Friday, January 21, 2011

Speaking of the Dark Ages

Seymour Hersh is a great journalist. From My Lai to Iraq, he has broken some of the biggest stories ever reported about the American military. He has spent decades building up what seems to be an enormous network of sources in the military and intelligence services. That is all the more surprising since, if we had to attribute a bias to Seymour Hersh, we would unhesitatingly call it a liberal one. Still, a great journalist and a servant of the free society.

Who, at the moment, seems just a little kooky.

Speaking in Qatar this week, Hersh delivered what Foreign Policy calls "a rambling, conspiracy-laden diatribe ... expressing his disappointment with President Barack Obama and his dissatisfaction with the direction of U.S. foreign policy."

Nothing particularly kooky there. A lot of people (although not at the Egg!) are less than enthusiastic about the president these days. But here's the kooky part. He said that, both in the Cheney era and today, the wars in Asia have been conceived (on the part of American policy makers) in explicitly religious terms:

"We're gonna change mosques into cathedrals. That's an attitude that pervades, I'm here to say, a large percentage of the Joint Special Operations Command."

He then alleged that Gen. Stanley McChrystal ... and his [JSOC] successor, Vice Adm. William McRaven, as well as many within JSOC, "are all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta." ....

"Many of them are members of Opus Dei," Hersh continued. "They do see what they're doing -- and this is not an atypical attitude among some military -- it's a crusade, literally. They see themselves as the protectors of the Christians. They're protecting them from the Muslims [as in] the 13th century. And this is their function."

First off, if that's true, they're incompetent. Because in the chaos created by our invasions, the Christian populations of central Asia have been pounded savagely. Far from protecting them, our troops have put them in significantly greater danger, and in Iraq may well have assured their eventual extirpation. Second, and needless to say, the Pentagon denies it all. And they sound pretty credible doing it, which is more than Hersh can say.

Now, there is some stuff that isn't kooky at all. When Hersh talks about a military in which religion is used as a tool for motivating the troops, he is on to something we have heard elsewhere, and often. Hersch goes on to say this:
"They have little insignias, these coins they pass among each other, which are crusader coins," he continued. "They have insignia that reflect the whole notion that this is a culture war. … Right now, there’s a tremendous, tremendous amount of anti-Muslim feeling in the military community.”"
We don't know whether it is true, but it does match up with other things we have seen. In case it needs saying, this is -- if true -- a bad thing for many reasons, ranging from military strategy to the First Amendment.

But. The Knights of Malta? Opus Dei? This is the stuff of conspiracy nuts, the same people who put on tin-foil hats to block the CIA transmission through their fillings. The actual Knights Hospitallers of St. John etc. are a charitable organization, and Opus Dei, while certainly sinister enough if one is a liberal Roman Catholic still nursing the dream of a new John XXIII, isn't that kind of sinister. (And of course, they've been a huge boon to the small guild of craftsmen making hair shirts. Joking.)

In fact, so far as we can tell, the religious wing-nut contingent in the US armed forces is largely run by neo-Protestant fundamentalists. (Here, here, here, here, for starters.) It is vocal and aggressive, but not especially well-organized. Less a conspiracy than a movement -- although a very wicked movement indeed.

But please do note our qualifiers here: If. So far as we can tell. The fact is that Hersh does not sound credible, and has yet to lay out any evidence. We suspect him very strongly of having turned an unfortunate emotional corner, much like the former Lutheran former theologian Bob Benne. But the other fact is that he has been, for many years, a reliable reporter of facts which might otherwise seem unbelievable. So let's see if he's got some now.


Anonymous said...

You have a lot of Evangelicals in the military because 1. the Mainline churches are wealthy enough to preach about the evils of militarism and not have to send their kids into the military for jobs and 2. only about 4% of the American population is under 25 and a member of ANY Mainline Protestant church.
The smartest thing done to defuse social protests of the late 60s/early 70s? Abolishing the draft. Once the males at colleges no longer had to fear it, the wind went right out of the protesters' sails. If it wasn't a problem for the sons of the middle classes, it wasn't a problem.

Father Anonymous said...

Well, you're half right. The end of the draft did mean the end of the military's role as a shared experience which cuts across social and economic boundaries. (Which, incidentally, is why we at the Egg support its restoration).

BUT I'm talking about the chaplain corps, members of which have always been volunteers, not draftees. So the draft is irrelevant.

And yes, Viet Nam unquestionably made old-line Protestant churches a little bit leery of the military, and therefore of chaplaincy. Lutherans (especially if you include the LCMS, but even if you don't) are an exception to that. Our theology is pretty clear about the state's right to use armed force. (And, for better or worse, frees us from a lot of worry about church-state issues).

As for numbers, DoD stats show that about 40% of active duty personnel identify as Evangelicals, versus 60% of chaplains. (And versus 14% of the US population in general). Those numbers are reported by NPR; the St Louis Post-Dispatch has very different numbers: 3% of military personnel and 33% of chaplains. I don't know the sources well enough to explain the disparity.

Either way the point is that, yes, military service does attract Evangelicals in numbers disproportionate to the general population -- but chaplaincy attracts them in numbers that are significantly more disproportionate.

But the real turning point, as I understand it, was a series of lawsuits, several years back, in which Evangelical -- or, let's face it, fundamentalist -- chaplains sued the Army. They weren't getting promotions, largely because they lacked the educational credentials of the "traditional" chaplains. Instead of going back to school, they cried religious discrimination. And so began what is widely perceived as a takeover.

Anonymous said...

Or you could get the children of middle/upper middle class Mainline Protestants to volunteer to serve?
Nah. Even if you did, there are only about 4% of those under 30 in the US who are members of ANY Mainline Protestant church.
So you and the Armed Forces will continue to split socio-economically further and further apart.