The Hounds of Heaven

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

“The special forces guys — they hunt men, basically. We do the same things as Christians, we hunt people for Jesus. We do, we hunt them down. Get the hound of heaven after them, so we get them into the kingdom.”

It’s worse than you think.

Torture, religion, democracy, God. They’re all part of the mixed-up, horrific business that George Bush unleashed in the Middle East and Central Asia, and that Barack Obama is struggling to control and rationalize. As the words above demonstrate, the 12th century is striving mightily to join hands with the 20th in the U.S. military: Unbridled religious arrogance is forging a link with high-tech weaponry and an unlimited defense budget.

The speaker, Lt. Col. Gary Hensley, who is no less than the chief of U.S. military chaplains in Afghanistan, was videotaped last year delivering a sermon at Bagram Air Base. Since Al Jazeera first broadcast the footage at the beginning of the week, it has spread widely on the Internet. Like so much else that the Bush administration has bequeathed us, and the world — pre-emptive war and torture, for instance — this is nothing new, but suddenly it’s overt. I can’t exactly say this is a good thing, but certainly this is where we want it.

A U.S. military spokesman has denied that American soldiers are allowed to try to convert Afghans to Christianity — it violates Central Command’s General Order No. 1 — and said that Hensley was quoted out of context. U.S. military spokesmen, of course, also routinely deny that U.S. bombing raids kill civilians.

And indeed, U.S. airstrikes this week in a densely populated area in western Afghanistan’s Farah Province, during a battle between Afghan soldiers and the Taliban, may have killed as many as 100 civilians, according to the New York Times. The Red Cross, the United Nations and the Afghan government are all expressing shock at the death toll, but our government will only acknowledge that it is “investigating the reports of civilian deaths,” which is the standard, meaningless comment that reporters work into such stories, seemingly with no obligation to follow up. This lets us forget about it and move on.

The possibility that we are — not officially, of course, but in the minds of many American soldiers and officers — waging a religious war that parallels the secular one, an Ann Coulter war, if you will (“We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity,” Coulter wrote on Sept. 12, 2001), is both deeply disturbing and utterly appropriate. The arrogance required for both efforts is so similar, I can understand if the line blurs for many of the participants.

What is the difference, for instance, between believing one can bomb a country into democracy and any sort of armed, uniformed proselytizing? Putting a religious spin on the war on terror may be an official no-no, but when I read about Bargram’s “hounds of heaven” and other recent reports of the growing evangelical Christian influence in the U.S. military (such as Jeff Sharlet’s stunning investigative piece in the May issue of Harper’s, titled “Jesus Killed Mohammed”), I think first of the extraordinary Winter Soldier testimony I attended a year ago in Washington, D.C.

This testimony, sponsored by Iraq Veterans Against the War, and vastly underreported in the media, featured vet after vet giving agonized, conscience-wracked testimony on his or her training and service in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. If one word could describe the overarching theme of the four-day event (I attended two of those days), it might be “dehumanization.”

“When I joined the Army, I was told racism was gone from the military,” said Mike Prysner, who enlisted in June 2001. “After 9/11, we heard words like towel head, camel jockey, sand nigger. These came from up the chain of command. The new word (we used was) hadji. A hadji is someone who takes a pilgrimage to Mecca. We took the best thing from Islam and made it the worst thing.

“Racism is a vital weapon employed by this government,” he said. “It’s more important than the rifle, the bunker buster missile.”

“In our boot camp,” said former Marine Matthew Childers, “we sang cadences about killing people.”

Occupation means implicit disrespect. The testimony went on and on, describing detainee abuse, humiliation and starvation; the terrorizing of families during house raids; the casual brutalities and killings at checkpoints; vandalism and joy-riding around the ruins of Babylon; the shooting of pets to relieve boredom. And this is the context in which we now hear about earnest American Christians harvesting the souls of Muslims.

Let us bow our heads in prayer, America. The worst of who we are is stalking the world with religious fervor.