Religious Advising For Strategic Effect: US Army Chaplains as Change Agents

The past several years of war have produced a widespread shift in view towards the causes of local and international conflict. From a perspective prevalent through the 1990’s which saw economics as the world’s primary conflict driver, the Army and other agencies have moved towards a more nuanced approach that sees non-economic issues either as conflict factors or as stabilizing influences that may require addressing when conflict is to be reduced and/or resolved.

Religion as an influencing factor is prominent among these. In virtually every one of the world’s many societies and cultures, religions play a significant role in helping to define group identities, societal values, and resulting priorities. In several  conflicts in which the United States and its military forces have been involved since the 1990’s, from Bosnia to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa, religious identities and ideas have determined the conflict’s  shape, scope, and intensity. While it is arguable that, in some of these conflicts, religious differences are a proxy for other divisions, the visibility and intensity of these religious differences have made them a potentially fruitful target of opportunity in the service of conflict reduction and resolution.

Writing in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), the French sociologist Emile Durkheim was the first to explicitly connect religion to culture. Durkheim identified a central function of religion as promoting group solidarity, with specific features of any religion determined by the group’s historic and current needs. Durkheim’s work has influenced subsequent thinking about the role of religion in its relation to group culture. This connection is a productive way to think about religion’s potential or actual role in military theaters of operation.

The failure to understand and appreciate the religious dimension of political action is not without consequence. For example, the failure of the US government to anticipate and respond to the Shiite-led revolution in Iran contributed to the deepening of the sectarian  divide in the Middle East (in fact, the West dismissed revolutionary Islamic ideology as the most effective means of mobilizing mass resistance in Iran, believing that secular nationalism would prevail), and the underestimation of the potential for sectarian violence in post-Soviet Afghanistan and a post-Saddam Iraq has led to an enormous loss of civilian life as well as the destruction of culturally significant sites and religious artifacts.

The Army’s religion experts have traditionally been its chaplains.  As early as the Spanish-American War, Chaplain William D. McKinnon of the First California Volunteers undertook a diplomatic mission to the Archbishop of Manila at his commander’s behest, walking unarmed through enemy lines to do so. In the aftermath of World War II in Europe, the Army employed chaplains as force sustainers through their traditional roles in leading prayer, teaching, preaching, and religious counseling.  Those same chaplains took active roles in refugee relief and advised commanders tasked with the disposition of religious property. (See Ralph H. Blumenthal, “Jewish Chaplains as Liaison Officer for G-5 with Jewish D.P. Camps,” in The Contribution of Chaplains to the Occupation European Command, Paul J. Maddox, ed., Chief of Chaplains European Command, March 1, 1948, p. 43, and Venzke, Confidence in Battle, Inspiration in Peace, the United States Army Chaplaincy 1945-1975, Volume 5, pp. 17-18.)  

More recently, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, commanders have involved chaplains in a variety of peacetime engagements with religious leaders, primarily at the tactical and operational levels, to induce greater acceptance of military operations in a given area.  At the corps level, World Religion Chaplains produce informational materials, integrate into staff working groups,and meet with commanders to give advice on religious influences affecting the operational environment both internal and external to the command. Through reliable religious advisement, commanders can acquaint themselves with the religious dynamics of a given area of responsibility and discern the extent to which these dynamics can influence peace and stability, rather than exacerbate conflict.

Army Doctrinal Publication 3-0, Unified Land Operations identifies the Army’s two core competencies as combined arms maneuver and wide area security. Wide area security is defined as “the application of combat power in unified action to protect populations, forces, infrastructure, and activities; to deny the enemy positions of advantage; and to consolidate gains in order to retain the initiative.” While chaplains and assistants are unused to seeing themselves as agents of decisive action, it seems self-evident that protecting populations, forces, infrastructure, and activities falls well within the Chaplain Corps’ mission broadly understood.

In discussing the strategic context of unified land operations, ADP 3-0 paragraph 7 defines the Operational Environment as the “composite of the conditions, circumstances, and influences that affect the employment of capabilities and bear on the decisions of the commander.” Operational Variables are defined as political, military, economic, social, information, infrastructure, physical environment, and time (PMESII-PT). Mission variables are mission, enemy, terrain and weather, troops and support available, time available and civil considerations (METT-TC). Over time, as was noted earlier, reciprocal effects between these variables and religion have proven significant. This significance is thrown into sharper relief when the ADP, discussing the Character of the Threat in paragraph 18, defines the most serious national security threat as “a nuclear-capable nation-state partnered with one or more non-state actors, through ideological, political, religious, or other ties (italics added).”

