Three years and some change have passed since I returned from Iraq. I originally wrote this article for my former church immediately after returning home. At the time that I wrote it I was well on the way to my psychological and spiritual crash due to PTSD which at the time of writing this I clueless about despite lots of warning signs. Now well into recovery of my life and faith albeit in a different faith community as I was asked to leave my former church last September because I was now “too liberal” I have decided to repost it without any new edits or additions. I do this because for me it is a touch point in relation to being a chaplain serving with military professionals, volunteers fighting a series of unpopular wars. My problem and I think why I keep ending up here is that I was not always a Chaplain. I was not always a Chaplain but I am also a historian and more specifically a military historian and to some degree theorist. Additionally I have served as an enlisted man in the Army National Guard and as a line officer in the Army in command and staff positions before I became a Chaplain first in the Army and then in the Navy, taking a reduction in rank from a senior Army Major to a no time in grade Navy Lieutenant to enter the Navy in February 1999. As such a lot of what I study is military history and the social-political dimension of it. I graduated from Marine Corps Command and Staff College and was about halfway through my Masters in Military History program of study when I was alerted that I was to be sent to Iraq in the Spring of 2007. As part of both the Command and Staff College and the degree program I spent a lot of time studying counterinsurgency campaigns, especially those of the French in Indo-China and Algeria and I saw many parallels between the professional French soldiers and officers who served in the Paratroops, Foreign Legion and Colonials (Marines) and our military in relation to society and politics in both countries As I point out in the article professional our all volunteer professional military is far different than the men of the Greatest Generation who were for the most part draftees as well as the military that fought in Vietnam the bulk of which were draftees. This comment is in no way to cast dispersion on the brave men who fought so bravely in both wars, it is just a statement of fact as our military culture is different than it was then as is our political culture. In the middle of this are we happy few, we band of brothers who serve together in very unpopular wars. Tonight I post it again after my first public interview dealing with my struggles to acknowledge all of those that serve today as well as our brothers of the Vietnam era, French Indo-China and Algeria, and the British soldiers who served in so many crummy wars.
Today our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen are engaged in three wars in the Middle East, are providing humanitarian relief to the people of Japan as well as other nations and are deployed in many other hot spots that could easily become war zones. I don’t want anyone to forget them or their sacrifices. Anyway I digress; this is my return to God in the Empty Places.
I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and history over the past few months. While both have been part of my life for many years, they have taken on a new dimension after serving in Iraq. I can’t really explain it; I guess I am trying to integrate my theological and academic disciplines with my military, life and faith experience since my return.
The Chaplain ministry is unlike civilian ministry in many ways. As Chaplains we never lose the calling of being priests, and as priests in uniform, we are also professional officers and go where our nations send us to serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. There is always a tension, especially when the wars that we are sent to are unpopular at home and seem to drag on without the benefit of a nice clear victory such as VE or VJ Day in World War II or the homecoming after Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
It is my belief that when things go well and we have easy victories that it is easy for us to give the credit to the Lord and equally easy for others to give the credit to superior strategy, weaponry or tactics to the point of denying the possibility that God might have been involved. Such is the case in almost every war and Americans since World War Two have loved the technology of war seeing it as a way to easy and “bloodless” victory. In such an environment ministry can take on an almost “cheer-leading” dimension. It is hard to get around it, because it is a heady experience to be on a winning Army in a popular cause. The challenge here is to keep our ministry of reconciliation in focus, by caring for the least, the lost and the lonely, and in our case, to never forget the victims of war, especially the innocent among the vanquished, as well as our own wounded, killed and their families.
French Paratroop Corpsmen treating wounded at Dien Bien Phu
But there are other wars, many like the current conflict less popular and not easily finished. The task of chaplains in the current war, and similar wars fought by other nations is different. In these wars, sometimes called counter-insurgency operations, guerilla wars or peace keeping operations, there is no easily discernable victory. These types of wars can drag on and on, sometimes with no end in sight. Since they are fought by volunteers and professionals, much of the population acts as if there is no war since it does often not affect them, while others oppose the war.
Likewise, there are supporters of war who seem more interested in political points of victory for their particular political party than for the welfare of those that are sent to fight the wars. This has been the case in about every war fought by the US since World War II. It is not a new phenomenon. Only the cast members have changed.
This is not only the case with the United States. I think that we can find parallels in other militaries. I think particularly of the French professional soldiers, the paratroops and Foreign Legion who bore the brunt of the fighting in Indo-China, placed in a difficult situation by their government and alienated from their own people. In particular I think of the Chaplains, all Catholic priests save one Protestant, at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the epic defeat of the French forces that sealed the end of their rule in Vietnam. The Chaplains there went in with the Legion and Paras. They endured all that their soldiers went through while ministering the Sacraments and helping to alleviate the suffering of the wounded and dying. Their service is mentioned in nearly every account of the battle. During the campaign which lasted 6 months from November 1953 to May 1954 these men observed most of the major feasts from Advent through the first few weeks of Easter with their soldiers in what one author called “Hell in a Very Small Place.”
