2016-06-30
In the spring of 1999, Georgia congressman Bob Barr sent shockwaves throughout the Pagan community when he repeatedly attacked the presence of Witchcraft on U.S. military bases. Upset by the existence of a visible and apparently successful Pagan organization at Fort Hood in Texas, Barr introduced legislation to prohibit the practice of Wicca or any other form of Witchcraft at Defense Department facilities. Barr's motion went nowhere in Congress--and it resulted primarily in galvanizing Pagans to become more aware of our precarious status as a minority religion.

But the Barr fiasco also served to highlight the quiet revolution that has been occurring in Paganism, as more and more Pagans enter the armed forces (and increasing numbers of military personnel embrace the old religions).

I'll admit it: I didn't always think "military" and "Pagan" went together. As someone whose first encounter with Paganism was through reading Starhawk's 1979 ecofeminist manifesto The Spiral Dance, for me being a Pagan has always seemed to mean something similar to being a pacifist, or at least a fire-breathing liberal. After all, the Goddess seems so, well, nonviolent, particularly in her Aphrodisian make-love-not-war guise. But in the wake of the Barr controversy, I, and many other granola Pagans, developed a new appreciation for the fact that our spiritual path has also been embraced by thousands--if not hundreds of thousands--of U.S. service men and women.

These Pagans often identify as warriors, blending ancient or earth-centered spirituality with the ethics and ideals of the martial arts. A leading Pagan warrior is Kerr Cuhulain, a Vancouver policeman and former Air Force officer whose books The Wiccan Warrior and Full Contact Magick celebrate the ancient--and still relevant--connection between primal spirituality and the path of the warrior.

Warrior spirituality recognizes that it is a limitation to see the Goddess as some sort of romantic peacenik. Try convincing mythical Goddesses like the Hindu Kali Ma, the Irish Morrigu, or the Greek Athena that Pagan spirituality is all about peace and love. Each of these figures are ferocious, take-no-prisoner warrior queens, far more concerned with security and self-defense than with playing nice in the multi-cultural sandbox.

And it's not just the Pagan Goddesses who are tough. Gods and heroes from ancient myth often embody the heroic ideals of bravery, valour, strength and skill, all woven into a fierce determination to defend their people and protect the land. Indeed, it is the sheer idealism of such virtues that drive the warrior ethic in modern Paganism.

"We live in very dangerous times," says Hawk, a Pagan woman who describes being a warrior as central to her path--and who feels frustrated at the attitudes held by some non-military Pagans. "Pagan warriors are working very hard to keep our people safe and our borders protected. Many times, in fact, most of the time, not only is it a thankless duty, but it's also frowned upon by many in our own magickal community."

Others seem more philosophical about the tensions that sometimes exist between peacenik Pagans and those in the military. JoAnn Lyman, whose husband has served in the army for 15 years, embraces the warrior concept as a metaphor for personal responsibility. "Everyone is a warrior in their own sense. I may not wield a rifle, sword, axe, or any other recognized weapon; but I know that I am responsible for my actions...A warrior will weigh what has to be done and what people want done, then do what they know is the right thing for that time."

And for some military Pagans, the biggest conflict they experience isn't philosophical at all: Conn, a student at the Citadel, remarks "A big conflict with my spirituality comes with the wasteful attitude of the military. If something is no longer useful, it is ordinarily just thrown out. This doesn't fit in well with my own reduce/reuse/recycle attitude which is derived from my spirituality."

Exact numbers of military Pagans is nearly impossible to determine, since so many Pagans keep their faith a secret. But at least one organization--the Military Pagan Network (MPN)--has been attempting to identify the number of Pagans in uniform, even if only through estimation. In their 2002 Annual Report, MPN estimates over 1,000 active duty Pagans in the Air Force alone, based on the Air Force's own documentation of a number of Pagan groups.

In a press release issued in response to Barr, MPN described Wicca as "a religion practiced by over 100,000 military personnel or dependants." MPN's Executive Director John Machate made the following comment in an interview first published in Connections magazine: "I estimate that there are at least 10 Pagan families or people on each mid-size military base. With the number of military bases in the world, that would put it at about 300,000 military Pagans, that is including dependents."

Even if the MPN's conjectures are optimistic, it still seems a safe bet to assume that Pagans in uniform mark a significant trend in a spiritual path that is still in its infancy. Will the Earth spirituality of the 21st century be shaped by aging hippies, or by a younger brand of Pagan who takes pride in being a warrior and who sees no contradiction between reverence for the land and service to one's country?

Mind you, the elders of the community have not always cozied up to military Pagans. Barbara Ardinger, author of Finding New Goddesses, sees a fundamental link between Paganism and pacifism: "The destruction caused by war is unspeakably devastating--to ordinary people, to our so-called civilization, to our mother planet."

Even more outspoken is the prominent Druid leader Isaac Bonewits, who wrote in his 1988 essay, "Warriors and Soldiers and Cops-Oh My!": "I believe that Neopagans, whether Wiccans, Druids or members of any other variety of Neopaganism, have no place in a modern superpower's military."

But in our post 9/11 world, such views may no longer represent the Pagan mainstream. Certainly the thousands of Pagans who serve or have served in uniform believe they have a place in the military. Indeed, many would argue that their spirituality helps them to serve with a warrior's honor, not just a soldier's obedience. Military Pagans may be changing the face of the Pagan community, but that trend can move in both ways. Perhaps Pagan warriors will also help to shape the future of the armed forces, in positive and ethical ways that would make their warrior ancestors (not to mention the Gods and Goddesses) proud.

And that's a comforting thought for an old hippie Pagan like me.

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