Conscience and the military

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
4 Feb 2011

A retired army chaplain told me a story he knew about a wounded soldier in the Korean War. The soldier was told he had less than two hours to live, and someone sent for the nearest chaplain, a Baptist.

The chaplain talked with the wounded man about families and football, but the man said desperately, “Talk to me, padre, talk to me”. The chaplain continued to chat, before the soldier again said, “Talk to me, padre, talk to me”. Somewhat confused, the chaplain asked the soldier want he wanted to talk about. The man shouted “I'm dying, you bloody fool! You're supposed to talk to me about God!”.

The anecdote illustrates one of the peculiarities of miltiary chaplaincy. Unlike most ministers, armed forces chaplains often serve people who face the danger of death on a daily basis, in a way unimaginable to most of us. Pastoral care is vital for members of the armed forces.

While admiring chaplains' bravery and dedication, this should not stop us recognising the problems with the way military chaplaincy is structured. Chaplains do not only serve the forces – they serve in them. They take officer ranks and swear oaths of allegiance to the monarch. The position of chaplains is compromised by the loyalty they pledge to the state.

This is particularly concerning for those of us in non-conformist denominations, given the importance we have long attached to independence and conscience. Jesus' teaching is full of parables and challenging questions which provoke us to think, not to accept the views of those above us without question.

My conversations with chaplains have made me aware that they often act subtly to encourage a place for conscience. A Royal Air Force chaplain told me of how he had backed up a pilot who had refused to bomb a group of people who he believed to be civilians rather than combatants. But the very fact that he cannot reveal the details of such incidents says a great deal about what is wrong with the armed forces.

As an insitution, the armed forces are deeply hierarchcial, encouraging obedience and depriving their members of rights that are fundamental in other areas of employment. After an intial period, army recruits are unable to leave for over three years. While they are technically able to leave if they develop a conscientious obejction to war, research suggests that many are unaware of this right in practice. This makes it all the more worrying that the UK is the only country in Europe to recruit soldiers at the age of sixteen.

The researcher David Gee concluded in 2007 that “recruitment draws mostly on young people from sixteen years of age living in disadvantaged communities, with many recruits joining as a last resort”. He found the risks and ehtical complexities to be downplayed in recruitment literature, in which “killing is de-personalised and obscured through euphemisms”.

Why do churches not take a more critical approach to this situation? The answer may lie partly in a fear of appearing hostile to the armed forces, but the embedded nature of military chaplains only makes it harder to challenge the status quo.

It is not only pacifists who find this worrying. Christians sincerely adhere to different views on the ethics of warfare, but can unite to support changes that maintain Christian independence and commitment to peace and human dignity. What measures can churches take?

Firstly, I suggest we urgently need a system in which chaplains are not themselves members of the forces. However much they respect the forces, they should not owe any automatic loyalty to the institution or the state. Declaring allegiance to no-one but Christ, they would be free to speak out more clearly against abuse and injustice.

Secondly, churches can also provide chaplains to the unarmed forces – the aid workers, human rights monitors and others who risk death in war zones while never picking up a weapon. They include Christian Peacemaker Teams and the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), who aim to make nonviolent contributions to conflict resolution.

Thirdly, Christians can speak out against certain practices of the forces – which may mean speaking up for the rights of the forces' own members. We can promote a right to leave after a reasonable notice period. There is a growing campaign for the minimum age for enlisting to be raised to eighteen – denominatinoal endorsements would be a big help. And with churches playing such a big role in Remembrance Day, we can help to ensure that the day is not misused to romanticise the armed forces and gloss over ethical problems.

Fourthly, churches can make clear that they will take a stand against military authority if they judge this to be required by the demands of conscience, justice and faithfulness to Jesus' teaching. The United Reformed Church, Methodist Church and Baptist Union have, through their Joint Public Issues Team, spoken out strongly against the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system. This is admirable. But that witness could have an even greater impact if all three denominations declared that, if UK troops are ordered to deploy nuclear weapons, their chaplains would encourage them to refuse the order to do so.

These measures should help to secure churches' independence and values while ensuring that members of the armed forces continue to be provided with much-needed pastoral care.

When John Henry Newman was asked to drink a toast to the Pope, he famously said that he would drink a toast to conscience, and then to the Pope. In the same spirit, I offer a toast to military chaplains and to those they serve – but to conscience first.

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(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia and an active supporter of Forces Watch, a new network concerned with the ethics of military recruitment, atttitudes to the armed forces and the rights of forces personnel. See http://www.forceswatch.net.

A slightly different version of this article appeared originally in Reform magazine in November 2010. See http://www.reform-magazine.co.uk.

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