Another author describes Easter 1954: “In all Christendom, in Hanoi Cathedral as in the churches of Europe the first hallelujahs were being sung. At Dienbeinphu, where the men went to confession and communion in little groups, Chaplain Trinquant, who was celebrating Mass in a shelter near the hospital, uttered that cry of liturgical joy with a heart steeped in sadness; it was not victory that was approaching but death.” A battalion commander went to another priest and told him “we are heading toward disaster.” (The Battle of Dienbeinphu, Jules Roy, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1984 p.239)
Of course one can find examples in American military history such as Bataan, Corregidor, and certain battles of the Korean War to understand that our ministry can bear fruit even in tragic defeat. At Khe Sahn in our Vietnam War we almost experienced a defeat on the order of Dien Bien Phu. It was the tenacity of the Marines and tremendous air-support that kept our forces from being overrun.
You probably wonder where I am going with this. I wonder a little bit too. But here is where I think I am going. It is the most difficult of times; especially when units we are with take casualties and our troops’ sacrifice is not fully appreciated by a nation absorbed with its own issues.
For the French the events and sacrifices of their soldiers during Easter 1954 was page five news in a nation that was more focused on the coming summer. This is very similar to our circumstances today because it often seems that own people are more concerned about economic considerations and the latest in entertainment news than what is going on in Iraq or Afghanistan. The French soldiers in Indo-china were professionals and volunteers, much like our own troops today. Their institutional culture and experience of war was not truly appreciated by their own people, or by their government which sent them into a war against an opponent that would sacrifice anything and take as many years as needed to secure their aim, while their own countrymen were unwilling to make the sacrifice and in fact had already given up their cause as lost. Their sacrifice would be lost on their own people and their experience ignored by the United States when we sent major combat formations to Vietnam in the 1960s. In a way the French professional soldiers of that era have as well as British colonial troops before them have more in common with our force than the citizen soldier heroes of the “Greatest Generation.” Most of them were citizen soldiers who did their service in an epic war and then went home to build a better country as civilians. We are now a professional military and that makes our service a bit different than those who went before us.
Yet it is in this very world that we minister, a world of volunteers who serve with the highest ideals. We go where we are sent, even when it is unpopular. It is here that we make our mark; it is here that we serve our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. Our duty is to bring God’s grace, mercy and reconciliation to men and women, and their families who may not see it anywhere else. Likewise we are always to be a prophetic voice within the ranks.
When my dad was serving in Vietnam in 1972 I had a Sunday school teacher tell me that he was a “Baby Killer.” It was a Catholic Priest and Navy Chaplain who showed me and my family the love of God when others didn’t. In the current election year anticipate that people from all parts of the political spectrum will offer criticism or support to our troops. Our duty is to be there as priests, not be discouraged in caring for our men and women and their families because most churches, even those supportive of our people really don’t understand the nature of our service or the culture that we represent. We live in a culture where the military professional is in a distinct minority group upholding values of honor, courage, sacrifice and duty which are foreign to most Americans. We are called to that ministry in victory and if it happens someday, defeat. In such circumstances we must always remain faithful.
For those interested in the French campaign in Indo-China it has much to teach us. Good books on the subject include The Last Valley by Martin Windrow, Hell in a Very Small Place by Bernard Fall; The Battle of Dienbeinphu by Jules Roy; and The Battle of Dien Bien Phu- The Battle America Forgot by Howard Simpson. For a history of the whole campaign, read Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall. I always find Fall’s work poignant, he served as a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and soldier later and then became a journalist covering the Nurnberg Trials and both the French and American wars in Vietnam and was killed by what was then known as a “booby-trap” while covering a platoon of U.S. Marines.
There is a picture that has become quite meaningful to me called the Madonna of Stalingrad. It was drawn by a German chaplain-physician named Kurt Reuber at Stalingrad at Christmas 1942 during that siege. He drew it for the wounded in his field aid station, for most of whom it would be their last Christmas. The priest would die in Soviet captivity and the picture was given to one of the last officers to be evacuated from the doomed garrison. It was drawn on the back of a Soviet map and now hangs in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin where it is displayed with the Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral as a symbol of reconciliation. I have had it with me since before I went to Iraq. The words around it say: “Christmas in the Cauldron 1942, Fortress Stalingrad, Light, Life, Love.” I am always touched by it, and it is symbolic of God’s care even in the midst of the worst of war’s suffering and tragedy.
2 responses to “A Return to God in the Empty Places”
Thank you for re-posting this. I’m a bit ashamed to say I never fully thought about what chaplains had to go through in the wake of Vietnam. I’ve read plenty about these religious caretakers in the various wars and “lesser actions”, and am fully aware of the often-horrendous receptions soldiers returning from Vietnam received (one of the few times I got in trouble in school was for fighting with a kid who was insulting soldiers). I had never really thought about you chaplains helping soldiers with their re-adjustments while struggling with their own problems. Thank you very much for broadening my outlook.
Thank you so much as always. Blessings on you my friend,