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Chaplains in the War Zone

Chaplains in the War Zone

During the next few years, as the war drags on in Iraq, there will be plenty of time to think through religious and ethical issues that do not follow quite the same track as that of the original just/unjust war debates. (Notice that few of the controversies deal with the war in Afghanistan, which must be perceived quite differently than that in Iraq, despite some superficial parallels and resemblances.) One zone in which reporting and controversy can become and remain creative has to do with military chaplaincy. I find myself treating the subject a second time within a year -- a signal of how creative and how troubling I consider it to be.

The occasion is a fine (to me, Pulitzer-nomination-level) story by Kristin Henderson, identified as a Navy chaplain's wife, and author of While They're at War, a book about military families left behind. "In the Hands of God" appeared in the Washington Post (April 30) and in the Washington Post National Weekly (May 8-14), whose editors must like it, since they gave an unprecedented five pages to her account. She seems to be making an effort not to take sides, not to judge, but simply to report close-up on life at Forward Base Diamondback in northern Iraq. She takes us inside military vehicles on patrol or in convoys, imparting a sense of the tension and danger within one. And there, with the troops, is a chaplain. He is there to show that he is ready to die with the men; he must identify with them if he is to have credibility.

We do not linger long with such stories, as other issues come up. For one, there is the chaplain shortage, which does not mean that the missions are not covered, but that disproportionate numbers of chaplains come from non-Catholic, non-mainstream Protestant sources. A Lutheran chaplain named Grimenstein explains: "It's their theological doctrine -- very pro-nation, pro-government, pro-country. You don't find that in a lot of Protestant denominations." One might have wished he'd said that another way: The Protestants can be very pro-country without buying into all its ventures in any particular decade. Chalk up that issue of imbalance among denominations as something for debate. The non-mainstream evangelicals and Baptists seem more aggressive, evangelizing along the way.

Next comes the bigger issue of how to deal with pluralism. Here Henderson provides case studies worth the attention of citizens at large. All chaplains are conditioned and compelled to deal with pluralist situations and effects. She reports at length on a new Southern Baptist chaplain who follows regulations and provides services, or is ready to, for everyone -- all the way over to the Wiccans. Then comes a more problematic assignment: The people at this FOB are supposed to help rebuild a partially destroyed mosque. Another Lutheran chaplain named Morehouse reminds a Southern Baptist who has conscience pangs that he is sworn to follow orders. Here comes the classic chaplain's dilemma: His Baptist rules are against his helping a religion like Islam. Pangs like that touch consciences in the chaplaincy every day. They may be writ-large versions of what goes on in emergent civil life.

But while we ponder that, the story moves on to the horrors of caring for the dying, and the urgent role of chaplains. Such is life in the war zone.

This article was originally published on May 15, 2006.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at Original Source: Sightings – A biweekly, electronic editorial published by the Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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