MAJ Donald W. Kammer



            The United States Army chaplain serves side by side with American, joint and allied forces around the world.  He or she provides religious pastoral care for soldiers, their families and authorized personnel.[1] Yet, the chaplain also serves in the role of a staff officer for a commander.  This dual relationship as both pastor and staff officer, suggests potential points of tension, particularly as the chaplain functions as a useful asset for mission accomplishment, and as a religious leader endorsed by a civilian religious community. 

In the shadow of the Vietnam War, Harvard’s Professor Harvey Cox once asked the question, “The man of God, and the man of war: what have they to do with one another?”[2]  This suggests a good question and presents a dilemma that every chaplain must encounter.  What is the prophetic nature of the chaplain’s contribution to the Army in the context of a military organization that has its own expectations of the chaplain?  Will the chaplain speak the truth, though it may be divergent to military leaders when those same leaders determine the chaplain’s career success?  Will the chaplain take a place at the commanders table and offer contradictory opinion when a policy or a decision is immoral and unjust?  Is the chaplain a combat multiplier only or a person of God or both or more of one and less of the other?  Such questions may pose an uncomfortable dilemma for the chaplain; but chaplains must wrestle with these questions as they serve in the United States Army, as well as other services.  Let us consider if there is room at the table of war for the chaplain as prophet of God.


Definition: The Prophetic Chaplain

The job of the Army chaplain is a position laden with opportunities for speaking the truth boldly.  This may occur through pointing people to spiritually helpful resources, confronting injustice and evil, intervening to help an individual or speaking the words of God to those of low or high position.  In a counseling session a chaplain may advise an individual that fooling around with another woman's man is immoral.  He or she may comment in a staff meeting that gambling is negatively impacting the unit's families and hurting the morale of junior enlisted soldiers.  In a private meeting with a commander a chaplain might even express his or her view regarding the morality of an aspect of an operation or perhaps note the ill treatment of a subordinate or a captured fighter.  The chaplain may speak based upon his or her own religious principals, but must possess skills in relational appropriateness and wisdom to exert a constructive influence.  The Army chaplain faces a daunting challenge of being prophetic, that is, being a conscientious representative of one of America’s many diverse denominations, which place their religious leaders within a bureaucratic structure that expects a measure of uniformity.[3]  When a chaplain enters the Army he or she does not abandon that distinctive identification with a denomination or its beliefs, virtues and values.  The chaplain brings these beliefs, virtues and values into the military to emulate.  To be that denominational and prophetic voice the chaplain may at times diverge from the uniformity the Army cherishes and offer additional perspectives based upon his or her identity as a distinctive religious leader.

            The terms "prophet" or "prophetic" are quite broad concepts and should be defined for this paper.  To be prophetic, a chaplain must speak the truth when it may be politically and professionally advantageous to remain silent.  Secondly, a chaplain must also live and walk in truth and have integrity in order to maintain credibility with soldiers and family members.  Chaplains who show poor integrity and character violate expectations of others, even if they may speak words prophetically.  In his book The Sociology of Religion, Max Weber offers a view of the prophet which may be helpful for understanding the role the chaplain performs in the Army.  Weber describes two distinct and separate categories of the prophet.[4]  He argues that one kind of prophet has an ethical duty to proclaim the truth; he also argues that another kind of prophet is called to be an exemplar, and live the truth.[5]  For Weber these two kinds of prophets were distinct.  But for the Army chaplain, the two concepts must merge.  The Army chaplain combines these roles, and speaks out for ethical issues.  The chaplain may also speak out as a faithful representative of his or her religious tradition.  At the same time he or she is expected to be an exemplar in day to day association with others.  To fail as an exemplar or as a positive role model is to fail to be prophetic.  To fail in speaking the truth boldly to leaders is also failure to be prophetic.  To fail to be prophetic is failure as a chaplain. 

It is in the best interests of the Army and the nation, for chaplains to speak with a prophetic voice.  This may be private, toe to toe and face to face with a commander, or it may be through an inspirational article in a post newspaper.[6]  In such cases, particularly with commanders, prior trusting relationships are valuable, and have to be earned.  The Army chaplain must also fulfill his or her denominational calling to offer a prophetic voice, as well as a holy life, to people of the Army.   The Army chaplain is both commissioned by the President of the United States and ordained by an American religious community to be a prophetic religious leader.  This means the chaplain must be careful not to lose sight of either obligation.  Given this unique relationship, individual chaplains must retain a clear grasp of their prophetic identity and function. The problem of being a prophetic chaplain within a system like the Army is a question worth serious contemplation. 

Clear prophetic identity and practice is crucial for the Army chaplaincy as an institution, lest it become known as a uniformly docile set of individuals who avoid conflict, in deference to a serene homogeny.  This kind of chaplain and chaplaincy would quiet the prophetic voice of conscience.  Such a chaplaincy scenario, a serene institutional uniformity, would diminish the distinctive contribution of American religious leaders, Pentecostal, Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, Muslim and Buddhist or other distinctive faith groups who wear the uniform and choose to serve.  A muted chaplaincy with silenced prophetic engagement would be tragic.  The Army benefits from a vitally engaged chaplaincy, willing to be thoughtful, truthful and intrepid in speaking prophetic words to the right people at the right time and for the right cause.

            The nation and the Army would be robbed of a perspective and presence representing the diverse humanitarian and religious traditions of the nation if chaplains are ever muted before commanders or even muzzled from a distinctive religious expression.  An Army chaplain must appropriately offer a commander an opposition perspective to decisions which may violate the conscience as well as the law.  The chaplain must communicate his or her moral and ethical concerns in tactful dialogue with commanders, and at the same time, do so in such a way so as to preserve his or her continued presence for pastoral ministry to people.  The chaplain, to be truly effective, must have a pastoral as well as a prophetic voice in the Army.   

