How reckless is too reckless?

Forget for a moment that this is an outgoing United States Secretary of Defense with whom I have many disagreements:

Aboard the Pentagon jet on his last foreign trip as secretary of defense, Robert Gates takes a moment to peer across the American horizon—and the view is dire: the U.S. is in danger of losing its supremacy on the global stage, he says.

“I’ve spent my entire adult life with the United States as a superpower, and one that had no compunction about spending what it took to sustain that position,” he tells NEWSWEEK, seated in a windowless conference room aboard the Boeing E-4B. “It didn’t have to look over its shoulder because our economy was so strong. This is a different time.”

A pause.

“To tell you the truth, that’s one of the many reasons it’s time for me to retire, because frankly I can’t imagine being part of a nation, part of a government … that’s being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world.”[1]

Hold in the back of your mind, if you will, the dissonance that Gates says he feels about the diminishing prospects for U.S. dominance. For the moment, consider instead the evangelicals who have amassed a considerable following within the U.S. military, notably but far from exclusively in the Air Force Academy—an institution that trains officers—where there have been numerous reports of forced religious indoctrination.[2] Consider, for example, the Army’s Lieutenant General William G. “Jerry” Boykin, whom George W. Bush appointed as deputy undersecretary of Defense for intelligence. Boykin undiplomatically called the U.S. a Christian nation, cast Bush’s wars as conflicts between Judeo-Christianity and Satan; said his (Boykin’s) god was “bigger than” a Muslim warlord’s god; and attributed Bush’s presidency to God’s intervention.[3] Consider as well the rifle sights used for 30 years by U.S. troops that had discreet biblical references such as “JN8:12” and “2COR4:6” appended to the stock numbers; Air Force spokesman Major John Redfield considered these as innocuous as “the situation with U.S. currency,” inscribed with “In God We Trust.”[4]

My point here is not whether proselytizing is desirable or diplomatic, but rather that evangelism is endemic within the military, so much a part of the environment that it and its influence go largely unchallenged and any preponderance of its adherents goes largely unnoticed; that in such surroundings, a militaristic world view that anyway diminishes nuance in favor of good vs. evil and “us” vs. “them” binaries acquires a spiritual dimension and an already rigid military hierarchy is infused with righteousness. Now consider that 65 percent “of evangelical leaders believe that Jesus Christ will return to earth and then reign with his followers for 1,000 years.”[5] Prominent and of particular military relevance among these premillenialists are futurist premillennialists, following a school of thought that Donald Wagner attributes to “John Nelson Darby (1800-82), a renegade Anglican priest from Ireland.”[6]

According to Darby, Christians must interpret history in light of seven epochs or “dispensations,” each of which reflects a particular manner in which God deals with humanity. For example, we currently live under the dispensation of “Grace,” whereby people are judged according to their personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This hermeneutical method is called dispensationalism.

According to the dispensational model, a time of turmoil lies ahead, but believers will be “raptured” away before it begins. This period of tribulation will culminate in the final battle at Armageddon, a valley northwest of Jerusalem. As evangelical historian Timothy Weber points out, for premillennialists “the historical process is a never-ending battle between good and evil, whose course God has already conceded to the Devil. . . . History’s only hope lies in its own destruction.”

Through Darby’s influence, premillennial dispensationalism became a dominant method of biblical interpretation and influenced a generation of evangelical leaders, including Dwight L. Moody. Perhaps the most influential instrument of dispensational thinking was the Scofield Bible (1909) which included a commentary that interpreted prophetic texts according to a premillennial hermeneutic. Another early Darby disciple, William E. Blackstone, brought dispensationalism to millions of Americans through his best seller Jesus Is Coming (1882). Blackstone organized the first Zionist lobbying effort in the U.S. in 1891 when he enlisted J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Charles B. Scribner and other financiers to underwrite a massive newspaper campaign requesting President Benjamin Harrison to support the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.[7]

For premillennial dispensationalists, the “blood and treasure” that Obama noted as a cost of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict[8] is only a tiny part of our species’ annihilation and well worth the cost:

The establishment of Israel in 1948 gave dispensationalism new momentum. The restoration of a Jewish nation was taken as a sign that the clock of biblical prophecy was ticking and we were rapidly approaching the final events leading to the return of Jesus. During the cold war, dispensationalists readily interpreted the Soviet Union and its allies as the Antichrist. Passages such as Ezekiel 38-39 were read as predictions of an impending Soviet attack on Israel. A ten-member confederation–often interpreted as the European Union–was expected to join the Soviet Union in this attack.

When Israel captured Jerusalem in the 1967 war; dispensationalists were certain that the end was near. L. Nelson Bell, Billy Graham’s father-in-law and editor of Christianity Today, wrote in July 1967: “That for the first time in more than 2,000 years Jerusalem is now completely in the hands of the Jews gives the student of the Bible a thrill and a renewed faith in the accuracy and validity of the Bible.”[9]

If some of this seems incongruous, remember that we are considering the unhinged, people—apparently including now-retired Gen. Boykin—who think our destruction is part of a sequence of events in which Jesus returns. Wagner connects their influence to Jimmy Carter’s defeat in 1980, an enhanced Israeli influence in U.S. politics, and the rise of the evangelical right.

