Bugle and Bell
musings on the soul of war
Saints have no moderation, nor do poets, just exuberance.
by Anne Sexton ["The Saints Come Marching In"]
On a Clear Day,
You Can See What's Right in Front of You
The spiritual reality is the flip-flop of the physical reality.
Put them together, and you have esprit de corps.
A lot of people catch religion while serving in
the military. And it isn't necessarily as a result of the work of
the chaplains – admirable, though, that the work of the
chaplains may be. And it isn't necessarily as a result of a
near-death experience in combat.
Whether you have served in the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Air
Force, or Marines ... you have experienced the military as a
hierarchy. It's a long way from the rank of private to
the rank of general. And, in the hierarchical military, you are
aware that there is always somebody over you. Even the
Army chief-of-staff must answer to the commander-in-chief. And
the commander-in-chief has to answer to the voters.
One would think that your hierarchical military experience would
be transposed, in your inner spiritual life, into a hierarchical
sense of religion. The Deity would be the General Patton to trump
all General Pattons. And you would be the equivalent of the
whining, shell-shocked enlisted man just waiting to be slapped
into line by The Deity.
This is not to imply that everyone in the military
chain-of-command is an autocratic clone. There are as many
styles as there are types of followers to be channeled into a
specific mission. General Omar Bradley, a contemporary of Patton,
was adored by the enlisted men for his down-to-earth leadership
style and his empathy with their fears and their need to rise
above their fears. However, whether the carrot or the
stick is employed by those in positions of leadership,
the military is a hierarchy.
Similarly in Hinduism, one may follow the divine leadership of
Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, or any of a thousand other deities. But
the mission of attaining nirvana remains the same, and the caste
system of rebirths is a hierarchy.
Paradoxically, it doesn't really work out hierarchically
for the military person in his or her relationship with The
Deity. One catches religion in the military not
because of the prestigious aloofness of The Deity but, rather,
because of the intimate, close embrace of The Deity. One does not
cry out to a distant Deity from the vulnerability of the foxhole.
One finds, in the security of the foxhole, a divine
buddy to cover you and to be covered by you. Holy
swagger stick! The Deity is the same rank as you.
Opposites attract. The philosopher Hegel said that everything in
mortal reality has within it the seed of its opposite. Each
perspective, or thesis, has within it its
antithesis. And the procreative wrestling of the thesis
and its antithesis results in a new synthesis. And the
new synthesis becomes a self-standing thesis in
its own right and contains within itself the seed of its
opposite, or antithesis. The new thesis and antithesis
interact (sometimes violently), resulting in a new synthesis, and
so on ad infinitum. If it makes any difference, Hegel
called this theory Dialectical Materialism.
One would be advised to not use the term dialectical
with one's platoon sergeant. One might receive a good, swift kick
in the antithesis.
In any case, the hierarchical nature that one encounters in the
military has within it the seed of its opposite, an
anti-hierarchical nature. This is what enables a
when his company commander, platoon sergeant, and squad leader
have all been killed in a battle – to take the initiative
and seize the day. He metamorphoses from being a cog in a wheel
to being the wheel. And the wheel rolls over the enemy.
Civilian society tends to think of The Deity as a big wheel.
Big. In contrast with us mortals –
little. This is because civilian society is more
egalitarian than the military, and the democratic civilian
society's seed of opposition is totalitarianism. Voila!
– a totalitarian Deity.
However, the military has already had the booster shot of a
non-egalitarian, non-democratic social structure. Thus the seed
formed, in contrast, of a close-up Deity. If you are serving or
have served in the military, you have had a glimpse – a
kind of a negative of a photograph like the Shroud of Turin
– of a Deity who is the opposite of a general or a pope or
a dalai lama. This Deity is immanent. This Deity does not need a
ladder of human and cosmic intermediaries in order to be
approached. The Deity approaches us.
Some civilians consider joining the military in order to be
special – remote, exalted, elite. Military persons, active
and retired, strive to maintain (or to get back) a normalcy and
humanity that they once took for granted. Through one's spouse,
one's veterans organization, or one's organized religion ... one
strives to be close to others.
People in a hierarchy – whether military, secular, or
religious – seek personal references to intercede for them
with the folks higher up the ladder.
Hey, Sergeant, will you let the captain know that we don't
yet have the resources or the human energy which are needed to
attack the hill again right now?
Dear Congressman, will you ask the Department of Justice to
investigate my having been fired from my job for being a
whistle-blower for truth?
Saint Joan of Arc, will you pull on the hem of The Deity and
see if I can obtain the grace to quit smoking?
Others may indeed intercede between us and The Deity. But isn't
it also – and perhaps more so – The Deity who
intercedes between us and others?
Often The Deity is equated with love. To love is to be
vulnerable. To be vulnerable is to be mortal. Or is it?
Perhaps it is not so much a matter of our finding an intercessor
in order that we may approach divine love ... but, rather, a
matter of divine love interceding for us so that we may approach
Is it not the Deity who intercedes for us so that we may each
enter that most inner of inner sanctums – oneself?
This is a Deity who is immediately accessible to the general as
well as to the private. This Deity is so close to each of us
that The Deity must wear a mask in order to prevent our eyes from
being burnt out by a glimpse of pure love.
That mask is mortality. Life. Warts, wrinkles, and all. With its
antithesis: death. The Hindus would call it maya, the world of
the senses. It is mortal life stumbling around in all its
imperfect efforts to love and live and laugh. It is our mortality
and the mortality of others. Mortality is not The Deity. It is
the mask of The Deity. It has been known to be nailed, painfully,
to The Deity.
Another name for the mask might be camouflage. It's like
that stuff that you wear, literally and figuratively, soldier.
Without it, you wouldn't be who you are. And why be anybody else?
Why indeed! Is it not enough to be mortal?
"A mask tells us more than a face."
by Oscar Wilde
contributed by B. Keith Cossey