Boot Camp Religion

Here are some reflections on military service and civil religion, from our contributing editor Art Remillard.

“Boot Camp Religion”

by Art Remillard

Saturday marked my 15th anniversary of graduating from Marine Corps boot camp. When I enlisted, friends and family were confounded. There was no noteworthy history of military service in my family. And college seemed inevitable, particularly since my father was a professor of French literature—or as I like to call it, “Freedom literature.” Nevertheless, enlisting was my form of teenage rebellion (rather than just getting an earring), and soon after signing the papers I landed in Paris Island, South Carolina. Overall, my four year enlistment was relatively uneventful. I never served in a war zone. (Oh those horrid years of peace and prosperity known as the Clinton era). After my discharge, I followed a predictable path through higher education to where I am today, blogging away with a terminal degree. One of my primary areas of interest has become civil religion, that indistinct category denoting a blend of national pride and religious commitment. While civil religion draws scorn from some scholars, it makes sense to me, perhaps because of boot camp.

Sundays on Paris Island were—to borrow from Victor Turner—profoundly liminal. Raised Catholic, I tended to associate mass with complete boredom. But at Paris Island, Mass became an escape, an energetic exercise marked by lively hymns and uplifting homilies. The liturgy would probably have made any bishop wince. But for us, it was one brief moment when we could be assured: 1) that we wouldn’t be yelled at; and 2) that we would leave with our batteries recharged, ready for the week of constant berating. Something else happened at Mass. Our decision to serve became spiritually validated. The line between patriotism and faith blurred. The priest repeatedly assured us that our duty was noble, and endorsed by the Almighty him/herself. Non-church rituals also had a civil religious feel. I recall on my first night on the island, our platoon was instructed (not asked) to recite the Our Father. We prayed with calm reverence. “Hell No!” interrupted the drill instructor. “You WILL NOT whisper my Lord’s Prayer!” So each night, we shouted the Our Father, along with other “prayers” such as the Rifleman’s Creed. With equal intensity and volume, our various ritualistic declarations became indistinguishable, leaving little sense that there was any difference between them.

I remember having a lingering sense of discomfort. I couldn’t then, and can’t now, stop thinking about God’s relationship with the “enemy.” In Tim O’Brien’s classic Vietnam novel, The Things They Carried, one of the book’s departures describes a Viet Cong soldier, drafted against his will, and killed in the war. We discover that much like the American soldiers, he too had a life defined by loving attachments to family and friends. Most recently, films from Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima) offer a similar image, providing both Japanese and American perspectives of Iwo Jima. While fiction, all of this challenges my moral imagination. I’m confronted with the distinct reality that I may not be much different than my enemy. How, then, could any God chose my cause over another, protecting me and not them? I have no good answers. So perhaps my feelings of discomfort and ambiguity fifteen years ago have led me to where I am today. I can’t say for sure. But the subject of civil religion remains intriguing to me, and I suspect I’ll continue studying it for a long time to come.


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