National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Cover Story: At war
Issue Date:  April 4, 2003
A Catholic chaplain blessed U.S. Marines at a desert base in northern Kuwait March 19.  It was likely the last religious service for the unit, which had moved into position for the war to oust President Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
                                                              -- Photo by CNS/Reuters

Military chaplains see conflict differently

Fort Myer,Va.

Gathered at Sunday Mass March 23, the 300 active and retired military personnel and their families did not have to look far to remind themselves of wars’ costs: Fort Myer’s nondenominational chapel lies adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery’s 260,000 graves, just a short walk from the Iwo Jima Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknowns.

News of the first American casualties in the Iraq war arrived prior to the 9 a.m. service. “We are a military family here at Fort Myer,” said Msgr. Joseph Goudreau, “and this weighs heavily on us.”

The congregation prayed for coalition troops, for those killed in action, for President Bush and U.S. military leaders, and that the Iraqi people would enjoy a just peace absent the “shackles of dictatorship.” The choir offered a post-Eucharist requiem “in memory of the military personnel we have lost.”

It is a difficult time for military families, like those at the close-knit Fort Myer community. Family members and longtime friends are engaged in a war that may yet require additional manpower. And it’s not made easier, perhaps, when their church’s leadership sees the war they have been called to fight as unjust.

That’s where military chaplains -- the church’s representatives among the troops -- come in. And they see this conflict from a different perspective than that of their clerical superiors.

“I’m going to trust our military intelligence more than I’m going to trust the pope’s military intelligence,” said Dominican Fr. Thomas Doyle, an Air Force major and one of 14 chaplains serving the largest American community outside the United States -- the 45,000 Americans at Germany’s Ramstein Air Force Base.

“It’s nice to say … that we have to use every avenue for diplomacy. Well, Pius XII did that in World War II and look where that ended up,” said the 17-year chaplaincy corps veteran.

In the 1990s, Doyle was deployed to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait with “Operation Southern Watch,” the decade-long effort to enforce the “no-fly zone” in Southern Iraq. The experience shaped his view of the current conflict.

“I’m sensitive to people who are against this particular war,” said Doyle. “It looks like an offensive war. But on the other hand I vividly remember what I saw in Kuwait … and I’m also sensitive to what I’ve been made aware of from our own military intelligence. And I have to tell you, [Saddam] makes Hitler look like an amateur.”

The words of the pope and the U.S. bishops are largely meaningless to the thousands of troops deployed to the Middle East from Ramstein, said Doyle.

“To be quite honest with you, it’s not something that’s been discussed at all. … I don’t think anybody even knows what they said over here. We’re not the policymakers. We’re the soldiers. The way we’re trained, we don’t even question it.”

The view from Naval Base Ventura County, Calif., north of Los Angeles, is similar, though Fr. Eugene Gomulka, a Navy captain, has dealt with military personnel who doubt whether military action against Iraq is justified.

“People in the military are the last ones who want to go to war. They are the people who are most opposed to war because it’s our lives that are at stake,” says Gomulka. “But when we do have to go to war, then we hope that it will be over soon with a minimal loss of life, not only on our part, but on the part of the people who we may find some opposition from.”

Over the last few months, said Gomulka, he has had conversations with members of the military who are skeptical of the war. He counseled them to follow their conscience, acknowledging, “There are some wars that are easier to call.”

Gomulka has an extensive e-mail contact list to which he has distributed different views of the conflict. Two recent missives: John Brady Kiesling’s letter of resignation from the foreign service, a move he took to protest the war, and an article that compares the threat posed by Saddam’s Iraq to Hitler’s Germany.

Still, Gomulka has not hesitated to express his own viewpoint. “From my perspective, if Saddam does have weapons of mass destruction and if he is making those available to terrorist groups that can pose a serious threat, that may require the use of force to recoup those weapons.” Though he cannot endorse the conflict “with total certainty,” says Gomulka, “I have to rely on the information of our intelligence services.”

War is the pressing issue of the day, but even now chaplains Gomulka and Doyle spend most of their time meeting individual pastoral needs, not debating the morality, or lack thereof, of U.S. military actions. First Communions are administered and religious education classes are conducted, the forlorn consoled, and spouses of recently deployed personnel assisted with daycare and family life.

Nearly two-thirds of active duty personnel, said Gomulka, are married, and many are wed at ages 19, 20 and 21 -- far younger than their civilian counterparts. The strain of long-term separations and limited incomes, among other factors, said Gomulka, mean that “a lot of these young people, especially the junior grades, have a significant number of problems.”

Doyle, meanwhile, is trained as a drug abuse, behavior addiction (such as gambling) and alcohol counselor. He spends time twice a month at the military prison, where charges range from disobeying a lawful order to murder.

“The guys I spend my time with, most of them are marginalized and disenfranchised. They don’t know what religion is all about,” said Doyle. “But they can identify with a chaplain who cuts through all that, who doesn’t preach to them, who doesn’t get pietistic, and who says to them ‘I don’t care who you are or what you are.’ They are hammered and they have to have somebody in their corner.”

At Fort Myer, meanwhile, the typically Catholic congregation -- not many had joined their voices to the choir’s during the Mass -- departed just before 10 a.m. The recessional hymn, “America the Beautiful,” did not lack for voices.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: