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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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