Ministry of War

vietnam feature

On the 50th anniversary of the battle of Long Tan in Vietnam, we look back on the war that divided a nation and – some would say – divided a church.


A Synod member attended one day of the most recent Synod meeting in full military chaplain uniform, with the intention of handing out cards promoting armed forces chaplaincy. This was met with murmurs of disapproval. It was suggested to me that the uniform was unnecessary and attention-seeking.

This simple act supports the contention that for many within this synod, there seems to be a ‘dis-ease’ about the role of uniformed chaplains. As the Uniting Church becomes more committed to peace-making and pacifism, it appears to be increasingly uncomfortable about how it relates with those perceived to be part of the war machine – military chaplains, soldiers and veterans.

This feature, while recognising the complexity of the topic, seeks to put the spotlight on the history of military chaplaincy in the hope it might open up a conversation and create opportunities for healing.


Imagine receiving an anonymous letter wishing your son dead because he was a killer.  Imagine the letter had come from a member of your own church.

It is hard to comprehend the pain that would cause a mother. Mrs Edwards was already grieving for her son, just returned from a deeply divisive war with his legs amputated following the explosion of a landmine.

In 2006, Opposition Leader Kim Beazley, read another letter. This letter was from Graeme Edwards, Federal Member for Cowan, offering his reflections on the Vietnam War.

The occasion was Vietnam Veterans’ Day (the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan).

“Had I the opportunity to speak today I would have taken the time to publicly forgive the person from my mother’s church in Scarborough who wrote an anonymous letter to my mother saying she hoped I died as a result of my wounds, as I was a killer,” the letter read.

“I could not have found it in my heart to say those words a few years ago but it is time to move on.”

Though Graeme Edwards found the ability to move on, has our own Church moved on? How do we have robust conversations on issues which have the potential to polarise? And how do we care for people who are caught in the churn? While we might not write such confronting and deeply offensive letters as the anonymous church goer, are the issues raised in that letter still relevant to the church today?

vietnam march

Fifty years ago, on 18 August 1966, the Australian Army Base at Nui Dat in southern Vietnam was preparing for a concert starring Col Joye and Little Pattie. There had been some explosions close to the base the previous night, but when Delta Company 6RAR was sent to the area the following day it was expected the enemy force would be long gone.

As the afternoon concert began in heavy monsoon rain just five kilometres away, the 108 men of the Delta Company accidentally stumbled upon a large enemy contingent of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army troops. Seventeen Australian soldiers died in the Battle of Long Tan, one died the following week of injuries sustained and a further 23 were wounded. The body count of the Vietnamese is still under dispute, although Major Harry Smith (company commander) estimates 500 killed and 800 wounded.  What is not contested is that the Australians were seriously outnumbered. Only  luck, training and strong leadership ensured the survival of most of Delta Company.

If the Australian public had been less than interested in the Vietnam War prior to 18 August 1966, the deaths of so many diggers in one encounter was a serious wakeup call. Harry Smith published his biography, Long Tan, the Start of a Lifelong Battle, last year. An angry book, it provides a first-hand account of the politics, complexity and confusion that seems to be a part of war. Major Smith has been fighting various bureaucracies for many years, seeking gallantry awards for the men who served alongside him in the mud and the rain on that August evening 50 years ago. He donated his own medals to the Australian War Memorial in 2014.

The ’60s were a revolutionary time for Australia. As well as enormous social changes, a political decision was made by USA to support South Vietnam’s attempts to repel the communist-led North Vietnam.

This decision, supported by American ally Australia, led to the deaths of 58,000 Americans, 500 Australians and a contested but staggering number of Vietnamese – over 3 million, a significant proportion of that figure including civilians (men, women and children).

As more and more American soldiers were returned to home shores in body bags, the voices of opposition grew. Starting at universities, protest marches began. Here in Australia the group SOS (Save our Sons) was one of the first organised groups to emerge, as national service was introduced as a way of ensuring a steady flow of troops to the battle front.

It was an era when churches were still embedded in communities and Christians were not immune to the culture surrounding them. During the First and Second World Wars Australian church leaders aligned with government policy. Ministers preached from the pulpit of the importance of men fulfilling their national duty.

Pacifist Methodist minister and outspoken critic of government policy Rev Alan Walker was regarded as a maverick during the Second World War.

