Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Atheists in Foxholes

As a veteran I was asked to join the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers and I agreed wholeheartedly. This is an excellent outfit that anyone who is a nonbeliever and a veteran or in service should join, so the MAAF can have numbers to cite and a network of resources and eyes-on-the-ground to tap. They represent you, and your fellow godless servicemen and women, and with an increasingly evangelized military, they need your support. You can explore their website for more on why, and what they are doing, and how you can help.

I was also asked to join their roster of Atheists in Foxholes. Check that out. Of course, "literal" foxholes aren't meant, but any condition of hunkering down under conditions of real risk to life and limb. You know, those conditions under which we supposedly all secretly turn to God and whine to him to save us (even though his track record is worse on that than any of our mortal service mates). Though I didn't see combat, I did see conditions like that. And yet no one I saw in them ever bet on God. Anyway, the standard application for A in F went like this, and I have filled it out as follows:

Coast Guard Petty Officer Third Class Richard Carrier 
Dates of service: September 1990 to August 1992.
Decorations: (1) National Defense Service Medal, (2) USCG Marksman’s Ribbon.
Honors: Navy Letter of Commendation, Honorman Certificate for Scholastic Achievement and Proven Leadership, Duty Gunner’s Mate Certification, Flight Deck Fire Fighter Certification, Division Damage Control Petty Officer Certification, LAMPS Aviation Ordnance Team Qualification.
Tours of duty, with dates: Training Center Cape May (New Jersey), Security Clearances Division (1990); Fleet Antisubmarine Warfare Training Center Pacific (FLEASWTRACENPAC) San Diego (California) (1990-2991); USCGC Sherman (WHEC 720) Pacific Northwest Patrol (1991-1992).
Specialty: Sonar (operation, maintenance, and repair of all sonar and torpedo systems); Duty Gunner's Mate; Flight Deck Firefighter.
"Please also provide other comments relating to hazardous duty, what you believe about prayer in combat, and any experiences you have had relating to religious tolerance/discrimination in the military..."

Certainly when I was in service the Coast Guard had a strong contingent of liberals and progressives in all ranks devoted to its peacetime law enforcement and search and rescue mission, and in result the entire force was professionally secular in all active components and very accommodating of diverse religious views in private affairs. Pretty much the way the rest of the services should be.

Although I received a medal for wartime service (Operation Desert Storm) and after the war I primarily served in a combat role (tracking submarines and preparing to fight them; I was also sharing charge of the ship's magazines for its main gun and torpedoes, and the armory for sidearms and support weapons, which were checked out regularly for boarding operations, which routinely occur on patrol), you shouldn't get too excited. During the war I didn't see action overseas but guarded an estuary on a Navy base in San Diego (with a comlink and flashlight, and a whistle and a billy club...go Navy!) against the very unlikely event that Saddam Hussein attacked American bases or ports using a surplus Russian submarine that recent intel reported he had purchased (though he couldn't possibly have fielded it without a crew, I suppose it couldn't have hurt to cover all bases). 

My face-to-face with risk and danger came from normal service occupations: helicopter ops at sea are inherently dangerous, as is working with live torpedo and gun ordinance. In fact life at sea in general brings countless dangers that they train the hell out of you to prevent: from being bounced overboard in twenty foot seas to falling three decks through an open hatch to being cut in half by an overtension line to getting caught in a shipboard fire or flooded compartment, or trapped in a paint locker with the Halon siren sounding. Still, God never came up. Pray to your training, my chief said. It's the only thing that will actually save you.

But sometimes not even that. One memory in particular comes to mind. During combat training exercises at sea we had numerous torpedoes shot at us, which we had to detect and evade. Of course they had no warheads and their depth meters were rigged to err by twenty feet low so they'd always skirt under us by a few meters, but even a dummy torpedo can fly right through a ship's hull, starboard to port, and keep swimming, killing anyone in its path and flooding every chamber it crosses (one thing they get wrong in Hunt for Red October)--and since they are propelled by hot reactants, should one strike the ship's fuel tanks... 

You could hear them screaming underfoot in lower combat, where we sat, below the water line, directly above the ship's main fuel tanks. Yeah. Needless to say this is a scary experience. One mistake in programming its depth meter, one key component failure, and that torpedo might not be missing us. You just grit your teeth and wait to hear its engine sounds change pitch (indicating it was now passing under and not coming at you). But none of us ever prayed to God to guide the torpedo safely. We just did the math. Calculated improbability was more reassuring. Because then you actually knew your odds. Whereas the odds God will save you were incalculable. Which is to say, basically zero.


J. Quinton said...

I'm an Air Force veteran. I had a desk job so I was never really in harms way. But still, during Commander's Calls there would always be a reference by the commander to trusting in god of some sort to get us through rough patches. Besides my main career field, I also did Honor Guard as sort of a second duty that sometimes took precedent over my primary.

Being in the business of handing off flags to the next of kin during military funerals you would think there would be more god-talk. But it was mainly the civilian reverend doing the funeral that invoked god. Surprisingly, my Honor Guard teammates never brought up god on talks on the way to or from a service.

Moreover, at other official events that we had to present the colors at (like a banquet or something) it was official regulation that we were not to bow our heads during the opening or closing prayers/benedictions, since we were on official duty. Though some guard members did so anyway.

