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American Imperialism’s Military Chaplains

A recent report has documented the collusion of the American Psychological Association (A.P.A.) with the Department of Defense (D.O.D.) in the torture of apprehended suspects, which aided the George W. Bush administration’s so-called “global war on terrorism.” The A.P.A.’s leadership cozied up to the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency, and compromised the organization’s ethical standards to help legitimize torture and maximize its own bottom line: “the growth of the profession,” ended a New York Times story on the 542-page report. (‘TORTURE EFFORTS WERE PROTECTED BY PSYCHOLOGISTS,’ By James Risen, July 11, 2015) “The growth of the profession” is seen in a Boston Globe story, which states that the Defense Department “is one of the largest employers of psychologists and provides millions of dollars in grants and contracts for them across the country, a generous benefactor that investigators likened to a ‘rich, powerful uncle.’” (”Report on interrogation tactics roils academics,” By Tracy Jan, July 20, 2015) It is about selling one’s psychological soul to get a share of the market.

Then there are the military chaplains who serve American imperialism. Even worse than torture is the Bush administration’s launching of the “war on terrorism” that fueled torture– and the ensuing criminal wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. With renowned political commentator and social justice activist Noam Chomsky calling the invasion of Iraq “the worst war crime of the 21st century, easily.” (“Noam Chomsky Talks US Militarism and Capitalism, at Home and Abroad,” By Laura Flanders, Truthout/Interview, www.truth-out.org, Dec. 9, 2014) Nevertheless, like psychologists and torture, military chaplains, and those who train them, have accommodated these imperialistic wars by wanting a piece of the action in that “market.” The prostituting of one spiritual soul in the service of American imperialism.

I’m treading on “sacred” ground here. Surely, on the battlefield especially, U.S. servicemen and women deserve to receive spiritual care from clinically trained chaplains. After all, our military personnel are willing to sacrifice their lives to protect America’s security.

But It is not about “protecting America’s security.”  Our men and women in uniform are putting their lives on the line on the battlefields to advance and justify American imperialism. Our government created the battlefields in its pursuit of world domination—for the profit of the military, industrial, energy, intelligence complex.   The airplanes that attacked the United States on 9/11 did not just appear out of the blue. As Professor Ward Churchill clearly pointed out in his book, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequence of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminology (AK Press, 2003), some of the U. S. government’s imperialistic chickens came home to roost. That is, a few of its victims have “pushed back.”

Military chaplains are providing spiritual care for “brave warriors” who are “protecting America’s security?” There was no need for the U.S. to intensely bomb and invade Afghanistan—and continue that longest American war for almost 14 years now. As reported in the guardian, the Taliban government was willing to turn Osama bin Laden over to a neutral country for prosecution if the Bush administration stopped the bombing of Afghanistan and provided “evidence that [he] was behind the September 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.“ President George W. Bush refused the offer, saying, “There’s no need to discuss innocence or guilt. We know he’s guilty.” (Bush rejects Taliban offer to hand Bin Laden Over,” By Staff and agencies, Oct. 14, 2001) Thus since 2001, rather than bringing the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice and so-called “democracy” to Afghanistan, the U.S.-led military is reported to have caused over 26,000 violent Afghan civilian deaths, “ill health and war wounds” suffered by many, and “exacerbated the effects of poverty, malnutrition, poor sanitation, lack of access to health care, and environmental degradation on Afghans’ health.” (“Costs of War: Afghan Civilians,” Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, watson.brown.edu, March 2015)

Military chaplains are providing spiritual care for our “heroes“ who are “protecting America’s security?” The Bush administration’s pre-emptive invasion of Iraq was based on documented lies: Saddam Hussein had no “mushroom-cloud” threatening weapons of mass destruction, and no links to the 9/11 attacks against the United States. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan condemned the invasion of Iraq as “illegal,” a violation of international law because it lacked UN Security Council approval. Annan said that, in invading Iraq, the Bush administration was not practicing what it preached: “Those who seek to bestow legitimacy must themselves embody it, and those who invoke international law must themselves submit to it.” (“Annan Reiterates His Misgivings About Legality of War in Iraq,” By Warren Hoge, The New York Times, Sept. 22, 2004)

The reported U.S. war crimes committed against the Iraqi people: “About 1 million [civilians] killed, 4.5 million displaced, 1-2 million widows, 5 million orphans.” (“Now that Bush is gone, perhaps we can honestly face the damage we have wrought and the responsibilities we must accept from it,” By John Tirman, The Nation, Alternet, Feb. 1, 2009) And in the wake of the Bush administration’s “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” the rise of the vengeful, brutal Islamic State or ISIS.

Chaplains of American imperialism appear to be like “good Germans.” They have bought into our bipartisan government’s “American exceptionalism” propaganda, dutifully following orders and carrying out the “God bless America”-sanctified mission of “protecting America’s security”—with no sustained vigorous questioning and protest.