“On the eve of war he caused consternation in his coal mining parish of Cessnock (NSW) with a pacifist sermon….. When fellow ministers ostracised him, and his congregation dwindled, he could reflect that in the Church one might speak out against anything except war. But he held fast; and within a year the tide began to turn.” (Sir Alan Walker’s obituary published in Britain’s Telegraph on 31 January 2003)

bryan nicholls In the mid-’60s the voice of the Methodist Church of Victoria and Tasmania was growing stronger. In April 1966 The Age published a letter from Rev Bruce Silverwood, convenor of the Methodist Commission on Peace:

“Never before has Australia accepted conscription in peacetime. Never before has Australia accepted conscription for service outside Australian territories even in war-time. The present policy, without any mandate from the people, commits Australia to conscription in peace-time, of those with no vote, on a basis of chance, and including overseas service. The commission believes that it is morally wrong to send young men called up on this basis and in this way to fight in Vietnam. We therefore request the Prime Minister to reconsider this policy.”

Mr Walker garnered increasing support and was a leading voice in peace marches in Sydney and a fly-in-the-ointment for Prime Minister Harold Holt when he wrote in 1967 on behalf of a Christian consortium seeking a meeting.  During a parliamentary debate in August of that year, the Prime Minister was questioned about his refusal to meet a delegation of church leaders concerned about Australia’s military presence in Vietnam. Mr Holt took the opportunity to quote a letter from a Victorian Congregational minister, Rev Colin McLean, who was keen to disassociate himself from these ‘rebel’ Christian leaders.

Prime Minister Holt read from Mr McLean’s letter:

“The growing number of rallies and demonstrations of a semi religious nature, in our country, which play into the hands of international communism is alarming and is not representative of the majority of Christian people…many of us realise that if Godless communism is not halted, the ensuing bloodshed and suffering in the world will be far greater than that being inflicted by our forces in Vietnam.”

Rev Dr Wes Campbell was a theological student in 1965. He applied for exemption from national service on occupational grounds. Theological students, ministers of religion and members of religious orders were automatically exempt under the National Service scheme legislation. Dr Campbell still struggles with his decision.

Speaking at an Anzac Day service at the Church of all Nations in Carlton last year, Dr Campbell said: “Perhaps it was a lack of courage, but rather than risk being imprisoned I decided to register in an exempt category.

“I am still working out the implications of the direction I took.”

In 1967 Dr Campbell worked in the Central Methodist Mission in Sydney, led by Sir Alan Walker. This was an important time for Dr Campbell who says he was introduced to the movement of civil disobedience and conscientious objection. Since that seminal moment, Dr Campbell has devoted his Christian ministry to the pursuit, reflection and theological understanding of peace.

Increasingly, Christians joined with others in strong opposition to the Vietnam War. As more people participated in peace rallies, the mood of the nation shifted. This change in sentiment was aimed not just against the decision-makers but those at the coalface – the ‘nashos’ and regular army members.

Growing community discontent culminated in the first Vietnam moratorium in Australia, on 8 and 9 May 1970. More than 200,000 people participated in peace marches across the nation, with an estimated 100,000 attending the Melbourne rally.

A further two moratoria followed, demonstrating to the government that anti-Vietnam War sentiment was no longer restricted to minority groups. As the United States moved to extricate itself from a war it clearly could not win, Australian troops were slowly withdrawn from Vietnam.

By the end of 1971 only a small advisory force remained to represent Australia. In 1972, Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party was elected. The new government’s first action was to repeal the Conscription Act, as promised, and to release those imprisoned for resisting it.

Without the strength of the American military, South Vietnam was unable to repel the North Vietnamese army and, in April 1975, the world witnessed the capture of Saigon, as thousands of South Vietnamese tried to grab places on the last remaining American helicopters leaving the city. The war was over. The communist North had won, and the country was unified under the new name of Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

How did we find ourselves turning on those sent by Australia to fight? As shocking images such as the massacre of as many as 500 unarmed Vietnamese men, women and children in the hamlet of My Lai by American troops in 1968 were viewed on televisions throughout the world, the reputation of all soldiers was questioned.

Those involved in the fighting could understand the protests. But they couldn’t understand why anger was directed towards them.

On return home, Vietnam vets were publicly abused, labelled ‘baby killers’ and even marginalised by the RSL. The veterans learned very quickly not to talk about their war.

Bill Anderson, a long term member at St John’s Essendon, was in the 7RAR from April 1967 to April 1968. He told no one of his Vietnam experiences for many years.

“It was a surprise to me that one of my work colleagues was also a Vietnam veteran – but we didn’t discover our common experience until some years later. He didn’t talk about his service either.”

Was the Church any better in its response to returned soldiers or even military chaplains? While anecdotal evidence suggests that many veterans turned their back on the Church because of a lack of acceptance, understanding and love, there is more supporting documentation on the impact on chaplains.

