Saturday, July 19, 2008
People on the home front were busy with their own lives and took no notice. Occasionally a book or documentary appeared warning that the military had become an arm of the evangelical movement, that generals talked as much about end time and the rapture as they did about military objectives, and that unchurched soldiers were given the most dangerous assignments or sent home for their own protection. But none of those books or documentaries caused the kind of stir that a celebrity changing her hemline routinely caused.
Nobody noticed that a new military objective had risen to the top of pentagon plans: how to foment a war with the infidels so that this earth could be destroyed and heaven gained. Or rather, only a relatively few noticed: those charismatic millions who held to that agenda and their ever-growing minions in the military. They noticed; and smiled; and slapped each other on the back; and prayed; and felt that adrenaline rush, verging on orgasm, of a highly anticipated and fast-approaching Armageddon.
One day a general from headquarters arrived to speak to a front line company that had recently taken many casualties. He came to give a pep talk and most of the gathered soldiers appeared thrilled by his foot stomping, flag waving, God glorifying oratory. They cheered when he complimented them on the ass-kicking they had delivered to the infidels, they rose to their feet every time he intoned the word “Crusade,” they broke out in wild applause when he named their enemies: the faggots, the atheists, and everyone not a Christian—or not enough of a Christian.
Not being enough of a Christian concerned him a great deal. “All of you are Christians!” he exclaimed, ignoring those who were not. “But how many of you are true Crusaders? How many of you are pledged to fight the infidel no matter what the America-haters at home are saying? No matter what a new President might order? How many of you are pledged to the destruction of our enemies?”
This brought the house—that is, the tent—down. When the cheering and applause had subsided a hand appeared from among the gathered soldiers. The general stared at the hand for a long time. Then he said, “Yes, son?”
A young soldier jumped crisply to his feet. “Sir, did you know that the Nobel-prize winning author Sinclair Lewis once said, ‘When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the American flag and carrying a cross?”
A round of boos and catcalls descended on the soldier. The general did nothing to quiet the crowd. After the final wave of boos and catcalls had passed, the general said, “What are you, an atheist?”
“I am, sir,” the young soldier replied. “And since I don’t believe in what you’re selling, sir, I wonder if I might be sent home?”
“You can go home in a body bag!” someone cried. This brought an immense round of cheering.
The company commander, a captain of about thirty years of age standing beside the general, pointed a finger at the atheist. “I will see you directly after this is over!” he said. “You go right back to your tent!”
“Yes, sir!” the atheist replied.
“And sit the hell down!”
The atheist took his seat.
You would have been hard-pressed to put your finger on it, but there was something different about the rest of the general’s speech. It was still impassioned and employed every motivator at his disposal—flag, country, god, heroism, staying the course, routing the enemy, honoring the company, honoring the battalion, honoring the service, honoring every small town in America, honoring every parent and child and dead soldier and … but still it was different; and less persuasive.
Finally the general was done. The company commander called the troop to attention, the general strode out and ducked into his helicopter, the company commander and the other officers left directly, and the sergeant major dismissed the troop—but not before reminding the atheist as to what was happening next.
“Get your ass back to the barracks!’ he said, pointing a bony finger in the atheist’s direction. “You will be visited!”
The atheist popped to his feet. “Yes, sergeant major!”
The atheist returned to his tent, which housed a squad of thirteen men. No one spoke to him or looked at him. He had been friendly enough with these men and had no real enemies among them. They seemed to be paying him something like silent respect by not harassing him or taking overt pleasure in what was about to happen. They went about their business, one man shining his belt buckle, another man shining his shoes, a third man writing a letter home, doing the things that soldiers have done for thousands of years.
After a long hour the company commander glided silently into the tent. The first soldier to see him cried, “Attention!”
The men dropped what they were doing and sprang to attention. The captain proceeded to face the atheist, who knew, as all soldiers did, not to look him in the eye but rather to pick a spot over his shoulder and fix his stare there.
“We have a special assignment for you,” the captain said in that mock conspiratorial tone that always spelled trouble. “I’m going to send you up to the killing zone tomorrow to have a look around and give us an atheist’s perspective on what’s going on there. You’ll just get out of your vehicle, take a stroll around, maybe make a few notes, and come on back. You’ll go off at 1400 hours tomorrow.”
“By myself, sir?”
“By yourself, son. No need to risk the lives of real soldiers.”
“Yes, sir!” the atheist replied, saluting.
This unqualified acceptance of a suicidal order caused the company commander to pause for a moment. He stared at the atheist.
“You expecting a walk in the park, soldier?” the captain said.
“I’m expecting to die,” the atheist said. “Sir!”
The captain nodded. “And you will. And that will be the end of you.”
“And your parents will cry. You have parents, soldier?”
The captain nodded. “And your parents will cry. Are they atheists, too?”
“And what will they be left with? Without the comfort of religion?”
The captain stared at the soldier. He glanced around at the other soldiers, all of whom were still standing at attention. It occurred to him that he had not put them at ease. They were standing at the kind of attention you rarely see. The captain blinked. A full minute passed.
When he finally spoke, he said, “Cancel that last order. Here’s what you’re going to do. I want you take a pair of tweezers and a paper cup and collect every pubic hair from the latrine. Is that clear, soldier?”
The captain stared at the atheist a last time, shook his head, turned on his heels, and left the tent.
The atheist did as he was told. The next day he and three Christians were killed when the vehicle they were driving came under a mortar attack. In the enemy camp they celebrated the death of four infidels. At headquarters they mourned the death of four heroes and vowed vengeance on their killers. The general, who made a public display of anger and horror, was privately quite happy: not because an atheist had died but because Armageddon had been nudged one millimeter closer.