Is There a Soul of Goodness in Things Evil?

            “There is some soul of goodness in things evil, would men observingly distil it out.”[7]  This quote is quite a conclusion to Chaplains in Conflict: The Role of Army Chaplains since 1914.  Stephen H. Louden, the Principal Roman Catholic Chaplain of The British Army, makes use of the quote.[8]  His application of a Shakespearean quote from Henry V illustrated a tension which existed in the British military chaplaincy.  It is the same tension the American military chaplaincy faces.  The institution is not pristine. There is evil and there is good within. To expect the chaplaincy as an institution to fit a utopian image of spiritual or moral perfection is unrealistic and overly optimistic.[9]  Yet, it is such a utopian expectation that the critics of the chaplaincy require for the chaplaincy to be justified in their eyes.  This is the expectation of Harvey Cox, who argues that the evil is poison to the good.  Louden suggests that both can exist beside one another, the person of God with the man of war.  But it is not easy, and it must permit a certain degree of accommodation.  Wise accommodation is important for the chaplain's effective prophetic presence in the Army.  There is a soul of goodness in accommodation.  It is in the care of people.

            Louden understands that by its very nature the chaplaincy has little to say to those who point to the conundrum of the institution.  Is it spiritual or is it military and secular?  There are many problems and red blood is on the hands of the chaplain.  Yes, it is the blood of identification with an institution of killing, as well as the blood of touching and comforting the dying, injured and those who kill.  Refusal to be tainted by association with the institution would mean being absent from ministry to the injured and dying as well as those who do the killing.   Indeed, the chaplaincy is a profession that blends the military and worldly as well as the religious.  It would be foolish to argue that the work of the chaplaincy is without any compromise or accommodation.  Compromise and accommodation are ever present.  Is it possible to gain some benefit from such an institution?  Is any benefit derived from the presence of an accommodating chaplain in the midst of war? 

            Some of the critics of the chaplain do not want to see red blood on the hands of the representative of God.  The critics view the marriage of the clergyperson and the military problematic, leading to an inevitable compromise of principles.  They have raised a very high bar indeed if they expect the chaplain to be totally insulated from even a hint of accommodation.  The nature of the beast requires a delicate balance between a prophetic voice and accommodation to reality, serving the state.  Achieving this balance is a source of tremendous tension and a challenge for chaplains who serve.  It is also a challenge for the state, which is obligated to tolerate the prophetic utterance among its servants.  If either the state’s secular or the chaplain’s religious purpose were to gain primacy in this dance, the program would fail. 

            American sociologist Gordon C. Zahn wanted to eliminate all chaplains from the military.[10]  His justification in essence was that they are unable to speak the truth prophetically and have become a part of a corrupt system, silenced by that system itself.[11]  To Zahn, Judeo-Christian religion anticipates a certain opposition to the world as a requirement for religious ministry.[12]  Military chaplains, as part of the evil system, are unable to function without compromise.  They will always fail to guide their constituents against the evil values of the worldly military.  They can’t turn their back on the institution and speak the truth they should, because the power and employment benefits of state are too lucrative.  The accusation is that the chaplains can't bite the hand that feeds them, that they are irredeemably compromised by their employer.  Zahn cites a World War II era directive from the German High Command which said that the chaplaincy served as a tool “strengthening the fighting power of the troops…like every German, the chaplain must also direct his entire work to the great objective of winning the war.”[13]  To Zahn there is no such thing as a prophetic chaplain.  All are compromised spiritually, mere assets of the state and the evil system.

            There may even be chaplains or commanders in the American Army today who would concur with the statement of the German High Command, and wish to employ their chaplains as assets of war, primarily.  There may be commanders or chaplains who would see no problem with employing chaplains as intelligence assets gaining information about local religious leaders and local people and their culture.  Sending the chaplain to a village and then debriefing them is only one illustration of numerous ways the chaplain might be utilized as an asset of warfare.  Would this pose a problem for the chaplain?  How far would he or she be willing to go?  Would it violate anything in his or her sense of religious mission?  Such questions need to be seriously considered, not only among chaplains, but by the denominations that send them to serve within the military.

            Zahn would see little difference from this portrayal of the chaplain in Nazi Germany and the prayer offered by the chaplain serving with Colonel George S. Patton III, in Vietnam, when he was asked to pray for a high body count.[14]  The chaplain prayed: “Oh Lord, give us the wisdom to find the bastards and the strength to pile on.”[15]  Zahn brutally applies his analysis of the German chaplaincy to the American chaplaincy.  Zahn presents a picture of a coldly rationalistic utilization of the chaplain for the sole benefit of the state, for its victory and mission success.  Whatever ministry the chaplain does is subservient to the state’s goals.  To Zahn, the chaplain can never have a valid prophetic ministry that confronts command; the chaplain's voice suffers paralysis and is unable to confront power as long as the chaplain serves the system.  To Zahn, the chaplain as a military person is a mere cog in the machine of war, who may last only a short time unassimilated, but in the end becomes a useful tool of an evil system.  Zahn would not abide Louden’s rationalization, that there is good in the bad, that the devil can be placated.  For Zahn, the occasional value of having legitimate ministry to soldiers and their families can never be a justification for the chaplain’s presence and his or her surrender to an evil system which corrupts the essence of what it is to be a person of God.

