Tuesday, 12 February 2008

A Chaplain Reflects

I was raised as a Christian.

My brother and I would attend Sunday school on Sunday morning getting picked up by one of the church members who also had children. I have good memories of being driven around in a huge Ford Zephyr having many a laugh as the driver would sometimes "forget" the way home and take us on little drives around my home town. My mother and father would alternate who would cook Sunday lunch which was a very traditional affair of a roast with potatoes, veg and gravy and attend church every Sunday.

As my parents were Christadelphians, which is a lay orginization, we had no clergy so instead brothers and sisters (as they called themselves) would give speeches. Sometimes visitors would come from nieghbouring areas and be a guest speaker and sometimes my father would be a guest speaker somewhere. This meant that at times we would go away for the Sunday and spend the day as guests.

Every year a number of functions were held in the meeting hall. These ranged from showing old Laurel and Hardy movies, party games and a host of social events for us children. It was actually quite fun until I became a teenager and of course rebelled aganist it all.

This happened when I was 14 and my brother 10. Instead of going to Sunday School we would bunk off with our bikes and hang around a playground down town. Of course my parents soon found out about this when they were asked one morning why we no longer attended so of course I had to come clean that I no longer wanted to go. My mother was sympathetic and so we stopped going to Sunday School and shortly after this she also stopped attending church.

On joining the Army I was forced to attend church once a month while I was undergoing my 2 year apprenticeship. Of course this time it was a Church of England service and therefore much more formal. Absconding wasn't an option.

When I was posted to the Scots Guards church attendance wasn't enforced.

On Tumbeldown while being shelled and sniped I considered praying to God to spare me but it was more lip service. I can honestly say that having had an upbringing where I was told to believe in God when it came to the crunch I put more trust in the rock in front of me and the all concealing night. The prayer died on my lips, I found God distinctly missing from the battlefield.

Later I was to act as a guard for 100's of Argentines at Ajax Bay. One of the guard posts was located by the door into the officers area and another at the head of the corridor between the officers and the rest of the prisoners who were held at the back of the building. Every day they held mass though it was for the officers only. At no time did the Argentine padre include other ranks, so I guess in the Argentine Army God was an officer.

I have to admit that the Army Chaplain for the Scots Guards was an extremely popular man and was very well liked in the battalion. He worked tirelessly to provide spiritual solice for those who looked for it and also with the families officer as he always had the welfare for the family at heart.

In 1995 I started practising Buddhism and at last found the medium with which I could satisfy my spiritual side. What attracts me is that there is no belief in God but rather that each of us have it in ourselves to awaken our Buddhist nature. It teaches me, if you reduce it to simple Christian beliefs, is that I have the ability to live a good life and that all my actions will effect other around me. It teaches me that I am responsible for my actions, there is no concept of heaven and hell in the traditional sense and that I will find these concepts in my own life and not waiting for me when I die.

This is the presentation he gave.

Angus Smith

What are the expectations of Chaplaincy in the British Army and how do they dovetail with an organization whose aim is to achieve operational success? When the present Chaplain General held the post of Deputy Chaplain General, he defined these expectations and the dovetailing process in the following way. He focussed first on the needs of the Army. He said.

It is an organization whose raison d’ĂȘtre, indeed whose overall motto, could be defined as “Prepare for War”, and whose aim is to achieve operational success. For this it requires good leadership, teamwork and a caring approach towards, in particular, the Army’s most vital asset — the soldiers. The Army’s core values are courage, commitment, discipline, loyalty, integrity and respect for others. In combat characterized by hardship, fear and the ultimate possibility of self-sacrifice, soldiers are forced to face up to their own mortality. Spiritual values are therefore of great importance, as these can sustain soldiers in combat.
A basic acquaintance with biblical literature will demonstrate how close these core values really are to the values of “faith”. I talk here specifically about the Christian faith, although much relates to core values of other religions and belief systems as well. Without doubt agnostics, humanists and atheists can be proficient soldiers. Many in all three services whose courage and operational successes are not only impressive but also praiseworthy have no religious background or experience. The only call they make on God’s name is in the form of a passionate expletive. Despite their living by their wits and often being just one step ahead of the “law” during their adolescent and pre-service years, one could wish for no better person at one’s side when penetrating closely guarded enemy positions in the crags of Tumbledown or of Mount William in the Falklands.

