Fort Hood's Wiccans and the Problem of Pacifism

Chas S. Clifton
University of Southern Colorado

A paper presented to the
New Religious Movements Group
American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting
Nashville, Tennessee

20 November 2000

     On the night of Friday, 27 October 2000, certain unknown persons attacked the unhewn limestone altar erected by a group of Neo-Pagans at the Fort Hood, Texas, military base. Props for a Hallowe'en "Haunted Forest," which had been open to the public, were broken and strewn around. The altar, measuring roughly four feet across, was smashed, apparently with a sledgehammer.[1] This act of vandalism, which at the time of writing was still under investigation by military police, was, in effect a physical attack against followers of the contemporary Pagan religion of Wicca. The Wiccan group in question, the Fort Hood Open Circle, had already endured two years of political attacks from clergy, conservative lobbying groups, and members of Congress. These political attacks, made openly in daylight instead of clandestinely at night, were attempts to reverse the Army chaplains' support of Pagan military personnel, who were allowed to conduct their rituals at an on-post Boy Scout camp, Camp Finlayson.

     In a creative act of exegesis, the less-violent attackers attempted to use the writing of prominent Pagans to prove that followers of Wicca in particular made poor soldiers, because their religion allegedly required them to be pacifists. The response in the Wiccan community to events at Fort Hood demonstrated, however, that contemporary Wiccans do not consider themselves pacifists; rather, most adhere to their own version of the "just war" doctrine.     

     The attention paid to the religious practices of perhaps 300 Wiccan and other Pagan personnel at Fort Hood led to an unsuccessful attempt to amend the Defense appropriations bill, not to mention numerous articles and position papers.. In the end, the Chaplains Corps, backed up at the highest Pentagon levels, stood by its practices, and the furor if not the resentment subsided for the moment. As part of a larger picture, however, the Fort Hood incident and others, such as the ultimately successful attempt by Pagan clergy to be included in the rotation of clergy offering invocations at Dallas City Council meetings, point to a major thrust for legitimacy by Pagan groups.

     The Fort Hood Open Circle initially received permission to hold outdoor rituals in August 1997. The only modification required was a ban on ritual nudity.[2] On 11 May 1999, the Austin, Texas, American-Statesman newspaper published a feature article, "Practicing their old-time religion," about the Fort Hood Open Circle. Religion reporter Kim Sue Lia Perkes described the Fort Hood Open Circle as having more than 300 members, with 100 of them regular attendees at seasonal and lunar rituals. (About 42,000 soldiers are stationed at Fort Hood, the nation's largest Army post.) Perkes noted that "Fort Hood is so popular among Wiccans that some want assurances from recruiters that they will be stationed at the post."[3]

     Even before Perkes' article drew international attention to the Fort Hood Open Circle, members of a conservative Baptist congregation in adjacent Killeen, Texas, had begun a letter-writing campaign at the instigation of Pastor Jack Harvey, who asserted, "We believe they are satanic and that they do not deserve to have any place at Fort Hood. Eighty percent of my congregation is military, and they are appalled by it."[4] Members of Harvey's congregation and other had protested on post at the Fort Hood Boy Scout Camp, the ritual location, during 1997 and 1998.[5]

     Army chaplain Lieutenant Colonel Donald Troyer admitted that the presence of the on-post Wiccan circle was a "volatile subject." "My god, the general got letters that were strongly worded," he said. "I still get calls from people asking me if they kill babies out there."[6]

     After Perkes' article appeared, the subject was taken up by writers from Time magazine, the Washington Post, the Times of London, and other newspapers and broadcast stations in the United States and abroad. Most treated it lightly: for instance, Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly quipped that, contrary to rumor, the Army was not developing a "Bradley fighting broomstick."[7] (The reference is to the Army's Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle.[8])

     The anti-Witch campaign was escalated a week later by Congressman Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican, who announced that he had requested that the Secretary of the Army order a halt to sanctioned Wiccan meetings at Army installations. Barr subsequently offered an amendment to the annual Defense appropriations bill to stop Wiccan practice at military bases.[9] "What's next?" Rep. Barr demanded to know in a letter to Fort Hood's commander. "Will armored divisions be forced to travel with sacrificial animals for satanic rituals?"[10] To religion writer Mark Silk, Barr's protests were fueled by "the symbolism of a non-Judeo-Christian military. ‘The fact of the matter is--and witches won't like this--our country was founded on a basic belief in God,'" Barr told an Atlanta newspaper.[11]

