I Was an Atheist in a Foxhole
(Note: The following article first appeared in the September/October 1989 issue of The Humanist.)
Belief in life after death was a dangerous indulgence in Vietnam
Watching the Vietnam War during the mid-1960s on the nightly news inspired me to perform my patriotic duty and join the Army. There, I was trained as a light weapons infantryman and paratrooper. I was ordered to the front lines of battle in South Vietnam in September 1966 and fought until January 1968. I extended my tour of duty for the special privilege of an early honorable discharge.
My Vietnam War experiences began in the fall of 1966 fighting the South Vietnamese communists--the Viet Cong. After my first month in Vietnam, I became an atheist. My former religion was Lutheran, due to my Swedish ancestry (which traditionally dictates that progeny be so baptized). I could understand only a primitive concept of God. I rebelled. No compassionate God, I thought, would permit all this killing to happen. After witnessing the dead and wounded during my first "firefight," I looked up and said, "You sadistic God! You're not worthy of my worship!"
Medical evacuation by helicopter "dust-off" was a comfort to many soldiers in the jungles. When soldiers incurred critical wounds, they could expect to be returned home to the United States. Otherwise, they could be assured of arriving at a hospital operating table and being treated with professional care, usually in about thirty minutes. However, when ambushed and outnumbered by an enemy force with superior firepower, the fear of dying strikes one's intellect and emotions to the point of crippling panic.
This happened to me near a hamlet northwest of Saigon. Along with five other men, I was assigned to night duty at an outpost about a half-mile from company perimeters. We carried only our M-16 rifles, grenades, Claymore mines, and a two-way radio to protect us. That night we were surprised by an assault group of Viet Cong guerrilla fighters. Three dead young American soldiers were silhouetted by the moon's reflections inside our outpost bunker. The radio man sputtered, "Oh, Lord! Lord! Help us!" My response to him was to stop praying. I exclaimed, "To hell with God! You help us! You radio back for mortar and artillery fire support!" Fortunately, he regained his composure and radioed the forward observers for fire support to be directed at our map coordinates. Common sense dictated that staying alive was more important than wasting precious time praying. Consequently, he save our lives.
The next morning, I was thrilled to see the men from my company. Fortunately, I didn't sustain any personal injuries from the night assault. However, the assaults of the next morning struck me personally when a surviving soldier said to me, "See, Paulson, God answers prayers." I replied, "I'm damn glad that someone was an atheist in a foxhole!" He laughed because he thought I was joking, and I had to allow him to believe that I was--I had to keep my atheism to myself.
I knew that proclaiming to be an atheist while on duty in South Vietnam could likely prejudice promotions and possibly cause harmful reprisals. An atheist was perceived as tantamount to being a communist. Our army chaplain was a fundamentalist Christian who saw the devil in virtually everything he didn't believe in. Army chaplains wielded a lot of power; their opinions could make the difference between whether or not you got promoted. So, I was quiet about my nonbelief in God.
I suffered through horrifying moments, expecting to be killed. I was convinced that no cosmic rescuer would same me. Besides, I believed life after death was merely wishful thinking. There were times when I expected to suffer a painful, agonizing death. My frustration and anger at being caught in a dilemma of life- and-death situations simply infuriated me. Hearing the sound of bullets whistling through the air and popping near my ears was damned scary. Fortunately, I was never physically wounded.
One day I heard the chaplain preach that we should be happy and willing to die so that we could be with Jesus. After hearing that, some people praised God. I cursed God. Cursing and swearing were very therapeutic and healthy for me; it gave me the courage of Hercules. It gave me confidence in my ability and skill to stay alive. I was determined to live on this side of the grave. I could not believe that there was a better life than this one, so I rejected the foolish notion that my existence was based upon the extremes of God and the devil, heaven and hell, and life after death.
When facing death, my thought was to stay alive. I was just infuriated by all the people praying and wasting my precious time and theirs. When the chips are down and there's no one to turn to for help, and you've found out that it's just you who has been helping all along, that's the big difference. I discovered in combat that there is no one to turn to--it's just you who has been saving your own ass all along. My answer to death was simply, "Oh well, I'll be pushing daisies." If I survived and looked at another person's death, I'd think it's not my body that's being counted." I was fighting to stay alive--not praying for life after death.
I told my company clerk to issue me new dog tags with "none" stamped on them for my religious preference. The excuse I gave was that I didn't have any religion. Although I didn't know it at the time, I was a humanist.
Later when I was getting short (a term used in Vietnam for guys who were nearing discharge and would be returning home), I felt freer to proclaim my atheism and started spouting off. I figured, what could they do then--kill me?
When I had first arrived in South Vietnam and reported to my assigned military unit, I told my platoon sergeant that I could not kill anyone. He told me that there are no pacifists or atheists in foxholes. He was wrong. One of my army buddies was a very bright and articulate medic. I asked him why he wasn't carrying a rifle or even a pistol, and he replied that he was a pacifist. His pacifism was unpopular with some soldiers in the company, and he received some verbal ridicule and scorn. However, this didn't seem to bother him.
