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The Cancer From Within

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The Cancer From Within

By David Antoon

“I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. ...” —Oath of Office

“Our mission is to educate, train, and inspire men and women to become officers of character motivated to lead the United States Air Force in service to our nation.” —Air Force Academy mission statement

“We will not lie, steal, or cheat. ...” —Air Force Academy honor code

“Military professionals must remember that religious choice is a matter of individual conscience. Professionals, and especially commanders, must not take it upon themselves to change or coercively influence the religious views of subordinates.” —Religious Toleration (Air Force Code of Ethics, 1997)

Forty-two years ago, at the age of 18, I took the oath of office on my first day as an Air Force Academy cadet. The mission of the academy was not only to train future leaders for the Air Force but for America as well, because, in the end, most academy graduates do not serve full military careers. The honor code became an integral part of everyday life. These are the values that I, and most graduates of the 1960s and early ’70s, took with us from our four years at the academy.

I, as did many graduates, underwent pilot training followed by tours of duty in Vietnam. Like military men and women of today, we did our best to become technically competent and professional leaders. Never, during my four years at the academy and subsequent pilot and combat training, was the word warrior used; nor, whether as a cadet or officer, did I ever encounter “Christian supremacist” rhetoric.

In April of 2004, my son, after receiving a coveted appointment to the United States Air Force Academy, asked me to accompany him to the orientation for new appointees. This 24-hour visceral event changed my life forever, and crushed my son’s lifelong dream of following in my footsteps.

The orientation began with a one-hour “warrior” rant to appointees and parents by the commandant of cadets, Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida. The fact that the word warrior had replaced leadership was a signal of what was to follow. I later learned that cadets, to determine when a new record was established, had created a game in which warrior was counted in each speech Weida gave.

My son and I then made our way to the modernist aluminum chapel, where I expected to hear a welcome from one or two Air Force chaplains offering counsel, support and an open-door policy for any spiritual or pastoral needs of these future cadets. In 1966, the academy had six gray-haired chaplains: three mainline Protestants, two priests and one rabbi. Any cadet, regardless of religious affiliation, was welcome to see any one of these chaplains, who were reminiscent of Father Francis Mulcahy of “MASH” fame.

Instead, my son’s orientation became an opportunity for the academy to aggressively proselytize this next crop of cadets. Maj. Warren Watties led a group of 10 young, exclusively evangelical chaplains who stood shoulder to shoulder. He proudly stated that half of the cadets attended Bible studies on Monday nights in the dormitories and he hoped to increase this number from those in his audience who were about to join their ranks. This “invitation” was followed with hallelujahs and amens by the evangelical clergy. I later learned from Air Force Academy chaplain MeLinda Morton, a Lutheran who was forced to observe from the choir loft, that no priest, rabbi or mainline Protestant had been permitted to participate.

I no longer recognize the Air Force Academy as the institution I attended almost four decades earlier. At that point, I had no idea how invasive this extreme evangelical “cancer” had become throughout the entire military, that what I had witnessed was far from an isolated case of a few religious zealots.

In order to better understand this shift to a religious ideology at this once secular institution, I called the Academy Association of Graduates (AOG). Its response: “We don’t get involved in policy.” What I didn’t know was that the AOG, like the academy, had affiliations with James Dobson’s and Ted Haggard’s powerful mega-churches. When Dobson’s Focus on the Family “campus” was completed, the academy skydiving team, with great ceremony, delivered the “keys of heaven” to Dobson. During some alumni reunions, the AOG arranged bus tours of Focus on the Family facilities in nearby Colorado Springs, Colo. I also learned that the same Monday night Bible studies discussed at orientation were taught by bused-in members of these evangelical mega-churches and that some spouses of senior academy staff members were employed by these same religious institutions. It seemed that my beloved United States Air Force Academy had morphed into the Rocky Mountain Bible College.

The academy chaplain staff had grown 300 percent while the cadet population had decreased by 25 percent: from six mainline chaplains to 18 chaplains, the additional 12 all evangelical. The academy even gained 25 reserve chaplains, also nonexistent in earlier times, for a total of 43 chaplains for about 4,000 cadets, or one chaplain for every 100 cadets.

