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01 September 2008


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Patrick Lang


"Should chaplains ignore these issues in their jobs? If their jobs are incompatible with their sense of morality, what should they do?"

I think that any officer in any armed force should not do things incompatible with their sense of morality. Commissioned officers in the US armed forces serve under different circumstances than enlisted personnel. They can resign from the service. Under wartime conditions it may not be possible to immediately obtain the agreement of the government to that resignation, but the procedure exists. For example, an officer serving in Iraq might have to wait for his unit to return from the combat zone to "get out."

It used to be the case that a chaplain's commission was more of an administrative convenience than anything else. Nobody took the rank very seriously and a chaplain has no authority to command anyone except his assistant. A chaplain's name is normally written thusly "Chaplain (captain) John Jones." It might be better if chaplains were not officers.

Archbishop O'Brien was then head of the military archdiocese of the United States. This is the catholic administrative "district"that deals with the spiritual needs of Catholics in the armed forces and Foreign Service worldwide. In fact the pope's opinion on foreign affairs is just his opinion. Given O'Brien's job and his personal status as a retired US Army chaplain I think he would have had little choice but to resign as head of the military diocese if he had been profoundly in distress over the Iraq War.

This discussion brings to mind the scene in the film, "Ulzana's Raid" in which the very young lieutenant tells his commanding officer that he believes that he can be a "christian soldier." The major looks doubtful and responds, "Maybe..." pl


My comment on the prayer thread was not published. I tried to include more people in current catastrophes and that probably was the reason.

As to chaplains in the military I have a mixed experience and feeling.

My German tank battalion from was once send of to Shilo, Canada for tank gunnery training. A protestant and a catholic chaplain accompanied us. The catholic brought two big guns with him as he planed to use the 'vacation' to shot moose.

When in Shilo a battalion wide interfaith service was planned and my captain ordered the whole company to take part. That order was outright illegal. I explained this to others and we didn't follow that order.

After a short, lively discussion this was accepted and we were then ordered to instead clean up our barracks. That was a somewhat illegal order too, but we did it as the point was made.

While I have nothing against chaplains in the field, I always wonder how much they indeed further the war effort and how that reconciles with the peace they preach.

I see the danger of proselytizing (see Air Force Academy) especially to people under pressure. It adds the 'guilt' of being non-religious on top of other war problems an agnostic or atheist soldier may have.

In my view to comfort the troops should be the job of NCO's and officers, not that of outsiders.


As a taxpayer, I'd rather my defense dollars go to military chaplains than go to useless weapons systems.


I was baptised by a US Army chaplain who was later captured by the Japanese Army on Bataan, confined at Camp O'Donnell, PI and then executed by the sword there. So, I have a point of view.

Japanese Army and Bataan? You must have been a very, very young man then?

I liked your prayer. I like two things about it. First it shows your concern for others. And second there is indeed not much else one can do in certain situations.

That said: I think basically ethics may well be beyond religion, as religion has a problematic symbiotic history with power.

The German Egyptologist http://www.amazon.com/s/102-6070186-7889751?ie=UTF8&tag=mozilla-20&index=blended&link_code=qs&field-keywords=Jan%20Assmann&sourceid=Mozilla-search> Jan Assman once said something wonderfully simple about the monotheist religions:

All have two essential components, he said, one we never can never ever give up, the other we have to watch carefully.

a) help the poor, care for the helpless

b) to fight "the other".

Dave of Maryland

Soldiers under fire need chaplains as much as a man in front of a firing squad needs a blindfold. (Most crave blindfolds. I was in a similar situation once.)

Well, okay. They need GOOD chaplains. How many good ones are there in the army? I don't know.

Patrick Lang


Two weeks old to be specific. Catholic children are baptised as infants.

I never met the man, but heard about him and his end from my parents who were quite bitter about it.

Under the Geneva Conventions chaplains and medical personne are not combatants and properly should not be held as POWs at all.

The distinction was lost on the Japanese. pl

Jim V

As an atheist, I am sorry that apparently some people were boorish enough to object to your making a sincere expression of faith on your own blog. Shame on them.

There have been some great comments on this post.

Personally, I would vote "no" on the issue of military chaplains, for the same reason I would vote against leaving out milk and cookies for the leprechauns at night on military bases (a clumsy attempt to show my world view, not meant to be an insult), but am happy to abide by the will of the majority - which appears to be in favor of the proposition.

frank durkee

a question not a post. Yesterday there were reports that the Dutch had brought part of their espionage team out of Iran on the assumption that the US planned at least cruise missle attack in the near future. what credence do you give this, if any?
Frank Durkee


Obviously! Sometimes my gray cells are knotted up. Last time something similar happened to me, I seem to have made myself an enemy for life.

