Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Let there be light, so that I can kill you with it

Tonight's big story is that Trijicon, a U.S. defense contractor, has been stamping letter and number sequences that refer to Bible verses on the ACOG sights they've been supplying to the U.S. military for years.
The inscriptions are subtle and appear in raised lettering at the end of the stock number. Trijicon's rifle sights use tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, to create light and help shooters hit what they're aiming for.

Markings on the Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight, which is standard issue to U.S. special operations forces, include "JN8:12," a reference to John 8:12: "Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, 'I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life,'" according to the King James version of the Bible.

The Trijicon Reflex sight is stamped with 2COR4:6, a reference to part of the second letter of Paul to the Corinthians: "For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ," the King James version reads.

Photos posted on a Defense Department Web site show Iraqi forces training with rifles equipped with the inscribed sights.

The Defense Department is a major customer of Trijicon's. In 2009 alone, the Marine Corps signed deals worth $66 million for the company's products. Trijicon's scopes and optical devices for guns range in cost from a few hundred dollars to $13,000, according to the company's Web site.
Look, I understand the concern here: we don't want it to look like there's any kind of crusading Christian message associated with our operations in Muslim lands. I absolutely agree with that. But seriously, is this something that's worth getting all that worked up about? I'm no Jesus jammer -- hell, I'm precisely the opposite! -- but I just can't spend a whole lot of energy worrying about this. Is an Arabic or Pashto speaker going to worry that "JN8:12" means that the dirty infidel is coming to conquer his lands and convert his people? (If he's been watching Ann Coulter, he's already worried.)

And here's the thing that no one seems to be mentioning: the two inscriptions that are mentioned in the Post article refer to verses dealing with illumination, which is what a tritium night sight is meant to provide! Maybe I'm a little too unserious, but these verses almost strike me as a bit of a joke: may God and this piece of highly sophisticated machinery shine the light on my enemy so that I may smite him!


  1. Gulliver, you raise a couple of good basic points, but this needs to be taken in context. Click through the link, and you'll see that this is just one in a long list of similar sillies. Put in context, concern over this should be equally divided between what perceptions it will lend itself to, and the reality that drives such "minor" expressions of religious sentiment. At the end of the day, what do Americans want their military to be and how do they want it to be viewed - as a safeguard against tyranny of any kind, or as a vehicle for the expression of narrow militant militant ideology? Image is king, after all...

  2. Mike -- I feel you here, and I think you're doing good work on the page you linked. (I'm linking it here again so people don't miss it in your name.) I'm right there with you that the close relationship between our expeditionary military and evangelical Christianity is a worrying phenomenon and something that certainly needs to cease. And obviously I'd prefer that there were no Biblical references on government-issued kit, coded or otherwise. I just don't think there's much reason to cause a big uproar over this specific instance. The DoD should have a quiet word with Trijicon, say "hey, cut this crap out or we'll stop buying from you," and let that be the end of it.

    More generally, a big reason that a lot of the stuff you've cited is allowed to happen in the U.S. military is that it's filled with evangelical Christians at all levels. Actually, what's probably more important is that (in my admittedly limited experience) there's a sort of culture of concurrence with all of that which tends to confuse the real numbers -- that is, there tends to be a whole big group of dudes who just go along to get along and figure pretending like they're big churchy types is just part of the deal.

    This issue is always going to be a contentious one for Americans for the simple reason that religion is contentious here in a way that isn't true in almost any other western nation. A good chunk of the populace believes and practices in ways that would just seem totally outside-the-mainstream to most Europeans.

    All of which is sort of drifting a little bit off course here. My original point was to say "I completely understand and agree with what you're saying, but..."

  3. When I first read this, I thought "that was a pretty dumb move by Trijicon." When I read that many in the military were aware of it, I thought, "that's pretty dumb that they didn't do anything about it." When I read one of the lawyers' statements alleging that this is a first amendment issue, I was reminded why people hate lawyers.

