As my current duties include directing a course designed to prepare new Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) chaplains for their first operational deployment, I try to keep an eye on the professional literature. As geopolitical tensions continue to rise, I have been thinking quite often about the possibility of a conflict with a near-parity opponent, meaning, most likely, Russia. This reading has led me to offer some thoughts which are predominantly intended for my chaplain colleagues. Of course, these thoughts are entirely my own and do not reflect the positions of the Royal Canadian Chaplain Service, its School, or the CAF.
Glebokie, Poland. 31 July 2015 – Corporal Philippe Lyonnais carries a Carl Gustav recoilless rifle (M2CG) followed by Corporal Emilie Gauthier-Wong carrying the 84mm rounds for the M2CG during a live fire exercise at Mielno range in the Drawsko-Pomorski training area in Glebokie, Poland on July 31, 2015 during Operation REASSURANCE. Photo: Corporal Nathan Moulton, Land Task Force Imagery
The training we are doing in REASSURANCE, not to mention our military posture in Eastern Europe, is significantly different from the stability and counterinsurgency (COIN) operations that the CAF was commonly practicing when I became a chaplain a decade ago. During the Afghanistan era we focused primarily on asymmetric warfare, (a notable exception was Operation Medusa
in 2006, which was the Army’s largest set-piece engagement since Korea). Our chaplain training assumed a battlespace that featured:
– robust and extensive logistics and secure rear-area base networks made possible in large part because of private contractors and local labour.
– complete air-superiority, including the ability to insert, evacuate, and rotate troops as required.
– significant technological advantages over the enemy, including night-vision and thermal capability. precision guided munitions, long range artillery and armour support, UAVs and aerial surveillance, and close air support (CAS).
– uninterrupted command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) capabilities.
– a comprehensive commitment to soldier welfare, including regular and dependable home leave allowances mid-tour, and regular communications, including via social media, with loved ones at home.
– the luxury of being able to focus on ministry to a relatively small number of Canadian casualties.
– an emphasis on civil-military cooperation (CIMIC), perhaps more so than on combat operations
– a relatively low-threat environment.
None of these points is intended to minimize the impact of what chaplains experienced in Afghanistan, or to suggest that they did not experience hardship, difficulty or danger in their ministry. I know colleagues who suffer to this day, mentally and physically, because they were exposed to mortal danger or gave to much of themselves in ministering to others. If you are nearly blown up by a rocket attack or by a primitive IED, the trauma is still real, even if it is incurred in an asymmetric conflict. While no CAF chaplains were killed or wounded in action in Afghanistan, the number of those suffering from PTSD, from my own, admittedly anecdotal knowledge, is proportional to rates in the CAF as a whole.
Nevertheless, chaplains enjoyed significant advantages and resources in their ministry that their predecessors did not enjoy in Canada’s previous wars. Our padres had a high degree of mobility and movement to allow them to reach troops, even in Forward Operating Bases. They had access to support from bases and rear-party ministry teams in Canada when arranging repatriations or aiding a deployed soldier’s family in times of crisis. They worked in interdisciplinary teams with civilian helping professionals such as social workers, and so did not have to bear the load of maintaining soldier welfare by themselves. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, as the Afghan mission evolved from combat to aid and training, padres were ministering to soldiers with a very high probability of coming home alive and in one piece. We cannot expect a future conflict to have these characteristics.
It is a truism that armies train to fight the last war. However, the literature I am reading suggests that strategists, particularly Americans, now believe that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were sui generis, one-of-a-kind conflicts, and were even poor preparation for the kind of war fighting that a conflict with a near-peer adversary would require. Should “assurance and deterrence” fail, and
Canada become involved in such a conflict, perhaps through invocation of NATO Article Five after a Russian attack on a Baltic country, our recent military experience may be of little use to us. For the CAF, the transition to a war with a peer opponent might be historically analogous to its participation in the South African war, in which Britain’s professional army enjoyed significant advantages over their Boer opponents, and 1915, when our small Expeditionary Force went up against a huge, well equipped, and professionally led conventional Germany army. While images of Canadian gallantry at Second Ypres adorn many a CAF mess today, our first battle of the Great War was a significant shock for an army hitherto only experienced in garrison life and colonial warfare.
