In this new era of Jihad and universal victimization, I would expect the term "Army Chaplain" to drive the good men and women of the west to create a more PC term for priest soldiers. It would have to be something that steered the consciousness away from irony and dissonance. Because each of us, no matter where she lives wants to know beyond doubt that the creator of the universe stands beside her, and not the guys pointing guns at her. And so we have religious people to remind us God is always on our side. The Army Chaplain must exist for those who need to know Excalibur is still in a rock on our soil, but in light of developments which pit against us people praying to OUR god, it seems a new name is in order.
Theologian at Arms or
Battleman of Peace
Soulman of Siege
When I was young the term "Army Chaplain" seemed oxymoronic. For how could anyone serve God and country at once? We the people who are the country require that when all other avenues have failed, the wrath of our violence must descend upon our enemies with all the force our atoms and technology can muster. This is necessary to keep our sidewalks safe from bullets and thermonuclear weapons.
All the while God demands unconditional love.
Was I the only kid dragged into Sunday services who paid enough attention to be confused?
So I sat in Catholic church seething with teenage angst. My hormones were in charge of my sex life. I had to fill out a card so the country could snag me out of my school if it needed me to hurl bullets. And here was a priest telling me week after week that the rules he'd said were inviolable because they were the utterances of an omnipotent being were suspended when we got slugged on the playground.
It wasn't that I didn't want us to defend ourselves. As far as I was concerned anyone who would come here to do violence should learn the why we stand behind our YAG lasers when we're burning holes through brick walls. But I figured religion should be left out of it. To be consistent I thought we should admit war is the devil's work and some times the goddamned devil's work needed to be done and the priests should admit it. Turn away. Go home and pray while we hack some enemy flesh to mostly-cooked hamburger.
But damn. Don't tell me God wants me to kill people after you spend a couple of years telling me to turn the other cheek and love my neighbor as myself. God had nothing to do with that crap, I thought.
"They're jerking us around with circular logic," I'd say to my father.
"Just shut the hell up until you know what's going on," was my father's stock answer to teleological questions that have puzzled mankind since Neanderthal wondered if it was okay to eat the children if the mammoths went scarce.
One Sunday I was dragged off to church and our usual priest, Father Ennui, wasn't there. Instead there was someone younger. He'd come up from Fort Monmouth to fill in for our apathetic pastor who had been taken away in an ambulance for reasons that concerned no one.
This priest was an Army Chaplain, and when it came time for the holy-thou-art-amens and we sat down for his sermon, I was ready to hear what one of God's own riflemen had to say.
He told this story:
After he had been redeployed from Vietnam he was attached to a unit doing humanitarian work in Central America. While he was there a hurricane blew through and wrecked a huge portion of Costa Rica. Many homes were destroyed and people killed. He was assigned to a corps of engineers and physicians who assisted in the recovery.
One day while they were plodding through the heat and humidity, helping to vaccinate children against water borne diseases and clearing destroyed buildings he and his team came across a grisly scene.
The force of a hurricane's winds can turn any inanimate object to a missile. Two-by-fours travelling at 300 kilometers per hour can penetrate solid concrete walls.
In this case a large palm frond had impaled a mother and child to the side of a wooden shed. The 6' leaf had become a flying blade and had passed through the child and the mother's chest. The tip had embedded in the wooden shed planks, and it was strong enough to hold them up. So the woman was still standing with her arms wrapped around her baby, her eyes glaring listless at the horizon. Her clothes fell in tatters around her waist and shoulders. Her blood and viscera had mixed with those of her baby and hung like rags among them like weathered cloth.
It had been several days since the hurricane had ended, and in the blistering heat and tropical bacteria the bodies had already begun to decompose so that the American team could smell the corpses and hear the flies before they saw them.
Fatigued by the heat and long days, one of the soldiers threw down his shovel and fell sitting to a pile of rubble beside the erect bodies.
