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

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It's only really in the 20th century that you get the idea that a chaplain also has a kind of a counseling role.

Do you include in that moral counseling to commanders?

That is the most interesting question, particularly in the context of the war you're looking at right now [Iraq]. That role has never been the official job of a chaplain. Even in cases where the discussion has been, for example, [that] a chaplain has a duty to be the conscience of the military, that has been a very contested role for chaplains. Chaplains who have taken that upon themselves have frequently found that it's not a role that their military superiors welcome from them.

[For example] Kermit Johnson, who opposed the Reagan administration's policies regarding nuclear weapons and El Salvador placed himself in an untenable position. He was basically pushed out of his position as chief of chaplains.

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.

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