Bringing God to Men: American Military Chaplains and the Vietnam War

Bringing God to Men: American Military Chaplains and the Vietnam War

Bringing God to Men: American Military Chaplains and the Vietnam War

Bringing God to Men: American Military Chaplains and the Vietnam War

Synopsis

During the second half of the twentieth century, the American military chaplaincy underwent a profound transformation. Broad-based and ecumenical in the World War II era, the chaplaincy emerged from the Vietnam War as generally conservative and evangelical. Before and after the Vietnam War, the chaplaincy tended to mirror broader social, political, military, and religious trends. During the Vietnam War, however, chaplains' experiences and interpretations of war placed them on the margins of both military and religious cultures. Because chaplains lived and worked amid many communities--religious and secular, military and civilian, denominational and ecumenical--they often found themselves mediating heated struggles over the conflict, on the home front as well as on the front lines.

In this benchmark study, Jacqueline Whitt foregrounds the voices of chaplains themselves to explore how those serving in Vietnam acted as vital links between diverse communities, working personally and publicly to reconcile apparent tensions between their various constituencies. Whitt also offers a unique perspective on the realities of religious practice in the war's foxholes and firebases, as chaplains ministered with a focus on soldiers' shared experiences rather than traditional theologies.

Excerpt

God and country. Peace and war. Civilian and military. Sacred and secular. American and foreign national. Officer and enlisted. At every turn, American military chaplains inhabit these liminal spaces at the intersections of religion and war. First, they occupy a space somewhere between military and civilian life: they are full-fledged members of the military, but they are also responsible to their various religious communities. Second, they often mediate between the more clearly defined categories of officers and enlisted personnel, an intermediary position symbolized by their title of “Chaplain” rather than their rank. Third, they fall somewhere between their own religious denominations and a broader religious community— for example, a Methodist chaplain must not only uphold and practice his individual faith and provide spiritual support to his coreligionists but also provide access to the same support for Muslim or Mormon soldiers. Chaplains cross cultural boundaries, working both with American service members and with foreign nationals, and they also cross service boundaries—Army chaplains provide for the spiritual needs of Navy, Marine, and Air Force personnel, and Navy and Air Force chaplains are similarly flexible. Finally, the chaplain lives between the sacred and the secular. the chaplain is concerned with the spiritual, the other-worldly, the moral, the tenets and practice of faith; at the same time, the chaplain must operate in a secular environment, in an organization governed by hierarchy and orders, which exists as the violent arm of a secular state. By institutional design and personal choice, military chaplains are fundamentally people in the middle.

Chaplains’ fundamental ambiguity and disorientation of identity and position are, ultimately, their most important qualities because they allow chaplains flexibility in responding to the various moral, theological, and political questions raised by war and their participation in it. During the Vietnam War, their liminal position is precisely what produced chaplains’ diverse range of experiences in the war, provided complex strategies for resolving conflict, enabled the institutional chaplaincy to fulfill its mission, and prompted chaplains to interpret the Vietnam War in ways fundamentally different from nonchaplain military members and their civilian clergy counterparts. During and after the war, the chaplains’ position in . . .

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