Gary McKayChaplain Rev Roy Bedford’s response to his time in Vietnam is captured in Michael Gladwin’s book, Captain of the Soul, A history of Australian Army chaplains:

Methodist padre Roy Bedford had gone to Vietnam because he believed that soldiers there were most in need of ministry:

“And that was one of the things that made it hard for me to understand why fellow clergymen in Australia would be critical of me for going. I mean it wasn’t that I was pulled before a board or a group of…my clergy peers. But there was confirmation in the sense of snide remarks such as ‘Fancy being part of the war machine. Fancy associating yourself with that foolish war. Fancy claiming to represent Christ in a place like that.’ Some of them weren’t game enough to say it to my face…even my wife overhead some talking about me…I just find that very hard to accept. And not easy to forgive.”

Rev Christine Senini, RAAF chaplain based at Richmond NSW, described Roy “as an inspiring mentor for me. I know he had a very difficult time with the Church disowning him because of his Vietnam chaplaincy. Gwen (his widow) suffered alongside him.”

In 1972 the Church seemed to understand the complexity of following Christ’s instruction to be peace-makers in a world that is filled with conflict. The Victoria-Tasmania’s 1972 Methodist Conference, under the heading ‘The Christian’s Responsibility for World Peace’, resolved:

Peace, in the Christian context, means the positive state in which attitudes and acts of goodwill and reconciliation prevail: peace is not merely the absence of war or strife.

On the human situation, it is unrealistic not to expect some conflict but this does not mean the automatic acceptance of violent means of resolving conflict. The challenge facing us is to become peace makers rather than peace lovers, to become positively involved in the reconciliation of differences rather than remaining aloof from the tensions and divisions within the local and world communities.

The openness to engage with ambiguity rather than present discussions of peace and war as polar opposites seemed to support the role of Christian ministry in marginal and difficult places.

Yet the evidence indicates a contrary view as time has passed.

Navy chaplain Murray Lund spoke of attending a presbytery meeting in Sydney with a fellow Navy chaplain. His colleague was a regular attendee at presbytery meetings.

“He shared with them that he was about to deploy for seven months on operations in the Middle East,” Mr Lund explained.

“This was barely acknowledged or responded to. There was no concept that this might be personally demanding and challenging or involve some sacrifice.”

He compares this to a visit he made to the Presbyterian Assembly in Edinburgh, Scotland, “where the gathering set apart a morning to hear their military chaplains, honour their service and pray for them and for members of the Defence Force”.

“Can you imagine that happening in the UCA?” Mr Lund asks.

However, while Mr Lund believes that military chaplaincy is marginalised in the Uniting Church, he acknowledges that can be a two-way street.

“Military chaplains are often complicit in being marginalised. Generally they are not regular attendees at presbytery and their work commitments preclude them being regular attendees at Synod.

“The work of presbyteries and Synods is largely focussed on the congregations they serve. It is easy for military chaplains to experience presbytery and synod and the local church as inward looking and parochial and of little relevance to their world.”

The 10th Assembly, in July 2003, passed a resolution that some uniformed chaplains interpreted as a pacifist commitment and call to withdraw Christian ministry from the defence forces.

While the word ‘pacifist’ is not used, Uniting for Peace (03.19.02) reaffirms the Church’s long-held commitment to be a peacemaking body. There is a call on “all members, councils, agencies, congregations and groups of the Uniting Church to examine their own lives in order to overcome violence and to transform systems and structures of injustice”. The resolution also states that “security achieved through armament is sustained by fear of the enemy and can never see the world reconciled”.

Principal chaplain (Retd), Peter Woodward, believes the resolution was a move to take the high moral ground.

“If that was the position, it looks very much like elitism, even a Pharisaical approach, which is inevitably problematic,” Mr Woodward mused.

“At the time, and subsequently, it looks like ‘armchair pacifism’ when one can make high sounding pronouncements with minimal engagement in the complexity of the human condition.”

Wes Campbell was a member of the Commission on Social Responsibility which drafted the predecessor resolutions on peace, disarmament and nuclear deterrence in the 1980s. Dr Campbell has written and spoken extensively on Christian pacifism and the Theology of Peace.

“The accusation against Christian pacifism,” Dr Campbell said, “is that it is sectarian, meaning that it is passive, and involves a withdrawal from the realities of society.”

“But as those who have become committed to the prophetic vision, we are given a different and contradictory story. A counter story. The prophets speak of the vision as a great feast. Enemies sit at the table. That is the vision of the Christian faith. If it is idiotic to hold to such a transformed world, we are doing what is called for, becoming foolish for the sake of Christ. We are called to sit at the same table as those who fear the enemy.”

email on chaplainsDr Campbell was at the centre of what has become known as ‘no flag on coffin’ controversy which became a national incident in 2005. Then the minister at St John’s UC in Essendon, Dr Campbell refused a request from the family of World War II veteran George Vipond to drape their father’s coffin with the Australian flag during his funeral service. The funeral was ultimately held at a church of another denomination.

