Consult: “Chaplain A”


A Military Chaplaincy Consultation on

“Psychological Stress Experiments on Soldiers”

Chaplain A

October 13, 2008

80-minute teleconference

Reported by Jean Maria Arrigos

Anonymized by Ray Bennett

Chaplain A was ordained as a Baptist minister, and he ministered as a civilian pastor before ministering as an Army chaplain.  He served in combat deployments, later took a masters degree in world religions, and currently serves as a religious analyst for forces deploying in support of the Global War on Terrorism.  He advises on religion as it relates to society, especially to military society.

Teleconference Participants:  Chaplain A, Jean Maria Arrigo, Ray Bennett,  Joe Gorin, and Jancis Long

Note:  Quotations are condensed and approximate.

Selective Summary of the Tele-Consultation with Chaplain A and Lessons for

The Psychology and Military Intelligence Casebook on Interrogation Ethics

  Following the moderator’s brief introduction to Casebook goals and methods, Chaplain A answered the question:  What does it mean to minister to soldiers?

     As a representative of his faith, the chaplain gives religious support to soldiers and performs sacraments.  He has dual allegiance to God and country, but also allegiance to the church that ordained him and to his particular military command.  The chaplain embodies the tension between giving allegiance to God and giving allegiance to Caesar.  His work often overlaps the work of psychologists, for soldiers who prefer a chaplain for marriage counseling, performance and professional counseling, or crisis and stress counseling.

     In Berkun’s psychological stress experiments, at the Nevada Test Site and the Presidio of Monterey, where soldiers thought they might die, some would want to seek out a chaplain.  But Chaplain A doubted that psychologists would want chaplains involved.  Also, the military exercises during nuclear tests were secret at the time, and chaplains are not usually brought into secret operations. A participant said that her interviewees among atomic veterans, including a practicing Catholic who had participated in 35 atomic tests, confirmed that no chaplains had been available.

Responding to Issue 2 on the case narrative,

Where does the moral responsibility lie in such a system? What is the researcher’s/soldiers’ ability to change an unethical course of scientific study?  What conditions and resources would be required to do so?

Chaplain A suggested that researchers add to their checklist of safeguards for their soldier-subjects:  “Would you like to talk to a chaplain?”  The chaplain is in a better position to speak truth to power in such a situation.   He has the spiritual resources to call to accountability those who feel they are working under the power of the state for the good of the state, for the good of the people:  “Well, there’s a power higher than the state, and we need to consider that level.”  Sometimes, he said, “just raising this idea helps people think more deeply about what they are doing or helps soldiers and other people oppose what they think is morally wrong or questionable.”

     A participant asked where can chaplains actually go in military settings?  Can they demand access, as does the Red Cross?

     Organizationally, chaplains are assigned at the battalion level or above.  If the command is open to having a chaplain at a site, there is no limit to access.  Often chaplains are considered a regular part of the organization, which is the benefit of serving alongside the soldiers.  Because they understand the situations and stresses, they are not so hasty in judging soldiers morally.

     Like other military personnel, a chaplain needs the appropriate security clearance for access.  There are chaplains with SCI-level clearances (Sensitive Compartmented Information) and above.  Even with the requisite clearance though, they still have to be invited in.  “We’re nice people and try to be invited in,” Chaplain A said. 

     I’ve learned this as a chaplain, if I’m told, “Chaplain, I’m sorry, you can’t come in here,” well, I’m a little bit nosey and will think, “I wonder what they’ve got going on in there that they don’t want a chaplain knowing about?”  And then I might bring that to my command.  And then the command might try to massage it and say, “Well, Chaplain, there is something for which you’re not read on, can’t get involved in.”  But as chaplains we hear things, and a smart chaplain, who does counseling for soldiers, is going to pick up on things.  I’ll say, “Sir or ma’am, I have some anecdotal information.  I think you may have a problem in this area and want to look a little deeper....”  It’s a judgment call.  But then again, it’s that indirect pressure that we put by walking in the door.  So then they know a chaplain’s been there.... 

     For instance, in Abu Ghraib, it would have been great if a chaplain had been walking around.  I know from my experience in Iraq that there were leads and indicators there was trouble with the way those soldiers were treating detainees.   That’s a fact of life in combat anyway.  Every combatant I’ve talked to would say we failed to follow the Law of Land Warfare in those areas.  Still, it would have been good if a chaplain had walked in that area.  I heard a chaplain was told, “Don’t go in that area.”  That’s a red flag. 

Chaplain A doubted there was any chaplain assigned to Berkun’s experiments.  If so, the chaplain would have had access to the researchers and to any soldiers in the experiments.  “It might be a good lead for the command to talk to a chaplain regarding the stress and the morality of experiments.”

     A participant asked whether, from a chaplain’s perspective, there is a difference between sending soldiers out on missions from which they know they may not return and putting them in experiments that induce a fear they will die.

     “Yes, there’s a difference.”  He gave the example of his uncle’s participation in a submarine experiment after WW II.  The commander brought all the sailors up on deck and told them:  “We’re going under the North Pole, and I’m going to bring my butt back dry and you guys are, too.  But we’re experimenting with something dangerous, and I’m just letting you know.”  The commander was trying to instill trust.

