Soldier: Angels Watching Over Me?

A war story from Afghanistan recounting an Army patrol’s encounter with an improvised explosive was fascinating, but perhaps more interesting was Stars and Stripes choice of title:

‘Don’t tell me there isn’t a God.’

Specialist Burch Swigert survived the explosion of an IED right next to him:

“I was walking in front of the gate,” Swigert said. “I heard a click and it went boom. First I thought my leg was gone, then I was like, ‘I’m still here.’

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say angels were watching over me.”

His platoon leader, 1LT Kevin Cory, had similar feelings:

“Don’t tell me there isn’t a God, with some of the things these soldiers have seen, and Swigert wasn’t killed,” platoon leader 1st Lt. Kevin Cory said of the near-miss.

It’s unlikely that any of the soldiers was trying to profess a deep theological view.  It is also unlikely they intended to “offend” those who object to the assertion that ‘there are no atheists in foxholes.’  (In fact, Swigert said “If I didn’t know better,” which might have been used euphemistically, or it might have been spoken intentionally by someone who doesn’t believe in ‘higher powers.’)

Still, the Lieutenant’s comment did raise the ire of one letter to the editor at the Stars and Stripes (unedited):

Stars and Stripes
Letters to the Editor, Thursday, December 3, 2009
“‘Don’t tell me there isn’t a God’” (article, Nov. 29) is offensive to nonbelievers of all sorts, on active duty and veterans. [I served in the U.S. Marine Corps.]

Those of us who choose to not believe recognize that every coincidence cannot be blamed on God. If there was an all-powerful, omnipotent God watching over us all, too many American families wouldn’t have lost their sons and daughters, husbands and wives in this war. It is quite convenient to claim that God was watching this specialist, but why was his God not watching over the rest? Was it part of “God’s plan,” or is there really no God?

Tom Williams
Kittery, Maine

Mr. Williams was offended, on behalf of “nonbelievers of all sorts,” that the Lieutenant expressed a belief in God.  While Williams is certainly entitled to the contrary opinion, what positive purpose is served by his critical vitriol against belief in God?  (It’s interesting to note that Williams claims no belief in God, but he also claims to know exactly how God would act.)

While a single letter to the editor hardly demonstrates a trend, Williams’ diatribe is consistent with what some have called “new atheism.”  Atheism, by definition, is a lack of belief in God; it makes no judgment on those who do believe in God.  Conversely, “new” atheism, sometimes also called anti-theism, takes a proactive approach–not only is there no God, but such beliefs are “wrong,” “evil,” and should be opposed (some would even suggest with the power of the government).

In short, despite Williams’ sensitivity, the officer’s statement is no more offensive to non-believers in God than the Specialist’s statement is to those who believe in angels.

Such is the occasionally hypersensitive environment in the US military today, where even a casual mention of God–a non-sectarian one, at that–uttered in the face of amazing events in combat is called “offensive,” and is used as a vehicle to demean all belief in God.

In the end, soldiers experiencing daily mortal combat–literally, not figuratively–come face to face with death, life, good, evil, the unexplained, and miracles in much that they do.  “Spirituality,” in one form or another, is a natural part of their daily lives, making the role of military Chaplains that much more important.  In Swigert’s case, escaping unhurt from a situation that should likely have taken his life has put his “life in perspective.”

Now, Swigert just wants to get home and make some babies.

“It sure puts your life in perspective, what you’ve had and what you’re missing,” he said. “I’ll put up with screaming kids and dirty diapers over IEDs any day.”

Wonder what “Mrs. Swigert” has to say about that one.

Also cross-published at