Coded biblical inscriptions have been found on the telescopic sights of rifles used by soldiers from several nations, including Canada, who are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. The company that supplied the inscribed weapons initially defended its actions unapologetically, and the response by the American military spokespersons has been under whelming. The inscriptions, placed where they are, represent a betrayal of the Christian scriptures and their central message of peace and reconciliation, although some obviously see this activity as admirable and patriotic. The incident and responses to it raise deeply troubling questions about elements of the American military.
A group called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which seeks to preserve the separation of church and state in the U.S., blew the whistle to ABC News in mid-January, saying it had received a complaint from a U.S. Army infantryman. The gun sights allow soldiers using them to shoot at people with greater accuracy in the dark or in dim light. The inscriptions are in the form of raised lettering and numerals added to the serial numbers along the sights. One of the inscriptions reads: “JN8:12”, a reference to a passage in John where Jesus says, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” A second inscription reads “2COR4:6” and refers to St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. The passage refers to God’s “[giving] us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
A Michigan-based company called Trijicon, which has a $660 million contract with the U.S. Marine Corps, supplies the rifle sights. Trijicon, when first asked about it,defended its actions saying that, “as part of our faith and our belief in service to our country, Trijicon has put scripture references on our products for more than two decades.” The practice began under its founder, Glyn Bindon, a devout Christian from South Africa, who was killed in a 2003 plane crash. His son, Steven Bindon, is now president of the company and well connected to the leadership of the religious right in the United States. Trijicon states on its website: “We believe that American is great when its people are good. This goodness has been based on biblical standards throughout our history and we will strive to follow those morals.”
Initially, U.S. military officials also defended the use of the inscriptions, saying that they did not violate a constitutional ban on religious proselytizing by American troops. Officials said that the military would not stop using the telescopic sights. On January 20, an Air Force spokesperson named Major John Redfield compared the inscriptions to the use of Biblical language on the U.S. currency. “Are we going to stop using money because the bills have “In God We Trust” on them?” he asked. “As long as the sights meet the combat needs of troops, they’ll continue to be used.”
Barrage of criticism
That position changed within a few days after a barrage of criticism from a variety of groups, including the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and the Muslim Public Affairs Council. They said the implied message is that American soldiers are fighting a holy war against Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq, even though American politicians, including President Obama, have said this is not the case. A second, and perhaps predominant concern among soldiers is that publicity surrounding the inscriptions could put them at added risk if ever they are captured in battle. The defence departments and military officials in New Zealand, Australia and Britain, responded cautiously, saying that they had not known their soldiers were being provided with weapons bearing the biblical inscriptions. Within a few days of the controversy erupting, however, those organizations and the even U.S. military had decided that the inscriptions were not acceptable. By January 22, military spokespersons were saying that they did not approve of them and wanted them removed. Trijicon then announced that it would provide “modification kits” at its own expense for that purpose. Owner Stephen Bindon was now describing his company’s action as “both prudent and appropriate.”
A Canadian military spokesperson admits that Ottawa-based Joint Task Force 2 and a special operations unit from nearby Petawawa use the Trijicon rifle sights in Afghanistan, but Major Don MacNair cites national security reasons in refusing to say how many of the sights are employed. The activities of the joint task force are shrouded in secrecy, but the unit often works behind enemy lines and its members are trained to kill with cold efficiency. MacNair told the Ottawa Citizen that the inscriptions are inappropriate and should be removed.
The most disturbing question here is whether these military inscriptions represent a rogue act by a company owned by a right wing Christian businessman, or whether they represent an attitude and practice that is pervasive in the military and therefore more sinister. There has been significant reportage on the religious influence in the American military. Jeff Sharlet, writing in Harper’s magazine (May 2009) reported on a “subtle civil war” that is occurring for the “soul of the military.” He reports on a “small but powerful movement of Christian soldiers concentrated in the officers corps” who are trying to turn the military into a “righteous Christian army”. These officers bully recruits and ordinary soldiers to become involved in mandatory assemblies and prayer groups (open only to Christians), and they appear as speakers on the prayer breakfast circuit and on religious media owned by fundamentalists.
“What men such as these have fomented,” Sharlett writes, “is a quiet coup within the armed forces: not of generals encroaching upon civilian rule but of religious authority replacing the military’s once staunchly secular code … they see themselves not as subversives but as spiritual warriors –‘ambassadors for Christ in uniform,’ according to the Officers’ Christian Fellowship.” Sharlett also writes about how the chaplaincy in the U.S. military, which was once apportioned strictly according to the country’s religious demographic, has come to be dominated by graduates from fundamentalist bible colleges.
Every person in the U.S. military, Sharlet writes, swears an oath to defend the Constitution. But for fundamentalist officers and chaplains, “the Constitution is itself a blueprint for a Christian nation.” These officers and chaplains see the campaign in Afghanistan and Iraq as holy wars, exemplified by an example Sharlet discovered of soldiers in Iraq travelling through neighbourhoods with a bullhorn shouting, “Jesus killed Mohammed” – and shooting people who objected. This faction within the military also sees enemies everywhere at home, and believes it must “wage spiritual warfare against their countrymen” – those “post moderns” who believe in diversity and egalitarianism. Sharlet believes this religious intrusion into the American military is so deeply rooted that President Obama has chosen a hands off policy in exchange for “evangelical peace.”
In 2006, President George Bush began to use the term Islamo-fascism, which neo-conservative pundits Washington had been employing for some time to describe America’s enemies in the Middle East. It was an imprecise description that linked an entire world religion with an extremist political ideology — and moderate Muslims were offended. They might now ask in return if Christo-fascism is emerging within the American military.