Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Life as a Chaplain in Vietnam, Part 1

I'm working through twenty oral history interviews of Army chaplains who served in Vietnam. These interviews are part of the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project. The first one was interesting, but didn't add anything for my current project. Colonel Patrick Joseph Boyle's interview, however, has some interesting tidbits about the relationship between soldiers and chaplains, including the role of chaplains as advisers to the commanding officers of the units they were attached to. Here's one example:
You're one of them. You know, and, you know, you know, they got their life, you know, and you got your life. And they'd come up and say, you know, we blew one away last night, the Viet soldier ambush, you know, and, you know, and I had no problem with it, well then okay, but if a guy had a problem with it, then you had to be with him and say this is war. Things like that happen. You know, and some were sensitive. Some were -- they're tough kids, they're tough kids, you know. They were tough. They were tough. But, you know, whatever came up, you could handle it, you know. I had one kid come to me, you're on the firing base. He just came to the rear and just assigned there. He was scared stiff, just scared stiff. He was shaking. So I went to the commander, I said this guy is not going to help you, you know, he'll hurt you. Okay. They took him out and put him back in the rear and he was a rear job. Very, very safe, so you're kind of, you know, an armament for the troops and the military listens to you and, you know, especially if you're with them. If you stand in the back and just come out occasionally, well, they won't, but if you're with them all the time, the higher-ups, they listen to you, you know. They know you're not being foolish, so -- but you're just handling any situation and you're out there for the kids. You're out there for the kids. That's the reason you're out there. You're not for the war. You're against war. You're against the war, but you're not getting into the politics of it. You're there for the kids. That's what the job is supposed to be, you know.
Boyle felt like chaplains represented a tiny speck of civilization in an inherently uncivilized war. Part of his job was to help troops avoid becoming engaged in war crimes that they would later regret:

You know, you were the only civilized piece of person in a very uncivilized situation. Both sides are trying to kill each other, so you, you know, and you tell these guys, you know, be careful because you know, you can't stamp out memories, you know, and what you do here, you know, you're always going to remember, so what you do here make sure you do it in a way that is human, you know. You know, the thing about cutting off ears and nose and things like that, no, that would come back to haunt you. That demoralizes the enemy, but that will come back to haunt you later on in life, and so that's part of talking to these guys, you know, especially you say when you make the rear area and you guys are married, you say you guys, the green doesn't give you permission to do whatever you want to do. You got a wife at home and you have to be true to her, you know, so you always bring civilization in to a very uncivilized situation, so, yeah.
Sometimes Boyle had to take an active role in preventing atrocities by American troops. He was concerned that it was all too easy for the nature of the war to lead young soldiers into horrendous actions:
That one we were hit one night, attacked and the next morning they were in the tock talking to the Colonel and they said, well, we're going out to see what the body count is, how many are on the wire, so I said, well, I'll go out. That's my job, so I went out there and they were looking, looking. One was Vietnamese and two other young men, Vietnamese soldiers. They yelled out we have a live one over here, so we went over there. They were just yelling it out, and then this poor kid was on the ground. He had a broken elbow and there was a little shrapnel in his stomach, you know, and these kids -- our guys just circle around them with their weapons, you know, and I should say three weeks before we were hit on another base and we lost about 24 kids, but these guys had some damage and they wanted to shoot him. I says, you don't shoot him. You don't shoot him. Get an air, get a stretcher out here. So I was keeping that guy from dying or getting killed, and they had photographers on the base from the city, from the states and they took that picture.
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. They would have shot him. Hey, listen, this will sound illogical. Let's think about this. When these guys went up there, they went into the house, they went up the stairs, they saw someone cut across the top of the stairs. They said, hey, come back and they shot him. Okay. Okay. They went in the room and the mom was there with the two women, okay. They put the ring against the door. They shot Bin Ladin. They took a picture of him, shot him dead. Okay? They did what they had to do. They take another picture, but now we got a shot right in the forehead which means that, you know, the first shots didn't kill him. Okay. So what happened but -- you know, we shot an innocent prisoner. Sometimes we ought to keep the rules.
Well, hey, sometimes they turn into animals, you know, and they can do things they don't want to do and this time you don't get caught. That's it.
Source:  Patrick Joseph Boyle Collection (AFC/2001/001/92778), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

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