One of the Foundations of Unified Land Operations is Decisive Action. According to paragraph 21, “Army forces conduct decisive and sustainable land operations through the simultaneous combination of offensive, defensive, and stability operations…” Stability operations tasks are establishing and/or maintaining civil authority, civil control, support to governance, and support to economic and infrastructure development. In many locations in which the Army finds itself, religious leaders may be connected with all of these. More broadly, religious paradigms have the ability to enhance or hinder the accomplishment of these tasks.

The reaction of many US Army leaders to chaplains talking about religious advising in COIN may be extreme skepticism to say the least.  Why would a Unit Ministry Team or a Chaplain Section advocate that a command team tinker with religion and religious messaging, or even be interested in briefing the command team about the religious factors in culture that impact the operational environment? 

Many chaplains, in fact, holding Masters and, in some cases, Doctoral degrees in History and the various social sciences, come to the military already prepared, by education and temperament, to be subject matter experts in the religious influences on a given location’s population. They seek to understand the way in which religion as practiced in a given time and place may favorably or unfavorably dispose a population to American military interventions. Other chaplains acquire the necessary analytic framework and tools from training that the Army has developed and is continually refining. At the strategic level, World Religions Chaplains, assigned to Corps level and higher, possess specialized Masters Degrees.

As is true in other areas of chaplaincy work, some chaplains will be more adept at providing this kind of advice than others. However, given a fairly rapid growth of interest by commanders in religious analysis, it will be desirable going forward for all chaplains to have at least some facility with it.

Achievability of this facility has already been demonstrated on a small scale.During the past year, the Command Chaplain, US Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) has embarked on an ambitious program to train subordinate Unit Ministry Teams to function as Religious Advisors in Civil Affairs and Military Information Support Operations. With the full support of the Commanding General, USACAPOC(A), hehas partnered with the Center for World Religions at the US Army Chaplain Center and School to develop this training, which is now being studied for its applicability to a wider audience..

The purpose of this training is to create an effective strategic, operational, and tactical bridge between the senior chaplains currently engaged in various types of analysis and education and the battalion and brigade level chaplains who could be providing a valued additional capability to their commanders. Because Civil Affairs units support higher echelon commands (e.g. battalions supporting maneuver divisions), it seemed especially urgent to provide advisement training even to junior chaplains and chaplain assistants who might not otherwise have received it until later in their careers. The response from those receiving the training and their commanders has been overwhelmingly positive.

Army Mission Command Doctrine, as articulated in Army Doctrinal Publication 6-0, directly supports, and perhaps even prescribes, this training. Paragraph 43 directs staffs to support the Commander in the exercise of Mission Command, by performing certain primary staff tasks, including “Conduct inform and influence activities.” Paragraph 44 lists five additional tasks of mission command, among which is “Conduct civil affairs operations.” Given that Field Manual 1-05 Religious Support  lists one of the chaplaincy’s two core capabilities as “advise the commander,” it seems logical that chaplains and assistants in Civil Affairs and MISO units require the necessary training to enhance their staff advisory capabilities for the specialized roles their units play. Given current doctrinal, strategic, and operational trends, a significant argument can and should be made that the US Army Chaplain Corps as a whole should embrace an enhanced advisory role in mission command and define related tasks at each level of the professional life cycle.

As our nation’s collective awareness of the role of religion in world affairs grows, chaplains have the opportunity to help shape the ensuing discussion as it applies to military operations, in the process securing their branch’s position and enhancing its utility. Availing themselves of this opportunity requires chaplains to ensure that they have the requisite training to serve as reliable religious advisors who, as envisioned in doctrine, enhance the effectiveness of the commanders and soldiers whom they serve.

Writing in American Psychologist in 2003, Drs. R.J. and J.I. Eidelson identified five belief domains, namely, superiority, injustice, vulnerability, distrust, and helplessness, as particularly important for further study of beliefs that propel groups toward conflict. Since, in any given context, religious meaning systems may directly affect these domains, Chaplains can make a meaningful strategic contribution by analyzing religion’s effects on social attitudes which might predispose an AOR’s inhabitants to be more or less receptive to Americans accomplishing military goals. Engaging with local religious leaders and consulting with outside experts might enhance this contribution by uncovering ways by which such receptivity could be increased leveraging aspects of the local belief system.

