March 21, 2009

God and War

An article in Maariv is claiming Israeli soldiers went into Gaza encouraged by IDF rabbis to think of their mission as a holy one.

"The military rabbinate brought many magazines and articles with a very clear message: 'We are the Jewish people, a miracle brought us to the land of Israel, God returned us to the land, and now we have to struggle so as to get rid of the gentiles who disturb us from conquering the holy land.' All the feeling throughout all this operation of many of the soldiers was of a war of religions," he said. "As a commander, I tried to explain that the war is not a war of Kiddush Hashem [the sanctification of God's name, including through martyrdom] but over the stopping of the launching of the Qassam rockets."

This post is not about Israel, so let's not go down that road again (although the gang did an admirable job in keeping the comments more or less sober in this post). I want to use this post as a "jumping off" point to discuss the role chaplains should or should not play in the military. Anyone who has served in Iraq or Afghanistan knows soldiers or officers -- almost always evangelical Protestants -- who thought they were there on a holy mission. Others -- even those otherwise religious, such as myself -- chose to put a big fat line in between what we were doing as soldiers in the service of our nation and that which we were called to do as believers serving God. Honest to goodness, the biggest crisis of faith I have ever had was in part precipitated by a chaplain telling me that I was in Afghanistan on a mission from God and that I had just killed a man because God wanted me to do so. At the time, I wanted to quit the Army and Christianity both. And I had a dim view of chaplains for a long time afterward.

Here's a question for the readership. What role should chaplains play in the U.S. military, and how strict should the separating line be between church and state in an army at war? Personally, I think chaplains should exist to a) perform religious services for professing believers, b) counsel soldiers of faith and c) do little to nothing else. I always hated those pre-mission prayer circles, for example. But am I too extreme? Not extreme enough? Just to throw another consideration in the mix counter to my arguments, bear in mine that chaplains often fill in the gaps left by a military struggling to provide counseling to soldiers (of all faiths, or of none) struggling with PTSD.

Okay, discuss.

Update: Until you guys descending into debating the world of finance, this post generated some fantastic comments. Thanks much, and sorry I could not respond to all of them.