Faith in Action – Episode 9

Luke Hoare – Faith in the Military


Sargeant: Hello, I’m Richard Sargeant, and this is Faith in Action, a podcast about how faith affects how we live and work today. It’s said that there are no atheists in foxholes, but while everyone wants God on their side in battle, there’s always been an uneasy relationship between earthly force and divine direction. With me to explore the role of faith in the military is Major Luke Hoare of the Army Air Corps, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Luke, there’s a rich history of connection between faith and the military, from medals with crosses on them, to hymns like “Onward, Christian Soldiers”, to priests accompanying troops into battle from the Old Testament onwards. Is faith still relevant in the military, or is it a relic of the past?

Hoare: I think it’s very relevant, and soldiers certainly feel it to be relevant. I think there’s two angles I would look at this. The first is that, as you correctly identified, every single modern professional army has a relationship with religion. I think that’s because of the immediacy of your job means that you are more likely to experience the extremes of life where you also meet religion: births, deaths, funerals, so on and so forth, and those rituals of that which helps as a coping strategy. But I think there’s probably more to it than that. I was thinking this morning, the first person to recognize Jesus [after he had died] was a centurion at the foot of the cross. He said, “Behold, this is the king of the Jews,” and soldiering and religion have a pretty healthy relationship with each other. There’s nothing irreligious or, indeed, immoral about being a soldier, and the best soldiers I know are the most moral. They have a set of values, and a lot of our values come from a rich Christian tradition.

Sargeant: You mentioned Jesus and the centurion, but the Gospels seem to present an ethic of suffering service and non-retaliation…

Hoare: I think it was probably easier to be an Old Testament soldier than a New Testament soldier, and soldiering was certainly present in the Old Testament, and celebrated. I accept that turning the other cheek and forgiving people as opposed to starting conflict with them is more the New Testament message. Faith can be used to bad ends. The German Army in the Second World War had “Gott mit uns” on their belt buckles. They thought God was with them. I remember some of the Americans in Iraq having their aircraft blessed, which I must admit I was uncomfortable with the idea of because they are weapons of war, and I remember seeing a very good book by Hugh McManus called “The Face of Battle,” I think, and he describes American chaplains in Vietnam blessing artillery pieces, and I find that very countercultural. I did not like that at all. I see no particular difference between that and an Imam forcing a suicide bomber to go and do something awful. I do not feel that faith should be exploited. I have not seen any examples of it in the British Army, but I do accept that faith can be used as a tool for evil as well as for good.

Sargeant: And in a society that, perhaps, is becoming less religious, certainly less familiar with the Christian tradition than previous generations, do you see that mirrored in the army?

Hoare: I think more people in the army are comfortable to identify themselves as being Christians, and Jews, and Muslims, and a rich Hindu tradition, so on, so forth, probably because you might need this stuff in a hurry. So, therefore, you think about it, and you self-determine. I know many good atheist soldiers, but I know far more Christians inside the army than I do outside of it, and I think that is divergent slightly to society, and it’s definitely divergent to public life where it is seen as very uncomfortable to talk about religion, especially in public service, which is odd in that we have an established church. But I think soldiering is a little bit different. It has limitless liability, including laying down life and taking life, two very alien concepts to our generation. I think because we have this unlimited liability and the extremes of our service are more pronounced, you must ask a bit more help from religion than most people would do.

Sargeant: Luke, military chaplains or padres have been a part of the army since the First World War. Is their role secure with an increasingly secular society that might seep into the military?

