| Private Joshua Slotnick from Seattle prays with his copy of the Torah during a religious service for Jewish soldiers at Camp New York in Kuwait on Friday. (Reuters)
Camp New York, Kuwait, March 16 (Reuters): Captain Richard Compton, a US army chaplain, hands out bibles emblazoned with the image of a human skull and batwings, and in meetings with officers, encourages them to “Strike and Kill, gentlemen”.
Compton is assigned with the “Widowmakers” combat battalion of the legendary 101st Airborne Division and, with the unit poised for an invasion of Iraq, he has no qualms about adopting its militaristic symbols and rallying cries.
A mild-mannered Protestant pastor, he admits his use of the skull and batwings insignia can look inappropriate. But he says it is important soldiers understand that killing enemy troops in a justified war is consistent with being a good Christian.
“I have a problem with violence as well but we also have to be realistic. Peace sometimes just cannot be found and sometimes you have to show your muscle,” he said.
With a quarter of a million US and allied troops massed for an invasion of Iraq, soldiers across northern Kuwait crammed into makeshift chapels and military tents for prayer services this weekend. Many were trying to reconcile the task at hand with their religious beliefs.
Muslims and Jews have their own prayer meetings. Muslim services are held once a week. The most recent was interrupted by a missile alert, which turned out to be a false alarm.
“It is an ongoing battle, it is a spiritual battle,” brigade chaplain Major Matt Thompson said.
But, along with other chaplains, he said the biblical commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill” was misleading because in the original Hebrew it was actually “Thou Shalt Not Murder” — meaning violence is sometimes justified.
“We have a leader (Iraqi President Saddam Hussein) who has killed tens of thousands of his own people. The thought that goes through my mind is that if we have the ability to change that, we need to,” he said.
Pope John Paul has vehemently spoken out against war on Iraq, so Roman Catholics in the military face tougher spiritual questions. About 100 soldiers attended a Catholic mass in a sweltering tent in Camp New York yesterday.
The priest, Captain Michael Albano, said it was impossible for soldiers to know if war against Iraq would be justified: “War is supposed to be a last recourse. Whether all peaceful means have been used up, I don’t know. No soldier knows that.”
At a small prayer service on Friday, Rabbi Carlos Huerta, an army major, drew from passages in the Torah to explain to Jewish soldiers why the war against Saddam was necessary.
“The only way to get these people is by physical force. You have to use force to save the Iraqi people,” said Joshua Slotnick, a muscular soldier who wore a camouflage skullcap and had his heavy machinegun by his side throughout the service.
The US military has deployed a few dozen chaplains in the build-up to war. Their job now is to give troops religious guidance, but if fighting begins they will move with medical units to offer spiritual support to the wounded and dying.
Elsewhere in the Kuwaiti desert at Camp Inchon, a military preacher plunged converts in uniform into a makeshift baptismal font on Sunday, as omens of war turned men’s thoughts to God.
A Baptist chaplain baptised eight infantrymen in the early morning sunlight, pushing their heads under the water of a field pool built from sandbags and plastic sheeting. Fellow soldiers cheered as the newly blessed raised their soaking heads.
“I’ve done quite a few bad things in my life that I’m not proud of,” said Sergeant Juan Arango. “If anything was to happen to me I’d like to go out with a clear conscience.”