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Recollections - "Render Unto Caesar . . ."
By Jerry Lembcke
James May's piece "Chaplains" in the Fall/Winter 2000 issue of The Veteran caught my eye because I was a chaplain's assistant in Vietnam in 1969. May's portrayal of chaplains was not too flattering, but I wouldn't quarrel with it. I worked for several different chaplains in Vietnam. They were all different; three stand out as being especially interesting.
For the first six months I was assigned to the Headquarters Battery of the 41st Artillery Group, encamped about ten miles west of Qui Nhon, just beyond the perimeter of Phu Cat airbase. My chaplain there was Major Elsie, whose day-to-day duty was to visit the Group's gun placements spread around II Corp. By Jeep and helicopter, the chaplain and I made weekly rounds to Landing Zones (LZ) Uplift and English along Highway 1, firebases along Highway 19 near An Khe, and several more sites scattered throughout the area.
But ministering to the troops was only a day job for this career man who was a character out of Joseph Heller's "Catch 22." Elsie was also the unit's self-designated procurer who would buy, trade or otherwise obtain whatever he needed to endear himself to the brass. While on an LZ one day, he did an enlisted man a "favor" by taking a contraband AK-47 off the soldier's hands before he got caught with it. Elsie took the weapon back to headquarters where he turned it over to a fellow officer for whom, the chaplain cynically explained to me, it would become a war trophy.
Elsie's biggest coup was obtaining a portable swimming pool for the officers at Group headquarters. Somehow the chaplain had "found" this pool (assembly needed, of course) at the loading docks in Qui Nhon. I wasn't privy to his negotiations to obtain it and I don't know how it came to be in Qui Nhon in the first place. But a few days after our stop on the dock, a Sikorsky helicopter delivered a large bundle of materials to our camp. Elsie told me what it was and proudly said it was what "we" had gotten in Qui Nhon that day. The demolition guys immediately set to work blowing a hole in the ground, but the 41st was disbanded shortly thereafter and, as I was later told by one of the last men to leave, the pool was still sitting there unpackaged when they turned out the lights.
Upon the breakup of the 41st HQ Battery, I was sent to a battalion HQ a few miles outside Ban Me Thout, near the Cambodian border. The process of reassignment took me through Dalat, where I was paired with a Chaplain Tumkin. Tumkin was being reassigned from the Delta where, he told me, he had been wounded and gotten into some kind of disciplinary trouble. We flew to Ban Me Thout together and spent the first night in a bunker. About midmorning the next day the first sergeant came stomping after me, demanding to know where "my chaplain" was. I said I had not seen him, to which the first sergeant replied, "Well, goddammit, neither has anybody else!"
Chaplain Tumkin was gone, AWOL. Through the grapevine I heard that Tumkin had split because the camp was too rough - he wasn't "going to live in no bunker." I was sorry to see him go, because we had hit it off well during our few hours together. Also, his departure left me unprotected from the whims of the first sergeant, who sought to use me for every unpleasant duty imaginable. A couple of weeks later I was reassigned again.
My last months were spent at LZ Betty, near Phan Thiet on the coast. The chaplain was Father Daniel McCaffery, who had been in mission work in South Asia when he decided to do his stint for the country. McCaffery stayed at Battalion HQ near Phan Rang airbase, which left me alone on the LZ. A couple of times a week he would chopper in, and together we would tour the other firebases in the area. McCaffery was basically against the war, and he really deepened my own understanding of what it was about. He was the first to explain to me that the United States would not win the war because the Vietnamese people did not want us there. He probably taught me to think of the war as an act of American imperialism, although he spoke more in terms of culture and religion than of economics or politics. He loaned me a book of world religions that gave me a deeper respect for the beliefs of other people and even "relativized" for me the very notion of religion - something he probably had not intended to do.
Being a chaplain's assistant was a learning experience in many ways. Chaplains had a role in the war for hearts and minds, so there were regular visits to Vietnamese schools, orphanages, and religious leaders. We went on MedCap missions to Montagnard villages. One of our stops was a leprosarium near Qui Nhon that had until recently been a self-sufficient agricultural commune. It had been defoliated by U.S. planes and the French nuns in charge were furious.
In some ways, my time in Vietnam was personally rewarding because I got to travel all over the central highlands and see the war and the country from many different vantage points. But I left Vietnam pretty disgusted with the chaplaincy as an institution. One of my first acts of resistance upon my return to the States in February 1970 was to write a letter to the Army chief of chaplains. It was a whistle-blowing kind of letter, informing the chief of the misdeeds I had witnessed, those mentioned above included. One of my complaints was that chaplains seldom took seriously enlisted men's difficulties with authoritarian officers and NCOs, or their objections to the war. "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's" was a phrase I had heard delivered in way too many counseling sessions with soldiers troubled by the war.
I expected my letter would quickly find the circular file, so I was surprised by the lengthy response I received. I wish I had the letter to quote from, because I remember it being a classic upbraiding of dissident behavior, and a chastising of my bad attitude and lack of commitment to the mission. It was "Render unto Caesar" one last time, I guess. Not long after that, I discovered VVAW in Denver and signed up. At the time, I was a graduate student at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley and learning to put words like "imperialism" to the lessons I had learned from Father McCaffery.
Jerry Lembcke is an associate professor of sociology at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is the author of "The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam" (New York University Press, 1998).