August 20, 2008 – Gen. David Petraeus is used to controversy surrounding the war in Iraq, but his publicized thoughts on an Army chaplain’s book for Soldiers put him squarely in the middle of the ongoing conflict over religious proselytizing in the U.S. military.
The book is “Under Orders: A Spiritual Handbook for Military Personnel,” by Army Chaplain (Lt. Col.) William McCoy, and according to Petraeus’ published endorsement of the work, “it should be in every rucksack for those times when soldiers need spiritual energy.”
But the endorsement – which has spurred a demand by a watchdog group for Petraeus’ dismissal and court martial on the grounds of establishing a religious requirement on troops – was a personal view never intended for publication, the book’s author now says.
“In the process of securing … comments for recommending the book I believe there was a basic misunderstanding on my part that the comments were publishable,” McCoy said in an Aug. 19 email to Military.com. “This was my mistake.”
In addition to Petraeus, Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling also is quoted plugging the book in press releases and advertisements and on the jacket.
McCoy, writing in response to Military.com’s Aug. 18 inquiry to Petraeus’ office for comment, said the two generals’ endorsements “were intended for me personally rather than for the general public.”
In response to follow-up questions from Military.com, McCoy said he has asked that all distribution of the book be halted until a new “graphic overlay” for the back cover is produced “so there is no further public misunderstanding.”
McCoy did not respond to questions on the timing of the endorsements, and why it took so long before the officials learned their endorsement has been used in print. Petraeus’ endorsement has been on the book since its 2007 publication, while Hertling’s plug first appeared on the 2005 edition. Both also are quoted in newspaper ads for the book and on the book’s Amazon.com Web page.
Patraeus spokesman Col. Steven Boylan said the general has been Iraq since the beginning of February 2007, “and unless someone [like Military.com] notes it, we would not be aware of it,” he said in an Aug. 19 email. “We don’t get the stateside papers in Baghdad and I doubt very much that Gen. Petraeus goes to Amazon.com much, if at all.”
Mikey Weinstein, head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, believes McCoy is taking the fall for Petraeus and Hertling’s improper endorsements. Weinstein said it “strains credulity” that Petraeus never knew that his private written endorsement of the book was in the public domain since last year.
Weinstein is a former Air Force judge advocate general and White House counsel during the Reagan administration. His group has been fighting in the courts to keep improper proselytizing out of the military. Now, he said, he intends to incorprate the Petraeus and Hertling endorsements into an ongoing lawsuit against the Pentagon for an alleged pervasive and permicious “pattern and practice” of religious liberties violations in the military.
“MRFF is now officially putting both Army chaplain Lt. Col. Bill McCoy and General Petraeus on notice not to destroy any of the written or electronic records of their communications about this [issue],” Weinstein said.
The chapters in McCoy’s book are offered up as “Orders,” he said, and one of them is titled “Believe in God.”
With his plug for “Under Orders,” Weinstein said in a statement to Military.com, Petraeus – one of the most widely recognized officers in the American military – is endorsing religion as something all Soldiers should have and, specifically, the Christian religion.
“General Petraeus has, by his own hand, become a quintessential poster child of this fundamentalist Christian religious predation, via his unadulterated and shocking public endorsement of a book touting both Christian supremacy and exceptionalism,” Weinstein told Military.com Aug. 16.
And by endorsing a book that argues only those who believe in God can fully contribute to the military mission or unit, Weinstein contends that Petraeus insults “”the integrity, character and veracity of approximately 21 percent of our armed forces members who choose not to follow any particular religious faith.”
He said that even if Petraeus offered his comments personally, that’s a distinction without a difference. “Privately he’s denigrating 21 percent of troops,” Weinstein said. Suppose he privately denigrated women, African-Americans or Jews? Weinstein asked.
“He should still be relieved of duty and court martialed,” he said.
Rev. Billy Baugham, a retired Army chaplain and executive director of the International Conference of Evangelical Christian Endorsers, backs Petraeus’ right to plug the book. Past generals, among them George C. Marshall and George Patton, made the case for religion in the ranks.
Marshall claimed that the Soldier’s spiritual life was critical to his morale, even more than equipment, while Patton, said Baugham, had a chaplain pray for good weather for an coming battle and then submitted him for an Army Commendation Medal afterwards, when the weather turned out clear.
“So the ICECE would support what General Patreaus has done,” Baugham said.
Chris Rodda, a freelance writer and researcher for the MRFF, noted in an Aug. 16 column on the Daily Kos Web site that she found much in “Under Orders” that was “pretty good.” It offered sound advice and promoted a brand of Christianity that it would be good to see more often both in the military and civilian worlds, she said, and even warned against the practices used by some “para-church groups” within the military that Weinstein’s group considers dangerous and unconstitutional.
But in the end, she claims, the book paints those who don’t believe in God as “somehow deficient,” in that they may – in McCoy’s words – view their own “agenda [to be] more important than [the] unit’s agenda and thus lead to unit failure.”
Author McCoy, writing Aug. 11 in his blog on Amazon.com, acknowledges that the book does promote Christianity.
“No one [else] has written a book which allows for varying world views and perspectives while suggesting the Gospel might have an idea worth considering. Under Orders does just that,” he wrote.
McCoy is endorsed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, according to a recent press release for his book. Now the chaplain for U.S. Army Garrison Kaiserslautern, Germany, McCoy previously served as chaplain for the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth and, before then, the 10th Mountain Division, according to the release.