Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Mikey's War

Mikey’s War
Most of you probably haven’t heard of Mikey Weinstein, and in these perilous times such an oversight begs remediation.
Weinstein, a 1977 graduate of the Air Force Academy and old school Republican, served his country as an Air Force JAG attorney, not to mention the Reagan administration, with distinction and honor. His family, past and present, is military to the bone, and has been for generations. It’s the kind of family a nation like ours has relied on since its inception to watch our backs in troubled times.
Yet if one were to mention Weinstein’s name in certain quarters of the defense establishment and the Bush administration, their reaction might not be as magnanimous as one might think.
You see, Mikey Weinstein has gone to war against the very institution he and his family have freely and solemnly sworn to uphold and defend since anyone can remember. Yet this particular war is not being waged with weapons but ideas, most especially the idea that religious liberty ought not be surrendered when an individual joins the military or enters a service academy.
Weinstein’s war began in 2004, when he began hearing from simpatico officials at the Air Force Academy that the brass had all but ordered the corps of cadets to see Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ." Then it got personal the following year when his son Curtis, an Air Force Academy cadet, told his father that he had been verbally and physically harassed by officers and fellow cadets for no other reason that he was Jewish and had no desire to be evangelized or proselytized by a large and vociferous cadre of heavy-duty Christians at the Academy.
Regrettably, it turns out, this was not an isolated incident. Several other cadets and even a couple of Academy chaplains who actually get it also came forward, causing the Air Force to investigate and eventually confirm young Weinstein’s and others assertions of mistreatment and rampant and pervasive fundamentalism reigning unchecked at the Academy.
Up to now, though, the Air Force has pretty much blown the whole thing off, their tepid response to date being that it’s okay to evangelize but not proselytize and if we spin around and click our heels three times it will all just go away.
Meanwhile, as Weinstein kept on looking into the matter, he began to see a pattern of similar abuses throughout the military, causing him to form the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which has become the spearhead of a rapidly expanding national watchdog movement dedicated to aiding aggrieved service people and identifying individuals and groups in the Pentagon and the ranks whose over-the-top fundamentalism continues to make a mockery of the First Amendment.
Over the past few years, Weinstein has heard from thousands of military folk, most of them Christians, expressing their concerns ranging from excessive proselytizing to outright intimidation in their respective units or within the Pentagon.
Most recently, Weinstein filed an amended lawsuit in federal court on behalf of a young GI, a two-tour Iraq vet and confirmed atheist who ran afoul of his commanding officer when the soldier tried to convene an after-hours discussion group consisting of himself and fellow atheists. The kid was verbally harassed and even told that the officer would block the kid’s re-enlistment if he insisted in expressing his seemingly heretical views.
For you civil libertarians out there such lawsuits are old news in the continuing struggle to rescue the country from our own homegrown Christian Taliban, but in this case the ante was dramatically raised when news of the lawsuit went public and the kid suddenly and without exaggeration found himself in fear of his life. In the United States of America. On a US military post. And you wonder why Mikey Weinstein has chosen this particular windmill with which to do battle.
Weinstein himself has not been immune from the tender ministrations of these Christian soldiers and their fellow travelers. His house has been vandalized any number of times, and the line forms around the block for all the death threats he and his family have received. But Weinstein is first and foremost a soldier and a patriot, one who, befitting his legal background, chooses his battles wisely and judiciously. And from this one he will most assuredly not back down.
So just who are these military people Weinstein has chosen to confront? They are a particularly dedicated group of Christians he has identified as Dominionists, fanatically pro-Jesus and just about anti-everything else. Conservative estimates have placed their number at right around thirty percent in the military and twelve percent nationally, and their numbers are growing. One can easily liken them to the Islamist Wahabi sect that spawned bin Laden and his gang. About the only difference between them is their respective choice of deity, and the chilling reality that the Dominionists have chosen the military as their staging area for the apocalyptic holy war they so desperately crave.
And one of the ways they’re making it work is by exploiting an acute shortage of military chaplains. It has been reported for some time that evangelical pastors are being actively courted by the services with the implicit promise that they’d be all but written a blank check to proselytize in the ranks.
Despite all this, Weinstein’s issue isn’t with religion per se. He firmly believes in the importance of the chaplaincy in the military, and the free and open exchange of religious ideas and philosophies within the ranks. But Weinstein persuasively argues that the particular strain of malignant fundamentalism currently infecting the military subverts and undermines the true position of moral and philosophical rectitude all that we as Americans have worked so hard throughout our history to achieve.
Now, with such a volatile and contentious issue as this spreading virus-like through our military culture you’d think the mainstream media would at least be making an effort to cover the story. Not so, says Weinstein, and extensive web searches seem to bear this out.
Not only that, Weinstein maintains that most progressive vet groups are too preoccupied with their own parochial concerns and fundraising to even consider coalescing and speaking with one voice on their wide-ranging panoply of concerns. But Mikey being Mikey, he has accepted this self-defeating balkanization of concerned vets, marshaled what resources he can and is prepared to soldier on.
In a brief interview, Weinstein laid out his case, his gatling-gun delivery compressing a wealth of information into just a few minutes. He closed with what has become his mantra, one he has frequently invoked in any number of forums: “The United States military is actively engaged in a pernicious and pervasive pattern and practice of unconstitutional rape of of the precious religious freedoms of our honorable [service people] and veterans. This evil is a noxious, institutional force-feeding of of fundamentalist Christianity by our nation’s military command in complete defiance of the United States Constitution.”
And while you’re letting that sink in, bear in mind that, despite the growing anti-war movement, the reality is that we will continue to have a large force of young people under arms for some time to come. The least we can do as citizens is to send these kids into harm’s way secure in the knowledge that the institution to which they’ve pledged their loyalty and their lives reflects all the best of what it means to be American.
For Mikey Weinstein, that has become his life’s work, and once again, as it has been for generations, the Weinstein family is watching our collective back. Mikey's militarist ways may be off-putting to some, but his message is so compelling that we, all of us, might take to heart the observation from “Death Of a Salesman:” Attention must be paid.

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