What I Learned about the Craft in Afghanistan
By Bro. Lieutenant Joseph F. Curry, Intelligence Officer, Canadian Armed Forces;
The Beaches Lodge No. 473 and Canada Lodge UD (Kandahar), both of the GL of Canada.
This is an edited version of a first-person account by a Mason in a military lodge deployed in the field and presented at the London Masonic Conference, Ontario Canada, on November 9, 2013. If you liked this article, you might also like Lt Curry’s articles “The Rifle and the Apron” on the history of military lodges and their influence on spreading Freemasonry around the world, including here in Australia and “The Craft at Work in Kandahar.” They’re both Googleable.
What I would like to do is highlight some of the lessons I’ve taken away from my time in Afghanistan. I believe they can be useful and relatable to Masonry.
Keep your sense of Humour. War is a dark and evil thing for anyone at any time, but especially so for this Canadian boy who grew up in the privileged bubble that is rural Ontario life. For eight long months that felt like eight long years, I lived the evil that is war. This affects everyone differently.
Every time I left the base on a patrol, we would stop just before leaving the gate; we would load our weapons, prepare our grenades, turn on our Electric Counter Measures and prepare to step off. I would look around at the men in my patrol and see how they were prepared emotionally to go out there. I saw seasoned soldiers shaking like a leaf, not just the first time, but the 50th time and the 100th time out. I was always calm, cool and collected; not because I have nerves of steel, not because I’m stronger mentally, but because of my coping mechanism. You see, in my mind I was already dead. When I stepped onto the aircraft heading to Afghanistan I knew I wasn’t coming home. It was only a matter of time until an Improvised Explosive Device got me, whether it was this time or the next time out didn’t matter. You can’t hurt a dead man.
I recently had a conversation with another officer in my unit about how he dealt with the stress of going on foot patrols in Taliban territory. His method was the exact opposite of mine, but to the same effect: he told himself that he was Superman, and that nothing could hurt him. So he too freed his mind to focus on the task at hand. The result was that we were better mentally prepared to focus on the mission at hand and not be distracted by mortal fears.
This is a helpful ploy in the situation, but it is clearly delusional; a part of the insanity of war. So where then does the balance come in? For many soldiers there is no balance to be had, and the resulting Operational Stress Injuries (including sometimes PTSD from critical traumatic incidents) are inevitable. I would be lying to you if I told you I came home with no degree of Operational Stress Injury (in fact I think any soldier who has been on operations in a theatre of war would be lying to you if they told you they had no Operational Stress Injury), but I think the degree of my injury was less than it could have been, and the recovery quicker because I was able to find that balance in Lodge.
The only laughter I remember from those eight months was with my Lodge Brethren. Lodge was a world away from everything else there. It was a safe retreat. We chided and teased each other, laughed at ourselves and one another, and regained some of our humanity. To Grand Lodge Officers I say this: the best support you can ever give to the Canadian Armed Forces is to ensure that we are never deployed again without being afforded the privilege of meeting in a military lodge. So keep your sense of humour.
Bullet-proof Freemasonry is Masonry that reminds us to laugh. Here in Canada we too often become unbalanced. We are too easily indulged in ourselves, our lives, our work, even with the work of the evening; but when we take time to laugh together we increase the bonds of fellowship.
When we laugh at ourselves we break the bonds of narcissism.
When we laugh with each other we realize the Chief Point of Masonry which is to be happy ourselves, and to communicate that happiness to others. Be Flexible. The Worshipful Master is asked at his installation to agree that it is not in the power of man, or any body of men, to make innovations in the Body of Masonry.
I say the following carefully, so please hear me out before objecting. There is room for “flexibility” in Masonry without the threat of “innovation” in Masonry. We have the tendency sometimes to become very rigid in our traditions, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but is not always a good thing either. Sometimes the answer to “why do we do it this way?” is simply “because we always have”. I’m not talking here about our ritual, or our constitution.
Of course we did not improvise without Dispensation from Grand Lodge where necessary. Let me give you some examples of how we improvised in Canada Lodge:
None of us were there long enough to be elected to and pass Chairs. Solution: the Worshipful appointed Master Masons to serve as required. We had Dispensation for this.
We didn’t have suits and tuxedos. Solution: we wore combat uniforms.
We could not disarm: Solution: we had our weapons in lodge.
We had to defend the building in an attack. Solution: we tyled the lodge with an assault rifle instead of a sword.
We needed to be in contact with our Chain of Command. Solution: we had our cell phones on in lodge.
We didn’t have a hoodwink or a cable tow. Solution: we used a piece of cloth and a rope.
We didn’t have a “convenient room adjoining the lodge”. Solution: we put the candidate behind a curtain and had him wear ear phones.
Sometimes we can get hung up on process and forget about results. Bulletproof Freemasonry is goal oriented, flexible in its approach, all the while staying within due bounds and respecting the ancient landmarks. Masonry has a history of being flexible, but sometimes we forget that fact. If I were to suggest that we hold our next Lodge meeting at the local pub I would fully expect to get several aghast looks and many objections. But in the early days of the Craft that is exactly where many Lodges met.
Masonry became global because soldiers in military lodges talked to good men about being Masons. We don’t recruit, but it’s OK to talk about being a Mason. Many of us wear Masonic jewellery, and I find it is often a conversation starter. The first candidate that was initiated in to Canada Lodge started down the path to initiation when he inquired about my ring. The second candidate similarly started the conversation with another brother. We were not shy of talking about the Craft.
Sometimes we don’t talk about Masonry because we aren’t sure what to say, or how much to say. If we just talk about the parts of it that we really like on a personal level, chances are we’ll do just fine. My message here is not new or revolutionary. Stay flexible, on a personal and a lodge level, and always with our goal in mind. At the end of the day, if we are doing justice to the work and to the Candidate we cannot err.
As we near the celebration of Christmas it is easy for us to forget those brethren who are in military service, and actively serving their Country in places all over the World. They are apart from their family and we as Freemasons MUST add them to our prayers for a
”safe and speedy return to their native shores should they so desire”
A simple toast, used in many Lodges is “ To our absent Brethren. “
Have a Wonderful Day & God Bless You and Yours =========Norm