Not long ago, a group of 66 members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, urging him to issue guidance to counter an “alarming pattern of attacks on faith” in the U.S. Air Force. This was a reaction to U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz’s recent actions removing Latin references to God in unit patches, nixing Biblically-based ethical arguments used in missile training, removing Bibles from Air Force inns and barring commanders from informing airmen about programs available through base chapels. General Schwartz seems to have been responding to complaints from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a religious watchdog group. After finding Biblical references in a course on ethics taught to airmen preparing them for assignments to missile silos, the group sent the information to Truth-out.org, which posted it on their website.
Historically, references to God have been common in in the Air Force. Robert Lee Scott, Jr.’s account of flying in the China-Burma Theater during World War II, “God Is My Co-pilot,” included a foreword by Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault, chief of the Flying Tigers. The concluding line of “High Flight,” a poem by pilot-poet Gillespie Magee, killed in action three days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, concludes, “I’ve trod the high un-trespassed sanctity of space, put out my hand and touched the face of God.” Such references, along with references to flying “on a wing and a prayer,” have long been integral Air Force culture. The chapel at Offutt Air Force Base, formerly the Headquarters of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), includes an airman standing in front of a nuclear mushroom cloud.
Two years into my Air Force career, I returned from my first assignment as an intelligence officer in Southeast Asia completely disillusioned. During my tour as a briefing officer charged with keeping the major general in charge of air operations in Laos informed on intelligence matters, I routinely briefed items related to the unauthorized “protective reaction” strikes conducted against targets in North Vietnam’s southern panhandle, the secret bombing of Laos, and worse, I forwarded on a litany of lies wrapped around inflated figures on supposed results of bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail. So much for “We will not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate among us those who do.”
My next assignment was as a nuclear targeting officer at SAC’s 544th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, where I served on a team charged with targeting Soviet and East European defensive fighter bases. We routinely targeted one to three nuclear warheads on selective bases to pave “corridors” through which B-52 bombers could safely pass to obliterate military-industrial targets from Moscow to Sverdlovsk, Vorkuta to Volgograd. We wrote the script for Armageddon.
Although I didn’t go to church much, my strict Calvinist upbringing ingrained in me a faith that understood this isn’t the way the world ends. I knew a God bigger than SAC and the Soviet strategic forces combined. Furthermore, planning the deaths of millions was abstract. We planned to kill bases, not people.
From 1979 to 1981, I taught history at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where cadets looked forward to a future when they could fly and fight. Their innocent bravado bespoke “killing” MiGs, tanks, trucks, missile sites and “crispy-crittering” enemy troops. The basic world military history course required of all freshmen dwelt on the nature and efficacy of killing. Students read Michael Shaara’s Civil War novel “Killer Angels” and the post-Great War classic by Erich Remarque, “All Quiet on the Western Front.” The point was that all wars are quintessentially human endeavors. It’s impossible to kill inanimate objects like MiGs, tanks, trucks and missile sites. But we do kill people. To make “crispy crittering” easier, we noted, we dehumanize the enemy with terms like “Japs,” “Dinks,” “Gomers,” “Krauts,” “Huns,” “Injuns,” “Rebs” and “Yanks.” We noted the Nazis refereed to the genocide of Jews as “evacuation” and the murder of the mentally and physically handicapped, homosexuals, and other “inferiors” as “medical re-socialization.”
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche noted that with God out of the equation, almost anything becomes possible. Godlessness elevates human ideas, all of which are flawed, some so bad as to result in German fascism and Soviet communism. A generation later, the Star Wars trilogy issued from the universal “Force” of advanced technology.
Air power is intrinsically awesome, involving—as it does—death from above, out of the blue. Its technological handmaiden flows from humanity’s greatest intellectual accomplishments. When absent God, human advancement—whether ideological, political, philosophical or technological—reflects our intrinsic nature, which is evil. Better we fly with a wing and a prayer.
Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where he is writing a history of the University of Alabama in the 1960s.