I hope you are less unforgiving. ;)

Cold War Zoomie

I think it's A-OK to have chaplains on the federal payroll in order to be at service for active duty personnel, akin to psychiatrists, psychologists and medical personnel. If you need their services, you go to them. In fact, it's more than A-OK - it's a serious need.

The slope gets slippery when my tax money is spent actively proselytizing, especially by officers in a direct chain of command. It's tough as a junior enlisted guy to say "no" to a senior NCO or any officer.

As far as I'm concerned, proactive proselytizing in the military is unconstitutional since an officer of the USG is promoting religion, regardless of the faith or denomination.


Obviously! Sometimes my gray cells are knotted up. Last time something similar happened to me, I made myself an enemy for life. ;)

I hope you are less unforgiving.

Patrick Lang




Proselytization in the chain of command should be a court martial offense. I never saw that in the Army. Today? Who knows? pl


As the stepmom of a naval chaplain who has two deployments to Iraq with the Marines under his belt, of course I'm definitely in favor of military chaplains. My son is a Lutheran minister, but his major function with his troops is as a morale officer. His role was not only to minister to his men, but to keep his Battalion CO abreast of any difficulties, especially between the men and their officers. He traveled every day of the week to various outposts and FOBs staying in touch, getting the pulse, and was so well thought of after the first deployment that the CO pushed to have him remain with the unit for their second deployment 2 years later, definitely not SOP in the naval chaplain corps.

Marc served as substitute father, brother, son; as a counselor, listener, and mediator; and as a confessor and minister. We are all very very proud of his calling and of his service. And I would imagine that a definite majority of the men he served with would say they were lucky to have him.

While not every military chaplain is going to be as effective as my son, I know there is a real place for them in the military. They are a balance, a reminder of what lies on the other side of war for those fortunate to make the trip home. In fact, a good portion of his duties related to transitioning the men back to life at home, a process that started when they were still under fire in Iraq--talk about doing double duty.

Having written and corresponded with him sometimes daily during those times, I am proud to say that he's my hero. Interestingly enough, he and I are also at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, but my admiration of him and his job is unqualified.

Sidney O. Smith III

I am all for military chaplains. Absolutely. My aunt was married to one. He died on the USS Forrestal before I was born.

And wasn’t the Grunt Padre -- Fr. Vincent Capocanno -- loved by all?

But here’s as an interesting twist -- one that is the inverse of a chaplain facing the moral dilemma of ministering during a war that fails to satisfy the “just war” doctrine.

Chris Hedges has written that right wing evangelists are attempting to take over the chaplaincies. I have absolutely no idea if he is right. But here’s a quote and a link:

“The drive by the Christian right to take control of military chaplaincies, which now sees radical Christians holding roughly 50 percent of chaplaincy appointments in the armed services and service academies, is part of a much larger effort to politicize the military and law enforcement.”



Col. Lang:

I can’t allow the discussion of chaplains in the military to pass without mentioning Patton directing all his chaplains to pray for dry weather when his Third Army was stuck in the mud just prior to the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944. He specifically ordered his own Third Army Chaplain, Chaplain O’Neill, to write a prayer for dry weather for battle.

Colonel Paul Harkins, Patton’s deputy Chief of Staff, recorded the event and writes in the Atkinson Edition of Patton’s War As I Knew It that after receiving O’Neill’s prayer Patton agreed to create a Christmas card to be distributed to the troops with Christmas greetings on one side and the chaplain’s prayer on the other.

Harkins continues:

“Whether it was the help of the Divine guidance asked for in the prayer or just the normal course of human events, we never knew; at any rate, on the twenty-third, the day after the prayer was issued, the weather cleared and remained perfect for about six days. Enough to allow the Allies to break the backbone of the Von Rundstedt offensive and turn a temporary setback into a crushing defeat for the enemy.”


I'm another lapsed Catholic--though getting a bit more spiritual the older I get--and appreciated your thoughts and prayers for the gulf coast.

Whether atheists/agnostics/secularists, who on earth would begrudge someone their kind thoughts?

And, best of all, your prayers seemed to work!

As for chaplains . . . . as long as they don't proselytize to those disinterested, why would anyone care? If properly trained, they should be an asset to all, the unbeliever, and the believer.

Neil Richardson

Dear Colonel,

IMHO when young men and women face the loneliest hours of their lives, I absolutely want chaplains around if the kids seek them for inner comfort. We ask our people to make sacrifices and many do so willingly. The least we could do for them is to make sure that their spiritual needs are taken care of in times of need.

Cold War Zoomie

I never saw that [proselytizing] in the Army. Today? Who knows?