            Cox and many others serve as vivid critics of the chaplaincy, opposing the evil of war and the massive American military industrial complex of the time.  He views the chaplain as a compromiser with little believability, a person without integrity.  Cox complains that the military has “spread its metallic claws around the globe to hundreds of bases and bivouacs.”[16]  The chaplaincy, complicit in this enterprise, confronts us with conflicting claims of God and Caesar.[17]  What is to be believed from the testimony of the one who speaks the words of Caesar and the words of God from both sides of the mouth?  For Cox it is the “military industrial complex which laps up America’s wealth and at the same time advances Imperial America which is so corrupting.”[18]  Who would want to be such a chaplain?  How could a person of God serve such a monster?  The Army chaplain may be either a naive participant in the matter or complicit, a person without integrity.  Either way, the chaplain is painted red with the same blood guilt as the soldier by these critics.  These critics would question if a chaplain could ever exert a prophetic voice and challenge any evil, such as a My Lai or an Abu Gharib.

            The magazine, Christian Century, which often reflects positions sympathetic with the more liberal wing of North American Christianity, articulates a point-of-view which would enrage some anti-chaplaincy activists.[19]  The Christian Century in the past has expressed affinity more sympathetic to the position of Cox and Zahn, especially in the 1970’s.  Yet in June of 2003 the editor of the magazine, John M. Buchanan justified continued advertisement for the military chaplaincy in The Christian Century.  The Navy regularly places ads in religious magazines designed to encourage pastors to consider the chaplaincy as a feasible option for their ministry.  Buchanan responded to certain complaints from anti-war readers, who criticized such advertisements for chaplains in his magazine.  He said,

I’ve learned to respect those who minister, even if I disagree with what the military is doing.  The actions of the military and the role of chaplains are issues we will continue to address in the content of the magazine.  And we’ll continue to run ads for military chaplaincy. [20] 


            The tension is not an internal struggle only for chaplains.  It belongs to the broader Christian community; and in this case, the editor of The Christian Century admits the complexity.  In the article, “Congregation in Uniform,” he argues that to abandon those within the military culture by denying military chaplains would be more harmful than to provide the chaplains.  For that reason he acknowledges the need for military chaplains, for the sake of the men and women, the sons and daughters of America.[21]  

This statement suggests further reflection upon Louden’s quote of Shakespeare.  “There is some soul of goodness in things evil, would men observingly distil it out.”  The Army chaplain, even if he or she accommodates in some uncomfortable areas, still has a religious and pastoral worth.  Who would provide spiritual sustenance for men and women if not the chaplain?  In essence it is beneficial to have the chaplain in the system, even a system alien to the chaplain's own ideologies.  The chaplain performs spiritual work as a prophetic presence, even if toned down, but still as a religious act and with religious value. 

For the chaplain, a little accommodation is the price to pay for the joy of ministry to people in need.  Who will speak clearly on moral, ethical and spiritual issues, if not the chaplain?  Who will give voice to the needs of the exploited within the military bureaucracy, if not the chaplain?   Who will confront commanders and remind them of their obligation to do justice, if not the chaplain?  Who will point people to God in the midst of death and tragedy, if not the chaplain?  Obviously, others can fulfill some of these tasks, but it is the chaplain who is particularly called and assigned to take on such roles.           The chaplains may serve in the Army, yet they also come from a multitude of religious communities in the nation.  They are endorsed by them, nurtured by them and accountable to them to be uniquely prophetic.  These religious communities have various views on war.  Some of the churches in the United States which may condemn a specific war are faced with a dilemma if they wish to excise their chaplain from the military bureaucracy.  If they were to do so, they would eliminate their own prophetic presence in an institution in which many of their constituents serve faithfully. 

            So, what if the chaplains’ voices are silenced; and what if they are not prophetic when they need to be?   What if chaplains are discouraged from exercising the distinctive of their faith?  What if the demand for military uniformity attempts to swallow up denominational fidelity to a religious experience, practice or idea, to mute the chaplains' own prophetic gifting?  Would the pragmatic uniform expectations of an Army culture then mold the chaplain?  Would the religious communities be willing to accommodate the presence of their ministers in an institution of war if those ministers had no avenue to be who they have been called to be?


Where Were the Prophetic Voices of the Chaplains - My Lai?

            The Army chaplaincy connection to the My Lai atrocity and massacre of 16 March 1968 is but one example of a failure to provide relevant religious influence and prophetic intervention when it mattered. There were two chaplains involved in the cover-up tragedy, Francis R. Lewis and Carl E. Creswell.[22]    Lewis was the Americal Division chaplain and Creswell was the Americal Division Artillery Brigade chaplain, who was first told of the atrocity by a helicopter pilot, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson.  To a certain degree the chaplain contribution to the cover-up simply supports Cox’s claim that a chaplain is unable to speak out as a prophet in the military culture because he or she is ensnared by an evil system.

            The day after My Lai, 17 March 1968, the Sunday edition of the News Sheet, a publication of the Americal Division in Vietnam, reported that one hundred and twenty-eight enemy fighters were killed and thirteen suspects detained from the village of My Lai.[23]  What was not stated in this account was that war crimes had been committed, and that the “enemies” turned out to be noncombatant civilians.  Indeed, the casualty toll may have been more than five-hundred civilians.[24]  For almost a year the information of the event was held within the Americal Division; and no action was taken.  This allowed many of the participants enough time to leave the military and become legally unreachable. 