In the following weeks, a uniformed Army Maj. Gen. William Boykin began sharing his Christian supremacist views from church pulpits around the country, declaring that he was “God’s Warrior” and that “America is a Christian nation.” He demeaned the entire Muslim world by stating that his God was bigger than a Muslim warlord’s god and that the Muslim’s god “was an idol.” He received little more than a token slap on the wrist. At the time, Joseph Schmitz, then the Department of Defense inspector general (Schmitz is currently the chief operating officer of Blackwater International), found that Boykin had committed no ethics violations.

Days later, the May 10 edition of The New Yorker featured the Abu Ghraib torture article by Seymour Hersh, who more than three decades earlier had brought us the story of My Lai.

As a late critic of the Vietnam War, in which I lost many high school and academy classmates, I was skeptical and critical of the drum beat for war orchestrated by the Bush administration. When then-Secretary of State Colin Powell again sold his soul in front of the United Nations and the world, the die was cast. I say again because as a major on his second tour in Vietnam, Powell whitewashed reports of the My Lai massacre and attempted to discredit and silence those few, most notably Ron Ridenhour, who had the courage to get the story into Hersh’s hands.

These were some of my thoughts on the day my son had to decide whether or not to accept his appointment to the Air Force Academy. It was a time in my life when fatherhood and truth were confronted with faux nationalism. With tremendous courage and sadness my son declined his appointment and ended his dream—and my dream for him—to attend the Air Force Academy. Though deeply saddened, we were not sorry.

In what would have been my son’s academy summer encampment, chaplain Watties “suggested” that cadets return to their tents and tell their tent mates they would “burn in hell” if they did not receive Jesus as their savior. At the same time, the academy commandant, Weida, made a habit of including biblical passages in official e-mails and correspondence to subordinates and cadets. He had developed a secret “chant and response” with the cadets: When he yelled “Airpower,” the evangelical cadets in the know would respond “Rock, sir” in reference to the Bible story that Jesus built his house upon a rock.

Coincidentally, at this time and at the invitation of the academy, the Yale Divinity School was observing the pastoral care program for sexual assault victims at the academy. Under the leadership of professor Kristen Leslie, the Yale team issued a stunning report on the divisive and strident evangelical pressures by leadership and staff at the academy.

The response from academy leaders was telling. They at first denied the reports of Watties’ “hell-fire” threats. Under media pressure, they later claimed the violations were committed by a visiting reserve chaplain, when in fact they were by the recent Air Force Chaplain of the Year himself: Watties. In an interview after receiving his Chaplain of the Year award, Watties boasted of baptizing young soldiers in Saddam Hussein’s swimming pool. It is difficult to think of more inflammatory and Crusader-like behavior in an Arab nation.

In response to the Yale report, the academy demanded that chaplain Morton denounce the report she had co-signed. When she refused, she was transferred to East Asia, ultimately resigning from the Air Force in protest. Morton was the only officer who put her oath of office “to support and defend the Constitution” above careerism.

Then-DoD Inspector General Schmitz, noted for his Christian supremacist rhetoric in the book “Blackwater,” sent a team led by evangelical “born again” Lt. Gen. Roger Brady to investigate the academy. Schmitz had recently found no ethics violations in the actions of Gen. Boykin and allowed Boykin’s promotion to senior military officer in charge of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and “extraordinary rendition.” The “Brady Report” found the academy only to have an “insensitivity” problem. Air Force Academy graduate Brig. Gen. Johnny Weida, “silenced” and removed from the major general promotion list, was secretly promoted with back pay the following year at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.

Following the release of the “Brady Report,” West Point graduate and Secretary of the Air Force Mike Wynne, ignoring the existing code of ethics, issued another “code of ethics” that allowed evangelical proselytizing. A month later, in an effort to appease the religious right, Wynne issued an even softer “code of ethics.” Amazingly, Wynne’s document is in complete violation of the code of ethics issued in 1997 by Secretary of the Air Force Sheila Widnall prohibiting proselytizing by commanders and other officers.

The pre-existing Air Force code of ethics in The Little Blue Book states: “Military professionals must remember that religious choice is a matter of individual conscience. Professionals, and especially commanders, must not take it upon themselves to change or coercively influence the religious views of subordinates.”