Our country’s “brave warriors” are “protecting America’s security?” The wars of choice against Afghanistan and Iraq are expected to “cost taxpayers $4 trillion to $6 trillion.” (“Study: Iraq, Afghan war costs to top $4 trillion,” By Ernesto Londono, The Washington Post, March 28, 213) Endless profit for those who make money off the unending “war on terror.” But at the sacrifice of America’s 99%.

“Protecting America’s security?” That propaganda has justified the unnecessary sacrifice of “over 6,800 service members“ estimated to “have died in Iraq and Afghanistan,” with “hundreds of thousands more United States and allied service members . . . wounded in combat or have died indirectly as a result of injuries sustained in the war zones.” (“Costs of War: Allied Combatants Killed in Iraq March 2003-April 2015,” Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, watson.brown.edu, April 2015)

Then there is the reported lack of security facing U.S. veterans who live to return home: including “extremely high levels of unemployment, traumatic brain injury, post -traumatic stress and homelessness.” With “nearly one million active service members hav[ing] been diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder since 2000,” and “nearly half of those diagnosed with two or more.”   And “an estimated 22 veterans taking their own lives each day.” (“The Untold Story of War” U.S. Veterans Face Staggering Epidemic of Unemployment, Trauma & Suicide,” Democracy Now, Nov, 11, 2013)

“Protecting American security?” America especially needs to protect its security because it is in the business of controlling and undermining the security of other nations. Endless imperialistic wars—supplemented by national sovereignty-violating U.S. drone strikes killing civilians– create endless enemies and blowback violence—which are good for the business of endless wars in pursuit of American hegemony.   Good for those who make lucrative careers off of fear and violence and war. But bad for U.S. citizens. The endless war-mongers and profiteers now setting their sights on Iran.

Rather than participating in American imperialism’s wars, military chaplains and their religious organizations should really “support the troops” by refusing to be a party to these horrible war crimes. Christian denominations should refuse to allow their clergy to serve as chaplains in the wars of choice against Afghanistan and Iraq. Had there been such a strong and persistent condemnation and boycotting of those wars beforehand, President Bush might have “prayed” twice before launching them. And had his “ways of Providence” continued to lead him to launch these criminal wars, a continuing firm moral “No!” from faith leaders and their organizations would have possibly ended these wars sooner.

Instead, sadly, there are educational organizations, like the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education(ACPE), that do not let their morality stand in the way of getting a piece of the Department of Defense’s “market.” Thus ACPE business had benefited by contracting with the armed forces to provide clinical pastoral training for military chaplains—with the blessings of many theological seminaries in America, which use ACPE as the primary resource for the clinical pastoral education of their students, including those who go on to become military chaplains.

Since ACPE specializes in the clinical pastoral training of military chaplains, on July 16th I wrote the following letter to its president, United Methodist-trained Rev. David C. Johnson:

Dear Reverend Johnson:

As a writer, I am currently researching an article on the current role of military Chaplains in what I believe to be America’s imperialistic wars, especially the invasion of Iraq.

I read with interest your ‘My Prayer’ (in ACPE’s July 2015 Newsletter) in response to the horrible murders of the nine black church members in Charleston. Has ACPE, which provides CPE training for military chaplains, ever issued a similar statement condemning America’s violent, falsely-based, unnecessary, UN-condemned as ‘illegal’  invasion of Iraq? The fervent pleadings in your prayer hold equally true in relation to the hundreds of thousands to over a million dead Muslim civilians in Iraq. Has ACPE ever made a moral statement opposing the US-launched invasion of Iraq—or later in response to its disastrous consequence?

Above is the link to a recent CounterPunch article of mine (Prophets of the People or Chaplains of the Status Quo), which is a critique of ACPE, and which helps to identify me.

I sent it to ACPE executive director Dr. Trace Haythorn, asking him to comment on it in your newsletter, but he declined.

I look forward to your response to my query.

Sincerely,

Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D.

Rev. Johnson replied on July 21:

Mr. Alberts,

I appreciate knowing that you read my column in the ACPE E-News. As ACPE Board President I have the privilege of writing an article for each newsletter if I choose to do so. Each article is a personal statement and not a statement of the organization.

I wish you good luck with your research.

Thank you,

Rev. Dr. David C. Johnson

I had intentionally repeated my question to Reverend Johnson: has ACPE ever issued a moral statement condemning the invasion of Iraq? His evasive response suggests that ACPE has not made such a moral statement. ACPE’s stated mission is, “Advancing exceptional experience-based theological education and professional practice to heal a hurting world.” Evidently ACPE has no difficulty providing spiritual training services for those ordering and those doing much of “the hurting” in Iraq and elsewhere.

Members of the Religious Society of Friends in North Carolina provide an important model here. This peace-oriented faith group has established (since 1969) the Quaker House in Fayetteville, North Carolina, right near “Fort Bragg, U.S. Army Military installation,” which is “home of The Airborne and Special Operation Forces.” The Quaker House is advertised as “A Place of Peace in a Military City.” (“Quaker House,” www.quakerhouse.org) At the Quaker House, confidential counseling is provided for soldiers considering conscientious objector status, or dealing with other personal service-related issues.