"What kind of sick motherfucker for a God does something like this?" the soldier asked, then wiped the sweat from his forehead. "Goddamned innocent mother and baby." (expletives, mine, not the priest's)
The chaplain stared for a moment. Said a prayer, then got another soldier to help him take the bodies down. They put them in a thick black plastic bag and loaded them onto a truck.
When it was finished, the soldier who had been sitting stood and confronted the chaplain.
"You didn't answer me," he said, nose to nose with the man of God. "What kind of God does something like that? Where's your God of mercy, now? Yeah, I've lived through people killing each other, but now it's plain even God doesn't want us. Why should I believe one goddamned thing you have to say from now on?"
And the chaplain reached into his sweaty shirt and pulled out a small gold cross that was on a chain around his neck. He asked the soldier if he knew what it was. And even when the soldier answered, the chaplain told him he didn't have the slightest idea what it was.
It was an icon of our world. It was a symbol to remind us of a truth so terrible the only salvation could come from the glint of life each of us could muster.
He told the soldier what it meant, and he told those of us listening in church that day what it meant, and I had never heard more inspired words. Truly this man was a prophet. For only a warrior would have been able to deliver that message. Only someone who had been to the depths of the human soul and emerged alive would have the guts to explain to an audience of middle-class suburbanites the true message God had in store.
It was elegant in its purity, its finality, its unabashed viciousness.
And I adored that message the way I adored rock and roll and my girlfriend. It was the only true thing I'd ever heard in the halls of that building they called a church. It was the only thing consistent with the entire body of knowledge the Catholic Schools tried to cram into my head and feed me on Sundays.
When Mass was over I broke away from my family. The priest was standing next to one of the opened doors, shaking the hands of patrons on their way out. Not many took his hand, not even to be polite.
But I rushed him. Shook his hand and thanked him. He could never know he'd smoothed out a lifetime of ripples in my mind. It all made perfect sense now. I could be a part of this world because I understood as much of it as it did of me.
"All we got is each other, right? That was the sermon. That was great," I said.
"Yes," he said, "Just each other."
I shall never forget the sadness in that man's eyes, nor how he smiled when I told him I understood him. It made sense to me.
But it didn't make sense to anyone else. Mother complained to my father about the abysmal sermon, and how dare that alien priest bring such base terminology to a decent church.
My dad asked me what I had said to the priest, and I told him an abridged version, that basically it was the best sermon I'd ever heard by anyone claiming to be part of the Catholic church.
And my dad, an ex-soldier, agreed with me against my mom's protestations.
They got rid of that priest the following week. He was never invited back. The church HQ received so many complaints they were afraid the collection baskets would go empty for weeks.
Maybe he knew what he had done. Maybe that's why he looked so sad.
Or was it the weight of what he alone seemed to understand, what a church load of parishioners eager to get into their cars to speed home would never want to hear? A truth so horrible it tore into everything real.
It was a truth so wonderful my world came alive that day. I left the church and never went back.
In my mind's eye I see the chaplain in his sweaty, sleeveless, green cotton shirt. His crucifix chain intertwined with his steel dog tags around his wet skin. He's holding the cross out toward his comrade in arms.
He tells him that cross is an icon of this place. It's an icon of the earth, a warning sign tacked up to the gates to strike fear into the hearts of the weak and the brave alike.
He says that none of us know what this place is, but it sure as hell isn't heaven. God himself couldn't survive here. He was nailed to a tree and suffocated in his own blood.
What made any of us think we could possibly be worthy of better treatment?
And in light of the terrible inevitability of our personal terminus everything was laid bare except our souls and our beating hearts. All of the bills, and the arguments, and the engine trouble, and asshole bosses were meaningless. We live continuously in the midst of the nuclear explosion of our own deaths.
In that hideous, brilliant light there is only one thing brighter, one thing true.
Expect no mercy.
Love each other.
Take care of each other.
We have been given to each other.
In this place we are all we have.