Col Lang,
I never saw it in the 1980s, either. But times have changed...

Wash Post Article

Pew Article


This does not mean we should get rid of the chaplain services at all. Just reign in the ones who are pushing the boundaries.


Early in my active duty career, I wondered what a chaplain really did. That question did not last long in my mind because it quickly became apparent that chaplains were the "go-to" person when problems that did not have a well defined organizational answer arose. Unless you have been in the military, it is a little hard to explain that there are times when the good of the service clashes with the needs of the soldier. A lot of the time this is either due to lack of character on the part of the soldier or the commander/supervisor, but there are times when the balance of individual need and group need is not that clear. Because chaplains are outside of the chain of command yet they hold a certain moral gravitas in a command, they can facilitate a reasonable answer in times when reason is lost in the process. This has nothing to do with the specific religion of the chaplain but more to do with the fact that being a pastor is about taking care of the flock.

I can recall several instances in which the chaplain ended up deciding what to do with a member when the commander and the doctors were at odds (I was in a medical unit.) While the chaplain did not have the authority or the expertise to deal with the situation, they were the logical (in a military sense) person to help resolve the issue.

I am still of the opinion that chaplains are just barely qualified to serve in any capacity and that they don't have much relevance in the military if you just look at the purpose of the military, but most chaplains I know are very military in their outlook, understand the needs of both the military and the soldiers, and do that part of the job very well.

William R. Cumming

Actually the Chaplin corps is a military necessity and therefore should be continued. It provides the most rudimentary counseling and social services to our troops but does so on the cheap so to speak because military leaders don't realize that modern medicine and psychology and social work have come a long way since WWII. We should be giving dirct commissions to MSW's (Master of Social Work in Clinical Social Work) who could assist the troops for the whole range of probems they assist non-military individuals and families. Being brave and honorable does not mean that all are capable of resisting the difficulties brought on by service in or out of a combat zone. Time for modernization of social services in the military. And keep the Chaplin corps for it presence and accessibility when civil church organizations are too remote or unable to service the troops. PL you are amazing. The diversity of your posts makes me think the ARMY had difficulty keeping you in a box. Fortunely, you must have had some great mentors that protected your right to THINK. Glad they did that service for the rest of us.


Dear Col. Lang,
Yes, the military should retain chaplains.

I thought it was a beautiful, thoughtful prayer. Then again, I believe in them.


Yes, but...

It's a slippery slope.



If it can be kept on a personal basis where everyone can practice their beliefs as they wish, then yes. But not if chaplains are used to indoctrinate our troops or frame their mission in religious terms, or punish those whose personal beliefs differ.

Great question.


Interesting question, and one I have no ready answer for. I have always been wondering on how the military clerics themselves manage to reconcile the words of the good man jesus with the realities of combat, at least within a protestant parameter of individual responsibility unto God, etc. Id really would like to hear from one how that functions, as well as what the rules for dealing with muslims, buddhists, atheists, asatru and wiccan soldiers are. (Hail Ty!)

When I served, the chaplain wasnt visible unless you went to him, but that was in peacetime Norway so it doent really count. I would be interested in hearing how a chaplain functions inside the muslim countries of Iraq and Afghanistan. ALso, the tales I hear from the Air Force Academy seem to be tales of quite agressive evangelical chaplains?


As a retired GI I knew that the reason we wore tree-colored clothes wasn't to look chic; it was to hide in the tules to whack our fellow man like Cain whacked Abel.

Regardless of the cause, the day-to-day business of soldiering in war is the devil's work and no error. We may fight for truth and justice but to do so we rip bodies, kill innocents (sometimes - we try not to, but we do) and burn their homes. Any professional Christian cleric who doesn't see a contradition between this and the peaceable kingdom his boss preached needs to recheck his mission statement.

So while I have no problem with the military wanting chaplains, the sort of person who would want to be a Christian chaplain has me wondering which lectures in seminary he/she slept through...

And, as an aside, my experience was that Catholic priests were often terrific chaplains, possibly because they were, in effect, "draftees". Prods tended to be bone-ignorant fundamentalist hicks (with some notable exceptions) that you couldn't trust to do simple things like sraighten out problems - all they wanted to do was notch another born-again on the spiritual bedpost. I never saw a rabbi or a muslim or a buddhist.

Patrick Lang


Like everyone else I like to write about myself. Self reference is the ultimate self indulgence of a writer.

I had a mixed bag of commanders and bosses in the government and business.

Some depended on me for creative solutions and for impatience with what I saw as ineffective thinking.

Others either hated me on sight or grew to hate me. I am not good at hiding it if I think you are wrong.

In the words of "The Dude," I abided.

The saving grace was that I was sometimes useful. pl

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