30 May 2011

Service, sacrifice, and atheists in foxholes

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, designated for the remembrance of Americans who lost their lives while serving in the military.  I may not always agree with the decision to go to war, but I recognize the fundamental necessity for a free society to maintain a strong, committed military to defend itself and its interests.  Essential to such a military are individual human beings willing to risk life and limb in defense of their society, a sacrifice requiring an extraordinary amount of bravery.

There are atheists in foxholes!

One group within the military that seems underrepresented are the atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists who serve fully aware that no Valhalla awaits them if they are killed in action.  Military service in general takes guts; I personally think it takes a great deal more for godless soldiers to knowingly risk the only life they have to fight for the things they do believe in.

The foxhole atheists don't go entirely without recognition. The Freedom From Religion Foundation put up a monument (pictured) to nontheistic servicemen and servicewomen, and the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers keeps a roster of open atheists in the military.  People like Sgt. Justin Griffith stand up for other nonbelievers in the military amid the heavily religious culture our country perpetuates.  I hope that the atheists in our military continue to gain recognition for their service.

Why don't I join up, then?

Last month, writer and atheist soldier K. Syrah posted a thought-provoking entry on her blog about the hypocrisy of able-bodied people thanking soldiers for their service while being reluctant to serve themselves.  As I think today about what this holiday represents, I can't help but have K's post come back to mind.  What kept (and still keeps) me from serving in the military?

I wasn't deluded by any notion that I'm somehow "too good" for it; I know servicemen/women who were better students than I was in high school.  It wasn't even my opposition to the invasion of Iraq; I still supported the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan and supported the military in general.  Was it simple cowardice?  Is it still cowardice today?

I would like to think that there's more to it than that; perhaps I never felt the military was my calling in life, though I have yet to figure out what my calling is.  Maybe it's not so much my fear of dying on the battlefield that has kept me out, but rather the fear that I'd be out of my element and thus a weak link in the chain.  Maybe I'm making excuses.  I'm still young, and I shouldn't rule out military service while I figure out what I want to do with my life; someone has to do it, after all.

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