Friday, February 3, 2012

dog-tag religion

In the army I served in for three years, every soldier had two "dog tags" he was required to wear around his neck. One tag was to be gathered up by survivors when he was dead. The other was to be jammed between his front teeth so that those collecting the bodies could identify whose body it was.

Dog tags announced name, serial number, blood type and religion imprinted on the metal.

Dog tag format
Standing in line during basic training, I remember taking my turn before a young fellow with pimples who was collecting information for the dog tags I would wear. I gave him my name, serial number, and blood type. He looked bored, which, given the length of the line behind me, I could sympathize with. When he asked for my religion, I did my military best: "Not applicable," I said. He looked up sharply, an expression of something between horror and doubt on his face. "Hunh?!" he said incredulously. I repeated what I had said. I could see the words sinking in and he looked utterly confused and somewhat sorrowful. "C'mon, man," he said with a southern drawl, "you gotta be something!" No, I said. I wasn't anything. And after he surrendered to the notion that I was serious, he grew agitated. I had to be something. His life's presumptions would not allow for "nothing." Even his worst nightmare religion would be better than no religion at all.

In the brief sparring match that ensued, I could see that my views pained him in some way. I was the cause for his discomfort. I really didn't want to upset him in this somehow deep way. Finally, I relented and said, "OK, put down Unitarian." His face relaxed and grew suspicious simultaneously. "What's that?" he asked as if I had made it up. I said something to assure him that Unitarians were not just some flight of fancy. At last he surrendered and he asked, "How do you spell it?"

And so I became a dog-tag Unitarian.

Several weeks later, as basic training progressed with its marching, saluting, bed-making, shooting, calisthenics, and all the rest, the platoon fell out and formed up and we were informed that everyone was going to religious training. Catholics would go in one pod. Jews in another. Protestants in a third. When I didn't raise my hand for any of those, the platoon sergeant got on my case. "I'm a Unitarian," I said and I showed him my dog tags. He wanted to pretend he knew what that was, but the bald fact was, he didn't. What he did know was that everyone had to go for religious training. I almost escaped, but not quite. After a little discussion, he decided that I was more or less a Protestant, so that's the group I would form up with. Orders are orders and I was ordered to be religious.

Today, I read that there is an atheist movement afoot at Fort Bragg, N.C. Atheists get no respect ... or at least within organizations that wave the God-flag-country banner around. Atheists can debate and complain and whine in the same ways that any minority group might. At Fort Bragg, it seems to be gaining some traction ... albeit an uphill battle. But today, as so long ago, I wonder who it is who gives a shit what anyone believes as long as they can shoot straight.

You must believe what the group believes in order to be a member of the group. But what's wrong with the wider group? We're all human beings engaged in the same task more or less ... isn't that enough? And the answer is no, it is not always enough for those whose stricken and bellicose faces require "you gotta be(lieve) something!"

These days, I am no longer so sympathetic or malleable as I was in basic training. You wanna be a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Buddhist, atheist or NASCAR driver? Go ahead. Just don't expect me to join in the hoorah. I'm on the lookout for straight shooters.


  1. Lately I am thinking that apathy is the new religion on the rise. And I think it is worse than all that came before it.

  2. Jordan -- Occupy Wall Street is apathetic? But in another sense, I agree: In economic hard times, there is less energy for imagination, enthusiasm and kindness.

  3. Adam, I was really thinking about my own microcosm. But since you brought it up… The way I see it; Occupy movement is the result of apathy. And its roots might go back to beginning less time and not be worth examining. What might be important is what is going on now.

    Have we had any quantifiable results form that movement? Have the hated 1% decided that its time to give back? Has the wealth distribution changed? Has the Government passed any laws to halt corporate corruption? Have the recipients of the bailouts and stimulus packages given back to the people and any meaningful way?

    I think not much is happening with the occupy movement other than a lot of smoke. There might be a fire there, and without more fuel it is going to starve itself out. But the problem with fuel is it can be volatile. Governments don't like volatile.

  4. Nope ... not much has happened and yet, in a slower sense, quite a lot has happened. The issue of wealth inequality is on the front burner. People have been arrested. True, it may not be much, but if you look at the history of, for example, the union movement in the U.S., nothing happened overnight. Or consider the years of effort in Norway and Sweden (posted by Fred some posts back)... How Swedes and Norwegians Broke the Power of the ‘1 Percent’‘1-percent’ Or the Civil Rights movement in the U.S.

    First, as you say, the apathy. Then the recognition of apathy's fallout. Then the action to realign what was badly aligned. None of it ever quick. None of it ever perfect. None of it ever neat.