Hoare: Very much so, and you could make a case that, with the increasing secularization of society in general and potentially the military, their role becomes more important as totem poles of faith. Military padres are essential to the heartbeat of a family, battalion, a regiment, a squadron, and they become a confidante for all ranks from private soldiers to generals. General Dannett was very open about his Christian faith, and he was very content to explain to people that he would ask padres for advice. You only realize the true utility of padres when things go very badly wrong. We had a clerk shot at the front gate of Lashkar Gah on what was effectively his last day in theater, and he had gone onto sentry duty to let a friend make a phone call and was shot and killed by an Afghan soldier, for reasons unknown. And it was quite shocking. And I remember going back to the area he worked. There were two of his friends, one of whom ha d taken the guy’s space on sentry duty, were very upset. I noticed that the brigade padre was in there helping the soldiers with his hands literally on them, praying with them and just helping them. And these are rough soldiers, and they were leaning very heavily on a man of faith to help them get through a very, very difficult situation.

Sargeant: Do you think that, because of the training and the experiences in the military, people have a different sort of faith to civilians?

Hoare: Yes. I think religion’s more real in the military. You mentioned there being very few atheists in the foxholes. I think Patton said that. There aren’t more Christians the closer you go to the front line. I think latent Christians become active Christians: the acuity, the shock. People are more confident to talk about it – living extreme experiences. I remember seeing a very, very moving video, and I think it was the Royal Irish [regiment] in Afghanistan. One of the soldiers is being killed. The padre could not to get to them. And these soldiers – used to taking life and having life taken around them — conducted a formalized church service in the field – theres a pamphlet for it – it’s fantastic. The army thinks of most things. And these men — no officer presence, mostly senior NCOs, mostly soldiers, you know, tough men — conducted a church service because they felt it the right thing to do.

Sargeant: Where does your faith come from?

Hoare: At least half of it is my family. I’m Roman Catholic, which, in the military, is not abnormal. There are many Catholics in the British Army. No one knows quite why, but there are. I had not a particularly religious upbringing, but I attended church, and I kept a bit of that alive within me for a long time because it was a relationship I felt important. I pray most days. When things are getting worse, I pray more often.

Sargeant: Is that the main way that faith has affected your work, or have you seen it spill over into other other aspects of life?

Hoare: Yes. As I’ve matured in the army — promoted, taken on a greater responsibility — and experienced more as human being, I’m a lot more comfortable with my faith. And I’m more comfortable using it, and I’m probably better at knowing when to use it. So, for example, there’s a truism: the standard you accept is the standard you walk past. Now, quite often, when people are behaving badly, I would have been more junior and would have walked past it. Now, I’m happy not to. Part of that’s maturity. Part of it’s actually faith, thinking, I’ve got the moral confidence here to intervene when people are behaving badly. That’s a negative example.

On a positive example, I’m happy to use personal examples of faith to help people. I flew casualty evacuation helicopters in Iraq. Did four tours doing that, near on a year spent doing it, picking up wounded and sometimes dead soldiers, and I was late twenties, a bit older than the average doing it. I’d been in operations before in the Balkans and Northern Ireland and was a bit happier dealing with some of the…the practical situations of flying a helicopter are relatively simple — you can either do it or you can’t — but dealing with picking up wounded, dying, and dead people is something different, and you can’t train for that. You can train to recognize some of the side-effects, but you can’t train for it. And there was a number of occasions. One sticks with me: an American chinook [helicopter] had crashed. It killed six or seven people — seven, I think. And we went out to go and retrieve the bodies from it. They were Americans, but they’re still very much colleagues of ours, and there’s something about seeing a helicopter, the aftereffects of a helicopter crash as a helicopter pilot. It’s deeply personal. It very, very much affected us, and we sat and watched people extract the bodies from the aircraft, bring them onto the aircraft, and it was very upsetting for people involved — in some ways, more upsetting than taking on a wounded soldier who had been shot or blown up because these are…we recognized these people as fellow pilots. And I could sense the crew, over the intercom, were upset, probably very angry, and were suffering, and I spoke, only for a few minutes, about how, at moments like this, it was okay to ask God to remember you, to stay in his light. This is the time to ask for help, and it’s acceptable to ask for help and to be aware that this is an extreme human experience. And, afterwards, once the bodies were taken off, we said a few prayers in the back of the aircraft. Now, that happened many times afterwards. It was the first time it happened. Some of the roughest people were the first to say thank you because they found it so difficult to deal with, and they were…they would call themselves latent Christians. They found it difficult to deal with, and then, suddenly, an aperture opened of a way of dealing with this human experience using the medium of religion, and they were entirely comfortable doing so.