While major Christian denominations support conscientious objector status, they should follow the Quaker House example by proactively establishing sanctuary-like retreat and counseling centers near military bases, staffed by clinically trained non-military chaplains or pastoral counselors. Soldiers would more likely appear to share their conscientious objection concerns with a non-military chaplain than with a uniformed chaplain representing the military. It is also assumed that a chaplain in uniform would more likely have difficulty hearing and understanding because of his or her own need to justify wearing a military uniform as a person of the “cloth.” In all of this, a soldier would be less inclined to think there was something wrong with him or her for opposing America’s immoral wars if faith leaders and their constituents were proactively condemning them.

The United Methodist Church could well have led here. That Christian denomination’s Book of Discipline states that “war is incompatible with Christian teaching.” And that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” as well. Ironically, United Methodist ministers who have performed same-sex marriages for people who love each other are terminated. But the United Methodist president who is most responsible for raping two countries has a library and museum named after him at Southern Methodist University. That ought to tell you something about morality and “the market.”

Of course, American soldiers should have a chaplain to talk with about anything. A chaplain who can listen and learn and respond and comfort and counsel and grieve and inspire. A chaplain who is comfortable with any soldier anywhere, anytime.

During World War II, I myself served in the U.S. Navy: as a signalman on a destroyer escort in the North Atlantic. My three older brothers also served in the military, in war zones, in that war. And during World War I, our father served in the U.S. infantry in France.

The point I’m seeking to make here is that American soldiers should not have been in Iraq and Afghanistan in the first place. The chaplains are not merely providing spiritual care for soldiers “bringing freedom to the darkest corners of our world,” as President Bush said. They, too, are occupiers, allowing themselves to be exploited in the U. S. government’s pursuit of world domination.   So, if we are really talking about “supporting the troops,” military chaplains and their faith leaders and organizations should have said “No!” to imperialistic wars from before the beginning—and ongoing. There was some strong opposition from faith organizations beforehand. But, after the Bush administration launched its preemptive criminal war against Iraq—with U.S. bombs in the air and boots on the ground– that opposition lessened and, in time, gave way.   And in its place, the accommodation of military chaplains and their sponsoring faith groups in the unnecessary sacrificing of American lives on the altar of corporate greed.

There are two opposing realities here. One apparent reality appears to be moral: the dutiful and revered spiritual caring of military chaplains for soldiers. And the soldiers themselves, serving the mission– thousands dying and tens of thousands injured—and “never leaving a fallen comrade behind.” But the larger reality is the immorality of U.S. imperialism, with belief in “American exceptionalism” turning people into The Other, to be dominated and discarded. Thus the horrific destruction perpetrated against the Muslim citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq. It takes much theological—and patriotic—rationalization to resolve, or live with, this conflict. Evidently many military chaplains– and their clinical pastoral educators and sponsoring religious organizations– appear to be up to the task. One might call it “making the best of a bad situation”—never mind the immorality of that “bad situation.”

An example of the occupier military chaplain is the study of “Chaplains as Liaisons with Religious Leaders: Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan,” conducted by United States Navy Chaplain Commander George Adams. The chaplains’ role in these war zones included building relationships with Iraqi and Afghan faith leaders, to help mediate and resolve conflicts presented by the presence of the conquering and occupying Americans. “Improved dialogue, trust, coordination, problem solving and localized violence reduction” were achieved by “drawing on the experiences of fourteen chaplains who had substantial interaction with religious leaders in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, or who supervised other chaplains involved in such activities.” It is “an exploratory study of the important mediating role chaplains can play in overseas military operations.” (United States Institute of Peace, First published March 2006)

A far more blatant imperialistic occupier mentality is reflected in the words of Army chaplain John McDougall, who published a book called, Jesus Was an Airborne Ranger. McDougall was quoted as saying “he wrote the book . . . because ‘the Jesus of many churches is a weakling—someone our Rangers cannot relate to.’” He explains: “We’ve made him into . . . someone who wouldn’t pose a threat to anyone. . . . I can’t find that Jesus in the scripture.” McDougall wants “to recapture . . . the moments when he’s ferocious.” Thus the book is promoted this way: “The warrior Christ who has descended from the heavens, defeated the Enemy, and rescued humanity. Now he calls us to continue his mission and fight for others—our families, our communities, and the world—USA Today.” (“John McDougall, army chaplain, ‘regrets’ book promotion video,” by Tom Vanden Brook, The Christian Century, June 15, 2015)

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5: 9) And “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12: 31) Following these teachings is about as tough as it can get. It means working through one’s own religious and patriotic conditioning and biases, and being able to empathize with all other human beings. It takes self-understanding to say “No!” to the imperialistic “warrior Christ” and “Yes!” to the humanity that is in every human being.   It takes courage to speak truth to power and challenge “the way things are,” rather than participate in making “the best” of a “bad situation.” It takes backbone to choose morality over the “market.”

 

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Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His new book, The Counterpunching Minister (who couldn’t be “preyed” away) is now published and available on Amazon.com. The book’s Foreword, Drawing the Line, is written by Counterpunch editor, Jeffrey St. Clair. Alberts is also author of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.

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