Being under fire didn't seem to bother him either, or keep him from performing his duty. I recall seeing my buddy risk his life many times during very frightening battles, fearlessly running about and attending to the wounded. Then, one dreadful day, I saw his lifeless body riddled with bullet holes, struck dead by Viet Cong small-arms fire. They wrapped him in a body bag for dust-off. I recall my platoon sergeant's remark, "That pacifist might have lived if he had had a weapon to defend himself."
I remember that when I first thought about enlisting, I wondered if I might be a conscientious objector. I really wrestled with that thought at the beginning, wondering, "Could I really kill somebody?" But when ultimately faced with the choice in a combat situation--to kill or be killed--I opted for life. However, my buddy did find himself in that situation: he couldn't kill, yet he chose to go into the service. And they sent him to Vietnam. They should have kept him in the States. He ended up getting killed.
The small bands of Viet Cong soldiers practiced guerrilla warfare: strike and ambush, then retreat into the jungle. We searched and destroyed the Viet Cong's sanctuaries with our small platoon and squad-sized patrols. My company was ordered to demolish their tunnels, destroy their food supplies, confiscate their munitions, and take into custody all surviving prisoners of war.
The heavy foliage in South Vietnam's jungles was treacherous. I recall sneaking up death-laden trails and through heavy underbrush where shattered, razor-sharp, bamboo booby-traps could cut a finger clean off. I recall with disgust the monsoon rains, bloodsucking leaches crawling everywhere, and the merciless malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Every stroke of the noisy machete cutting a jungle trail brought fear of the Viet Cong; they could hear us and planned their ambushes accordingly. Aircraft would sometimes fly overhead spraying orange clouds of chemicals to defoliate the jungle below. This chemical, known as Agent Orange, was sometimes sprayed directly on top of us. Severe skin rashes would result a day later.
During one search-and-destroy mission of tunnel complexes, we came upon hundred-pound sacks of rice. My company commander summoned by radio a demolition team to burn up this cache of rice with white phosphorous explosives. I pleaded with the commander to stop the demolition group from burning the sacks. I challenged his sense of moral responsibility, reminding him of the villages and hamlets we had traveled through were we had witnessed thousands of starving refugees crying for something to eat. I threatened to write to my congressman. Frustrated and angry, I climbed atop the pile with my rifle and threatened to remain there and die if necessary, rather than permit them to burn it up. My commander ordered a squad of soldiers to force me down from the pile, but no one could grab me without getting a swift kick off the pile. The commander then threatened, "Come down or you'll be court-martialed." Finally, after much futile prodding, he gave in and said, "Okay, come on down, we'll transport the rice out." He radioed for armored transport carriers to transport the sacks of rice to the local communities for distribution.
My defiant act of insubordination could have resulted in severe disciplinary action. Fortunately, I only received a verbal reprimand by the company commander. But I'll never forget what he told me: "You should know that that rice is going into the hands of the Viet Cong. When we leave, the Viet Cong will come and steal it from the people."
During mid-1967, the North Vietnamese Army marched out of southern Laos along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Our military tactics changed from guerrilla warfare to full company-size combat movement. We confronted full regiments of North Vietnamese combat units in the northern highlands of South Vietnam. I can still vividly remember the carnage, my buddies screaming for help, and my terror at the sight of the dead and dying. I fought in one of the bloodiest battles of Vietnam: the battle for Dak To in November 1967. I deeply missed my army buddies who died in those mountains. In my rage and sorrow, I openly expressed my atheistic philosophy to anyone--whether they wanted to hear it or not.
I was surprised to meet the chaplain again prior to departing Vietnam. He rhetorically inquired if I was ever "saved" and if I had ever felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. he had heard through the grapevine that I didn't believe in God, and he expressed fearful concern that if I died I would go to hell. I told him not to bother worrying about me. I was happy to live a long and happy life. Before saying good bye, I left him with one inspirational thought: "If you think the Holy Spirit is great, try thinking freely--unfettered by superstitions and ritualistic creeds."
In 1973, I decided that I agreed with the philosophy of the American Humanist Association (AHA). I needed to belong to a group of nontheists who share my vision of hope and who inculcate rational methods of reasoning, social sympathy, and cooperative skills.
Today, I have redefined my sense of patriotism. To be a patriotic American is to recognize that I am also a citizen of a world community; after all, a peaceful earth has no hostile boundaries. The AHA's Humanist Manifesto II was most appealing to me. It offers constructive alternatives to resolve conflicts without future wars and bloodshed. The thirteenth point of Humanist Manifesto II proclaims:
The world community must renounce the resort to violence and force as a method of solving international disputes. We believe in the peaceful adjudication of differences by international courts and by the development of the arts of negotiation and compromise. War is obsolete. So is the use of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. It is a planetary imperative to reduce the level of military expenditures and turn these savings to peaceful and people- oriented uses.
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