Another example: my wife and I went to Afghanistan together, and we stayed in Lashkar Gah which is a kilometer-square base with roughly 1,000 people in it. Not much room for privacy, and we were both very busy. I had a busy staff job in headquarters, and Joanne was the camp adjutant in charge of discipline and welfare and everything else. We would have coffee once a day if we had time. We would nod at each other, and we had been in an established relationship for roughly a year beforehand. So, it was a comfort to have her there, and on a Sunday, there’d be a Christian service in tent in Lashkar Gah, and about 20 of us would attend, some of whom had some of the hardest jobs in the headquarters making very finely balanced decisions, literally life or death decisions, on a daily basis, and they were clearly using faith to help them get through this human experience. And Joanne and I would sit at the back, right in  this little tent, and we would sit next to each other, and for about ten minutes on a Sunday, we were not just a pair of Army officers, and we used faith to help us maintain and build a personal relationship in very difficult circumstances.

We live in a largely secular world, and religion, and speaking about religion, and talking about faith is becoming out of the ordinary. I think it’s a terrible shame, but there it is. But in other large tracts of the world, faith is very important, and it’s public, and it defines you. You are Shia or Sunni. You know, the entire continent of North America takes their faith quite seriously, big chunks of the Middle East, most of Africa. India’s defined by faith more than ethnicity, in many ways. It is difficult to understand people in the Middle East, not just the macro-political problems but individual people, without understanding faith, and it’s…you know, if you don’t have an understanding of what faith means to people — you don’t have to be religious to do this — but if you don’t have the understanding, then you will find it more difficult to come to an accommodation and speak with people, and communicate properly. Faith’s enormously important to big chunks of the world, parts of the world that the army goes to and interacts with people an awful lot. And if you understand faith, it makes your interaction far easier and far more satisfying for all concerned.

There’s a guy called Imam Ali who’s the Armed Forces Imam. He deals — I think there is a couple of thousand Muslim congregation in the army, of his, and he is fascinating for a whole variety of reasons. Firstly, he’s doing a very brave thing, and he has utter moral courage — and probably physical courage — but definitely has moral courage to say what he wants to say, and he has conducted services in Iraq and Afghanistan. A very, very brave man. The second reason he’s fascinating is that he is very happy to put across what he calls a pan muslim perspective, and say, look, you can’t say this; that would be offensive; don’t do that, and he does hold us to account. It’s fantastic: good governance, good accountability. And he’s unafraid to be unpopular when required. Actually, he’s a fascinating man, enormously brave, very learned, a true Islamic scholar, and a deeply impressive man. And he’s funny, as well. He’s a great guy. But he — and his assistant, Syd, is equally amusing, articulate — and these guys can zoom in on problems that you would not know how to solve if you had a solely secular approach.

Sargeant: Did your experiences on tour ever lead you to question aspects of your faith?

Hoare: Momentarily. I think that’s a bit like having your knee hit and your foot shooting up. It’s a reflex action. When you see truly horrific acts take place and you wonder where people’s humanity has ended, and then people apply a religious paradigm to try and explain these acts, I find that quite difficult to deal with.

Sargeant: Do you think the future of faith in the military is largely going to be like the past?

Hoare: Society’s increased secularization, that will have effect on any entity that draws its people from society, and the British Army needs to represent society. So, I think more people might enter the army with a secular understanding, but I think there will always be a place for faith in the military because it is an arena for the extremes of human experience.

Sargeant: Major Luke Hoare, thank you very much.

Hoare: Pleasure. It was really fun, thank you.