Air Force Pulls Nuke Training over Religion Complaint
A variety of news sources are now reporting the US Air Force ended a training class after an internet article belittled its religious content. Contrary to some assertions, this is actually not a big deal.
This much has been accurately reported: The Air Force training slides had Bible verses, and the course was led by a Chaplain. There was a public article. The Air Force pulled the course to “review it.”
Beyond that, much of the other reporting has been misrepresented or inaccurate.
The Air Force has suspended a training course for nuclear missile launch officers that used Bible passages and religious imagery to teach them about the ethics of war.
Unfortunately, that’s essentially a misrepresentation, likely because the conclusion was drawn solely from a copy of the slides used in the brief — sans notes or context. The course did not use Biblical citations to teach ethics. The ~40-slide PowerPoint presentation was an ethical discussion on the conduct of war, with emphasis on the application of nuclear weapons. (The title of the first seven slides is “Ethics;” the second section is “Nuclear Ethics and Nuclear Warfare.”)
The course’s focus was to address common ethical issues with nuclear weapons (some religious, some not), against which some people might harbor doubts or even objections.
FoxNews translated this incident as
The Air Force has suspended a course that was taught by chaplains for more than 20 years because the material included Bible passages.
The course…used Scripture from both the Old and New Testaments to show missile launch officers that it can be moral to go to war.
That characterization appears to be generally true: The complaint was over Biblical content, and the Air Force pulled the material over the complaint. It still ignores the fact the rest of the course supported the objectives without religious reference.
The slideshow certainly had religious content. It specifically asked “Can a person of faith fight in a war?” It then proceeded to discuss biographical examples of persons of “faith,” including Col Hal Moore from the famous We Were Soldiers Once, and Young. A second section on “Can war be just?” discussed Augustine and the history of Just War theory; it noted both Christian and Jewish perspectives on war. That section concludes with the statement
“If war in the natural order is inherently unethical, it cannot be a good illustration in the spiritual order.”
Notably, the entire “religious” section, including title slides, is 11 of the ~42 slides in the two-part ethics brief. Six slides have Biblical citations; 3 (or 3.5) are exclusively Christian. While some of the verbal discussion in the course likely had Christian context, to be clear, only 3.5 of the 42 slides had exclusively Christian references.
The remainder discuss general ethics as well as the numbers, and the faces, of people killed in Japan following the delivery of the two nuclear bombs. Tellingly, to highlight the fact there is nothing unique to nuclear weapons, the brief notes more people were killed in firebombing during World War II than the nuclear blasts.
The slides conclude with information on the local religious resources at Vandenberg AFB, including Jewish and Islamic resources.
There can be little doubt as to the overall objective of the brief. Air Force spokesman David Smith said
The main purpose of the class was to help missile launch officers understand that “what they are embarking on is very difficult and you have to have a certain amount of ethics about what you are doing to do that job.”
These young officers were about to enter a career field that, for many years, has carried with it a certain aura (even stigma). Even today, despite advances in technology of recent decades, people are generally more concerned about nuclear weapons in US bunkers than the array of arguably more lethal conventional weapons the military actually uses. Put the word “nuclear” in front of things, and people get tense. (In fact, the reason this controversy has legs is because of the word “nuclear.” A vast majority of the internet traffic takes more issue with the US possession of nuclear weapons than the ethics training.)
Air Force officers come from a cross-section of society. Contrary to popular belief, many of these trainees likely didn’t volunteer for the career of missile officer. (Missileer was commonly the last choice of most new officers, with one exception: Some chose the job because they heard it was so boring there was lots of time on duty to complete their Master’s Degree.) These officers had likely at least thought of the ethical implications of the career field they were about to enter. If they hadn’t, they certainly should have.
Public reports indicate this course was the last “reminder” for their consideration prior to them signing a statement indicating their willingness to launch nuclear weapons if properly authorized to do so.
How many career fields start out with that kind of dramatic signature statement?
Is it really so hard to believe an ethics class on war would precede the commencement of training for officers in charge of launching nuclear weapons?
With the vast majority of the American population, and the American military, claiming some version of the Christian faith, is it really so surprising that some portion of that discussion would include religious references — including, but not limited to, the Christian faith?
That’s also precisely what they were: religious references (by a Chaplain). No reasonable person looking at those slides can conclude there was an effort at “promoting a particular brand of right-wing fundamentalist Christianity” or advocating “Christian nationalism,” as has been ludicrously claimed. Nor was the Air Force trying to teach that “under fundamentalist Christian doctrine, war is a good thing,” as an asinine accusation from Michael Weinstein claimed.
