According to a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Putin’s nuclear weapons philosophy may have messianic religious elements, which is a scary thought.
But the US Air Force’s philosophy also did as recently as 2011 and maybe still does.
The USAF, which manages the US military’s ground-launched nuclear missiles and nuclear-capable bombers, has a long history of evangelicalism in its ranks.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with the presence of individual people of any religion in the service. But in this case, evangelical religious messaging permeated all aspects of the organization, and trainees were even bullied into converting, as described in 2005 stories from The New York Times and (quoted here) NPR:
BRADY: During a Protestant church service, Leslie says chaplains urged cadets to proselytize their bunk mates and warned that if they didn’t turn their lives over to Jesus…
Prof. LESLIE: …they would burn in the fires of hell.
In 2011 Truth Out revealed the existence of a mandatory nuclear ethics briefing based on Christian theology that chaplains had been giving to officers working with nuclear missiles for over twenty years. This official USAF training was known as “Jesus Loves Nukes.”
The PowerPoint originally posted along with the article is no longer online but I managed to find a set of black and white scans of varying quality.
The presentation first asks if people of faith can fight in a war, and then argues that they can (don’t worry, not all the slides look this bad).
It gives the examples of:
- Union Brigadier General Joshua Chamberlain, who seems like an all right person from a cursory search
- Continental Army Commander-in-Chief, former President, and notable slaveowner George Washington
- Confederate General and, surprisingly to me, owner of only 1.2% as many slaves as George Washington, “Stonewall” Jackson
And of course:
- Mel Gibson, who is not a soldier and just played one in a movie, and who, while he may not have owned any slaves, subscribes to a faith that includes a healthy helping of antisemitism among other concerning elements.
Now that it has “proven” that war and faith are compatible, the presentation asks, again rhetorically, whether war can be just.
It begins by taking us back a millennium and a half to introduce Augustine and the Visigoths.
Although Augustine did write about how the Sack of Rome shouldn’t be blamed on the Christians on either side of the conflict in his book The City of God (which is also the title of a great but unrelated movie), I wasn’t able to determine the connection between it and his Just War Theory.
The way the presentation summarizes Augustine, for war to be just, it requires:
- Just cause
- Just intent
- Legitimate authority
- A reasonable prospect for success
“A reasonable prospect for success” is fascinating to consider in the context of a nuclear conflict.
Say that one side takes the strategy of “Escalate to De-escalate” (even more euphemistically known in Russia as “De-escalation”). This involves a first strike using smaller “tactical” nuclear weapons, potentially even on an unpopulated area. This situation can, rather than “de-escalating,” still easily spiral out of control into Mutually Assured Destruction, using the ICBMs that the missile officers receiving the presentation were responsible for.
In fact, the US military conducted an extensive war game in 1983 called, in a fun coincidence, Proud Prophet, in which the following took place:
Chief among [the use of actual top-secret U.S. war plans was] the use of limited de-escalatory nuclear strikes. The idea behind these was that once the Soviet leaders saw that the West would go nuclear they would come to their senses and accept a ceasefire … they were supposed to limit a nuclear war.
The Soviet Union team interpreted the nuclear strikes as an attack on their nation, their way of life and their honour. So they responded with an enormous nuclear salvo at the United States.
The United States retaliated in kind. The result was a catastrophe that made all the wars of the past five hundred years pale in comparison. A half-billion human beings were killed in the initial exchanges and at least that many more would have died from radiation and starvation. NATO was gone. So was a good part of Europe, the United States and the Soviet Union. Major parts of the Northern Hemisphere would be uninhabitable for decades.
So there’s that.
Now we get into the explicitly religious portion of the training, with a biblically based section on Christian Just War Theory, starting with references from the Old Testament. It mentions:
- Abraham (who is notable for being willing to kill his son when God asks him to, which seems relevant, moral injury-wise)
As well as:
- David (of vs. Goliath fame)
All of these references are to conflicts portrayed in the Old Testament as struggles against an oppressor, even if the side we’re supposed to be rooting for goes past fighting for freedom or defending territory and into conquering their enemies.
It’s also notable that two chapters after Moses reveals the commandment “You shall not murder” in Deuteronomy 5, he also tells the Israelites it’s God’s will that they slaughter all of the Canaanites, including civilians, which they go ahead and do.
So there’s even a Biblical precedent for the mass murder of civilians if the USAF wanted to use it, illustrating the obvious point that you can pick and choose unconnected sections of the Bible and make them say anything you want them to say.
Next the presentation refers to the Maccabees, who appear between the Old and New Testaments, along with a claim that “there is no pacifistic sentiment in mainstream Jewish history,” which, as a Jew myself, I would argue depends on how you define all of those words.
Judaism isn’t a pacifistic religion per se, but it certainly preaches peace and instructs people to avoid war if it all possible. In recent history, many Jewish people, including well-known figures such as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Allan Ginsberg, Noam Chomsky, Peter Yarrow, and Bob Dylan (who was Jewish at the time) played a prominent role in the US antiwar movement in the 1960s.
The presentation then moves on to the New Testament, with examples from:
Next up we have:
- Revelation (which I will come back to)
Followed by an oddly phrased summary that I will attempt to rewrite here because it’s really bothering me:
War is part of the natural order of things and ethical because it appears in the spiritual order.
Mikey Weinstein, the lawyer and former USAF member behind Military Religious Freedom Foundation, the group that first acquired the slides, refers to the training as “fundamentalist Christian end times Armageddon doctrine,” presumably because of the Revelation reference.