            The Army’s intense investigation began after the cover-up was exposed by Rob Ridenhour, who at the time was a young soldier who collected the information by hearsay.  When Ridenhour left the Army, he wrote letters to more than thirty congressmen and Senators.[25]  It was more than a year after the atrocity that Ridenhour’s letter made an impact.  He wrote the letter in March 1969, and the first news report was in November of 1969, reported by Seymour Hersh.[26]  Mo Udall was the Senator who eventually responded to his letter, and within two weeks the Pentagon initiated an investigation which ultimately resulted in key officers and enlisted soldiers being charged with court-martial offenses.  These charges included murder and assault to commit murder.  However, only one person was convicted.  Lieutenant William L Calley, Jr. was charged with premeditated murder in the killing of more than a hundred men, women and children.  At the time, popular opinion supported Calley and many viewed Calley as a scapegoat.  In fact, there was photographic and recorded evidence to convict him alone.  Other officers were not convicted although careers ended, eventually.  Calley was sentenced to life, but was released in 1975 after a long string of appeals. The chaplain involvement in this tragedy was no less than a heartrending failure to speak out and continue to do so until the truth became known.  It was a blind eye turned or an intentional reluctance to push aggressively for the truth concerning the murder of innocent civilians.

            A few days after the killings occurred, Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who witnessed the atrocity, went to his chaplain with the story, but nothing came of the encounter.  No chaplains were on the scene during the atrocity; however, Thompson indicated that innocent civilians had been slaughtered.[27]  The chaplain covering Thompson’s aviation unit, Creswell “verbally passed the report” to the Americal’s Division Chaplain, Francis R. Lewis.[28]  At this point the details are uncertain, because Lewis and others did not remember the precise content of conversations, which by the time of the trials had occurred, was a year and a half in the past.  Lewis claimed that he passed the information that Creswell gave to him to four staff officers.  He said that he was told that some of the officers were aware of the complaint and were looking into the matter.  Lewis then dropped the ball, believing that the issue was being dealt with. 

            Nearly a year later during the court-martial testimony, the staff officers did not remember the encounter as described by Lewis.  Indeed, two officers denied that Lewis had said anything to them. The failure to report this to the legal authorities by both chaplains contributed to the cover-up.  Lewis later said that he didn’t think that Creswell’s account warranted the attention.  Were the chaplains intentionally involved in a cover-up of the murders of innocent Vietnamese?  They may not have intentionally been, but their actions presented a picture of an ineffective response and hinted at a compromised system.  When the months passed without any action, the chaplain should have followed-up?  The Peers Report points out that the chaplains should have reported the war crimes to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command (CID).  The New York Times suggested that the silence on the part of the chaplains revived “the old two masters problem concerning chaplains in the armed forces,” meaning that it is difficult for a chaplain to serve the state and God at the same time.[29]  Indeed, this case tarnished the chaplaincy for years and became a case study in officer basic courses Army wide, including the chaplain school which trains all Army chaplains.  The United States Army Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas continues to use My Lai as a case study for its Intermediate Level Education (ILE) of its majors.[30]

            The investigation, headed by General William Peers, produced a blunt document, The Peers Commission Report, which recommended court-martial proceedings for both chaplains along with twenty six other officers and two enlisted photographers.  This included the most senior leaders of the Americal Division.[31]  The silence or failure to follow through on the part of the senior division chaplain and brigade chaplain was deemed an act worthy of court-martial by General Peers.  The junior chaplain reported the incident, but the senior chaplain failed to follow through with action.[32]  Both were obligated to act further according to the report.  Harvey Cox’s suggestion, that the Army chaplain may struggle as a prophetic voice in such an environment seems to be accurate in this case; these chaplains failed to provide prophetic leadership during an atrocity and war crime. 

            Cox suggested that the Army system and culture corrupted the chaplain’s involved, hindering their ability to do what was right.   Would a chaplain in the twenty-first century be able to resist this corruption?  Has the Army chaplaincy adjusted to this My Lai failure so that similar atrocities may be avoided, or at least reported and confronted?  If the Army chaplaincy failed to learn from My Lai, what will it do when confronted with contemporary atrocity or criminal activity such as at the Abu Gharib prison in Baghdad or several other places?[33] 

            A few units in Iraq, during the recent long war, have had battalion commanders or other senior officers relieved or disciplined.[34]  For example, LTC West, an artillery battalion commander, chambered a round and placed his weapon to the head of a man.[35]  Then there is the episode of the commander, popularly known as the Warrior King, LTC Nathan Sassaman, whose leadership approach got him in trouble.  He eventually left the Army reprimanded with an official statement in his file saying that his conduct was "wrongful, criminal and will not be tolerated."[36]  Have any battalion chaplains offered a prophetic presence for a commander helping him or her to avoid these kind of humiliating leadership failures?  A trusted and competent chaplain behind closed doors has the capacity tactfully to help a commander through the stressful clutter of war, to offer perspective or simply listen as an additional resource before things get out of hand.    The chaplain in a unit should exude a prophetic presence that reminds others of what is right and encourages others to be good and just.

            The chaplain must speak out when it is right to do so.  That is the requirement of being truly prophetic.  If this is not possible, then perhaps the argument of Cox or Zahn or some contemporary critic of the Army chaplaincy merits consideration.  A chaplain unwilling to speak to a commander over an issue of integrity or character or justice is a chaplain that need not exist at all.  As a branch, the Army chaplaincy should continue to equip its chaplains with helpful tools for navigating within the system as prophetic voices.  An Army chaplain must be more than a compliant servant of a massive bureaucracy; he or she is a servant of distinct religious groups, each with expectations that their chaplain's will minister with fidelity and integrity.  Chaplains work within a system needing a prophetic voice to provide effective religious care of people, despite the cost to the chaplain.


