God and man at war

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There are no atheists in a foxhole, the saying goes. Religion has only one small building on this base, but the community at large affords it an empire.

Loved ones on the phone tell the troops "we're praying for you." Country music playing in the base store sings of God and soldiering. Tents are commandeered on the weekend for makeshift religious services. And the five Air Force chaplains on base listen to the spiritual concerns of the troops - including doubts about the righteousness of the war.

"People (in uniform) struggle with war. Most don't, but some do. And I think the struggle is a good thing." said Capt. Joshua Narrowe, a Jewish rabbi. "The military doesn't want us to be robots and just act. They want us to be aware of the moral aspects of what we're doing."

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Rabbi Narrowe points to the military's focus on rules of engagement that restrict the use of force in order to safeguard civilians. The rabbi connects military rules to biblical morality. For example, the Bible stipulates that if an army attacks a city, they are not allowed to cut down the trees outside the city.

"The logic being that the war will be over with at some point, and you don't want to starve the population of the city who are not involved in the war," explains Narrowe. "So you need to be very careful that you only hit military targets and that you don't make civilians suffer..."

Narrowe believes it's this concern for civilian life that separates the US from its enemies. And that concern, along with a belief that this is a defensive war, gives Operation Iraqi Freedom moral sanction in his view.

While the chaplains here can draw on their understanding of religious teachings when asked, mostly they listen and help troops find their own peace with God.

"As a chaplain, I believe that if they can get connected to God, they will have a certainty, and they won't have to rely on the government or a military commander," said Capt. Kleet Barclay, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. His sermon the weekend before the war dealt with David and Goliath. Many would see the US as Goliath. But Capt. Barclay wanted to emphasize to the troops the importance of going into the fight feeling God at their side.

"Are we putting faith in our technology and our size, or are we coming to this like David did, in the name of the Lord?" asks Capt. Barclay.

He admits that some who find this connection with God may find they can no longer support the war. In these cases, he says, they should become conscientious objectors - a process that involves base chaplains, lawyers, and the objector's chain of command.

Helping troops keep connected to their God is the central role of a military chaplain.

"We remind them of God and who God is in their life. That's our job," said Rick Reaves, a Baptist minister who heads up the Protestant chaplaincy.

Their work goes beyond services and Bible studies. The chaplains approach their work much like counselors. They each have about seven squadrons to look after, which they do by making rounds to operations buildings to meet folks.

The military allows communication with a chaplain to remain confidential. That helps troops open up. Or, as Eastern Orthodox priest Timothy Ullmann put it, chaplains are "a low threat."

Sometimes a simple 'how-you-doing' helps people open up. The more Fr. Ullmann and the others get to know individuals the better the chaplains can just read their body language. Often somebody within a squadron will call a chaplain's attention to someone struggling.

Ullmann will bring them in to his office and let them make an additional morale call home. (Troops are allotted two morale calls a week.)

"Nine times out of 10, they're renewed and reinvigorated and ready to take it on again," said Ullmann. Ullmann's faith background teaches that war is evil, but sometimes it is a necessary evil. War becomes necessary when people are oppressed or when greater evils can be avoided.

Rev. Reaves nudges those with doubts to seek solitude. "One of the most powerful ways to work through it is quiet time with self," Reaves said.

Military chaplains also pray for the safety of the troops. In something eerily reminiscent of bygone wars, some chaplains visibly pray for pilots as they taxi toward take off. Barclay bows his head and prays. Ullmann makes the sign of the cross with his right hand.

"I get some great responses. Some of them will bless themselves. Some do fists in the air - victory overhead," said Ullmann. When pilots see him later, some will ask, "Hey, father, was that you out there? I say, yup. They'll say, that's great, I really appreciate it."

Editor's note: csmonitor.com reporter Ben Arnoldy is on assignment in Kuwait as part of the Pentagon's program "embedding" journalists with troops involved in the invasion of Iraq. His reporting is collected in the web special project Assignment: Kuwait (http://www.csmonitor.com/specials/kuwait/).

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