[Ronald] Reagan himself was a committed Christian Zionist. His support for Israel derived from both strategic political concerns and a vague dispensationalist perspective. He told Tom Dine, AIPAC’s executive director; “I turn back to your ancient prophets in the Old Testament and the signs foretelling Armageddon, and I find myself wondering if we’re the generation that is going to see that come about.” The remark was published by the Jerusalem Post and widely distributed by the Associated Press.[10]

“I SWEAR I believe Armageddon is near,” Ronald Reagan confided to his diary on June 7, 1981. He had just learned that the Israelis had bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak.[11]

My concern about the portion of these people—up and down the chain of command—who have access to nuclear weapons in the U.S. military is what they will interpret as signifying Armageddon, and whether they will choose to activate these weapons. In particular, I wonder about the Strategic (Air) Command, in significant part an Air Force operation, which is responsible for intercontinental ballistic (nuclear) missiles and for nuclear-capable bombers,[12] some of whose officers presumably come from the same Air Force Academy that has attracted attention for allegedly being under control of evangelical Protestants.[13] And I question whether against a background of endemic evangelism, screening procedures for sensitive positions can effectively discern between the stable and unstable. In March, I observed:

The Pentagon’s quadrennial defense review notes that

climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.[14]

That the United States Department of Defense views this as a military problem raises the possibility that war, potentially involving a significant portion of the world’s population may be a consequence. As a matter of sheer numbers, comparing world population to U.S. population, it becomes quite conceivable that the U.S. may perceive an existential threat that might lead to the unleashing of nuclear weapons. The U.S. arsenal is reportedly capable of annihilating all life on earth several times over. Even if political leadership refrains from unleashing these weapons, there appear to be significant elements in the military with a predisposition to view such a scenario in apocalyptic biblical terms[15] and who may attempt to respond accordingly.[16] [17]

Since that time, it has become increasingly evident that U.S. military power is not merely as Gates sees it, “being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world” for fiscal reasons,[18] but suffering from an obsessive, corrupt, and reactionary foreign policy; fiscal and military overreach; imperial hubris; and the combined effects of six astonishingly ill-conceived wars,[19] some of which have required repeated long-term deployments that have produced what some have called a “broken force,” with high crime and drug abuse rates among uniformed personnel.[20]

“We can’t use these people up, have them develop a problem and then throw them away and not take care of them. There is no way. I can’t be part of an organization like that,” [Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff of the Army] said. “Part of the reason they’re having the problem is the situation we put them into.”[21]

Gates is surely not alone among people in the Defense Department—whether military or civilian—who “spent [their] entire adult [lives] with the United States as a superpower.”[22] Anyone born in the U.S. since World War II grew up with hegemony and some, born since the collapse of the Soviet Union, have lived their entire lives with the U.S. as the “sole remaining superpower.” It must be hard for many of these people, who unquestioningly recited the Pledge of Allegiance every day when they were growing up, whose education not only did not prepare them for but actively suppressed an alternative, less virtuous view of U.S. power—in which the U.S. is not a shining beacon upon a hill, but rather a heavily-armed horde of dictatorship-supporting capitalists bent on world domination.[23] I am worried about already unhinged premillennial dispensationalists in the U.S. military with access to nuclear weapons, further unhinged by the dissonance first of what Gates sees as an unimaginable decline of U.S. power and second of an ascendant international view that is much less sympathetic to the oligarchical values that U.S. dominance sustained in the name of so-called “capitalist democracy.”

Our elite have been reckless in allowing our military adventures to appear as a new crusade against Islam, in promoting a dichotomous good vs. evil world view aligned with “us” vs. “them,” in allowing evangelical Protestants to become so influential in U.S. politics, in allowing significant segments of our military to come under the domination of extremist evangelical Protestants, in pushing soldiers past the breaking point, in neglecting climate change, and as I have previously warned:

While neoconservatives should not be confused with isolationist capitalist libertarians, who in turn should not be confused with social conservatives (of, for example, an evangelical Protestant variety), it appears that self-described conservatives themselves are often not so clear on these distinctions.[24] It would be unreasonable to expect that some of the most aggressive Tea Partiers—13 percent of whom think violence against the current U.S. government is justified[25]—are not in the military; some in the military and in some police departments call themselves “Oath Keepers” and they include “birthers” and “truthers” and capitalist libertarians.[26] It simply would not take that much to impel them to action.

What all this means is that under certain circumstances, a right wing militia uprising might find support from elements in the U.S. military and in local police departments. It might draw upon nuclear-equipped units. If enough soldiers’ families sense what Hacker and Pierson have to say about government transferring wealth from the poor to the rich,[27] support for this uprising might spread like wildfire among the troops. It might find support elsewhere. But any assumption that any such rebellion could be immediately put down by forces loyal to the government should be more carefully considered.[28]

I increasingly fear I have not yet even begun to count the ways in which our elite are recklessly endangering not just the United States, but the entire world. And yet we allow them to remain in power.