     Throughout the controversy, the military chain of command continued to support the Fort Hood chaplains' decision to permit the Open Circle's meetings. Navy Captain Russell Gunter, executive director of the Armed Forces Chaplains Board, maintained that Wicca was protected under the First Amendment's freedom of religion clauses, adding, "I know I speak for all those serving in the U.S. Armed Forces when I say we are proud to be in the forefront of the struggle to safeguard these valuable freedoms."[12]

     The Time magazine writer, S.C. Gwynne, had already noted--incorrectly, I will argue--that "Wiccans are also pacifists," adding that they believe that "your actions come back to you threefold [and that they are] prepared to accept the consequences of what they do as soldiers."[13] This notion of Wiccan pacifism was taken up when a new group of players entered the controversy during the summer of 1999: ten Christian and conservative organizations which called for a nationwide boycott of Army recruiting on 9 June 1999. The "recruiting strike" was called by Paul M. Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation, who avowed that "An Army that sponsors satanic rituals is unworthy of representing the United States of America." In contrast to Captain Gunter's statement about fighting for religious freedom, Weyrich asserted that "the official approval of satanism and witchcraft by the Army is a direct assault on the Christian faith that generations of American soldiers have fought and died for."[14] (The "strike" died a quiet death, since opposing the military was incongruent with most of these groups' politics.)

     Shortly afterwards, on 24 June 1999, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush told a television news program, "I don't think witchcraft is a religion and I wish the military would take another look at this and decide against it."[15]

     The Problem of Pacifism

     If the Army were to reverse its policy, it would need more of a justification than simply that Wicca, Neopagan Witchcraft, was "bizarre." In the form letter sent out from his office after he injected himself into the controversy, Congressman Barr asserted that "My opposition to witchcraft is based solely on its practice on military bases, insofar as it undermines the moral foundation of our military, brings the credibility of our military into question and may have an inappropriate impact on military discipline and good order."[16] A more developed justification for such a ban was furnished by retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Maginnis, writing for another conservative think tank, the Family Research Council. Noting that Wicca had received official recognition as a religion in 1996 from the Department of Defense and that there were now at least five recognized military Wiccan groups, Maginnis nevertheless argued that the Armed Forces should reverse its policy for "readiness reasons."[17]

     After citing the customary biblical verses against "witchcraft," Maginnis's position paper moved on categorize Wiccan beliefs under the subheadings of "radical feminism," "pacifist tendencies," and "ethical relativism." "A ‘Wiccan warrior' is an oxymoron," Maginnis wrote. "Wiccans tend to be pacifists, which may be all right for medics but not for infantrymen." The addition of Wiccans, in addition to Muslims and American Indian peyote-smokers [sic], was just more diversity than the military could or should accommodate.

     Noting that the Armed Forces Chaplains Board manual ascribed to Wiccans a version of the "just war" doctrine set out by Augustine of Hippo sixteen centuries ago, Maginnis cited in opposition the writing of several prominent contemporary Pagans, including Archdruid Isaac Bonewits. One of his sources argued that the Wiccan Rede, "An [If] it harm none, do what you will," prohibited gratuitous harm, and that "war, in general," according to the writer, constituted gratuitous harm. Maginnis even turned to a piece by John Machate, head of the Military Pagan Network, which quoted Bonewits' definition of a soldier as a "hired killer" who defends not a community per se but that community's ruling class interests.

     But having buttressed part of his argument on Christian scriptures, Maginnis made the error of relying on textual evidence from a religion without sacred texts, and he failed to realize that such writers as Bonewits and Starhawk, while known and respected, are not considered canonical authorities on such topics as military service. Had he relied on ethnographic techniques, Maginnis would have had to deal with different evidence.

     A response to Maginnis's paper came from David Oringderff, a clinical psychologist, retired Army major, and director of the Sacred Well Congregation, a Texas-chartered Wiccan group that sponsored the Fort Hood Open Circle. Maginnis, he suggested, had used pseudo-academic rhetoric to veil "personal prejudice and bigotry." Countering Maginnis's assertion that the presence of Wiccan soldiers would disrupt unit cohesion, Oringderff commented, "When I was invited to join the Army in 1968, no one asked me if I worshipped the God of Abraham. They only asked me to protect and defend the constitution and to put my butt on the line when called upon to do so."

