Shepherds at war

Four ChaplainsEve Conant does a great job in the May 7 Newsweek of tracking the spiritual struggles of Army Chaplain Roger Benimoff, who begins a second tour of duty filled with idealism ("My heart is filled with prayer and god is giving me a discerning spirit") and returns to the United States with his faith in tatters ("We make God into what we need for the moment. I hate God"). Benimoff remains a chaplain, even while walking through the valley of the shadow of doubt, and is regaining faith in God, though the details of what his faith now looks like are sparing:

"The symptoms are still there; this past year has been the most challenging of my life," he says. "But I have a new relationship with God. I tend to be much more blunt with him."

Conant's article suffers from only from missing one finer detail in its overly glib summary of just-war theory:

For centuries theologians and philosophers have grappled with ideas of "just war": thou shalt not kill, but under certain conditions -- to prevent wider bloodshed and suffering -- slaughter by armies is acceptable.

Conant quotes from both Benimoff and his wife, Rebekah, in a masterly way:

One day in May, snipers take aim at him and other soldiers on a hospital rooftop in Tall Afar. "The Army must be warping me," he writes, "because it was not a big deal to get shot at. Last time I was petrified." The adrenaline rush soon wears off; he writes that it is "hard for me to feel at all."

... In a June 19 entry, he writes of one of his men threatening to hurt himself to get home to a wife demanding a divorce. By this time, Benimoff's own wife is uncertain about what is happening to her husband, with whom she communicates by e-mail, instant message and hurried phone calls. "He would say some things that flew in the face of my own beliefs about God," Rebekah recalls. "Sometimes he would ask me: why does a loving God allow suicide bombers to attack civilians? We were both brought up with a picture of God that was different from the world he was seeing. But I was afraid he might turn away from God completely. The things he said didn't sound like something I wanted my husband to be saying. But after a while, I realized that he was having a crisis. So I said, 'OK, better to let him test than to tell him 20 reasons why he's wrong'."

GetReligion readers may be pleased to know that a Wiccan makes a cameo appearance:

National Guard Specialist George Schmidt, 30, who was raised as a Methodist in Titusville, Pa., and became a Wiccan before deploying to Iraq in June 2006, says he saw fellow soldiers driven in different directions. "Either you're running to God, grasping to hold on to the guy you were before you came to Iraq, or you're running right away from him because of what you're seeing," he says. Schmidt is now being treated for posttraumatic stress disorder and anxiety at Walter Reed.

A sidebar by Evan Thomas and Andrew Romano indulges a fixation on the hymn "Onward, Christian Soldiers":

The impulse to blend God and war owes much to the American temperament: Americans have always feared one (today, nine out of 10 call themselves believers) and loved the other (the United States has fought in dozens of armed conflicts in the nation's two-and-a-third centuries). Not a few old warriors have admitted to thrilling to the words of "Onward, Christian Soldiers." At times, Jews and Muslims have been just as bellicose as Christians. The God of Abraham is and has always been a martial God.

... A few presidents have tried to conceal their dependence on prayer. On some nights during the Vietnam War, after picking bombing targets in the Situation Room, Lyndon Johnson would secretly pray with monks at a nearby monastery. Others openly gloried in God. Franklin Roosevelt joyously sung Anglican hymns, including "Onward, Christian Soldiers," with Winston Churchill aboard a battleship in the North Atlantic in August 1941. "We are Christian soldiers," FDR told his son Elliott afterward, "and we will go on, with God's help." (The Nazis thought God was on their side, too. Hitler's troops had engraved on their belt buckles GOTT MIT UNS -- God With Us.)

You have to love that detail about the Nazis believing God was on their side as well. Americans believed this, Nazis believed that -- who's to say who was right?

Still, Evans and Romano do better justice to just-war theory:

Over time, theologians have honed the theory into a kind of moral checklist: the cause must be just (self-defense, not mere conquest); the war must be lawfully declared (no sneak attacks) and a last resort; it must have a reasonable chance of success, and the use of force must be proportionate to the ends (no intentional killing of civilians).

Another brief sidebar, by Lisa Miller and three other contributors, does a fine and efficient job of describing the four chaplains (two Protestants, a Catholic and a Jew) who rescued their shipmates and then went down with the transport ship Dorchester while praying together.

Still another sidebar, by Dan Ephron, describes the extraordinary pastoral care of a rabbi:

Army Chaplain Carlos C. Huerta had been a rabbi for 20 years, but when it came time to comfort a dying Iraqi boy in a field hospital in Mosul, he did what he thought an imam might do. Huerta, who was on his second tour in Iraq in 2005, clutched the boy's hand—and recited passages from the Qur'an. "To do this job right, I learned suras [chapters] from the Qur'an, I learned to say the Lord's Prayer, I learned to say Hail Marys," he tells Newsweek. "Soldiers who are dying deserve to get their last comfort."

Both Conant's article and a video on the main page for Newsweek's cover package convey the emotional and spiritual toll paid by the military chaplaincy. As a whole, the package reminds readers of the very complicated interaction between faith and politics, especially when a nation is at war. It is a timely, important and elegant project.

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