Accommodating the Blessing of Cannons

            Harvey Cox suggests that nearly all key theological voices-post 1945, Martin Buber, Reinhold Niebuhr, Juergen Moltman, and Johann Metz….all advocate the elimination of the idols of race and state from the religious community.[37]  To them the concept of the military chaplaincy reflected a bankrupt ideology, more of a crusade mentality-a relic of a bygone era.  Even if there are roots in western culture justifying the military chaplain, the institution itself violates the essence of what biblical religion is all about, according to the critics.  This attitude reflects a popular consensus of the Vietnam era criticism.  The critique could not envision the chaplain influencing or transforming the military culture.   The fear is much more that the chaplain’s employment would be as an asset of state warfare, a corruption of religious ministry.  

            The critics' portrayal of a military chaplain is that of a clergy person who functions as an apparatus to “bless the cannons.”  Indeed such behavior may fit the practice of a few chaplains, who would have no problem with the blessing of cannon as a means of identification with the work and person of the soldier.  Some chaplains would see no problem with such a tangible and visible symbolic commitment to success in a just war.  Other chaplains would have difficulty with such a practice, and would not join in the deed.  To the critics, blessings of this nature represent the chaplain as a willing and eager participant in war making.  Such actions also create expectations in units that replacement chaplains may not fulfill.  It is difficult to fit into the shoes of a tank-blessing chaplain when the battalion commander has the expectation that the chaplain will bless his tanks.  It’s not easy for a chaplain to say, “No sir, I won’t bless your tanks because my theology doesn't allow for that practice."  The commander's response could easily be, "Chaplain, just bless the tanks."  This is the kind of tension a chaplain may face when arriving into a unit where a commander has such expectations.  In truth, chaplains do refuse to do such things, but that decision is often made with a cost.  This is Zahn's concern and he gets to the heart of the matter.  What he fears most are perfunctory Enola Gay prayers.[38]  Can a chaplain pray for an atomic bomb to have a safe flight followed by a blessed impact upon the target?  Zahn refuses to accept that a minister of God might be identified with a Hiroshima like bombing.  To Zahn, the chaplain walking side by side in prayer with the man of war is problematic and scandalous.  No accommodation is possible.  Zahn's views have not disappeared from the scene. 

            The critics of the chaplaincy occasionally portray the chaplain as one engaged in the larding of sermons…“with the kind of fire-eating bombast best calculated to boost the morale of the fighting man and spur him on to the supreme sacrifice of life, if need be.”[39]  Sermons advocating or justifying war (and weapons blessings) are methods of some chaplains; other chaplains would see such polemic harmful to the essence and integrity of their efforts of prophetic ministry.  Indeed, partisan and politicized sermon making, diminishes a chaplain's spiritual authority as a unique person of God with a prophetic calling. 

            Chaplains, may struggle with such behavior, and may be reluctant to pray a prayer as crass as requesting a high body count for a combat operation.  But they would pray for safety and divine protection for their troops going out on a patrol.  Although the chaplain might not pray for a tank or an atomic bomb, prayer for the soldiers in the tank would be a viable option, an accommodation.  Chaplains must find a way to relate to the military culture in constructive ways that don’t violate the conscience of either the chaplain or the soldier.  To function in the Army system as a spiritual leader is a crucial objective for the chaplain.  This means that the chaplain must be able to offer justification for his or her presence.  For some chaplains this may be quite simple- a prayer for the tank.  Others may have difficulty and must find a reasoned method of accommodation.  The question of how far one goes to connect with soldiers in the military culture is a source of tension for the chaplain.      

            Occasionally in history chaplains have pushed the limits and even chose to bear arms.[40]  Much of the motivation for this may be to identify with their soldiers as well as self-preservation.  In late 2003 the Army Chief of Chaplains, Major General David H. Hicks, sent a letter to all major command chaplains in the United States Army, reemphasizing the noncombatant status of the chaplain.[41]  That this had to be done is a clear suggestion that there had been issues related to chaplains bearing arms in the War on Terror.  For example, an embedded reporter Adam Lusher, accompanied a Brigade Combat Team in an engagement.  He reported that an Army chaplain took up an M-16 weapon in April 2003 during a ten hour battle dubbed “The Battle of Moe, Larry and Curly.[42] 

            This issue of chaplains bearing arms had been dealt with during the Vietnam War.  One such instance can be viewed in the newsmagazine Time, which carried a popular photograph of a chaplain bearing arms with grenades attached to crossed ammunition belts.[43]  The Army chaplaincy confronted this problem because of negative media attention.  However, in this long war the issue has appeared once again at the highest levels of the Army.  A Chief of Chaplains August 2004 Newsletter rearticulated the policy.[44]  In the document Chaplain (MG) Hicks states that there had been serious consideration at the Department of the Army level to eliminate the noncombatant status for chaplains.  Hicks states, “but in the end, after hard work and prayer, we retained our noncombatant status as chaplains.[45] 

            If chaplains were to start to bear arms, soldiers and commanders would come to see them as an actual or potential combat asset, however miniscule. This would diminish their unique role as a profession set apart for religious work.  In order to oppose this pragmatic position, which was probably advocated by some commanders and a few more chaplains, a response was required of the Army chaplaincy.  The Chief of Chaplains, representing the chaplaincy as well as the American religious communities, spoke up prophetically and argued to maintain the traditional noncombatant status.  Such bold leadership at the highest level of the Department of the Army, to retain the noncombatant status for chaplains, is one example of prophetic leadership with institutional relevance.  Going toe to toe with the big bosses requires fortitude.  This is an illustration of a prophetic engagement by the Army chaplaincy which contradicted the now elderly scholarly doomsayers who during an earlier war nearly half a century ago, prophesied in a different way.