     Oringderff further said that he was the person interviewed by the Washington Post in June 1999--an article citing Wiccan "pacifism" that was seized upon by Maginnis. "This statement was taken out of context," Oringderff wrote. He was "speaking only from a personal perspective when asked the question of how I reconciled our Rede with military or police service. Basically, I explained to [the reporter] that I reconciled this moral paradox in the same way any other soldier or police officer of conscience would, no matter what religious creed: with full personal responsibility and ‘with no malice in our hearts or take no pleasure in the act.'" His wife likewise, Oringderff said, was "tired of hearing all this nonsense about pacifism."[18]

     In his response paper, Oringderff took issue with the quoted statements of both Starhawk and Isaac Bonewits, both of whom have long personal histories as antiwar activists dating back to the Vietnam War. As perhaps the nation's best-known Wiccan writer, Starhawk often willy-nilly becomes the representative voice of Pagan Witchcraft, and as a high-profile representative of a minority religious community, she tends to not be critiqued by members of that community. In books from The Spiral Dance (1979) onwards, Starhawk has argued that war and military establishments are activies "reserved for men" and serve only to reinforce negative, dualistic, world views, leaving men (only) not fully human.[19] Her attitude follows in line with her espousal of the idea of a matriarchal past in which no one "made war on other people or the natural world."[20]

     However, sparks of revisionism may be flying, and the issue which kindled them was, in fact, Starhawk's attitudes toward the military. In a piece published in February 2000 in a Pagan journal, The Pomegranate, writer Leah Samul described how Starhawk had censored an essay that Samul had written for inclusion in the anthology The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, whose first edition, then titled Crossing Over, was published by the Reclaiming Collective, which Starhawk helped to form.[21] Samul's original essay had dealt with a Pagan response to three forms of death not examined elsewhere in the book: the death of an executed criminal, the death of a police officer in the line of duty, and the combat death of a Pagan or Witch in military service. The essay's reception was chilly:

Starhawk and other Collective members interpreted Reclaiming's non-violent charter as extending to an article like this one, and they rejected it for fear that the essay could be construed as condoning a military mentality or police brutality. Starhawk was also worried that her reputation as a non-violent peace activist would be damaged by including it in a book that came out under her name and the Collective's aegis.[22]

Samul goes on to discuss the need for rituals of reintegration for both police officers and combat veterans, an issue which has received significant attention in the North American Pagan community.

     In 1993, the Wiccan writer Judy Harrow had already examined military service in the light of Van Gennep's theory of separation, liminality, and reintegration, concluding not that Wiccans should be pacifists, but that the larger Pagan community, like the rest of American society, "should provide spiritual counseling and ritual services to mark the process of reintegration."[23] Of the eight Pagan military veterans, male and female, that Harrow interviewed, only one, "Paul," had been a practitioner when he enlisted. (None was a draftee.) "I always worshiped a hunter-gatherer God, and so I saw no problem going into the military and being a Pagan," he recalled, adding that, in fact, although his coven high priest was supportive, most of his Pagan friends were anti-military at the time.[24] His military service occurred during the Vietnam War, however, when anti-military attitudes peaked; and such political attitudes cannot be equated with a philosophical pacifism.

     Harrow herself admitted that her interviews changed her own anti-military perspective somewhat: "I became convinced that military service is a valid initiatory path." And her discussion of the Wiccan Rede might leave her open to Maginnis's charge of "ethical relativism," for she writes that although some might interpret the Rede as "a mandate for Gandhi-style pacifism," for others, "the Rede is a statement of situational ethics . . . in real life, absolute harmlessness is impossible. That realization relativizes the Rede." Her final analysis echoes after a fashion the Catholic Church's definition of a "just war," for she writes that the Pagan "heritage of Warrior God/desses and hero myths ... model fair and honorable combat. They teach us that we have the right and obligation to defend ourselves, our communities, our sacred ways and, most of all, our sacred Earth."[25]

     This Pagan "just war" doctrine, I believe, would express the views of a majority of American Wiccans and other Pagans, based on my own twenty-five years experience in that community. Contrary to the Washington Post and Lieutenant Colonel Maginnis, most Pagans accept that their "high-choice" ethic could lead them either to combat or conscientious exemption; but with no national conscription in effect, the likelihood of the second choice has not been tested. In the words of the then-serving First Officers of the Covenant of the Goddess during the Gulf War, "We understand that devotion to the Goddess may either direct individual members to participate in war, or to conscientiously object to participating in a war." [26] A book published by Llewellyn Publications, America's largest publisher of Pagan materials, a year after the Gulf War included a photo of a Wiccan soldier in battledress creating a sacred circle on the Saudi/Iraqi border shortly before the war began.[27] Furthermore, the presence of both the Military Pagan Network and various "warrior societies," which bring together Pagans in the military, law enforcement, and emergency services, mitigates against the presence of any widespread Wiccan pacifism.[28]

