Ethics & Religion

The faithless in foxholes

There is an old saying – there are no atheists in foxholes. In reality, modern soldiers are unlikely to be in a foxhole. But, if they were, they would be far more likely to be uttering obscenities or blasphemies than praying.

Yet, as Rationale has detailed in a series of articles, religion is imposed on Australian military life through official support for military chaplains and religion. 

Indeed, we have a Governor-General, General David Hurley, who personifies that connection and was almost certainly selected by then Prime Minister Scott Morrison because of his combination of both a military and religious background.

When Scott Morrison announced his decision to appoint David Hurley as Governor-General, he said Hurley was his “first and only choice”.

“He takes on those Australian values as someone who is able to bring people together looking eye-to-eye, face-to-face, understanding people’s challenges and issues, one-on-one in a very direct and humble way.”

What Morrison didn’t mention was that Hurley, like Morrison himself, has views which are shared by less than 50 per cent of the Australian public. In Morrison’s case, a fringe prosperity happy-clappy sect; in Hurley’s, the Presbyterian Church – a church which was one of the third of the Presbyterians who opted out of joining the United Church in 1977. 

Sadly, opting out of churches is not that easy for serving military personnel, as it is assumed everyone in the military thinks like Hurley and Morrison. 

Serving military personnel are confronted by regular church parades, visits from chaplains, and a host of situations where God and religion are mentioned.

When I was a conscript more than 50 years ago, one of the first things that happened – after being run around and issued gear – was an appointment with an Army chaplain of the new recruits’ religion. 

When I told the non-commissioned officer (NCO) organising the recruits that I didn’t have a religion, he was flabbergasted – actually, a few other ‘f’ words were used, as well as references to my character and parentage. Clearly, he didn’t know what to do with me. 

When I was a conscript more than 50 years ago, one of the first things that happened … was an appointment with an Army chaplain of the new recruits’ religion. 

He then proceeded to interrogate me about any possible religious affiliations. 

After a bit of this interrogation I told him my grandmother was Jewish, so he sent me off to see a rabbi who also didn’t have a very long queue. I didn’t mention that while my grandmother was Jewish my mother wasn’t, so I wouldn’t qualify. But even on your first day in the Army, you quickly recognise that answering back is a very bad idea.

The rabbi was a wise and considerate man, and we had a very nice chat. He pointed out to me that not having any religion in the Army was a problem. For example, if you didn’t go to church, the likelihood of being on latrine duty was significantly increased.

Moreover, if you didn’t cop latrine duties, the NCOs would find other things for you to do, such as standing on the parade ground in the sun or running up and down hills. 

After a while he smiled at me and said to me, “Why don’t you say you’re an Anglican, as that won’t require any special observances?” The subtext was obvious and unspoken.

So for my tour of duty I became an Anglican. I didn’t get to avoid church parades but saw some nice buildings with no happy-clappy, incense or similar stuff, and I heard some reasonable choral singing. 

After I graduated as an Artillery Officer and was based at Holsworthy Barracks, there was even less religious observance beyond infrequent church parades. These were optional, although normally an officer went with the other ranks to the services.

My only real religious issue arose at the Canungra jungle training centre, where we were sent pre-embarkation for Vietnam. When one of the gunners from our unit announced he was a conscientious objector and wouldn’t go to Vietnam, I supported him. But it was quickly taken out of my hands, and I never learned his ultimate fate.

The strange thing was that, in Vietnam, there was not much religious stuff at all – unless blaspheming counts. I vaguely remember religious services when we were back at Nui Dat base in between operations, but there was no compulsion about them and most gunners had other priorities in the welcome breaks from operations.

This was all back in the late 1960s when religious commitment was more common than today, but it is difficult to imagine an increase in religious observance in today’s Army. Although it must still be there, as evidenced by the number of former officers who are also Christians and who manage to get pre-selected as candidates by the Liberal Party.

But, in my military service, my abiding memory of religion is about my last operation in Vietnam. I was in charge of a small advance party choppered into a rubber plantation north of Nui Dat. We dug pits and carefully established our exact position so that the guns could commence operations immediately after they arrived the next day.

It was a long night and all of us – perhaps because it was our last operation – were uneasy. Shortly after dawn the next morning we saw a vehicle coming towards us. We were on the alert until it got very close. 

We relaxed when we discovered it was being driven by a solitary Salvation Army officer who had heard we were out there and wanted to give us some hot drinks and food.

Since then, I have been donating to the Salvos every year. But I still don’t pray or think the military personnel need religious instruction to make them better soldiers.

There is also, by the way, a plethora of quotes about atheists and foxholes. Kurt Vonnegut, whose books include such great anti-war novels as Slaughterhouse-Five, was captured at the Battle of the Bulge and taken to Dresden where he witnessed the fire-bombing. He came up with one very memorable quote: “People say there are no atheists in foxholes. A lot of people think that’s a good argument against atheism. Personally, I think it’s a much better argument against foxholes.”

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Photo by Bryan Campbell


About Noel Turnbull

Noel Turnbull retired after more than 50 years experience in journalism, communications strategy and issues management. He worked as a Parliamentary Press Secretary and communications head of Victoria’s Environment Protection Authority before establishing his own public relations consultancy.

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