Outside of that, I did get evangelized to a number of times while either at the office or just walking around on base by other servicemembers. That got annoying.

Pikemann Urge said...


Okay, seriously, though. I would love to learn how to use a sniper rifle. That, and archery!

In fact life at sea in general brings countless dangers that they train the hell out of you to prevent

I saw a doco on an American aircraft carrier. One of the flight deck crew explained the dangers of being too close to a particular jet fighter with a central air intake. One crewman got too close one day... They call those aircraft 'people eaters'!

As a side issue, I have heard several experiences of WWI veterans and Salvation Army chaplains on the battlefield. This would be interesting to explore - the Salvos always seem to get praise from soldiers, even at the expense of chaplains from their own denomination. One woman told me that after WWI, her late husband always gave money to the Salvos, but not to his own church. The Quakers also get this reputation.

I did get evangelized to a number of times while either at the office or just walking around

These days I don't get enough evangelism. Too bad, as I'd love the chance, now and then, to flex my theological/critical knowledge. Sort of like a training exercise with live ammunition. :-P

Richard Carrier said...

I only got evangelized on the Navy base I trained at, by a Navy guy. Coast Guard, not. But neither of us were on duty, so I didn't consider it inappropriate. Indeed, his effort had precisely the opposite effect he'd hoped for, because he got me to read the whole bible, cover to cover. Bad move on his part. I tell some of this story in Sense and Goodness without God pp. 14-17.

Richard Carrier said...

We didn't have fighters or anything with engines big enough to eat you, but high winds could tip a helicopter, and you'd better not be on the outer deck when its blades swing down...

Another risk is that (and this Hunt for Red October does get right) its spinning blades generate a huge (read: lethal) static charge, so anyone who touches the helicopter as it hovers is likely to be killed, and certainly electrocuted (it's the equivalent of being struck by lightning--in fact even if you get too close it can arc through a few inches of the air and give you a nasty shock, as indeed HFRO depicted), and when you are doing a hot refuel (the helicopter doesn't land but hovers, while you fill their tank), a spark like that can turn the helicopter into a bomb killing everyone on deck, or even ignite the fuel lines of the ship (indeed, as flight deck firefighters we were there partly in the event things like that happened, to save the ship, and anyone not immediately killed). So you have to let it land or else ground it mid-air first (using a grounding pole, which is what they are trying to do in HFRO before Jack Ryan has to ditch). And lots can go wrong there. It's dangerous business.

To give you an idea of what we were trained for, there were three main objectives should the helicopter explode and burn on deck: (1) get any personnel out who might have survived (for which we had two men at the ready in proximity suits to run into the fire and drag people out, and you can't let prox suits get wet, so hosemen had to keep that in mind), (2) contain and suppress the fire (for which we had a variety of technologies to deploy), and (3) push the engine block overboard. Why the latter? Because it's made of magnesium alloy, which when burned and then wet (like, say, spraying fire hoses at it) causes a thermal reaction that can literally melt through the decks all the way through the keel and into the sea (where it will promptly explode on contact with the ocean), all of which would flood a good portion of the ship, not to mention cause casualties and fires on every deck on its way down.

People often don't consider things like this when thinking about the armed services (or even municipal firefighting, or occupations like rigger or steelworker). Just training and occupational operations are dangerous and it's a testament to the training and discipline of those in service that you don't hear about very many disasters. Accidents that do happen get a lot of press, but compared to the amount of missions, and personnel engaged in these activities, and the number of real risks involved and catastrophic errors that can be made, lethal accidents are impressively rare. When you're in service and see how much you depend on everyone involved (often dozens of people) to be incredibly on the ball, superbly trained and diligent in every task, you earn a different perspective on those in national service. From watching World's Toughest Fixes, I've seen a similar perspective gained by those in job fields like rigging.

Pikemann Urge said...

spinning blades generate a huge (read: lethal) static charge

My chemistry teacher mentioned something about helicopters, but I don't know if he mentioned the blades (all I took away from his story was that helicopters move in air and aren't grounded). Anyway, now I know why the ceiling fans at work are so dusty. Mystery solved!

Because it's made of magnesium alloy, which when burned and then wet (like, say, spraying fire hoses at it) causes a thermal reaction

We did burn magnesium strips in science class, but I did not know it could be that ferocious. I thought only thermite/thermate did that.

Accidents that do happen get a lot of press

The problem with the press is not that they have to selectively report; rather, it's that the readers/audiences don't have the basic knowledge of how to navigate the media minefield. Media studies should be taught in every school.

I'm surprised that people aren't more curious about things in general.

Richard Carrier said...

Magnesium is thermite (or one variety of it; you can make thermite out of a lot of different metals, such as aluminum).

A thermite magnesium fire is just a magnesium fire supplied with an oxidized metallic agent (many metal oxides will do). Metal oxides are regularly found in paint. Like you might put on a ship say. Decks. Walls. Pipes. Ceilings.

Worse, magnesium oxide is then what you get when magnesium burns, and yet magnesium oxide at sufficient temperature itself becomes an oxidizing metallic agent and thus initiates a thermite reaction with many other metals, like, say, iron. Of which ships are made.