  4. @Schedlap - LMAO, but doesn't this (and related instances) suggest the need for some sort of legal intervention?

    Taking the argument a step further, and in partial response to Gulliver's reply, I'll lob this one into the room:

    Should the US officially secularize it's military forces?

  5. Sorry, that should have been Schmedlap, not Shedlap. :)

  6. Should the US officially secularize it's military forces?

    Mike, what does this mean, exactly?

  7. Sorry, that was vague and loaded all at the same time, wasn't it?

    What had crossed my mind was the Turkish military's historic role as the guarantor of a secular Turkish state. What I meant in relation to the US was something along these lines:

    The US military is undoubtedly "officially" secular, in that it has all the required policies and paperwork in place to prevent it from becoming otherwise and to penalize members for acting in contravention of said paperwork. And yet some/many continue to engage in such activity, and in such a way as to raise concerns over uniformed representation intermingled with religious/faith-based initiatives (at various levels). Clearly there's an ethic at work, at least within parts of the military, that dictates career outcomes, ie. a demonstrable commitment to church/faith being a required part of the formula. How to change that? Alter the military's culture such that evangelical - or any other political/ideological beliefs - aren't given the room they need to exercise influence over military conduct.

    I don't feel like I'm expressing this clearly, but bear with me. Maybe what I'm suggesting's been done ad nauseam, and the problems come down to the individual characters/personalities of those in a position to decide. Dunno.

  8. Others like Gunslinger and Schmedlap are more suited to speak to this than I am, but I would absolutely disagree with the contention that "there's an ethic at work... that dictates career outcomes, ie. a demonstrable commitment to church/faith being a required part of the formula." I think you could say this about U.S. national politics, but it's certainly not true of the military's officer corps. I'd also disagree that evangelicals "have room to exercise influence over military conduct" (unless they get elected); most of the instances you cite of religious taint are examples of some nut-bar individual thinking it was a good idea to make some expression of pseudo-religious sentiment and a whole bunch of other people not really caring enough to speak out or stop it.

    I'd say that the military has a culture that tolerates and even embraces expressions of religiosity (at least evangelical Christian religiosity), but does not require or endorse or reward such expressions.

    Opinions from the guys with time in?

  9. Gulliver, I agree on your last comment. The influence and activity of envangelicals and "fundamentalists" are grossly overexaggerated. Anti-western ideologues in the Islamic world wish to paint us as Crusaders. Some people in this country obsessed with secularizing society like to portray our military as full of Crusader wannabes. If those two factions ever met one another, they wouldn't get along. But on this issue, they have some common objectives that complement one another surprisingly well.

    Mike - regarding any need for lawyers - no. No need for lawyers. This seems like fairly straightforward problem with a straightfoward solution. Tell the manufacturer to cut the crap because the defect is substantive and material to the purpose that the optic is used for. Okay maybe some lawyer might need to draft the letter. But to raise this as a first amendment issue? Beyond stupid.

  10. Mike,
    Turkey's military is a direct descendant of early-20th-century ideals of a nation state. Ataturk, a military hero, was trying to make a Modern, European, State out of the Ottoman Empire. There's a lot of goofy stuff out there about "Reaching west from a ship sailing East" all, but the military was the protector of Turkishness from the Ottomanness of the Caliphate.

    The US Military is a direct descendant of Puritans and Gentlemen Farmers. The American nationalist ideal is very, very, different than the Turkish one. I think that taking the Christianity out of USMil is about as easy as taking "Protector of the Hejaz" out of the Saudi kingdom's claim.

  11. @AJK, with regard to our note that Turkey and the US are different: yes, I know. Thank you for your comment.

    I disagree somewhat on the emphasis being Turkishness vs. secular. The comparison is between Turkish (ethnic) and Muslim (religious) identity, with secularism being an antidote to the latter, bridge between the three and a Westphalian compass. Identity politics, by definition, conflates a lot of this, and while Turkey might more recently be leaning away slightly from some of its post-Ottoman secularism, that doesn't change where its post-Ottoman military stood on the issue.