     As for the unit-cohesion argument, I offer the unsolicited opinion of one of my students, a former Navy submariner now majoring in history, who identifies himself as a conservative Protestant. "We didn't care about the Pagans on shipboard. They could have their winter solstice and their summer solstice and their spring solstice [sic], so long as they were there to work on Christmas and Easter."[29]

     In his position paper, Lieutenant Colonel Maginnis feared that "exceptions for every group" on such issues as religious holidays would distract from the military's mission. My student, on the contrary, said that Pagan solstices, the Muslim obligations of Ramadan, and other holy days could all be accommodated in the duty rosters as long as everyone was willing to pick up the slack on someone else's holiday. While he remains theologically opposed to his former Wiccan shipmates, he was willing to get along in the interests of their common military tasks.

     Military service represents only one area in which the Pagan religions increasingly seek recognition. While there are some Pagan and Wiccan pacifists, their military and ex-military co-religionists have had a fairly easy time receiving religious recognition thus far, at least at the official level, than their civilian counterparts. Public acceptance has been another story: members of the Fort Hood Open Circle report, for instance, that some Boy and Girl Scout leaders "have repeatedly complained to the chaplains that they do not like to take their children into areas that are used by ‘Satanists.'" But they remain confident that "the [military] system will work if we allow it to. Hopefully reparation and safe, protected accommodation will be forthcoming in an expeditious and propitious manner . . . . it is certain that both the Army and the DoD [Department of Defense] are committed to religious pluralism and the accommodation of lawful distinctive faith groups in the military services."[30] What remains unclear though is how much these public events will in their turn change the face of groups that began thirty or fifty years ago as small-scale, often initiatory, mystery traditions, but which are increasingly moving towards formal corporate structures.


[1] Arwen Nightstar, "Official release from Fort Hood," 4 November 2000,

[2] "Barr's Witch Project: Lawmaker Wants to Ban Witches from the Military." LawStreet Journal. (19 October 2000). Ritual nudity, however, is practised by only a few Wiccan groups.

[3] Kim Sue Lia Perkes. "Practicing their old-time religion," Austin American-Statesman 11 May 1999.

[4] Gwynne. Wiccan responses, however, tended to focus more on First Amendment rights and less on the accusation of "satanism," a concept not found in this polytheistic movement.

[5] Perkes.

[6] Perkes.

[7] Mark Silk, "Something Wiccan This Way Comes," Religion in the News, Summer 1999, 9.

[8] Christopher F. Foss, Jane's Tank Recognition Guide (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 1996), 206.

[9] Silk, 9.

[10] Gwynne.

[11] Silk, 10.

[12] Captain Russell O. Gunter, U.S. Navy, letter to author, 6 July 1999;

[13] Gwynne.

[14] Free Congress Foundation, "'Satanic' Army Unworthy of Representing United States," (news release), 9 June 1999. (19 October 2000). Other participating organizations included the Traditional Values Coalition; Christian Action Network; the American Association of Christian Schools; Tradition, Family, Property, Inc.; Madison Project; the Religious Freedom Coalition; I Love Jesus Worldwide Ministries; 60 Plus; and the American Council for Immigration Reform.

[15] Silk, 10.

[16] Rep. Bob Barr, letter to Long Island Secular Humanists, 5 June 2000.

[17] Lt. Col. Robert L. Maginnis (U.S. Army ret.), "Brewing Up Trouble: Wicca and the U.S. Military," Family Research Council 1999. (12 April 2000).

[18] John Machate, E-mail to the author, 21 March 2000. Machate, coordinator of the Military Pagan Network, forwarded Oringderff's comments on Maginnis's position paper.

[19] Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982) 87.

[20] Cynthia Eller, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000) 19.

[21] Starhawk, M. Macha NightMare, and the Reclaiming Collective, The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997).

[22] Leah Samul, "Death Under Special Circumstances: An Exploration,"The Pomegranate: A Journal of Neopagan Thought 11 (February 2000), 36.

[23] Judy Harrow, "Initiation by Ordeal," in Witchcraft Today: Modern Rites of Passage, ed. Chas S. Clifton (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1993), 156.

[24] Harrow, 132.

[25] Harrow, 143.

[26] Quoted in Harrow, 144.

[27] Dan and Pauline Campanelli, Circles, Groves and Sanctuaries (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1992), 175.

[28] For example, the home page of the Texas-based Council of Magickal Arts Warrior Society, .

[29] James Phelps, personal interview, 24 October 2000.

[30] Nightstar, op. cit.