As a side note, Weinstein’s bio proudly includes all the things members of the fundamentalist Christian far right have called him for trying to enforce the separation of religion and state in the military:
Reviled by the radical fundamentalist Christian far-right, Mikey has been given many names by his enemies including “Satan”, “Satan’s lawyer”, “the Antichrist”, “That Godless, Secular Leftist”, “Antagonizer of All Christians”, “Most Dangerous Man in America” and “Field General of the Godless Armies of Satan”.
And as a side note to a side note, I also feel like “Field General of the Godless Armies of Satan,” although it doesn’t rhyme, has King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard band name vibes.
Getting back on track, because the Book of Revelation is what many people think of when they think of the apocalypse (it’s where the Four Horsemen come from), I want to explore the section that the presentation mentions.
The New International Version is the preferred Bible version of evangelicals in the United States, so here is the NIV text of Revelation 19:11–16:
The Heavenly Warrior Defeats the Beast
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:
KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.
There is some debate as to whether the Heavenly Warrior/Faithful and True is in fact Jesus, but lots of people seem to believe it is, including, evidently, the USAF.
Since Revelation culminates in the return of Jesus, the good being rewarded, and the evil being punished, some evangelicals see any evidence of its events taking place, from occurrences that are good to some and bad to others—like Donald Trump’s administration recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel—to objectively awful ones like pandemics, disasters, and wars, as a wonderful and holy thing.
As Diana Butler Bass writes about some American evangelicals, prompted by Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as the capital in 2017:
They’ve been waiting for this, praying for this. They want war in the Middle East. The Battle of Armageddon, at which time Jesus Christ will return to the Earth and vanquish all God’s enemies. For certain evangelicals, this is the climax of history.
And Trump is taking them there. To the promised judgment, to their sure victory. The righteous will be ushered to heaven; the reprobate will be banished to hellfire. People believe this. Really believe this. Have given their lives to these ideas, sing about them in their churches, evangelize others, teach them in Sunday schools.
Again, I should say that not all evangelicals have the beliefs that Diana Butler Bass describes in her thread, and even for those that do, if they don’t proselytize or act (or intend to act) on them in a way that impacts anyone else, it shouldn’t be a problem, even if they work with nuclear missiles.
But it is notable that chaplains conducted Christianity-based training on nuclear ethics with materials that referenced Revelation, in an organization influenced by a Christian religious movement where some believers look forward to, and in some cases want to hasten, the end of the world, to people who, under certain circumstances, actually could:
Now, to be fair, former officers who attended the briefing didn’t mention the chaplains referring to Armageddon, let alone making any inference that nuclear war could be desirable — just that it was ethical.
The Truth Out article quotes one officer who went through the program in 2006:
The intent of quoting Bible passages was to make officers feel ‘comfortable’ about launching nuclear weapons and signing a legal document stating they had ‘no moral qualms’ about ‘turning the key’.
Another officer who attended in 2001 remembered that the chaplain who led the presentation told them:
The Catholic Church and their leadership say it’s okay in their eyes to launch nukes.
That said, over the couple of years before Truth Out published the presentation in 2011, several major Catholic and evangelical groups actually staked out new public positions that were explicitly against nuclear weapons.
Anyway, from the fact that the two officers didn’t mention any End of Days talk in their interviews — and it would have been so notable they surely would have—it seems likely that the presentation just used the line from Revelation to argue that even Jesus would fight in an ethical war.
I feel compelled to mention, though, that a few lines later, in Revelation 19:19–20, Jesus/The Heavenly Warrior/Faithful and True actually tortures two prisoners of war by throwing the Beast and the False Prophet into the “fiery lake of burning sulfur” to burn for eternity:
But the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed the signs on its behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur.
It’s also unclear if the rest of the enemy soldiers are killed in battle or whether they have also been captured along with the Beast and the False Prophet at the point at which they are killed, because the next line, Revelation 19:21, is:
The rest were killed with the sword coming out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh.
But either way, now we’re on to the final section of the presentation, which appropriately is titled “The Weighty Position of the Nuclear Officer.”
I guess it’s good that they recognize, at this late point in the presentation, that fighting a battle when your side has a bunch of slingshots and fighting one when your branch of the military alone has 400 Minuteman III ICBMs, each of which is at least 23 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, are not quite the same.
Speaking of Hiroshima:
Following the picture of the mushroom cloud, there is an amazing “However…” slide. Dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and killing 70–135,000 civilians was okay because:
Or in other words:
- The US was already killing tons of civilians, so it was okay to kill more.
- US soldiers were dying each day, so it was okay to kill 77–150x more civilians.
- Japan would have done it to the US first, and war crimes are ethical if the other side wants to commit them too.
At this point we get to some class participation. What would warrant a nuclear launch that kills thousands of civilians?
There is also a reminder that the ICBMs this group was responsible for are just one leg of the “nuclear triad,” along with Air Force bombers and Navy nuclear missile submarines. I didn’t know that ICBMs would be launched after the other two and have been unable to find out more about that.
Next up, though, more big questions. Do we have the will to launch? Will we always if there are wider cultural changes? And would we be morally safer if we worked in another field? (I’m going to go with yes.)
Finally the presentation ends with a real banger: a quotation from Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun on the importance of trusting nuclear weapons to people who are guided by the Bible.
After the presentation was made public in 2011, the USAF cancelled the course and stopped teaching nuclear ethics at all. I saw that as of a year later they hadn’t restarted and I haven’t been able to determine anything further about it.
But I did see another USAF evangelicalism scandal come up again in 2018.
To close us off with a song, here’s Nigerian musician William Onyeabor with his 1978 groove “Atomic Bomb.”
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