Accommodating the General with a Prayer

            “Chap, I need a weather prayer, now.”  The results driven style of leadership, hallmark of the focused commander, expects to employ the chaplain pragmatically.  Most chaplains have been asked to give weather prayers, and this becomes a matter of some note when they are in the field and weather conditions are less than perfect.  Some chaplains may feel discomfort about such encounters with their results driven commanders, as if they really could command the heavens with a prayer.  Then again, there are some chaplains who would feel up to the task.  When the sun shines, it is always a good day for a chaplain.

            In World War II, during the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, General Patton asked his chaplain for a weather prayer, for dry weather in December of 1944.  Chaplain O’Neill, the Third Army Chaplain told Patton, “May I say, General, that it isn’t a customary thing among men of my profession to pray for clear weather to kill fellow men.”[46]  Patton replied, “Chaplain, are you teaching me theology or are you the Chaplain of the Third Army?  I want a weather prayer.”  He wanted it “Now!”  The chaplain went out, drafted it and the prayer was published, printed and sent to the entire army on thousands of note cards.  When the weather improved the chaplain was awarded a bronze star and the event went into military folklore.  Not only is this part of American folklore, many commanders have heard this story; and they don’t hesitate in expecting the same results from their own chaplain’s weather prayer. 

            This suggests an apt question:  “What harm is there in accommodating the General with a weather prayer?”[47]  The chaplain’s encounter with Patton is a good illustration of a chaplain negotiating a potential conflict through deft and skill, through accommodation.  Chaplain O’Neill’s prayer is directed against the “oppression and wickedness” of the enemy, not toward the taking of life.  He followed his conviction and at the same time offered a prayer that pleased the commander.  Chaplains encounter such situations often.  They come in a multitude of guises, but in every scenario the chaplain needs wisdom.  O’Neill confronted a commander, General Patton, who might have felt far more comfortable with the prayer his son received from his own chaplain in Vietnam, “Oh Lord, give us the wisdom to find the bastards and the strength to pile on.”  Father O’Neill decided to hold onto his conviction that war was at best a necessary evil, and not pray for the death of the enemy.  This may be a fine point, but it does illustrate that chaplains are able to exert influence which mitigates the harshness of war, at least to a small degree.  It also shows there is no consensus in the chaplaincy in how to approach this subject.  One chaplain prays to pile it on the enemy; and one avoids praying for the death of the enemy, only that justice would prevail.  Each decides how to pray based upon his or her individual theological and philosophical perspective.  Yet, if the military and its chaplaincies were to proscribe a manner of prayer, these diverse forms of prophetic expression would be muted and the unique spirituality of chaplains quenched. 


Accommodation of Multiple Masters

            The dilemma of serving two masters is not a unique struggle of the chaplain.  Multiple roles which conflict occur in other professions too.  But the military chaplain is one of the best examples of a profession that by nature has built in tension.[48]  The picture of a clergyperson pledging allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and taking a vow to support and defend that Constitution, and at the same time maintaining commitment to God and a religious tradition, presents a picture of tension.  The Apostle Matthew wrote,

“No one can be the slave of two masters: he will either hate the first and love the second, or treat the first with respect and the second with scorn.” [49]


This text has often been cited as a portrayal of the work of the military chaplain.  This role conflict is a fundamental avenue of criticism for the opponents of the chaplaincy.  It unites the Vietnam era critics.  Indeed, even Korean War era sociologist Waldo W. Burchard argues that it “is impossible for a Christian in military service to reconcile this conflict.  If it is done at all it is through rationalization or compartmentalization.”[50]   

            Former World War II chaplain Robert McAfee Brown debates the policy of making ministers into soldiers, which in his words “legitimates war.”   “The chaplain constituted as a military officer “implies a virtually uncritical sanctioning or condoning of war.”[51]  He asks what would happen if the chaplain came “to see that killing, even in warfare, is an evil that must be directly opposed rather than indirectly sanctioned.”[52] Would the chaplain then resist speaking his or her mind, or would he stay in the system and attempt to work internally, silencing his or her prophetic urge for a greater purpose.  Ultimately this is about the freedom to speak truth, to be prophetic about convictions.  Brown argues that the chaplain must speak out; but he doesn’t believe the chaplain would resist immoral policies.  The silence of the prophet communicates agreement with the evil, according to Brown.  Brown served at the end of World War II as a military chaplain and later became an anti-war voice until his death in 2001.[53]


Today's Uniquely Prophetic Chaplains

             Not all who observe the Army chaplaincy today would agree with Cox, Zahn, Burchard or Brown concerning the hypocrisy of the chaplaincy.  In the twenty-first century, the make-up of the Army chaplaincy is ethnically, religiously and philosophically diverse, reflecting a variety of denominations and levels of acceptance of warfare as a means to resolve conflict.   Most chaplains would hold to a just war theory of sorts, but some chaplains may have views reflecting the position of their own anti-war denominations.  This diversity of religious and cultural background among chaplains is a healthy reality.  The diversity of prophetic perspective and expression among chaplains should be valued and encouraged, because it honors American cherished national values of freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

            Today the Army chaplain has excellent media exposure.  Scores of books on the market highlight chaplains doing their job as pastors to soldiers.  One simply has to attend and observe a few military funerals of American veterans, many of whom served in the last century, to appreciate this; and over three thousand of these veterans have given their lives in the past few years.  The chaplains exert a visible and trusted pastoral presence that has gained wide respect from the nation.  Popular culture also reflects positively on the chaplains.  Recent films episodically have portrayed chaplains in a more positive fashion.  Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan shows a chaplain on Omaha Beach praying for wounded and dying soldiers.[54]  In the recent HBO series Band of Brothers chaplains are portrayed both as paratroopers and in the field recklessly providing pastoral care to soldiers in the midst of combat.[55]  News media attention of chaplains has also been positive.  Chaplains are portrayed on the nightly news in ways challenging some of the negative stereotypes from the Vietnam era. 

