Faith: Chaplains -- the unarmed heroes

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Editor
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 19 (UPI) -- When the war finally comes, some of the greatest heroes will be men and women in officers' uniforms but armed only with the Bible or the Koran, and a communion kit if they are Christians.

These are the military chaplains. Some will be right in the front lines. Some will get wounded or even killed, leaving behind wives, husbands and children. Many are reservists, who normally have parishes or work in hospitals or prisons, but now they have to bid temporarily farewell to their families.


One woman minister from New England is on her way to the Middle East, knowing that she will probably not see her father again. He is dying of cancer.

Then there are moral concerns. What if you are ambiguous about this particular war? What if this topic comes up in talks with soldiers you are counseling?


I pondered these questions with Rev. William P. Mahedy, who was a Catholic chaplain in Vietnam, then became an Episcopal priest and worked with veterans. Mahedy, who is now retired and lives in San Diego, wrote one of the most marvelous books on this subject.

Titled, "Out of the Night," it describes the Vietnam veterans' spiritual darkness as "an overpowering awareness of the context of human sin." As a former Augustinian monk, Mahedy excels in making proper theological distinctions.

"In theological terms, war is sin," he wrote. "This has nothing to do with whether a particular war is justified or whether isolated incidents in a soldier's war were right or wrong. The point is that was as a human enterprise is a matter of sin... It produces alienation from others and nihilism, and it ultimately represents a turning away from God."

So would he then tell soldiers this during the heat of the battle? "Of course not," Mahedy, 66, replied. "If I were still on active duty I would be with them right to where they face the enemy. If they asked me whether they were morally right or wrong I would tell them that the moral responsibility lies not with them but their commander-in-chief."


This is clear from Scripture, it's the essence of the just war doctrine laid down very early in the Bible -- in chapter 20 of the Book of Deuteronomy, explained Maj. Kalman Dubov, a rabbi and chaplain at Offutt Air Force Base, in Nebraska.

Of course when theologians refer to sin in a martial context, they don't mean "sins" such as adultery or theft or coveting. Instead, they mean sin as an ontological state -- sin as another word for man's estrangement from God, original sin, then, which is "brooding over the (fallen) world," as Helmut Thielicke phrased it at the end of World War II in a breathtaking sermon on the Lord's Prayer.

How do you prepare a young man or woman for the inevitable in combat? How do you prepare a soldier that he or she will become aware of the overwhelming power of sin in this sense of the word?

"No-one has prepared me," said the Rev. Philip Salois who as a combat soldier was awarded a Silver Star for bravery in Vietnam, where in a battle under the dark impression of estrangement he vowed to become a priest if he came out of this alive.


Salois later founded the National Conference of Vietnam Veteran Ministers. He retired from the Army reserves only a few months ago and was thus spared from having to go back to war -- this time as a chaplain. He has reservations about the conflict in Iraq but says he would have gone. Given his ambiguities, what would he have told the soldiers?

"You must pick up your responsibilities with as much moral conviction as you can."

Men like Salois and Mahedy have of course long passed the line American and allied soldiers are approaching. When they talk about war and peace they do not use mushy slogans.

Steeped in his Augustinian theology, Mahedy said that a peace in the much-abused sense of the Hebrew word shalom is not what can be hoped for in this coming war -- or any war for that matter.

"According to Isaiah, shalom is the vision of the 'latter days' when people will bear swords into ploughshares and nation will not lift up a sword against nation. It is a messianic vision," explained Mahedy. Hence it is an eschatological state -- it comes at the end of times.

But then there is pax, the Latin word for peace in the penultimate sense. Said Mahedy, "It is peace of the ordered political community that makes corporate existence a possibility. It is the absence of conflict... It has to do with proximate justice, compromise, half a loaf, negotiation, prudence, balance of power."


So it's "pax" the warriors are fighting for -- not something sinless but nonetheless just "coram hominibus" (before mankind).

However, this presupposes not only theological 'ius ad bellum" (right to go to war) and the "ius in bello" (right conduct in war) theories; also imposes "post bellum" (post-war) reflections -- here and now.

There is, Mahedy said, the principle of honorable surrender that protects the fundamental human rights of the vanquished. There is the principle of restoration: "Victors should return to the battlefield to remove the instruments of war and assist in the repair of the social infrastructure."

Finally, there is the principle of moral, spiritual and psychological healing of veterans and victims of both sides, insists Mahedy, who has spent decades doing ministry among the human wrecks left behind by Vietnam and other conflicts.

Perhaps the most devastating aspect of warfare, Mahedy and Salois agree, is the spiritual impact of killing on the warriors. It remains with the soldiers for the rest of their lives. It gets worse with age when a veteran's body weakens and exposes the soul's vulnerability.

Again, this has nothing to do with whether a war was just "coram hominibus" (before man). "Among the veterans I worked with was a former Royal Air Force pilot, who fought in a conflict he found perfectly just -- World War II. And yet he was shaken with remorse over the many German civilians he has killed."


This, then, is where the chaplain's work is so important: To be sure, he has to prepare a soldier for the eventuality of death. More importantly, though, a chaplain must do everything in his or her power to prevent a warrior's loss of faith, which in the raw encounter with death and destruction -- expressions of man's estrangement from God -- is manifestly the greatest danger of his craft.

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