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

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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.

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