Yet having said all that, and explained the tradition I come from, I make no apology for saying that those whose lives are shaped by a firm belief in God and in the values of faith already have an appreciation of the core values already referred to. They are aware of the motivation for which these values provide a definite dynamic. Motivation, of course, is also powerfully manifested by the creeds and values displayed by competent commanders such as we had at Tumbledown by unit non-commissioned officers, Guardsmen and soldiers. It can come from Regimental Medical Officers and their staff. How fortunate indeed we were in the Falklands campaign to have Brigadier (then Lieutenant-Colonel) Alan Warsap as our Medical Officer, and then people of the calibre of Morgan O’Connell, the Principal Naval Psychiatrist. Their compassion, advice, wisdom and humanity were invaluable.

Motivation for the soldier engaged in military operations can also come from the confident awareness that family matters on the home front can reliably be entrusted to the Families Officer and his team. While this need has been identified and provided for in the three main British Services, and I dare say elsewhere, it is salutary to see the official recognition given to such important matters in the Introduction to the 2006 document “Operational Mental Health — A NATO Programme Adopted for the 21st Century”, of which one of the co-authors was Professor Lars Weisth. The document was sent to me by Mike Seear, who had also made various contributions to it based on his Falklands War experiences:

The new conditions have led to a change from a one-sided focus on providing and maintaining manpower, to a more balanced doctrine to preserve combat strength while protecting the mental health of personnel at risk. In contemporary military operations and war a wider spectrum of stressor has been identified. War-related Potential Traumatic Events (PTE) exist as always, but service-related stressors and civilian stressors need to receive more attention.
Under the heading of “Professionalism” the same document quotes from the publication “Stress, Appraisal and Coping” by Lazarus and Folkman. They make the point, which is really self-evident, that professionalism and training can enable personnel to cope more adequately with their tasks. That quotation is prefaced by the following statement:

The before-deployment phase can be a much underrated period in terms of laying a solid foundation for professionalism, in terms of supplying adequate and realistic unit training.
Shortly after receiving notification for our deployment, the newly- constituted 5th Infantry Brigade, in which the infantry components were the 2nd Battalion, Scots Guards, 1st Battalion, Welsh Guards, and 1st Battalion, 7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles, had a preparatory military exercise in Wales. In this exercise an imaginative scenario was planned. Infantry skills and operational requirements were practised. Good leadership at all levels, teamwork and a caring attitude towards its most valuable asset — the soldiers — came into their own. One day, when I visited a company during this exercise, a young officer, who was a convinced and practising Christian, asked me:

“Padre, how are you going to prepare the Battalion spiritually for war?” This really was a question which was never far from my mind but, when posed by this young and thoughtful officer, it became for me a more immediate concern.

Grateful as I was for the many opportunities to address the various companies for character-training periods and regular daily contact with members of the Battalion at all levels, this scenario was to be a new point of departure. If we were to be involved in combat, all ranks had to face up to the possibility of the ultimate sacrifice and be aware of their own mortality. I had by every means possible to give those, for whom I was responsible, some appreciation of the spiritual insights that could sustain them before, during and after combat.

How did I seek to implement this important role? Firstly by my identifying with the Battalion on the widest possible basis by taking part in the various courses on map- reading, radio procedure and first aid. By this time the Medical Officer and I had formed a natural team. Our thinking was so close at so many different levels. We were both, in our different ways, interested in making people “whole” (to quote an Anglican theologian) or in making them as “whole” as we could. Whilst each company was put through a basic first aid course, I was given the task of explaining “Burial Procedure” to each company in terms of our existing Standard Operating Procedures (SOP). Now the fact that “Burial Procedure” was changed when we got to the Falklands was really irrelevant. What was of importance was that a procedure was adopted which suited our location at the time.

When Headquarters Company came for their first aid course, the Company Commander decreed that the tallest, and possibly the heaviest, soldier in that company should act as the “dead soldier”. Drill- Sergeant Wight was selected — a great character in every sense of the word. Four sweating Guardsmen brought in the Drill-Sergeant on a standard-issue sleeping bag and lowered him down into a temporary grave. Faces were sombre. To defuse the situation I gave a mock “Eulogy” for the Drill-Sergeant. I finished with the words, “OK Drill- Sergeant, you may now join the ranks of the living.”

The Drill-Sergeant then flashed his usual ready smile and remarked, “By God Padre, I hope I will be fully gone when you stand at my grave. It’s an awful thing to be in a grave and see people gathered around it.” Much laughter ensued. His words, however, came back to me when I learned at about 01.45 hours on 14 June 1982 that the good Drill- Sergeant had been killed in the diversionary attack during the Battle for Tumbledown Mountain in the Falklands.