            The nature of the chaplain’s role continues to be debated within and outside of the military.  The denomination that appoints the chaplain may have rejected the decision of the Bush Administration to go to war in Iraq.  Actually, several major US churches opposed the invasion of Iraq based upon their understanding of the concept just war and these churches reject US policy and the use of military force.  Where does that leave their chaplains who serve?   Most of the chaplains reconcile the differences and continue to serve in the military.  On occasion a chaplain will leave the service for such considerations of conscience, but this is not common.  Most retain their professional identity as a minister within an institution of war through accommodation.  They choose to live with the tension, even if many of their fellow civilian ministers protest and regard them as outcasts.  The nation should be thankful for these military prophets of God who willingly embrace a new culture that often causes tension and may even alienate them form the communities from which they came.


Concluding Comment

            The paper explored the idea that American chaplains, if prophetic, will experience tension between the demands of their religious calling and those expectations of the governmental institution they voluntarily serve.  A few decades ago, these tensions drew the focused attention of Vietnam era critics of the chaplaincy such as theologian Harvey Cox and sociologist Gordon Zahn, as well as others.  They argued that the chaplaincy could not exist as a servant of the state and serve God at the same time.  They believed that corruption of the system would make it impossible for a chaplain to survive as a person of integrity, that he or she would become absolutely compromised. 

            I have sought to show that although the work of the chaplain does have tension points, each chaplain can creatively employ wise accommodation in order to perform an effective religious care of soldiers.  This is not a perfect arrangement.  Being a chaplain is not the same as serving as a pastor in a parish or a local religious community.  But it is a productive vocation and allows the chaplain to be an instrument of transformation for people and the Army as an institution.   This fascinating balancing act would never be successful without the generous blessing of the American churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious communities which endorse their chaplains, nurture them and hold them accountable to their God.



[1] The category “authorized personnel” would include Department of Defense employees, other branches of the military, joint forces or categories such as contractors, often based upon prior contractual and legal arrangements.

[2] Harvey Cox G., ed. Military Chaplains: From Religious Military to a Military Religion (New York: American Report Press, 1973), v. 

[3] The Random House Webster’s College Dictionary gives seven various definitions for the word prophet. This paper primarily uses the seventh definition: “a person who speaks for some doctrine, cause, or movement.”   In relationship to the Army chaplain’s role as a prophet, the chaplain speaks boldly and truthfully concerning issues that impact matters of conscience and human dignity.  This may involve “going toe to toe with the boss,” in private; on occasion this may negatively impact a chaplain’s career.  

[4] Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (Boston: Beacon, 1922), 46.

[5] Ibid, 55.

[6] Sometimes a chaplain may have to raise an issue above a commander, especially if the issue has to do with the care or health of another person.

[7]Henry V, Act 4, scene 1, quoted in Stephen H. Louden, Chaplains in Conflict: The Role of Army Chaplains since 1914 (London: Avon Books, 1996), 1.

[8] Ibid.

[9] The chaplaincy is secular in the sense that chaplains, have responsibilities a traditional pastor may not have, work as a staff officer and may even have additional duties; the chaplaincy is religious in that chaplains have religious responsibilities similar to a pastoral role.

[10] Gordon C. Zahn, The Military Chaplaincy: A Study of Role Tension in the Royal Air Force (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969).  Zahn may not wish to eliminate ministers from influencing the military but he was committed to eliminating chaplains as military officers from the military "…the pastor in uniform constitutes an affirmation–rightly or wrongly so-that there is no basic incompatibility between the values represented by the religious community and the war being waged by the secular ruler." Zahn, The Military Chaplaincy, 225.

[11] Gordon C. Zahn, “Sociological Impressions of the Chaplaincy,” Harvey G. Cox, ed., Military Chaplains: From Religious Military to a Military Religion (New York: American Report, 1973), 85-86.  Zahn also did a study of the RAF chaplaincy, The Military Chaplaincy: A Study of Role Tension in the Royal Air Force (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969).

[12] Zahn’s focus only on Judeo-Christian religion would not fit a contemporary critique of the chaplaincy as an institution because the institution today has chaplains from other world religions and is more diverse.

[13] Zahn, 60.  This is a quote from Albrecht Schubel, 300 Jahre Evangelische Soldatenseelsorge (Muenchen: Evangelischer Presse Verband Fuer Bayern, 1964), 145.

[14] General Patton’s son died in 2004.

[15] Doris L. Bergen, The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004), 236.

[16] Cox, Military Chaplains, vii.

[17] Cox, xii.

[18] Cox, vii.

[19] By “liberal wing” I mean those Christian churches and individuals that generally in most cases reject war, particularly and enthusiastically the war in Iraq.

[20] John M. Buchanan “Congregation in Uniform” Christian Century (June 14 2003), 3.

[21] Ibid.  The protested add was for the Navy chaplaincy.

[22] Roger R. Venzke, Confidence in Battle, Inspiration in Peace: The United States Army Chaplaincy 1945-1975 (Washington D. C.: Office of the Chief of Chaplains, Department of the Army, 1977), 157-159.

[23] Americal News Sheet, 17 March 1968, 1. Quoted in Venzke, 156.