     By contrast, in Berkun’s ditching experiment (in which recruits were led to believe their airplane would crash), there was no command situation and no cohesiveness as a unit.  In spite of Berkun’s success in simulating an impending crash and confirming the soldiers’ anxiety through blood and urine tests, Chaplain A found a lack of verisimilitude because the command structure was missing.  “I guess I’d have to look at the individual experiment and know what the purpose of it was.... Somehow you’d have to convince me that this was going to militarily benefit other soldiers.”

     A participant asked Chaplain A whether he had been in a military situation that was painful and frightening, where no one had convinced him of the benefit.  “Before going into Iraq, I felt like, ‘I sure hope they have their ducks in a row legally and morally....’  I’ve been in areas where I have questioned and then later on seen the bigger picture.”  He spoke of the process of compartmenting information as a survival technique, then gradually developing a bigger picture and understanding the rationale for earlier events.  But “I’ve been in situations where I’m still waiting on an answer for why we were doing that.”

     Regarding Berkun’s air-bubble experiment, a participant asked whether the soldier’s supposed last two minutes of life would have a special significance for religious soldiers.  Chaplain A expected that a special forces soldier would take Dr. Rood’s attitude, “If I’m going down, the medic is going down, too.”  But for a young soldier he would expect a state of shock.  “That’s why I tell people:  Be prepared; you never know.” 

     The participant asked his opinion of the proposal that for experiments where soldiers are led to believe they might die, or hurt somebody who is not a legitimate target—situations that have religious connotations for many — the researcher should get a pass from a chaplain or have one available at the debriefing.  Chaplain A remarked that chaplains are not a monolithic group but have a variety of skills and perspectives.  To deal with experimental situations, he would definitely want an ethics chaplain, with the additional year or so of ethics training, or possibly also a CPE trained chaplain (clinical pastoral education), with a masters or doctorate in those areas, certainly not a first-term or new chaplain.  But the military is now cutting back on these specializations in the chaplaincy. 

     The military goes two ways with values:  morality and legality.  Commanders are now relying more on their lawyers, but being legal doesn’t mean being moral.

     A participant asked how Chaplain A would approach the ethical dilemma of questionable experimentation that had some beneficial results for the military.  Chaplain A compared psychological experimentation to technical innovation. “Soldiers love to experiment, such as hooking a rocket up to a helicopter.  Some of the soldiers in special operations were the most innovative....  They also play with mind games sometimes, where they push their training to see how far they can go and what they can know about themselves.  But those are training situations, not experimental situations.”—That is to say, experimentation and training may overlap. 

     Moreover, experimentation and training may have very different effects on soldiers at different levels of experience, as this example illustrates.  At Chaplain A’s last training site, there was a simulator that could simulate “shooting and firing, blood and guts everywhere,” for precision training of special forces.  “Sometimes they’re called to go into a room full of people and have to decide in a nanosecond whether a target is friend or foe.  So they do the muscle-memory thing and train over and over again.”  But some of the new soldiers couldn’t stand the portrayal of blood and guts.  Returning to Berkun’s ditching experiment, Berkun said, “Taking raw recruits and flying them up in an airplane [for a simulated in-flight breakdown], that’s not fair.”

     A participant wondered whether the military command advised chaplains how to frame the fears of the soldiers they counseled.  Did the command say, “Well, the soldiers aren’t going to like these blood and guts, but talk to them”?  During his experiences in various deployed environments, Chaplain A’s commanders typically responded to his concerns on behalf of soldiers with, “Well, Chaplain, that’s just tough.  That’s the life of a soldier and they need to understand the higher mission here.”

     Another participant asked what opportunities chaplains have for going back and forth between lower and higher ranks.  Although all chaplains have officer rank, each has a chaplain assistant who is an NCO (non-commissioned officer, of much lower rank).  Most soldiers, depending on their religious beliefs, will talk to the chaplain as a real person, somewhat outside of the military system, but some enlisted men prefer to approach the lower-ranking assistant.  There is confidentiality and trust.  A smart commander, even if he is not religious, will seek out the chaplain for another perspective on his soldiers and on operations.  Even by secular commanders, “we are still viewed as religious leaders, which gives us an ability to slide from the private to the general and talk to all.”

     “If General Kiley went to the psychologists to get their help with detainees, why wouldn’t he go to you, an expert in world religions, to get you to finagle?” a participant asked.  Chaplain A responded that chaplains were mindful of losing their credibility as religious leaders if they became involved in intelligence activities. 

     But there is an inherent moral dilemma anyway for military chaplains.  “They throw it at us in basic training. — You’re going to meet with a unit to do a worship service.  You’re in a Humvee.  You see the enemy coming over the hill.  Do you call in an artillery unit to kill them and save your people?  You’re a noncombatant! — That’s a big debate with no real answer.  Me [laughing], I’ll ask my assistant to call in a strike — he’s a combatant. You hope you’re engaged on the morally right side in the conflict!” 