    -I'd also suggest that it's been a while since the Mayflower landed. Some things have changed since then, including the military, its demographic(s), and the state that it's meant to serve.

    @Schmedlap and Gulliver: I'm going to push back a little on this. Agreed that where we've thus far of this is likely a reflection of American life and politics more generally, and it's probably safe to say that the jury is out on this being a systemic problem (or a problem of some systems within the system) within the military. But we've all been witness to conditions set by specific COs that often include steering both work and play culture/ethic - at the office, in the trench, on the sports field, and at the Sunday BBQ. When that includes an expectation - be it explicit or implicit - that a characteristic of "performers" is that they be church-goers, and everyone feels they have to go along with that in order to advance, then that has an impact on career outcomes.

    Nothing earth shattering about that suggestion. Maybe it's nothing more complicated than straightforward bureaucratic sycophancy. But when it ties it to specific religious belief and practice - then it crosses the line. When it's top-down, and done by someone of big enough rank - say, someone with multiple stars on his/her shoulders, like Boykin - the problem has high potential to be amplified in its effects. When it's done by even a limited number of staff responsible for educating and training future generations, it's amplified again.

    The question isn't about "over secularizing" things, I don't think, though I'm not clear what's meant by "over" secularizing, vs. something that's simply more civic than religious in official life. 'Nother topic for debate, maybe. I was also suggesting something more basic: response to discriminatory practices and enforcement of military codes and standards. That would be credible grounds for legal, I would think: when enough serious complaints and cases get filed that are about this very issue. My impression, as an outsider whose military time was in the service of another country's forces - is that that's what might be missing (per your own comments to that effect).


  12. Agree that Boykin should be kicked in the nuts. Boykin is hardly representative of the Officer corps in any branch, of leaders in general, or of anything other than a dumbass promoted far beyond what his judgment merits.

    I never even opened a Bible or set foot into a church until I left the Army and I never felt the least bit of pressure or encouragement to do so. If anything, I found the organizational culture of every unit I was in to discourage anything other than heavy drinking (so long as you don't drive), whoring (so long as you don't get HIV), and turning every conversation into some kind of sexual innuendo (so long as it's not during the prevention of sexual harassment briefing).

  13. @Schmedlap: LMFAO. Point to you. :)

  14. While I think that Schmedlap is correct at the operational level, I think that's only part of the story. From my observations, Mike is more right than wrong at higher levels. It's not so much that non-Protestant Christians aren't promoted, it's that many high ranking Protestant Christian generals choose people like them for choice assignments that lead to faster promotion rates. I guess it essentially has the same effect in the end.

    Part of it seems to be purely socialization. If you go to church with someone and get to know them, the higher-ranking individual feels they can trust the lower-ranking one and gives them these jobs. I don't think I've ever seen an officer derail another officer's career because he wasn't a Christian, but promoting other officers because they are seemed fairly prevalent.

    What always struck me as odd, however, was the Catholic community in the Army. It's HUGE. But it has a tendency to be less social and either as a result, or some other reason, doesn't usually engage in these types of practices.

    I'm not sure what the solution here is or how you "secularize" the military. While there certainly are atheists in foxholes, it's hard to separate God from a profession that deals in life and death.

  15. @Mike: I was trying to get more at WHY they're different.

    It's no longer 1776, yeah, but the military's founding goals still carry it. USMil still very much uses "City on a Hill" imagery Winthrop would love. This concept of being the light upon the darker nations. Military life in the US assumes a Christian Nation in the US.

    That's my theory, I suppose, and there's plenty of evidence for and against. I'm pretty sure I'm in the same frame mind as you, actually, when arguing this.

  16. @AJK - fair points. You raise a good one about getting Tyler Brule involved in national rebranding, too. Well put. ;)