A 25-year-old and mandatory briefing on nuclear warfare ethics for Vandenberg Air Force Base’s missile officers-in-training was suspended in July when it was publicly revealed that the session relied heavily on Christian teachings and Biblical excerpts. The 40-minute presentation was hosted by an Air Force chaplain six or seven times a year, and featured St. Augustine’s “Just War Theory” — as well as commentary from former Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun — to help young officers grapple with the moral conundrum they face as warhead triggermen.
The briefing’s contents were laid bare when its PowerPoint slideshow was passed to Albuquerque-based civil rights organization Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) by a whistle-blowing officer. Truthout.org then published a breaking exposé, which has since gone viral.
The MRFF was enlisted by 31 officers — including 29 practicing Protestants or Catholics — who wanted the religious themes removed. “Most of our clients feel they were spiritually raped,” said MRFF head Mikey Weinstein, a registered Republican who graduated from Lompoc’s Cabrillo High School and the Air Force Academy. “This is an outrage. People should be court-martialed for this.” The MRFF threatened to sue the Air Force over the separation of church and state if it didn’t kill the session, and the military complied, even shelving other “character development” and “core values” programs until further review.
The Air Force’s missile launch personnel are instructed for three months while members of Vandenberg’s 381st Training Group, whose graduates are then assigned to one of three launch facilities across the country, including the Santa Barbara County base. The nuclear ethics course — some trainees called it the “Jesus loves nukes speech” — begins by addressing basic moral principles before quickly transitioning into faith-based material. Early slides include images of President George Washington and Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson along with the question: “Can a person of faith fight in a war?” Then come the slew of Biblical references, from the Book of Genesis’ “Abraham organized an army to rescue Lot” to Revelation’s “Jesus Christ is the mighty warrior.”
Toward the end, one slide features a short soliloquy delivered by former SS officer Wernher von Braun upon surrendering to the U.S. at the end of WWII. Von Braun, often called the father of America’s space program, was recruited by a top secret U.S. military program that enlisted the expertise of Nazi scientists after the war. But before that, he developed the V-2 rocket — and used imprisoned Jews and POWs to build it — that devastated British cities.
“We knew that we had created a new means of warfare,” von Braun said, “and the question as to what nation, to what victorious nation we were willing to entrust this brainchild of ours was a moral decision more than anything else. We wanted to see the world spared another conflict such as Germany had just been through, and we felt that only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance to the world be best secured.”
The Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command (AETC), which oversees ethics courses, never received complaints from Vandenberg attendees, said spokesperson David Smith, who explained that a review of student critiques from the last two years didn’t show any comments at all on the presentation. It’s impossible to say who first drafted the material, Smith went on, citing the length of time that’s past since it was first implemented, but he believes it originated at Vandenberg.
When asked why the Air Force decided to suspend the briefing, Smith explained, “The review is designed to ensure AETC is addressing ethics-related issues in a manner that complies with the law and appropriately educates Airmen on ethical principles in a religiously neutral way that assures we comply with the Constitution’s [First Amendment] Establishment Clause.”