Military chaplains: a rich history of more than just blessing the cannons
An interview with Doris Bergen, a scholar of clergy in the military
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The case I'm most familiar with is chaplains in the Wehrmacht during World War II, and those chaplains were very carefully selected. There were some cases of chaplains who questioned an individual practice: For example, the murder of the Jewish children in a Ukrainian village in 1941. But they didn't question the fundamentals of the war itself – they wouldn't have lasted very long if they'd done so.Skip to next paragraph
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Another interesting example is the case of chaplains in South Africa. Chaplains there were implicated in the apartheid system, and also in the aggressive use of military against neighboring countries. After the war, with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, one of the points of focus was the chaplain in the military.
After World War II ended … when new militaries were established in West Germany and East Germany, the roles of the chaplains were completely revised. In the East there were to be no chaplains; they didn't really fit in [to Communism].
In West Germany, the new role of the chaplain was to be ... a conscience of the military. That the chaplains suddenly were supposed to be available to not only counsel military leaders about the moral right and wrong of their decisions and actions, but also to provide counseling to soldiers, including providing counseling in the ways to be a conscientious objector. Chaplains were supposed to be the outside voice inside the military.
Has the US military chaplaincy been pioneering in any way?
The biggest thing, of course, has to do with the landscape of religious institutions in North America, but especially in the US. There were already a fair number of Christian groups represented [in the chaplaincy] in World War II.
Now, there are literally hundreds of different kinds of religions represented, and the big change has been in the past 20, 30 years, the rise of evangelical Christianity among chaplains. That makes an enormous difference – when suddenly instead of just, to give an example, Lutherans and Catholics, you have Pentecostal and people from the Alliance Church, and people who are actively interested in proselytizing. It gives a very, very different dimension to the chaplaincy.
Why has this happened?
[These are] rapidly growing churches and religious groups, they would obviously want to reach out to these people under pressure, and often, far from home and far from families. So it's very appealing, I think, for them to be present..... What better mission field than the military?
And from the point of view of the military, it's quite understandable if you think about the importance of having chaplains. [For the Catholic Church], it's become increasingly difficult even to fill the positions of parish priests. Hardly anybody wants to go into the priesthood, seminaries are getting smaller all the time. So how are you going to find enough to fill all these chaplain positions?
If you can't get enough of old-fashioned mainstream Christians – from, say, Episcopalian, or [other] shrinking churches, and Catholic clergy – of course you're going to be happy to have people who are eager to serve, who are patriotic, who bring an enormous energy and dedication and experience in reaching out to other elements of the population.
US military chaplains do not carry guns. How does that policy fit in globally, and do you see that changing given the unconventional, new form of conflict in Iraq?
In the modern military, the idea of the chaplain as unarmed is quite important for a number of reasons: to set chaplains apart from regular soldiers, but also to give them protection vis-à-vis the enemies. For example, if a chaplain tries to help gather up the wounded, he or she won't be a target, and won't be considered an armed enemy.
I've never been to Iraq … but it would be a fundamental shift in chaplains' understanding of themselves and in others' understanding of who chaplains are, to make that shift [to carrying weapons].
Do guerrilla and paramilitary movements have the equivalent of chaplains?
Chaplains did play a role in legitimating a number of the military regimes in South America, so you certainly had military chaplains on the side of military governments. But [there are] cases of Catholic priests, local parish priests often motivated by liberation theology providing the sacrament, comforting the wounded – certainly on the side of forces that opposed military and authoritarian regimes in South America.
Do you think of Al Qaeda in this context?
You're almost reverting back to Roman practices, when religious leaders and military leaders were often one and the same. So it might be that [Al Qaeda has] some of those functions, but whether they're carried out by separate clerics, that I don't know. Because you often have people with clerical training who themselves also are leaders of the fighters, so you may get a blurring of the two roles.