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Military chaplains: Being a cog of conscience in the military killing machine

Navy Capt. James Fisher brings his evangelical Christian faith to work with Afghan military mullahs.

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To formalize the RCA, Fisher succeeded in getting the US government to earmark $2 million for a chaplain school, construction of which is scheduled to begin in 2008. And he is working on a curriculum that will teach mullahs how to work within a bureaucracy and provide religious support and moral guidance.

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While Fisher understands that he's helping to build an Islamic military, he believes that Afghanistan's minority religions will grow as the country evolves. "There are Buddhists, Jews, Christians in Afghanistan – not in great numbers, but they're here," he says, "and they will make their way into the Army and at some point the institutions will have to wrestle with these issues."

Whether or not the curriculum addresses this head-on, Fisher likes to think that, through example, US military chaplains are "living, breathing witnesses to how [plurality] can work and that the RCA will pick up on that."

•••

This is the latest chapter in a journey that began when Fisher, a fresh, born-again Christian, was walking across the drill field at Virginia Tech Institute with a slide rule in his pocket.

"No way I want to be an engineer," he realized. "I want to be involved in a Christian vocation – chaplain, missionary, Christian teacher...."

Because his father was an Air Force pilot, Fisher signed up with the Air Force Reserve. Then he had second thoughts.

"I wanted to be with warriors in their hour of greatest need – and what is that? When they face death," he says. In the Air Force, chaplains typically stay back at the base. "But in the Navy," he explains, "if the ship sinks, most of us Christian chaplains are not going to be walking across the water back to shore. Or if you're with the Marines [whose chaplains are Navy officers], you're in their fighting hole with them."

He switched branches.

Today's wartime reality isn't as dramatic as the young Fisher imagined it. Ships don't sink on a daily basis, and marines don't live in foxholes. And if Fisher, like many new chaplains, signed up for drama and action, he has found instead that rubbing shoulders with other faiths has given him another kind of courage – the courage to ask questions.

"When I was a young Christian," he explains, "I thought it was very black and white – heaven, hell. As I get older, boy, I struggle with that more and more." He pauses, thinking about M-12 and the other mullahs he has come to respect. "If you bluntly ask me the question, 'Are Muslims going to hell,' " he says of the tenet – central to many Christian denominations – that eternal salvation comes only through Christ. "I'm not so quick to answer in the affirmative because I know that I see people here who practice justice, fairness, respect, dignity – who practice God's principles.

"Many of them," he adds, "are seeking a deeper, spiritual walk with God. And I believe that the person who seeks the depth of God and God's grace will also find the mercy that God offers."

•••

The day after lunch with Moheburahman, Fisher hosts a Protestant service back at Camp Eggers, a guarded US military compound in Kabul. His guest speaker is John Weaver, an American relief worker and graduate of Columbia International University, a Christian college in South Carolina where Mr. Weaver took classes specifically geared to helping him reach and convert Muslims. Bearded, barefoot, and wearing a tunic, Weaver does what Fisher can't: he proselytizes.

Ironically, this is what Fisher is equipping RCA officers to do, thus indirectly helping to spread Islam. As a Christian who believes "Christ makes a difference in people's lives," this stirs up questions Fisher hasn't yet fully answered. But he seems to relish the challenge: "I personally like people to wrestle with all kinds of thoughts and issues."

One thing Fisher has no questions about, however, is the value of military chaplains, no matter their denomination. He believes they provide a moral keel – and that no one wants to see a killing machine without a conscience.

"If there are no chaplains, then I think you're going to see the American military lose their humanity, and the American people do not, they do not," he repeats, tapping finger on knee for emphasis, "want a military that has lost its humanity, its integrity, its value system, its honor – because any military that loses that becomes a military that [can] turn against its own people."

He points to failed states where armies back dictators as examples of what could happen elsewhere, be it Afghanistan or the US.

"In the blink of an eye chaos can affect a community, a culture, a society – and that's why you don't want a military that has lost its humanity. The aftermath could be horrendous."

•On Nov. 27: Part 5. Army Chaplain Ron Eastes, a Presbyterian pastor on patrol – unarmed – with his Airborne Infantry flock in Iraq.

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