Home Religion Religion in the Ranks: Belief and Religious Experience in the Canadian Forces
Alike but Different
Thus far I have argued that military life can be alienating and impersonal, yet, on the other hand, there is much literature attesting to the camaraderie and fellowship present within the military profession that make it feel more like a family environment than a faceless institution (Benham Rennick 2006a; English 2004; Pedersen and Sorensen 1989; Schein 1992). In fact, the military has aspects of what Ferdinand Toennies has described both as Gemeinschaft (a community that is a natural and spontaneous outgrowth of family life within an interdependent and bonded group of people) and as Gesellschaft (a contract-based society formed from the free association of individuals dedicated to personal success) (1963 , 65). The CF has elements of both community and society according to Toennies's definitions. It has authority figures, rules, camaraderie, and fellowship; there is tradition and celebration, as well as competition and rivalry.6 While chaplains, senior officers, and subordinate personnel I interviewed often described the CF using the metaphor of the family - Toennies's Gemeinschaft - they frequently experienced the alienating sensibilities of the Gesellschaft. Effective chaplains in this environment, through their religious traditions that, as Toennies notes, can continue to influence people 'by hallowing the events of family life: marriage, birth, veneration of elders, death' (219), are able to bridge the gap between the two environments. Because they are outside the normal bureaucracy of the military institution, they play a role somewhere between that of an authority figure and that of a peer. They are like military personnel and yet they are unlike them.
While chaplains listen, advise, keep confidences, intervene when possible, and make sacrifices of their time and energy, in order to fulfil their role effectively, they must maintain boundaries that set them apart from other personnel. One fit and burly chaplain remarked candidly, 'I am never "one of the guys"7 - I am quite willing to be something different and they know that. It's not a democracy - it's a tribal situation and I'm the "holy man" if you will - that's my job. I might be a foolish holy man but that's my role - not being "one of the guys." I am with them but not one of them. I can have a beer with them, share a few jokes, but then I go home. I don't get drunk and party with them. Whatever happens after that they usually tell me about the next day - sort of an involuntary confession because somebody else tells me, "Hey did you hear about Jim...!"' He chuckled. 'These guys might laugh at religion and at the idea of clergy, but when they come to me, they want to know
I'm connected to the current. They want me to be a holy man, even if they see me, or what I stand for, as foolish, they're counting on that.'
A gentle and soft-spoken padre from Quebec said, 'We are part of them, but we are not them. They would not appreciate it if the chaplain acted like a soldier, but they like the fact that the chaplain is alongside them. We have to be with them and let them stand back a little bit and be what they are as well. Being a chaplain is a little like being a mother!' He smiled and shook his head.
That perception of being a 'holy person,' alike and yet different from the people they serve, crosses denominational boundaries, goes beyond the basic aspect of being a counsellor, and distinctly sets them apart from all the other 'rational' roles in the CF. One senior chaplain who has served on numerous missions explained it this way: 'It's pretty clear that soldiers see chaplains as some kind of mystical religious person. I know [our Muslim chaplain] experiences this too. They don't really get what we do, but they know we're there to take care of them.' Another female chaplain explained to me, 'When I was the chaplain at the recruit school some of the cadets would ask, "Why do we have a padre here instead of a social worker?" and I would say to them, "You are going to be a soldier. You are going to be in theatre. If you get wounded or someone in your unit dies, who would you rather talk to?" They always answered, "Oh, ok, now we get it!" They see us as someone who offers hope - more than just a hope for getting better or getting out of here [a mission] but something beyond that - a transcendent hope. A divine hope, I guess. This helps them move on with what they have to do.'
Although chaplains receive a commission that marks them as senior officers (starting at the rank of captain or naval lieutenant), gives an indication of their training and experience, identifies their career progress within the branch, and inspires the respect and deference of junior members, they do not command military units. Instead, their commission is to serve the spiritual needs of military personnel according to their civilian vocation but with deference to military objectives. Chaplains are what the Department of National Defence manual Duty with Honour: The Profession of Arms in Canada refers to as a 'dual professional.' According to this document, dual professionals bring civilian professional expertise to their military duties and are able to provide 'specialized advice and services to the chain of command on issues that relate to the well-being of individuals and on collective matters in support of the organization... Medical, legal, spiritual and a wide range of other personnel services are essential to the well-being of the individuals who collectively make up the organization and hence to the health of the organization itself' (DND 2003c, 52).
Moreover, their religious vocation, coupled with strict Chaplain Branch policies prohibiting participation in conflict, marks chaplains as non-combatants in military operations. Because of the unique role they play, chaplains have additional privileges that give them considerable freedom within the otherwise rigid military hierarchy and set them apart from other senior officers in the system. For example, unlike all other members of the forces, chaplains may bypass the chain of command to interact with personnel of any level of rank. As one chaplain told me, 'There is a tradition of understanding that the chaplain takes on the same rank as whoever he or she is talking to.' Because of this, military personnel of all ranks may freely approach chaplains of any rank. Similarly, chaplains are free to speak to anyone at any level in the chain of command.
At one base, while I was walking alongside a chaplain wearing the rank of a lieutenant colonel, military personnel saluted him as we passed. I noticed that he thanked the personnel as they greeted him and he remarked, 'Really, it's just a courtesy that they're affording me - they don't have to salute but they're trained so well!' He laughed, 'As soon as they see the rank, they salute, but as a chaplain outside the rank system, they're not really required to salute, so I make a point of thanking them when they do.'
