We used to pray seafaring: “worship professionals” at NATO’s orders

On the website of the U.S. Naval Forces Command in Europe and Africa, I found an article that, already in its title, denoted a view of religion as mere spiritual support for the Atlantic Alliance’s troubling new wargames. Indeed, it reported on an interfaith meeting on the flagship of the US 6th Fleet, during NATO’s troubling mega-maneuver in the Baltic. “During the Baltic Operations 2023 exercise, allied and partner nations operated alongside forces not only on land, air, and sea but also deployed, trained, and strengthened their spiritual corps. In preparation for the exercise, 14 chaplains representing eight nations gathered…for the Chaplains Conference…focused on concepts of interoperability, exercise events, logistics coordination, and sharing of expertise and protocols.”

It is evident how little ‘spiritual’ the tone of the article is. Instead, the tone has a bureaucratic-military coloring and uses corporate terminology: implement, train, interoperability, logistic coordination, skills, and protocols… [It is evident] that in the two weeks on board the ship in command of a war simulation, fifteen ministers of religion – of different nationalities and religious creeds – discussed how to train their respective ‘faithful’ in uniform “on spiritual topics related to the military, such as moral damage”, since “the chaplains are naval officers and religious ministry professionals who focus on the spiritual readiness of their assigned crew”.

It is not clear what “moral harm” the article refers to nor what is the mysterious “spiritual readiness” that should be nurtured in US Navy crews. Conversely, the cynically utilitarian view of chaplains as religious “professionals” serving the military exercise in the Baltic as a “source of encouragement for their people,” as Capt. Brian Weigelt’s explanation seems very clear.

“Chaplains relate to sailors and marines because of their pastoral identity, they are calling to care for the whole person. While serving as religious ministry professionals, they care for everyone regardless of rank or religious or nonreligious beliefs and have complete confidentiality. But they also serve as naval officers who understand the unique challenges of life at sea and the culture of the broader organization.”[iv].

Evidently, for the U.S. naval officer, not only is there no contradiction between religious and military service, but even the ‘vocation’ of chaplains would be aimed at increasing the ‘spiritual readiness’ of future combatants, as they are “directly interested in the individual welfare of sailors or marines, offering solutions and guidance that a war-minded leader cannot offer.”[v] This is because they are “directly interested in the individual welfare of sailors or marines, offering solutions and guidance that a war-minded leader cannot offer.”

In summary: military chaplains serve the ’cause’ because “the interoperability of allied and partner spiritual forces is centered on building trust for all involved” [vi] and they are also helpful in ensuring ‘well-being’ in crews, getting them through the inevitable traumas of combat, ‘caring’ for military personnel, and strengthening “the sense of solidarity that enhances our commitment to the work.”.

“The chaplain force will gather in Kiel, Germany, for the inaugural conference on Spiritual Support Interoperability for NATO Maritime Command. There, they will review the events of the exercise, determine what went well and what they should focus on next year, and begin preliminary planning.”.

As I have reiterated in previous articles [ix], the blasphemous combination of religious ministries and war ministries is far from outdated, much to the chagrin of Don Milani, whose centenary falls [this year]. Today the tones are less rhetorical and the language is more corporate than belligerent, but the scandal remains of the subalternity of chaplains to the military hierarchies, of which they have agreed to be an integral part. To ‘care’ for the souls of those who are trained to use their bodies and minds to kill and destroy or, at best, to prepare them spiritually to die in battle…

Ermete Ferraro

Redazione Italia