The Air Force Academy’s extremism is hypocritical

By Joe Katz

Wartime tends to emphasize the extremes in human nature. Battles produce unspeakable barbarity and unimaginable courage. Similarly, the effects of war on society simultaneously highlight what is great and terrible about a combatant nation. Americans have given into appalling lapses of their national values in times of crisis. Case in point: the internment of the Japanese. They have also resolved tensions between American beliefs and practices, as with the ensuing breakdown of Jim Crow after World War II. Our rhetoric of spreading freedom and liberty throughout the world at gunpoint has great propaganda value and gives the sense of a spiritual mission. At the same time, it tends to bring the contradictions of that rhetoric in our system into sharp focus.

We are currently witnessing an example of this phenomenon at the United States Air Force Academy, which is under investigation by a Pentagon task force after 55 complaints of religious discrimination and the publication of a report claiming a climate of anti-Semitism, favoritism for born-again Christians, and evangelical proselytizing at the school by the political action group Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The report cited “use of Bible quotes in official e-mail… and an ad promoting Jesus in the base newspaper, signed by 200 academy leaders” as well as pressure on cadets to attend religious services, professors ordering prayer in classrooms, and harassment of non-Christian cadets. These allegations come on the heels of the incidents in 2003, in which nearly 150 female cadets claimed they had been sexually assaulted over the course of the decade and had received little support and even open hostility from the Academy administration.

Given the restraints on academic discourse imposed by an environment intolerant of minority views, these incidents would be worthy of closer examination at any college campus in America. However, it is particularly disturbing coming out of a federally-governed military service academy, and it is troubling that it has received so little attention. Limits on intellectual debate is a serious problem, but the contradiction between our foreign policy and what we are teaching to those whose lives will be on the line to implement it is a national one. It merits far more discussion by the media and the general population.

We are immersed in a war against terror bred by religious fundamentalism, intolerance and the use of religious tenets as national law. As in the long run it proved untenable for the United States to fight a war against Nazi and Communist “enemies of freedom” while quartering white and black soldiers in segregated barracks, it is unacceptable for our troops to be fighting against evangelical extremism in the Middle East, while it exists in Colorado Springs. It is extremely hypocritical to claim the moral imperative in this great struggle if we ourselves are not acting morally.

Whether the armed services should be used as a barometer of social progress and a tool for social change or not is a fair question, but an immaterial one. Regardless of the answer, the United States military is, in fact, regarded as being reflective of what we stand for as a nation, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. As such, its policies and its climate must match the image of ourselves we wish to portray to our friends and enemies around the world. If we allow a small minority to force extreme religious beliefs on our fighting men and women, it will be seen on a broader scale as allowing religious doctrine to become inseparable from the policies and political dialogue of the state. This can only serve to further the image of the war on terror as a culture clash or holy war between Christianity and Islam. The same logic can be applied to our disgust at the state of women’s rights in several Middle Eastern nations as compared to our own unfeeling treatment of victims of sexual assault.

With these wider questions in the picture, it seems clear that we need to be paying a great deal more attention to what exactly is going on at the United States Air Force Academy. If the academy’s administration, military officers who have sworn oaths to protect and uphold the Constitution, are unwilling to stand up for its tenets, they should not be given the responsibility of fulfilling that oath. Moreover, this will be the second major investigation of the school in three years, a worrisome trend given the stellar record of this institution in the past. If, so soon after the issues with handling sexual assault allegations came to light, the administration is again shown to be propogating an attitude of disrespect towards underrepresented groups of students, it could be indicative of a wider problem within the school that must be dealt with.

The Pentagon task force is scheduled to release a preliminary report on May 23. It would behoove us all to look closely at what they find.