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Military chaplains: a rich history of more than just blessing the cannons

An interview with Doris Bergen, a scholar of clergy in the military

October 30, 2007

From the biblical high priest Aaron to the handpicked chaplains of the World War II Nazi military to the conflicted American chaplains of the Vietnam war era, the role of the clergy in the military has not been merely to bless the cannons and prop up the troops. Actually, says University of Toronto historian Doris Bergen, the role of the chaplaincy often has been to stand outside that central role.
Professor Bergen, who edited the book 'The Sword Of The Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century,' was interviewed in connection with the Monitor’s six-part series of profiles, ‘Tour of Higher Duty.’ Excerpts of the interview follow.

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Where and when did military chaplaincies begin?

You can find evidence of [what] you would call military chaplains in the ancient Roman military. There it was usually the military leader who also had religious functions. The idea was that somehow God or the gods were extremely important forces behind military success, but it was usually one and the same person, a general or a military commander, a leader who also had religious responsibilities and duties.

You can look at Biblical times... the high priest Aaron – the idea that you had a religious figure who traveled together with the military really has ancient roots.

You can find, back to the armies of Charlemagne, pretty remarkable consistency in the Christian West the idea of the military chaplain.

Were chaplains used just during war?

Yes, really until World War II and sometimes later. Chaplains were particularly important in combat because the idea of the chaplain is both to bring the blessing of the God or the gods to the cause of the army, but also to strengthen the fighting power, the morale, of individual soldiers [and] of providing the sacrament to soldiers who are prepared to kill other people.... And also soldiers who are risking being killed themselves – the idea that they go in a blessed state to their death.

It's only really in the 20th century that you get the idea that a chaplain also has a kind of a counseling role.

Do you include in that moral counseling to commanders?

That is the most interesting question, particularly in the context of the war you're looking at right now [Iraq]. That role has never been the official job of a chaplain. Even in cases where the discussion has been, for example, [that] a chaplain has a duty to be the conscience of the military, that has been a very contested role for chaplains. Chaplains who have taken that upon themselves have frequently found that it's not a role that their military superiors welcome from them.

[For example] Kermit Johnson, who opposed the Reagan administration's policies regarding nuclear weapons and El Salvador placed himself in an untenable position. He was basically pushed out of his position as chief of chaplains.

Was there a moment in time when chaplains began to do this?

The Vietnam War was a big turning point in many ways for the American chaplaincy. One of the things I've been so struck by – if you talk to Vietnam vets – [is] that military chaplains tended to be viewed by soldiers as very much hand in glove with the military establishment. They, like military psychiatrists, were often viewed by regular soldiers as people whose job it was to prop you up and send you back out, no matter what you thought about what you were doing. The questioning, in many ways, came after the fact, by chaplains and other church people [who thought] the credibility of the [chaplain] institution had been undermined.

So you got a lot of soul-searching afterward.

[The role of the chaplain] remained contested. [In our book "Sword of the Lord," the historian, Anne Loveland] talks about the notion – the question of what is the chaplain's role? Is the chaplain the moral counselor, the conscience? If it isn't simply to be blessing the weapons and giving people the comfort of religious tradition under the terrible pressures of war, what is it? And I think that question really has been contested both inside and outside the chaplaincy.

The importance of the chaplaincy from very early on was not only about boosting morale, but also lending legitimacy to a particular war effort. And generally chaplains [were] selected on the basis of whether they were willing to play that role. But you don't run into conflict so much until you have large numbers of chaplains who are trained and supported from outside the military, so they have a position of some independency vis-à-vis the military and then you do begin to get those kinds of dilemmas.