Chaplain training for the next war needs to pay attention to articles like this one
, in which strategic leaders like Tom Mahnken, president of the US Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, is quoted as saying that “Like the European powers at the start of World War I, we could find ourselves tremendously unprepared … surprised, and unpleasantly surprised.” In a speech that has been widely circulated in military social media circles, US Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley has warned
that the battlefield of the near future will be decidedly unpleasant, an environment where being surrounded and constantly on the move will be normal. “There will no clear front line, no secure supply lines, no big bases like Bagram
or Camp Victory
with chow halls, air-conditioning, and showers. With enemy drones and sensors constantly on the hunt for targets
, there won’t even be time for four hours’ unbroken sleep. So, says Milley, “being seriously miserable every single minute of every day will have to become a way of life.”
For chaplains, our training should demand that we think about the demands of doing our ministry in a battlespace with these characteristics:
– no safe bases from which to minister. Tactical and brigade level chaplains, normally attached to service and support, B echelon or HQ elements, will be frequently on the move. Fighting and support units will all be at some degree of risk from from artillery, air attack, or even from tactical nuclear missiles.
– air superiority may be contested or even denied by enemy anti-access /area denial (A2/AD) weapons systems. C3I capabilities may be degraded by enemy Electronic Warfare and jamming operations. Chaplains may find themselves part of a force cut off from Canada for long periods.
– casualty ministry will be the norm. The ornate ramp ceremonies practised in Afghanistan will often be impossible when airspace is heavily contested or even dominated by the enemy. Lost arts from the mobile battlefields of World War Two, including grave registration and hasty casualty collection ministry, will need to be relearned.
– battlefield ministry will be the norm. This task will be complicated by the social impact of secularism and pluralism. The twentieth century padre had the advantage of ministering to soldiers from a culture shaped by Christianity. However, the old axiom of no atheists in foxholes will likely reassert itself and hasty prayers before and after actions, another chaplain skill from twentieth century conflicts, will doubtless be valued by soldiers whom we previously thought of as quite secular.
– self-directed ministry will be the norm. During Afghanistan the CAF chaplaincy developed elaborate command and communications protocols for events like casualty notification, with each step in the process being reported to a host of persons back in Canada. In the event of war with a peer competitor, with communications severely degraded, chaplains will need to function independently for days or weeks at a time. It is doubtful that chaplains will have the assistance of civilian helping professionals such as social workers. Other than their partnerships with CAF medical personnel, chaplains will be working on their own to support morale, welfare and mental health as best they can.
– military skills will be paramount. The highest honour troops can give a chaplain, that he or she is a “soldier’s padre”, must be the norm and not the exception. Chaplains will be as dirty, unfed, cut off, scared and miserable as anyone else. They will need to know how to use a map and compass, conceal their positions, give first aid and even drive some military vehicles as required. They will need to do all these things while effectively giving spiritual aid and morale comfort to their troops.
– chaplain casualties will be normal. In late World War Two, the British and Canadian armies, chaplain casualties (KIA and WIA) were proportionally as high as that of the combat arms. If the first stages of a future war go badly, as they did in WW2, chaplains will almost certainly become POWs and will need to minister in austere conditions.
Battlefield ministry in 1944. A Canadian Army chaplain aids in the evacuation of the wounded in Normandy
Much of the training that these points would require would have to be delivered in the field, either on regularly scheduled exercises or in whatever workup training was possible in the event of or after the start of hostilities. Training at the Chaplain School, which is predominantly academic in nature, would have to be significantly reimagined in a conflict of any significant duration. In focusing on ministry in theatre, I have not discussed what domestic or rear-party ministry would look like. The amount of pastoral work required to notify next of kin in Canada after a significant engagement, with large numbers killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner, would be a herculean task in itself.
Finally, we need to consider the enormous spiritual and psychological demands that ministry in this type of conflict would make of chaplains. In garrison ministry, or even on some deployments, our chaplains have not always met the mark. In the battlespace of the near-future, chaplains will be conspicuous in their successes and failures, at a time when they will be needed more than ever. Success will depend on the cultivation of physical fitness, military skills, fieldcraft and, above all, highly intentional and meaningful spiritual preparation.