Another young chaplain commented, 'My rank is a legal fiction - I'm a captain but I don't have the [military] training or experience of these guys and they know it. But because I'm a padre, I'm free to talk to whomever I want above my rank. If soldiers come to me with problems with their superiors, I can go up the chain and help them with that. Rank can open doors but I can't give anyone orders. If I did ask or tell someone to do something, they would do it simply because it's drilled into them - they see the rank and respond - but I can't technically command them. I can bring someone up on charges - for example if a sergeant was abusing a private - but I can't command them.'
A Francophone padre added, 'We are very well respected because we are the only rank that can bypass all the other ranks. We can talk to a soldier and we don't need to go through all the steps to move up the chain of command. In the hierarchical world of the military, this is powerful! This access allows us to talk to [a soldier], and in a few minutes, we can be in the office of the colonel to talk about the issue. At the same time, we're the only rank that does not give any orders. This is good because, if we did, it would put us in a conflict of interest!' A female Protestant chaplain explained that the freedom from the chain of command means that chaplains 'can often resolve a problem faster than going through the regular chain. But you learn early that there are always two sides to every story and you have to be sure you get both sides before you go up the chain or you look like an idiot!' She added seriously, 'You have to know what you're talking about!'
Chaplains' ability to act as intermediaries is important for sustaining the institutional objectives and addressing the personal needs of members. At the institutional level, chaplains can identify and help to resolve issues that could harm morale and thereby decrease efficiency. On the personal level, chaplains can assist people to overcome personal problems that can leave them feeling isolated and alienated. In a lecture presented at the University of Victoria, retired navy chaplain Al Fowler stated that 'A good superior officer will rely on insights from the padre. These can act as a barometer to the morale of the unit. The chaplain plays an integral role in this context and bridges some of these tensions by assisting the CO to fulfil his or her military obligations while also speaking on behalf of the personnel' (Benham Rennick 2005b). Another 50-something padre said, 'In general, the military takes very good care of its people, [but] when people do fall through the cracks, it's the chaplain's job to advocate for them and the COs are willing to listen to the chaplains as advocates.' One east-coast chaplain remarked, 'I'm the only one on board who can go into any room on the ship. Other personnel can only go into their own mess - like an officer can't go into a junior mess - but I can. So I am all over the ship - like the [parent] checking everywhere to see how my babies are doing!'
As we saw earlier in this chapter, those in authority positions may experience even greater feelings of isolation and alienation because others are relying on them to lead. For those members the role of chaplains as intermediaries becomes even more significant because, along with being able to provide commanders with insights on the rank and file, the chaplain is often the only person he or she can turn to for advice and counsel. Lieutenant Colonel Christian Mercier, commandant of the Canadian Forces Leadership and Recruit School in St Jean, during an address given at the 2006 Annual Chaplain Retreat explained, 'Commanders make decisions that can change or end people's lives - sometimes they make mistakes and there is no one for them to turn to. We call this "the loneliness of leadership" and one's best efforts are not always good enough. COs need chaplain support and encouragement, because you are the only one who can stay close and offer guidance to us at times like these' (Mercier 2006).
The chaplains' ability to negotiate between the impersonal aspects of military society and the subjective needs of those who work there makes them an important mediator between the alienating and isolating aspects of the modern bureaucracy and the comforting and familiar elements of natural human relationships. They, like those they serve, are functionaries within the system. At the same time, however, unlike CF personnel, their religious role places them beyond the system. The effect of this paradoxical role is that chaplains are able to negotiate the system while also transcending it, not just for their own sake, but as a means of helping members bridge the gap between modern society and innate human needs.
The Department of National Defence describes military chaplains today as essential to the overall operational effectiveness of the forces through their support of the needs of its members (DND 2008a). Even as they remain partially outside of the military 'system,' they contribute to the overall 'efficiency' of the military objectives. They do this as 'dual professionals' who use their civilian vocation to facilitate the establishment and maintenance of military socio-cultural norms and values, offering guidance and direction in moral and ethical matters, as well as intervening to resolve tensions within a unit and between personnel. Furthermore, they help people remain effective in their roles by giving them virtually the only opportunity for non-stigmatized counsel and consolation in the face of personal and job-related stress and hardship. Their ability to address the personal and individual needs of members while also contributing to institutional goals makes them unique intermediaries within military society.
Unlike those they serve, chaplains remain the formal and traditional face of religion in the Canadian Forces. CF chaplains will continue to have to adapt to the new demands of late modernity as they attempt to meet a greater variety of religious and spiritual needs among personnel, integrate a greater diversity of religious leaders into the branch, adapt to the demands of a changing operational environment, and seek ways and opportunities to overcome the lack of religious knowledge that is quickly becoming the norm among Canadian youth and retains critical importance for military personnel deployed to regions of the world where religious values are paramount. Moreover, as military operations become increasingly complex and diversity within the Canadian Forces increases, chaplains may find themselves further challenged to maintain the balance between their religious vocational and their military professional roles. Moreover, issues such as inclu- sivity and openness to difference, dealing with their own stress while supporting others, finding themselves at once inside and outside the cultural milieu, and recognizing that they cannot resolve all the problems people bring to them will continue to challenge military chaplains well into the future.
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