Here are just a few violations of that principle over the last three years: Academy football coach Fisher DeBerry hung a banner in the team locker room reading: “Competitor’s Creed: I am a Christian first and last. ... I am a member of Team Jesus Christ.” Baseball coach Mike Hutcheon, recruited from evangelical Christian Bethel College, forced players to lead team prayer during practice. When asked about locker room prayer in March 2007, Lt. Gen. John Regni, the academy superintendent, responded “we have chaplains that are attached to each of the teams and they are very important in that area.” In a July 12, 2005 interview with the New York Times, Brig. Gen. Cecil Richardson, Air Force deputy chief of chaplains, stated, “...we reserve the right to evangelize the unchurched.” For over a decade, the official academy newspaper ran ads stating: “We believe that Jesus Christ is the only real hope for the World. If you would like to discuss Jesus, feel free to contact one of us! There is salvation in no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” The ads were signed by 16 department heads, nine permanent professors, both the incoming and outgoing deans of faculty, the athletic director and more than 200 academy senior officers and their spouses.

Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, in just a few short years has received complaints from more than 6,000 service members and discovered church-state violations at the academies, at military installations in Iraq and around the world, and even within the inner corridors of the Pentagon.

In 2005, when Weinstein filed suit against the Air Force for constitutional violations of church-state separation, the house of representatives, with little public notice, passed a chilling bill that undermines enforcement of the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. The Public Expression of Religion Act, H.R. 2679, provides that attorneys who successfully challenge government actions that violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment shall not be entitled to recover attorney’s fees. According to The Washington Post, the purpose of this bill is to prevent suits challenging unconstitutional government actions advancing religion.

In December 2006, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation brought media focus to the Christian Embassy Evangelical Organization and its now famous video, which clearly showed the egregious ethics and constitutional violations of several flag officers and the breadth of the problem. Air Force Academy graduate Maj. Gen. Jack Catton, who suggested in the film that his religious beliefs trump country and his oath to the Constitution, was cited last year for sending e-mails to military subordinates and contractors advocating they vote for a particular candidate for Congress, arguing that there are “not enough Christians in Congress.” West Point graduate and Army Brig. Gen. Robert Caslen, who was filmed stating “We are the aroma of Jesus Christ here in the Pentagon,” is now commandant of cadets at West Point. West Point graduate Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, another Christian Embassy star, was the “voice” and “face” of the press conferences at Qatar. His office is famous for the creation of the “Rambo” Jessica Lynch fabrications and the manipulation of the killing of Pat Tillman into a recruiting and media event. West Point graduate and evangelical Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, involved in the investigation of Tillman’s death, stated publicly that Pat Tillman’s family was not at peace with his death because they are atheists who believe their son is now “worm dirt.” Air Force Academy graduate Maj. Gen. Peter Sutton, assigned as the senior U.S. military officer in Turkey at the time the Military Religious Freedom Foundation brought the Christian Embassy into media focus, was questioned by Turkish officials about his membership in a radical evangelical cult.

Many are aware of the mercenary army, Blackwater USA, led by Eric Prince, former Ambassador Cofer Black and Joseph Schmitz, the same Joseph Schmitz mentioned above. It is here where the ties become complex and suggestive of an even grander “crusade.”

As described by Jeremy Scahill in his book “Blackwater,” Prince, who attended the U.S. Naval Academy, comes from a wealthy theo-con family, is a “neo-crusader,” and a Christian supremacist. He has been given billions of dollars in federal contracts to create a private army. COO Schmitz, another Naval Academy graduate, is a member of the Order of Malta, a Christian supremacist organization dating back to the Crusades, and happens to be married to the sister of Jeb Bush’s wife, Columba. And Cofer Black, former coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department and former director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, who was quoted by the BBC as saying “Capture Bin Laden, kill him and bring his head back in a box on dry ice,” brings his own skill set to the Blackwater team as vice chairman.

The Christian supremacist fascism first reported at the Air Force Academy is endemic throughout the military. From the top down, there has been a complete repudiation of constitutional values and time-honored codes of ethics and honor codes in favor of religious ideology. And we now have a revolving door between Blackwater USA, which is Bush’s Praetorian Guard, and the U.S. military at every level. The citizen-soldier military dictated by our founding fathers has been replaced with professional and mercenary right-wing Christian crusaders in control of the world’s most powerful military. The risks to our democratic form of government cannot be overstated.

This evangelical Christian supremacist fascism within our military and government is a cancer. Officers, especially commanders, who violate the original code of ethics, must be rooted out of the military. The undermining of the Constitution, especially by senior military officers, must end.

As I look back at my 30 years as an active-duty officer, two combat tours in Vietnam, decorations including air medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross, I realize that not once was my service in support or defense of the Constitution. For the very first time, I am upholding my oath of office.

Originally posted at truthdig.


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