The original article that started the web-spread was on Truthout; Michael Weinstein is a member of its board, and he apparently provided them with the FOIA papers that amounted to more than 500 pages on this topic.
While Chris Rodda will likely be along to toot the MRFF’s horn, it is somewhat telling that the MRFF’s credibility is so lacking they had to coattail on their frequent ally Jason Leopold, giving him the documents to write and publish on rather than Rodda. (And that’s saying something, given Leopold’s own history of credibility issues.)
Leopold’s treatment was typical of his sensationalist and “creatively written” prior pieces. For example, Leopold said
One of the ethical questions contained in the PowerPoint presented to missile officers asks: “Can you imagine a set of circumstances that would warrant a nuclear launch from the US, knowing that it would kill thousands of non-combatants?
Another question trainees are confronted with asks: “Can we train physically, emotionally and spiritually for a job we hope we never have to do?”
To help the missile officers answer these ethical queries, the PowerPoint presentation cites numerous examples of characters from the New and Old Testament fighting “just” wars.
For example, in the Old Testament, “Abraham organized an army to rescue Lot,” God motivated “judges (Samson, Deborah, Barak) to fight and deliver Israel from foreign oppressors,” and “David is a warrior who is also a ‘man after God’s own heart.'”
The way he tells it, it must be bad, right? The problem is Leopold’s description is only true if the presentation was delivered backwards. Yes, those two questions were in the brief. But the Biblical figures Leopold then quotes as “answers” were from the prior portion of the presentation on a separate issue. If the Air Force training course was so obviously bad, why did Leopold have to so blatantly misrepresent it? It seems he felt the need to sensationalize it for dramatic effect.
Leopold then says
The documents’ blatant use of religious imagery and its numerous citations of the Bible would appear to be a violation of the First Amendment establishing a wall of separation between church and state and Clause 3, Article 6 of the Constitution, which specifically prohibits a “religious test.”
Leopold might try reading the Constitution one of these days. (It’s even on the internet.) It doesn’t say anything about the use of religious imagery or religious citations. He also fails to explain how putting a Bible verse on the screen somehow institutes a “religious test.”
The breadth to which this is misunderstood (or is being misrepresented) is evident in the quotation of a “senior missileer” who is helpfully anonymous:
“If they wanted to help people with their spiritual/religious/secular justification for serving as missile officers…
The very first sentence is all that’s needed. This course wasn’t intended to help people with “justification,” though that premise adds a layer of melodrama that makes it more palatable on the internet. This course was intended to make sure future nuclear launch officers had consciously considered their personal views on the ethical implications of their new career path, whether the source of those implications was religious or not. The objective was to give them the chance to say “No” now, rather than face that ethical conflict either in training or when called upon to execute their mission.
The military clearly recognizes that something in the vein of this course must be done. This event was the last-chance “filter” for ethical objection prior to the signing statements referenced above.
If there’s any doubt about the gravity of this, reference the case of Ensign Michael Izbicki. The would-be submarine officer’s saga started when he answered “No” to the Navy’s version of this filter, a ‘psychological test’ in which one of the questions was whether or not he felt he could launch nuclear weapons. By his own admission, he got all the way to that entry point before he finally figured out his stand — a stand the military knows must be determined before they hand them missile launch keys. There can be no “assumption” that everyone is “all good” with whatever they have to do. Izbicki was ultimately discharged as a conscientious objector.
In the end, it is important to note this “scandal” has nothing to do with religious freedom. Nor, despite the claims of Michael Weinstein, does it have anything to do with the Constitution. For decades the US Air Force has conducted a course to bring up ethical issues to confront potential doubts or objections from those who may someday be called upon to launch nuclear weapons. The course has addressed religious, ethical, historical, moral, and other elements of potential reservation.
As was said in the beginning, this “scandal” isn’t really a big deal. The Air Force can alter, replace, or eliminate the training at its whim. Whether it keeps the course or eliminates it, it does not prohibit the free exercise of religion, nor does it establish a religion. If there is a controversy, it is manufactured.
The Air Force has currently “pulled” the course and is deciding if it wants to rework or replace it. It is entirely entitled to do so.
It would be nice, though, if the US military could do its job without people being so hypersensitive over the non-profane mention of Jesus during military training. From the grandstanding over this brief, you’d think the Constitution prohibited the government from referencing the “J-word.”
Did anybody else notice no one complained about the reference to the Maccabees or the multiple slides of Jewish scripture?