Turning to the Joint Universal Task List and the Army Universal Task List Crosswalk by Rank and Echelon allows us to “plug in” chaplains and assistants to the doctrine of Unified Land Operations and Mission Command. SN (Strategic National) Task 4.3.2, “Coordinate Religious Affairs,” bears the description, “Coordinate religious affairs to include reviewing plans and providing guidance in the provision of religious support and religious advisement. (italics added)” The AUTL Crosswalk has a task numbered ST (Strategic Theater), “Provide Religious Advisement.” Both, as strategic tasks, are designated for chaplains at Corps and higher echelons, normally Colonels. In the AUTL Crosswalk, there is also a task for chaplains serving in Division or Deputy Corps positions, normally Lieutenant Colonels: OP (Operational) 5.1.5, “Monitor Strategic Situation.”

For the kind of advising envisioned in this paper, the Chaplain Colonel, having studied extensively the religious environment in the Area of Responsibility/Influence and a variety of religious paradigms, integrates the Chaplain Lieutenant Colonel’s strategic assessment to develop the campaign’s program of advisement and engagement for subordinate Unit Ministry Teams which, in conjunction with subordinate commanders’needs, might enhance Civil Affairs and Military Information Support Operations and/or facilitate the Mission Commander’s objectives more directly.

For many types of units, brigade and battalion level chaplains (normally Majors and Captains/First Lieutenants respectively) would be responsible for program execution at operational and tactical levels. The Chaplain Captain Career Course’s curriculum currently includes training on the topic, “Advise the Command on the Impact of Indigenous Religions.” In the future, such training will need to be extended to chaplains at higher intermediate levels (normally Majors). Consideration should also be given to developing training tasks for Soldier-Leader Engagement.

ADP 6-0, Mission Command, contains several paragraphs which reinforce the need for training to enable chaplain sections and unit ministry teams to carry out a role that lies beyond Sustainment Doctrine. Paragraph 10 states that “Effective Commanders build teams within their own organization and with unified action partners through interpersonal relationships.” As relationship authorities, chaplains could potentially play a significant role in this process, particularly as they take an active staff role. Paragraph 11 states that “Commanders and staffs actively build and maintain shared understanding within the force…by maintaining collaboration and dialogue throughout the operations process (planning, preparation, execution, and assessment).”

Finally, in a discussion on decision making, paragraph 27 describes a responsibility of commanders as “understanding the consequences of any decision.” “Commanders,” it says, “first seek to understand the situation. As commanders and staffs receive information, they process it to develop meaning. Commanders and staffs then apply judgment to gain understanding.” To the extent that chaplains participate in this process, they can provide valuable expertise, but only if their advisory role is approached deliberately, intentionally, and seriously. The trainingdeveloped at the Army’s Center for World Religions and delivered tochaplains’ sections from USACAPOC(A), mentioned above, should dramatically enhance chaplains’ advisory capabilities.

The U.S. Army Chaplain Corps functions in its traditional role as the professional military religious leaders for the United States Army Family. At the same time, the Chaplain Corps is expanding its advisory capabilities and is performing new tasks of religious advisement to meet the needs of combatant commands in unified land operations. In this manner, the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps, exercising its religious advisory capability, contributes to mission success.

While current doctrine and force structure suggest that unit ministry teams deploy with the headquarters of the battalion and larger-sized units to which they are assigned, preliminary experiments in training exercises suggests their effective utilization as religion subject matter experts for smaller specialized asymmetric and stability operations missions. While further tests are required to validate this concept, it appears that the addition of a chaplain and assistant to deployments of as few as twenty to thirty Soldiers can provide robust capability for comparatively low additional cost. Indeed, if unit ministry teams can effectively exercise their religious advisory capacity to mitigate conflict, the result might be shorter, less intense military engagements with attendant cost reduction, such that the employment of chaplains and assistants with smaller soldier configurations would recoup the additional cost many times over.

Maximizing the benefit of the approach outlined here requires chaplains and assistants willing and able to develop new capabilities based on lessons learned from the past eleven years of war and from current training, willingness of commanders to expand their employment of chaplains in new directions, and branch leadership that advocates for such employment with Army and DOD senior leadership. Once these three components come together, the United States Army Chaplain Corps will be more fully empowered to exemplify its motto, Pro Deo Et Patria, in new, exciting ways that benefit the Army and nation.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect the policy or positions of the Army, the Defense Department, or the U.S. government.


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I agree with several of Froggy's concerns. I think the most immediate hurdle to an expansion of the utility of the Chaplain Corps is the sense of denominational superiority. In my limited experience, too many Chaplains are marginally effective in providing counsel to soldiers within the unit because they wear their denomination on their sleeve. Some pay lip service to being open and accepting of other faiths but their lack of sincerity is palpable. I'm happy for them that they are so sure, so secure, so certain in their spiritual path and I understand that it can be hard not to express these feelings. That said, it too often drowns out any effort to remain open to others. If the Chaplaincy cannot address this issue which is at the heart of their primary mission, how can it be expected to expand its mission into new areas? Again, this is just based upon my time in the military and my experience may not be the norm. I have served with some excellent Chaplains, as well, they just might be outnumbered.