However, I jump ahead of myself, but the “story within the story” had to be told in its entirety. I think at this point of my reflections on events of almost twenty-five years ago it is important, particularly for this kind of audience, for me to say something about my ministry and task as a Chaplain for this venture. In the British Army, indeed in all three services, Chaplains are first and foremost ministers and priests of their Churches. We are non-combatants. We exercise our ministry in the name of our Churches on behalf of the units for which we are responsible. A realistic incarnational theology should expect that we have an intelligent awareness of the ethos, character and role of these units, not least to enable our ministry to “dovetail” into their life and work both on a spiritual and practical basis.

In our Churches, and particularly in the Churches which follow the Reformed Tradition, the expression, proclamation and commendation of faith is based upon the Bible duly interpreted and explained and applied, not only in terms of the historical dimension of faith, but also of its relevance to the contemporary scene in which one is placed. Now it would be strange if, in an audience of this nature, you would all be in total agreement with what I say here, but it is important you should at least be aware of what my thinking about my pastoral role in this scenario was. It should also serve as a useful pointer to the many correlates which undoubtedly there are, on the one hand in that document “Operational Mental Health — A NATO Programme Adopted for the 21st Century” and, on the other hand, in the theological premises on which my spiritual preparation and pastoral care of the Battalion were based. In the final analysis, of course, Professor Lars Weisth is a Psychiatrist and I am/was a Chaplain, but I firmly believe that in future developments of theories and plans in this NATO document, an intelligent dialogue between both these areas of experience would promote even more correlatives to their mutual benefit and enrichment.

Now then, what about the spiritual preparation of the Battalion for war? Did I simply have to proclaim the simple unadulterated Biblical message, and hope that the religious message would somehow underscore the military requirement? That could very well be so. One day, however, during the exercise in Wales, I had a flash of inspiration. Some eighteen years prior to that day, I had read a book which, in a theological sense, gripped us all as students. The book was entitled The Courage to Be and was written by Paul Tillich. The Reverend Professor Paul Tillich was a Professor of Systematic Theology in Germany during the late 1930s. He was one of several German theologians who were forced to leave their posts as a result of the intolerable pressure put on them by the Nazis. Tillich readily found posts at various American Universities, where his teaching flourished and attracted thousands of students.

Why then go back to a book which was printed in the ‘sixties in the search of a measure of light for the spiritual and pastoral task that engaged me in 1982? That certainly is a valid question. However Tillich, as his theological work developed, sought to engage with literature, philosophy, ethics, psychotherapy and several other departments of life. Tillich had, and I believe still has, much to say about our contemporary scene even if, in some respects, the book is undoubtedly dated. He has much to say about courage.

Tillich had seen that for the Existentialist School of writers “non- being” was the greatest threat and anxiety of modern man. He defined anxiety as that state in which a being is aware of its possible “non- being”. Now if courage (which Tillich defined as the power of the mind to overcome fear) does not remove the awareness of possible “non- being”, courage can still take the possibility of “non-being” into itself. This in turn enables courage to express itself in affirmation “in spite of”, that is, in spite of the possibility of “non-being”.

If that piece of theory is somewhat “meaty”, let me now explain how I saw one particular example of it in action. As the Battalion made its final preparations in the Assembly Area before going into battle, I went round to each company to wish them well. As I talked to one Lance- Sergeant in his trench, a shell landed fairly close, burying itself fortunately into the peaty soil. The Lance-Sergeant said, “Better come into the trench, padre, in case the next one is closer.” In fact the next shell landed some distance away. The Lance-Sergeant then looked at me and said, “Padre, if your number is on that bullet or shell, there is little you can do about it” Was that simply an expression of fatalism?

3 comments:

steve regan said...

my name is steve regan 15 platoon left flank most of the boys will remember me for my football but not seen anyone for 29 yr just wondered how they all are and to see if any one would like to contact me cheers

Steve Cocks said...

Hi Steve

Good to see you. A lot of the battalion hang out on Facebook drop me an email if you are interested in hooking up with some of us.

Cheers
Steve

Kirbylover said...

Stevie Regan my old mucker :P If you remember who threw up on a guy in a night club up your way in Bradford, then you know who this is. So nice to see your still about, been trying to track a few of the guys down, got in touch with Alex and Walter, searching high and low for you and Gary. Come on FB, loads of 2sg on there.

Mate for life Pasty