     Pursuing the question of exploitation of chaplains, the participant asked veteran interrogator Ray Bennett whether commanders might try to turn chaplains to diabolical purposes in interrogations, just as they have turned psychologists.  He responded that the only valid reasons to involve a chaplain would be to get some information about the detainee’s religion or to try to legitimize the interrogation practices.  “But not as part of the interrogation manipulation.  That’s introducing a third rail.  No serious interrogator is going to touch that.”

     Chaplain A had heard of units asking chaplains to assist in interrogations but they had declined.  “That’s the beauty of the chaplaincy.  We can say no to the command by calling on a higher power....  We can get kicked out, but because we wear the crescent or the cross or whatever, representing another system, it’s hard for the commander to come back and say, ‘Well, by God, you’re going to do it, chaplain, because I said do it.’....You are there to hold to a higher moral ground.  You take off your cross and you step down.  Even special forces guys tell me, ‘No, there’s a line.’”

     Another participant remarked that psychologists also have sacrosanct moral responsibilities, but the chaplains seem more consistent about upholding theirs.  Chaplain A thought it was less a matter of consistency than having a law in place so one doesn’t have to think about it.  “Our Bible, our interpretation, says, well, this is what I have to do regardless of the law of the land.”  But he pointed out the negative side of rigid religious doctrine, too:  “We are fighting a religious war and are trying to win it without addressing the theological issues.”

     In the final segment of the consultation, permitting one question from each participant, Ray Bennett returned to an earlier discussion of the role of psychologists as leash holders in interrogations.  The question came up whether a chaplain might play this role.  “Suppose you were at Abu Ghraib and you heard about abuses of detainees.   I suppose you would go to the brigade commander.  But if he says, ‘Mind your own business,’ does it stop there?”

     Chaplain A described a “system within the system” for reporting wrongdoing:  the sergeant major, the lawyer, the staff judge advocate, and his higher chaplain, with whom he files a weekly report.  As a last resort, a chaplain can go to his church.  “And that gets it into a different system, which might cost us our military career.  But that’s okay if it’s deemed necessary.”  Or, within the military, the chaplain can jump over his command and go to a higher command, “but that can come back to you.”  There is also the Inspector General.

     Ray Bennett remarked, “We’ve looked at the IG, too.  He’s not bullet-proof.”

     “And that’s why you need a higher power,” Chaplain A asserted.  “Any organization is capable of corruption.”

     Joe Gorin asked how Chaplain A would frame the ethical issues involved in the ditching experiment.  There may be something really good to be learned out of that, yet it involved deception and induced real-world stress. 

     Chaplain A gave an analogy:   “I knew a man who was both a helicopter pilot and an instructor.  And he would cut the switch off to the engine and say to the student:  “The engine is gone.  Now land it.”  In the ethical realm, too, he thinks we ought to introduce a realistic element into training.  In the U.S. Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, CA, ethical dilemmas are presented realistically to soldiers on training maneuvers.  “And the more you can have thrown at you in training, the easier it is in combat to make the right choices.  However, some of these things are situationally based and there may not be total right and wrong, but you’re looking for the best out of it.  In combat that pretty much describes it.  In interrogations, that’s a hard one.  I’d agree with you, ‘Do no harm,’ but then you can go all day with what harm is.” 

     He hopes the military is doing something right at the national or international level.  “But then we question, are we doing right at the transcendent level?  And I live within that tension all the time.  Psychologists have to live within that tension, too.”

     Jancis Long asked whether Chaplain A saw any role for chaplains in helping whistleblowers who have seen harm being done unnecessarily?  “Yes.”  He believed that by being part of the military, by “wearing a uniform and going through the mud and everything else,” he has a better opportunity to address the organization effectively than do outsiders, regardless of their credentials.  As the teleconference period ran out, he referred briefly to two examples of chaplains assisting whistle blowers, at Mei Lei and at Abu Ghraib.

Reporter’s Note

     Mitchell Berkun’s psychological stress experiments provided the backdrop for a comparison of the moral resources, opportunities, and constraints for chaplains and psychologists in military settings.  The chaplain can (gingerly, and perhaps at cost) apply the perceived moral force of a Higher Power against the power of the state, with the implicit support of his church, an outside institution.   State licensing boards, professional associations, and scientific principles seem to provide weaker moral backing for psychologists.  In any case, research psychology might access some of the moral resources of the chaplaincy by opening proposals for psychological studies on human subjects to review by ethics-trained chaplains and by including such chaplains in debriefing of subjects in studies that touch on spiritual issues. 

     Chaplain A speaks frankly of the moral hazards of serving two masters, God and the state.  He hopes the military is doing something right at the national or international level.  “But then we question, are we doing right at the transcendent level?  And I live within that tension all the time.  Psychologists have to live within that tension, too.”  Psychology as a field has not acknowledged, articulated, or negotiated the elements of this tension, especially in regard to psychological experimentation on, and manipulation of, human beings in national security settings.  This seems to be the work of the Casebook.