms, more formations and reading of orders. I believe there is danger in a decrease in military tradition and ceremony at the same time we provide soldiers with examples such as Blackwater of mercenaries placing their own meanings above that of The People. It concerns me greatly.

Let me relate an apocryphal event I witnessed while I was in DC, at Ft. McNair… the home of the U.S. Army’s keepers of the tradition… the Old Guard (3rd Infantry Regiment). Specifically, Ft. McNair is the home of Alpha Company, the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard. I was just heading back to my quarters, in plain view of the main post flagpole, when retreat sounded one afternoon.

Retreat is the formal ceremony of taking down and folding the American Flag each day, usually at 5pm. Usually, on most posts, the team (often 6 soldiers, but never fewer than three) charged with taking down the flag marches to the flag pole 5 minutes before retreat. They stand at attention as one soldier unties the rope. The music plays through its first Bugle song, and everyone on post who is outside stops their car. Those in uniform turn towards the flagpole and go to parade rest. When the second music piece plays, the team lowers the flag in time with the music. Everyone in uniform on post salutes. When the music ends, the flag is unclipped, salutes are lowered, and people begin to move smartly through what they were doing before. The retreat team of soldiers will formally salute and fold the flag, and then march it to its storage location.

Or rather, that is what is supposed to happen.

On this particular day, as the music for retreat began to sound, I turned toward the flagpole and went to parade rest. I was surprised to see that there were no soldiers waiting at the base of the flagpole. About half-way through the first song, two soldiers came running out of a neighboring building without their berets on their heads. They ran up to the flag pole, not bothering to salute, and zipped the line down with no ceremony at all. As I was saluting with my mouth open, they bundled up the flag into their arms like a wad of paper and ran back into the building as fast as they could… obviously hoping no one saw them.

I stood there aghast. For a minute, I began to react as Sergeant Pyle would have, and began walking with purpose toward the building they had just ran into… but I stopped myself. While that reaction might have been appropriate in a Sergeant, locking up a few soldiers and yelling at them was not appropriate in a Chaplain. Besides… this was not a soldier problem, but a leadership problem. So, the next day I had a quiet conversation with an officer connected to the Old Guard.

Now, I use this incident as an example, but I almost hate to do so. Every other time I saw these soldiers take down the flag, they did it with at least a modicum of respect. In the weeks after I had that quiet conversation, there was a marked difference in this particular ceremony. I walked the fields of Arlington National Cemetery with members of the Old Guard, and they are among the most professional soldiers I have ever met in the military. How they honor our dead every day of every month of every year is one of the bastions of tradition, ceremony, and responsibility in our military. In every way they are the model for why ceremony is necessary in military life.

And yet, even these soldiers who represent the tradition of the military let that tradition fall to expediency on this one occasion. The ceremony of Retreat is conducted on every Army base, on every Forward Operating Base, and even on some of our smallest outposts every day. It is one of the primary reminders of who it is that the soldier serves… who it is that sets the mission and provides the meaning for our service. It is this ceremony that reminds us every day that we do not serve ourselves… that we are not mercenaries.

There is nothing more important for our military to get right, and I fear we are beginning to forget that. In the Chaplain Corps as well as the rest of the military, we must always remember that by taking the oath and donning the uniform, we are voluntarily accepting that we serve the People of the United States before anything else… and if we cannot in conscience do so, then perhaps we need to be doing something else.

Yours in Faith,


One Thought on “Military Ritual, Responsibility, and Mercenaries

  1. I think that your response to the Retreat was correct as was your response to the failure. I agree with your assessment of the need for ceremony. Whether ceremony is military or religious, it plays a part in our survival. My only problem in what you have written is the statement at the end as if you needed to sound good at the end. Whether or not we need to be doing something else, we have a need to do this thing right. If we are not going to do the work properly, then somebody needs to commit to forcing the military structure to do the job. This force can be the kind that you displayed in talking quietly with the appropriate military officers to shore up the quality control used in getting Retreat done. The military is about the appropriate use of force. I find it mildly painful that you surrendered the field to any opposition when you offered that we need to be doing something esle if we can’t do the mission required. It might be nothing more than a poor choice of words, but if the US military is performing badly, we can’t have them walk off the stage and claim that its time to pack it in. Liberal theology is based historically on people who saw that we needed to reform the structure, the process. When the system failed to function, they took it upon themselves to act to change the system. I hope that you can find it possible to oppose, however discreetly the failures, and stand for the Liberal advantage that you can bring to the military. Perhaps an alternative to your wording is to ask you to stand up for the advantage that Liberal theology can bring to the military or if you can’t, consider changing from Deism to a standard Universalist theology that brings out that best in you that you complete the mission!

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