The chaplain mission is only useful for the force and Mission Command, if one wishes to cite doctrine, if it is only inward focused. Thus, a Chaplain focuses on the spiritual needs of the American organization or unit. Any attempt to focus outward, toward a non-military element or group, will nearly always result in confusion, misunderstanding, or catastrophic blunder. A few things to consider:

1. Where you stand depends on where you sit. two Chaplains writing an article arguing that the Chaplain Corps is still relevant, and could become more relevant as an active advisor in future and current conflict environments is akin to every other argument for self-relevance within organizational theory. If I am a Navy Aviator, I write articles arguing how the Navy Aviator is relevant, and must remain relevant, and can be more relevant. Only a heretic (consider that word with respect to religion) would challenge the institution and perhaps suggest that one's own rice bowl is not really relevant anymore; or that every major effort to use the Chaplain Corps in an outward focus has resulted in either a PR nightmare, or at least the appearance of attempting to convert outsiders.

2. My position, my paradigm, my cement shoes. Every individual, group, and organization has a mindset or worldview (some use the term paradigm) which is comprised of their shared values, beliefs, concepts, and symbols. Different cultures have different paradigms, and they generally are incompatible, or at least highly paradoxical. This is not to say we cannot cooperate in peace, or that a Muslim and a Christian cannot be good neighbors or married and raise a wonderful family. However, just as our western COIN doctrine is entirely cast in the "westerners shall teach the backwards foreign nationals how to be a better military by doing as we say", the same environment is cast for any Chaplain that engages with a foreign community; unless you would suggest that the chance exists for a Chaplain to go native and convert to the host nation's religion in the process of dialogue with them in a military conflict environment. If that is possible, is that a good thing? If you reply "no"- then we have established your paradigm and your value structure. Losing a Chaplain to another religion during military operations where that Chaplain engages with the population on various spiritual and social issues for the purpose of furthering the unit's objectives (I am not saying go out and convert anyone here) means that the discourse you seek with the population is linear; one-directional. The westerner teaches, the local national listens and learns. The local national cannot teach us; nor if we ever adapt their ways or become more like them is that ever accepted as "good" or "right for the unit". There is only one agreed upon end-state; their compliance, and it is a bonus if they switch over to a more compatible religious position...

3. "Maximizing the benefit of the approach outlined here requires chaplains and assistants willing and able to develop new capabilities based on lessons learned from the past eleven years of war and from current training, willingness of commanders to expand their employment of chaplains in new directions, and branch leadership that advocates for such employment with Army and DOD senior leadership." Okay, let’s take that statement to the test with a few "new capabilities" and see how willing we are to expand the employment of chaplains in "new" directions. None of my suggestions below will have any "old" directions where I have seen Chaplains go over and over and over and over and over in the past. This is all new, and how many of these are immediately agreeable, and which ones are disturbing? Let us bound the author's last statement and establish some real right and left limits here.

- Chaplains could assist in military interrogations due to their deeper understanding of the host nation's religious values as possible triggers and leverage points for the discourse.

- Chaplains could be recruited from that nation's primary religious position, and then used within combat units to not only enhance their awareness, but assist with direct engagements with religious leaders. Thus, if we occupy an Islamic country, we recruit Imams that can then do direct engagements with the Unit CDR and the local Imam on a deeper, more meaningful level. This implies there is a stock of those religious specialists ready and willing to join; but if the Army wants it- it can buy it. Everything has a cost.

- Chaplains could, as a branch, get folded into the larger social science and behavioral health aspect of the US Army Medical Corps. This one is probably the most shocking suggestion, because it goes against institutional relevance for one of those elements. However, teams of specialized mental health counselors with Chaplains assigned to battalion level elements would potentially work far better for a commander than the current stove-piped and compartmentalized process where both sides tend to be territorial, establish paradoxical boundaries, and have a general lack of communication due to the conflicts of HIPA and religious guidelines.

I illustrate the role of the heretic with these suggestions because had these two authors (both Chaplains) made any recommendations even remotely within the scope of novel adaptation here, and not merely made the same old boring "my branch or my job or my field is still relevant, and here is why" argument, I would have enjoyed this article more. However, I am sure that once the comments start rolling here, we might see some actual academic discourse that is stimulating and thought-provoking.