Perhaps people within the Church were quick to judge Wes Campbell because of his reputation for being ‘anti war’. Not a bad reputation to have, but with that comes a belief that he might also be anti veterans.

The evidence is that was not the case. Dr Campbell was trying to separate, with pastoral sensitivity, the symbols of the Christian funeral service and a civic service (in this case the RSL). Such was the furore caused by this incident, that the Campbell family and the church received death threats and Crosslight was inundated with letters, many condemning Dr Campbell’s actions.

Some uniformed chaplains interpreted this event as further evidence of the Church’s unwillingness to engage with veterans.

Rev Bryan Nicholls, who still has an active ministry to the ex-servicemen community in Ballarat, said the furore over the ‘no flag on coffin’ impacted on his work with veterans. He gives added reassurance that the flag is something to which they are entitled, stressing that they don’t need to feel alienated from the church.

“But I still get questions about it.”

Crosslight reviewed a book edited by Tom Frame, Moral Injury, unseen wounds in an age of barbarism, earlier this year. Rev Sarah Gibson, a chaplain in the Australian Army and Chief Instructor of the Defence Force Chaplains College, contributes one of the chapters, ‘Moral Injury: whose responsibility?’

Ms Gibson reflects on the multi-disciplinary, multi-dimensional nature of caring for those with unseen wounds, involving ethicists, philosophers, historians, sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists and physicians. Her plea is that the chaplain be included in these teams.

“Uniformed men and women who are deployed to armed conflicts, peacekeeping missions and humanitarian relief missions are profoundly affected by their experiences,” Ms Gibson writes.

“When overwhelming shame, guilt, regret and remorse begin to debilitate a person, they can be given medications and bureaucratically managed, but at some point their experienced reality needs to be addressed in its own terms.

“The shamed need to feel pride. The guilty seek absolution.”

According to Ms Gibson “…moral injury is not just a ‘mental health’ issue because it relates to much more than the mind. Moral injury is also a state of the heart and a condition of the spirit.”

“I believe my chaplain colleagues have something worthwhile to contribute as we discharge our overarching duty of care.”

Given that chaplains are engaged by the defence forces, and part of their role is to keep the troops focused (“their job is to keep us doing our job” –  Vietnam vet and historian, Gary McKay), the question becomes ‘does such a commitment make Churches tacit supporters of war?’ Is this another important example of incarnational ministry or are uniformed chaplains compromised by the very fact of the uniform?

Former moderator of the Queensland Synod and a former defence force chaplain, Kaye Ronalds, reflected on this dilemma in an Australian Army Chaplaincy Journal. “I’m used to being in parish life where the church is separate from the state. A chaplain must keep alert lest one neglects the prophetic role and instead fears to offend the hand that feeds,” she writes.

Dr Campbell believes it is difficult to hold a pacifist stance and also provide pastoral support as an employee of the defence forces. “I think those who have chosen this path are required to explain how this is possible,” Wes said. “I would find it difficult to hold those two loyalties together.”

When asked directly whether he believed the United Church should be providing chaplains to the defence forces, Dr Campbell responded:

“The UCA does place military chaplains.

“Given the long history, and different views about this matter, each person must speak as those who minister in Christ’s name, and be tested. I pray for the day when we live out the calling to be a peacemaking church.”

Mr Lund has done his own thinking and believes it is vital that the Church remains involved in defence force chaplaincy.

“I think that the church promotes peace through its fundamental teachings of Jesus, and also by its activity in seeking to build bridges between different cultures and religions in Australia and the world.

“To support defence people doesn’t mean that we are necessarily advocating for war. These are people just like you and me who are doing a job in service of our government and community.  They don’t always agree with the tasks that they have to do.

“I think of them as normal people doing a job that is often difficult and I guess, chaplains are a bit like – it’s kind of an incarnational ministry.  We join them in the things that they are doing, work alongside them, and experience the same kinds of pressures and tensions that they do.”

gary mckay medalPrincipal Chaplain Peter Woodward (Retd) believes that we all need to take a good look at ourselves, and the way we treat each other, because as Christians, we are called to repent.

“The need to repent is about how do I build the relationships? How do I spend the time which says I am ready to listen, I am ready to hear your story, I’m ready to be unconditional in my acceptance of you?

“Often what you get out of the stories of soldiers, much of it is difficult to hear. But it’s their lived experience, so I think that high-sounding pacifist statements that were being made didn’t grapple with the reality I was facing.”

Mr Woodward believes that, as a Church, we need to acknowledge the harm caused to veterans and ask for forgiveness.

“So do we need to repent? That’s part of the business of being a follower of Jesus, and so I get it wrong so easily ‘please God, forgive me and help me to get it right next time if that’s possible.’  Yeah. We need to repent.”


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