Military Atheists and “Higher” Things…or Not

ABC News recently did a short segment on the US Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, or, more accurately, the spiritual fitness portion of it.

They interviewed Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, a PhD, MD, Desert Storm POW, and current Director of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness in the Army.

They also interviewed US Army Sgt Dustin Chalker, an atheist Soldier whom Michael Weinstein used to sue the US Army.  (The lawsuit was dismissed.)

While military atheists have generally taken issue with the entire concept of “spiritual fitness,” the following portion of the interview was highlighted by Justin Griffith on his atheist “Rock Beyond Belief” website:

Sciutto (ABC News): Why is it that spiritual people make better soldiers?

Cornum: The ethos that we adhere to. Always place the mission first. Never accept defeat. Never leave a fallen comrade.  Those kinds of things require you to have belief in something higher than yourself.

To be accurate, the US Army did not say “spiritual people make better Soldiers,” as the atheists claimed, though it is the question to which Gen Cornum responded.  Unfortunately, the 2 minute segment lacks context on what either the interviewer or General Cornum understood “spiritual people” to mean.

Chalker apparently took issue with the General’s statement:

Dustin Chalker
August 24, 2011 at 12:56 am

Thanks, Justin! I just can’t get over the absolutely blatent EO violation: “Those kinds of things require you to have a belief in something higher than yourself.” Really? We’re talking about the warrior ethos here, not some religious creed…
The only thing the warrior ethos requires is a belief in something *equal* to yourself, which means: your fellow battle buddy next to you. I believe battle buddies exist. That’s it. Nothing “higher” in any “spiritual” sense.

Unfortunately, the controversy is manufactured.  Again.  This time it appears to be over a poor transcription.  Despite the supposed quotation, BG Cornum didn’t say that

As both the video and transcript show, this was her answer:

The ethos that we adhere to: Always place the mission first. Never accept defeat. Never leave a fallen comrade – Those kinds of things require you to have belief in something bigger than yourself. [emphasis added]

The atheists’ error may be a result of confirmation bias or expectation error — the atheists are hearing what they expect or want to hear, not what’s actually said.

Certainly even atheists would agree that there are things “bigger” than themselves they need to believe in consistent with the Army ethos.  How about the Army itself?  The mission?  Their unit?  Their squad?  Maybe the US Constitution?  Truth, justice, the American way?

Semantics aside, it seems some are so determined to criticize the Army’s efforts they are unable to acknowledge the good or positive value in any position bearing the slightest similarity to that which they oppose.  (This characteristic is strikingly similar to Chris Rodda’s need to emphasize ‘complete disagreement’ with a Senator defending the Constitution.)

Fortunately, despite the hypersensitivity on the atheists’ parts to certain words in the English language, it’s unlikely many people within the military actually feel nothing is bigger (or higher) than themselves.  After all, why would someone join the military if they truly felt there was nothing worth fighting for bigger than themselves?  (It’s unlikely, though possible, one might join for personal gain, but such a motivation would likely not persist long enough to survive the early stages of military training.)

The greatest Soldiers have been defined by their desire to serve.  If there is nothing bigger or higher than the individual, your highest calling is to serve yourself — and that would make a poor Soldier.

It is true that when the bullets start flying, servicemembers will often say they fight for the Soldier fighting next to them or the Airman flying on their wing. But the question of why must ultimately be answered on a grander scale.