Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Chaplains bearing arms in combat - is it ever permissible?

The Battle of Moe, Larry and Curly

A battalion-size task force of the 3d Infantry Division found itself embroiled in what was probably the bitterest fighting of the Iraq war when it entered Baghdad to take three objectives on April 7. Known for the nonce as the Battle of Moe, Larry and Curly (after the code names of the three objectives), a long and highly read-worthy account of the battle appeared in the Telegraph, which gave this account of fighting at the task force's tactical operations center:
The moment they arrived they were set upon by up to 600 fanatical, well-dug-in fighters. Supply sergeants, who never imagined they would fire their weapons in anger, found themselves shooting back for hours on end. Even the battalion chaplain, Steve Hommel, ended up shouldering an M16 rifle.
The Toronto Star adds more detail:
Chaplains aren't even issued firearms but this one, Steve Hommel, had the foresight to order his assistant to carry two M-16 rifles, just in case. And this was that case.

"He did what he felt he had to do," Maj. Denton Knapp was saying yesterday, as his platoon rested on ornate settees inside the Baath party museum in a now-secured sector command post codenamed China. "He did what was necessary to protect himself and his soldiers."

The chaplain helped kill the enemy - . . .
MSNBC cameraman Craig White was in the thick of the fighting and took compelling video of the fighting close up. White said on camera two days later that the chaplain had manned a .50-caliber machine gun during the fighting. (White said he almost picked up a rifle himself.)

The issue is this: is it permissible for chaplains to fight, even in extremis?

Regulations and policies of the US armed forces

The question is more than academic. Chaplains are specially categorized, along with medical personnel, under the Geneva Conventions. The US Army's Field Manual 16-1, Religious Support Fundamentals, states,
The Geneva and Hague Conventions give the chaplain noncombatant status, and the policy of the Chief of Chaplains forbids chaplains to bear arms. If captured, the chaplain is not a prisoner of war, but a "detained person" for the purpose of ministering to prisoners of war.
Field manuals are not law, but an Army-level policy, such as this one, has the force of law. Furthermore, Army Regulation 165-1, para. 4-3c states,
Chaplains are noncombatants and will not bear arms.
That's as clear and unambiguous statement as I have ever seen in an Army Regulation. Violating an Army Regulation is punishable under the provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The Department of the Navy's policy is stated thus:
Chaplains are forbidden to carry weapons. (SECNAVINST 1730.7; OPNAV 1730.1, Religious Ministries in the Navy; MCO 1730.6, Command Religious Programs in the Marine Corps; and the Marine Corps Manual) This restriction arises from the provisions of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 that accord a special protective and noncombatant status to chaplains. Pursuant to the Geneva Conventions, chaplains are exempt from being treated and retained as prisoners of war, and they are permitted to carry out their religious duties after falling into enemy hands. To be entitled to this immunity, chaplains must at all times, both in time of war and in time of peace, be engaged exclusively in religious duties; and they must always abstain from hostile acts. The Department of the Navy's policy is that bearing arms is incompatible with a chaplain's religious functions and spiritual duties. An individual chaplain who violates this policy endangers the noncombatant status of other chaplains. [emphasis added]
The chaplain in the Baghdad battle was an Army chaplain, not a Navy one, but it's clear that the principle is the same.

It seems unarguable that the intention of the services is that chaplains will not bear arms or use weapons in combat under any circumstances.

Provisions of the Geneva Conventions

Under the provision of Article 6 of the US Constitution, the Geneva Conventions are US law, being treaties ratified by the US Senate. (See my long explanation of the legal status of treaties in relation to the Constitution.) And the Conventions state,
Members of the armed forces of a Party to a conflict (other than medical personnel and chaplains covered by Article 33 of the Third Convention) are combatants, that is to say, they have the right to participate directly in hostilities [emphasis added].
The Conventions in the cited article thereof exclude chaplains from the category of combatant, and under the provisions of the Conventions, only combatants have the right to bear arms and fight. The American armed forces do not consider this distinction academic, either, because chaplains are issued military ID cards specifically identifying them as noncombatants, which is different than cards for other personnel. And though not a legal opinion, an article in Soldiers magazine (an official publication) says, ". . . the Geneva Convention precludes chaplains from bearing arms . . . ."

Some theological considerations

Clergy have accompanied military forces of Western nations for many centuries. In fact, by the end of the fourth century AD, probably 10 percent of the Roman army was Christian, a fact which made the government's final and fiercest persecution of Christians finally unsupportable, and which eased the ability of General (later Emperor) Constantine to proclaim openly his Christian faith.

Classical theology's fullest fruition came with Thomas Aquinas, who wrote extensively on the use of military force by civil authorities. According to Prof. Darrell Cole in "Good Wars," Aquinas reasoned that
. . . bishops and clerics cannot be soldiers because these occupations cannot "be fittingly exercised at the same time." Aquinas offers two reasons why. First, warlike pursuits keep clergy from their proper duties. In other words, their participation is unlawful, not because war is evil, but because warlike pursuits prevent them from doing their jobs.
(Note the Navy's requirement, above, that chaplains "must at all times, both in time of war and in time of peace, be engaged exclusively in religious duties.") Cole continues:
Second [according to Aquinas], it is "unbecoming" for those who give the Eucharist to shed blood, even if they do so without sin (i.e., in a just war). Unlike Calvin, then, Aquinas finds the duties of clergy to be more meritorious than the duties of soldiers. However, this does not mean that, in Aquinas' view, the soldier's duties have no merit. Rather, he employs an analogy to make quite the opposite point: it is meritorious to marry but better still to remain a virgin and thus dedicate yourself wholly to spiritual concerns. Likewise, it is meritorious to fight just wars and restrain evil as a soldier, but more meritorious still to serve as a bishop who provides the Eucharist to the faithful.
Here is one root of the custom against, later the prohibition, of chaplains bearing and using arms: to wield the sword in a just cause, justly employed, was no sin, but for clergy both to wield the sword and to offer the Eucharist (Lord's Supper) meant that the chaplain had abandoned his particular calling as a disciple of Christ. Both Reformer John Calvin and Aquinas (and for that matter, Martin Luther), held that soldiering justly could be considered a form of the Christian ministry of charity. But at least in Catholic theology, the battlefield forces a choice: the same person may not offer the Eucharist in ministry and also fight as a soldier. The two ministries were not contradictory, but they were incompatible in the same person.