[24] “Department of the Army, Report of the Department of the Army Review of the Preliminary Investigations into the My Lai Incident” (The Peers Report), Volumes I-III (1970).

[25] Douglas Linder, “Famous American Trials, July 2004, <> (accessed 2 January 2006).  This site at the University of Missouri Kansas City contains many of the primary documents of the My Lai atrocity and is worth review.

[26] Doug Linder, Famous American Trials: The My Lai Court-Martial 1970, <> (accessed 2 January 2006).  Seymour M. Hersh, My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and its Aftermath (New York: Random House, 1970), xii. The first mention of the atrocity was in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch 13 November, 1969.

[27] Chaplains were assigned to the Calley’s brigade but heard nothing of the crime, nor were they present.

[28] Venzke, 158.

[29] New York Times, 30 January 1972, 6.

[30] CGSC AY 06-07: L100 Leadership Advance Sheets and Readings (US Army Command and General Staff College: Fort Leavenworth, Kansas April 2006), L106RB-303.  This chapter contains excerpts taken from the official report of the commission by LTG Peers.  L100 is a common core document used in the Army's Intermediate Level Education (ILE) for its majors.

[31] “Department of the Army, Report of the Department of the Army Review of the Preliminary Investigations into the My Lai Incident” (The Peers Report), Volumes I-III (1970): Section Six: Suppression and Withholding of Information.  The chaplain was criticized along with the Division staff: “As discussed in Chapter 10 of the report, shortly after 16 March 1968, W01 Thompson went to the Division Artillery Chaplain, CPT Carl Creswell, with a report of what he had seen at My Lai (4).  Chaplain Creswell in turn, without reporting the matter to his commander, went to the Division Chaplain, LTC Francis Lewis, with the story.  As previously discussed, LTC Lewis' efforts at investigation were futile and he allowed the matter to pass without substantive effort to bring it to the attention of his superiors.”

[32] W. R. Peers, The My Lai Inquiry (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1979), 214-215.  In addition to the chief of staff and other staff officers the commission proposed that charges be preferred against the division chaplain.  Charges were never filed.

[33] The assumption with this statement is that chaplains are visible engaged, involved in such facilities.  For a chaplain to be assigned to a detainment facility without ability to constructively be prophetic is another matter.

[34] CGSC AY 06-07: L100 Leadership Advance Sheets and Readings. 

[35] Ibid., L105RC-255.  From a brief synopsis of the LTC West case, compiled by efforts of JAG students of the CGSC AY05-06-001 class.

[36] Ibid, L106RA-300. Article reproduced from the New York Times dated October 23, 2005. by Dexter Filkins.  Few of us have walked in the shoes of a West or a Sassaman.  I do not want to misrepresent their honorable contribution and service in this paper.  Mentioning their examples is meant to be purely illustrative, suggesting that a chaplain does potentially have great influence if he or she is engaged relationally with the boss and his or her door is open.  I believe that effective chaplains can be a great resource for the commander, appropriately offering in confidence divergent perspective assisting him in his own decision making process, even in situations as these.  Whenever I see a tragic media scandal, I am one who always asks where the chaplain was.  Was he or she engaged or neutered.

[37] W. E. Peers, The My Lai Inquiry, x.

[38] Zahn, “Sociological Impressions of the Chaplaincy” from Cox, 59.  Enola Gay was a B-29 Superfortress bomber which dropped "Little Boy", on Hiroshima.  This was the first atomic bomb dropped in war.

[39] Zahn from Cox, 59.

[40] This is currently contrary to Army Chief of Chaplains Policy.

[41] David H. Hicks to MACOM Chaplains, 4 September 2003, “Chief of Chaplains Policy Concerning Chaplains Bearing Arms,” Office of the Chief of Chaplains, Washington, D. C.

[42] Adam Lusher, “The 10-hour battle for Curly, Larry and Moe,”, 13 April 2003 <> (accessed 2 January 2006).

[43] Venzke, 149.

[44] “The US Army Chief of Chaplains Newsletter: August 2004, Department of the Army, Washington D.C.

[45] Ibid.

[46] James O’Neill, “The True Story of the Patton Prayer,” (Washington, D. C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1950. cited in The Army Chaplaincy: Professional Bulletin of the Unit Ministry Team (Spring 1995), 20.

[47] Ibid. O’Neill’s actual prayer did not ask God to kill the enemy.  He phrased it in such a way to keep his own conviction that one should not pray for the death of another human being.  The text follows: Prayer:  Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend.  Grant us fair weather for Battle.  Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies and establish Thy justice among men and nations.  Amen.

[48] Physicians also face similar issues.

[49] Matthew 6:24, New Jerusalem Bible.

[50] Waldo W. Burchard, “Role Conflicts of Military Chaplains,” American Sociological Review, vol 19, no. 5 (Oct., 1954): 528-535.  See also Waldo W. Burchard, “The Role of the Military Chaplains,” (Doctoral Dissertation, University of California at Berkeley, 1953).

[51] Brown, 142.

[52] Ibid, 142-143. If that were the case, then every chaplain would be compelled to leave the institution.

[53] John Dart, “Frontline Theologian: Robert McAfee Brown (1920-2001),” Christian Century, 10 October 2001, <> (accessed 2 January 2006). Brown was not a total pacifist.  He thought the war to stop Hitler was a just war, however, he was quite prominent in criticism of the Vietnam and Gulf wars.

[54] Saving Private Ryan, dir. Steven Spielberg, DreamWorks and Paramount, 1998, CD.

[55] Band of Brothers, dir. David Frankel and Tom Hanks, 6 discs, HBO Home Video, 2002, CD.