  1. [1]John Barry and Tara McKelvey, “The Defense Rests,” Newsweek, June 19, 2011,
  2. [2]Matthew Harwood, “Share No Dominion: The Lonely, Dangerous Fight Against Christian Supremacists Inside the Armed Forces,” Truthout, July 11, 2010,; Bryant Jordan, “AFA Religious Survey Called ‘Flawed’,”, October 30, 2010,; Mike Ludwig, “‘Underground’ Group of Cadets Say Air Force Academy Controlled by Evangelicals,” Truthout, September 30, 2010,; Nadia Prupis, “Family Escalates Fight Against Air Force Academy for Allowing On-Campus Proselytizing,” Truthout, December 22, 2010,
  3. [3]Richard T. Cooper, “General Casts War in Religious Terms,” Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2003,
  4. [4]Associated Press, “Rifles used by U.S. troops include Bible verse inscriptions,” January 20, 2010,
  5. [5]Audrey Barrick, “Poll: What Evangelical Leaders Believe about the End Times,” Christian Post, March 9, 2011,
  6. [6]Donald Wagner, “Evangelicals and Israel: Theological Roots of a Political Alliance” [online version],, Ted Brock and Winnie Brock, eds., November 4, 1998,
  7. [7]Wagner, “Evangelicals and Israel: Theological Roots of a Political Alliance.”
  8. [8]Barack Obama, “Press Conference by the President at the Nuclear Security Summit,” White House, October 11, 2010,
  9. [9]Wagner, “Evangelicals and Israel: Theological Roots of a Political Alliance”
  10. [10]Wagner, “Evangelicals and Israel: Theological Roots of a Political Alliance”
  11. [11]James Bennet, “Nuclear Options,” Atlantic, September 2010,
  12. [12]Michael C. Sirak, “The Nuclear Force Revival,” Air Force Magazine, February 5, 2009,; United States Strategic Command, “Service Components,” November 2010,
  13. [13]Ludwig, “‘Underground’ Group of Cadets Say Air Force Academy Controlled by Evangelicals.”
  14. [14]U.S. Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review, February 2010, p. 85,
  15. [15]Matthew Harwood, “Share No Dominion: The Lonely, Dangerous Fight Against Christian Supremacists Inside the Armed Forces,” Truthout, July 11, 2010,; Bryant Jordan, “AFA Religious Survey Called ‘Flawed’,”, October 30, 2010,; Mike Ludwig, “‘Underground’ Group of Cadets Say Air Force Academy Controlled by Evangelicals,” Truthout, September 30, 2010,; Nadia Prupis, “Family Escalates Fight Against Air Force Academy for Allowing On-Campus Proselytizing,” Truthout, December 22, 2010,
  16. [16]This is supposed to be extraordinarily difficult. “Permissive action links” should prevent the accidental or unauthorized detonation of nuclear weapons. If the descriptions of their designs I have seen are accurate, bypassing the current generation of these links should require the dismantling and reassembly of the weapons involved with replacement electronic components. I am not qualified to say whether or not this is feasible; however having worked in information technology, I can say that competent security specialists routinely assume that any security design is somehow fallible and that vulnerabilities are discoverable.
  17. [17]David Benfell, “When will time be up?”,
  18. [18]Barry and McKelvey, “The Defense Rests.”
  19. [19]Juan Cole, “The Corruption Game,” TomDispatch, January 25, 2011,,_american_policy_on_the_brink/; Frank Donatelli, “Libya demonstrates U.S overreach,” Politico, March 21, 2011,; Tom Engelhardt, “Tomgram: William Astore, American Militarism Is Not A Fairy Tale,” TomDispatch, June 14, 2011,; Aziz Huq, “Use It or Lose It?” TomDispatch, October 16, 2008,
  20. [20]Nancy A. Youssef, “As Iraq winds down, U.S. Army confronts a broken force,” McClatchy Newspapers, September 17, 2010,
  21. [21]Youssef, “As Iraq winds down, U.S. Army confronts a broken force.”
  22. [22]Barry and McKelvey, “The Defense Rests.”
  23. [23]Donaldo Macedo, Literacies of Power: What Americans are not allowed to know, expanded edition (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2006).
  24. [24]Lee Drutman, “America Not as Politically Conservative as You Think,” Miller-McCune, January 14, 2011,
  25. [25]kos, “13 percent of Tea Partiers are dangerous extremists,” Daily Kos, January 17, 2011,
  26. [26]Alan Maimon, “Oath Keepers pledges to prevent dictatorship in United States,” Las Vegas Review-Journal, October 18, 2009,; Justine Sharrock, “Oath Keepers and the Age of Treason,” Mother Jones, March/April 2010,
  27. [27] Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010).
  28. [28]David Benfell, “Playing with nuclear fire,”, January 17, 2011,

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