My own thoughts

I am a former career artilleryman, now an ordained Methodist minister. I can easily envision that were I a chaplain in an intense battle that I might want to pick up a weapon to protect the lives of American soldiers. After all, although the Conventions are clear, the enemy faced that day was notorious for having no regard for the Conventions.

I'll never face that situation as I cannot re-enter active duty as a chaplain. But I have pondered Chaplain Hommel's dilemma and have asked myself what I would have done in his shoes.

The question for me would be this: Where would my greatest duty lie? I am more than sympathetic with Aquinas' concerns about the difference between the mutually exclusive soldiers' ministry of charity and a chaplain's ministry of bread and wine, although I am not sure that other Protestant chaplains would be very worried about it. Probably as a rule all clergy would consider their greatest loyalty must lie to God and the vows of ordination they took. The moral and legal conundrum is a highly personal one that can hoist a chaplain on the horns of a dilemma: shall he permit other soldiers to die in order to preserve an Army policy or his personal sense of piety? What is the greater good?

The question is not as simple as it seems. There is a bigger picture than the 50 feet surrounding soldiers in battle (50 feet being about the "give a hoot" circle soldiers in battle tend to have). In his book, Band of Brothers, Stephen Ambrose told of an attack in Normandy by 101st Airborne infantry against well-emplaced Germans. Several American soldiers were shot on a narrow road, down which a German machine gun had a clear field of fire. The chaplain with the 101st men went from wounded man to another on the road, ministering to them as best he could with water, prayer, while German bullets flew down the road. The chaplain was not hit and he was awarded the DSC for this action.

But I wonder: did the Germans gunners miss him on purpose, seeing his paraments and recognizing his protected status? Ambrose does not say. But I think it is likely.

The special status of chaplains under the Conventions is intended as a measure to ameliorate the cruelty of the battlefield and captivity and allow, even in war, for the spiritual care of combatants and POWs. If this status is violated by chaplains bearing and using arms then the enemy would have reason to target all chaplains as potential combatants and deny them their status as a detained persons, rather than POWs, under the GC if captured. The GC's rules are not for the chaplains' benefit, but for the troops and POWs. The Conventions recognize that the spiritual care of POWs and soldiers in battle is an obligation of warring parties that must be respected.

Is this concern a higher good that must be preserved, even at the cost of a chaplain's own life? I think that Christian chaplains (I would not presume to speak for other faiths') would answer, "Yes." We would remember that, like St. Paul, we have already died with Christ and that we will also live with him. So were I a chaplain, I would not arm myself to prevent my own capture or death.

The harder question is whether the greater good is to be preserved at the expense of other soldiers' lives, whom a chaplain could save by wielding arms. Or put another way: Would the potential abandonment of the overall benefits of chaplain noncombatancy be outweighed by a chaplain using arms to save a single soldier's life? A dozen soldiers' lives? A hundred? More?

For myself, were I a chaplain, I not sure that in extremis I could allow American soldiers to die when I could protect them by using arms. I am not sure that in good faith I could maintain my personal piety at the cost of other's lives. But I also don't think the question of "is it worth it" is simple, nor is my own personal piety the only issue. If chaplains generally discard or lose their status due to their own frankly unlawful acts, that loss would be terrible not only for chaplains, but for the Army at large.

What cost in lives should the Army be prepared to accept in order to preserve that status? In policy, the US armed forces say, "any cost." A cruel fact of war is that it necessarily forces value judgments about human life. Paul Fussell, an infantry commander in World War II, wrote that the enlisted ranks are material of war whom he said must be "used up" to gain the objectives desired. (But officers have historically suffered much higher casualty rates than the ranks.) If the Army is willing to expend its soldiers' lives to take Objective Moe, it's not such a leap to be willing to expend their lives to preserve law or the ideals of Western civilization, from which the Conventions spring. If that seems heartless, it is, and I don't like it myself. But there it is.

The fundamental duty of a soldier is obey the orders he is given, even at great risk to his own life. The Army's policy and regulation are clear: chaplains may not bear or use arms. I called the US Army Chaplain Center and School April 17 and spoke to an instructor what is taught to chaplain students there about the subject. He said chaplains are taught they may not bear or use arms "under any circumstances" (his words). The grim calculus of combat is that obeying any orders in battle carries the risk of dying or seeing your soldiers die. The prohibition of chaplains fighting is really just one of many orders that might be hard to obey in battle, or cause blood to be shed that might not have been shed otherwise.

I conclude that the prohibition must be maintained, even in extremis. But I would not want to be a chaplain speaking to a child whose dead soldier-father might have lived had I picked up a rifle at a critical moment.

Sometimes all courses of action are undesirable.

A prayer for Memorial Day

 I did not write this but I first used it so long ago that I do not recall whence it came. It is presented here as a responsive.  PRAYER FOR...