Subscribe

GUAM — Petty Officer 1st Class Mireya Ervin attends church regularly, but lately she’s had to answer some tough questions from her 11-year-old daughter about religion and war.

Ervin attends the Mormon church near the base that hosts U.S. Commander Naval Forces on Guam. On Sundays, she joins fellow parishioners in praying for peace. During the week, Ervin’s ship, the USS Frank Cable, provides repair services to the two nuclear-powered submarines now permanently based at this tropical Pacific outpost.

“These are the subs that are heading out to these places,” Ervin said of combat zones.

The contradiction confuses Ervin’s daughter.

“My daughter tells me, ‘In church, you’re saying to do this, to keep the world safe, but yet this is what you do’ for a living,” Ervin said on Sunday, after church.

She is among U.S. servicemembers who, facing war with Iraq, struggle to reconcile their religious beliefs with military action.

“Being a member of the military, it’s always in the back of my mind,” said Army Sgt. Jarom Culpepper, 25, a Mormon and full-time Army reservist with the 368th Military Police Company on Guam.

“One of the Ten Commandments is ‘Thou shall not kill,’ yet this is our chosen profession.”

If deployed to a war zone, Culpepper likely would work near the front line, running communication wires between the command post and battlefront.

“I’d be pretty close to it,” he said of possible combat.

Despite his misgivings, Culpepper said, he’s prepared to serve his country. “If we didn’t do these things, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy our freedoms, especially our freedom of religion,” he said.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. David W. Girardin, force chaplain for U.S. Naval Forces Marianas on Guam, said some servicemembers “are thinking and questioning but not doubting the orders given them.”

“Most people are saying, ‘Am I ready? Yes. Do I want to go to war? No. Do I pray for peace? Yes,’” said Girardin, a Seventh-day Adventist and pastoral counselor for 19 years.

Among major denominations, the Catholic church has voiced the firmest formal opposition to the war.

U.S. Roman Catholic leaders endorsed a statement declaring they “find it difficult to justify the resort to war against Iraq, lacking clear and adequate evidence of an imminent attack of a grave nature.” Pope John Paul II has asked Catholics to pray for peace.

“I’ve already had several parishioners, both officers and NCOs, approach me about this,” said Lt. Col. Stephen Booth, a Roman Catholic priest at Yokota Air Base, Japan.

The crux of the conflict is whether motivation for a war with Iraq qualifies under “just war” condoned in Christian teachings.

Dating back at least 700 years, to the teachings of philosopher Saint Thomas Aquinas, just-war theory includes the following, according to Booth:

• A nation may use violence only for self-defense or on behalf of a weaker country.

• A nation never may take the offensive.

• Every effort must be made to minimize injury to innocent civilians.

• If violence is used, it must be proportional. “If someone attacks you with spears, you can’t come back with machine guns,” Booth explained.

“First of all, there hasn’t been a direct attack,” Booth said of Iraq. “I know the government is trying to make a connection between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein, but I think in the bishops’ eyes, that connection hasn’t been made.”

Justification for the Persian Gulf War of the early 1990s was more clear-cut, he said: “With Desert Storm, we had an attack on Kuwait. We had a larger country attacking a smaller country.”

Military analysts also say that unlike the Gulf War, any war in Iraq this time likely would be fought in the streets of Baghdad — which, Booth said, could cost both American and innocent civilian lives.

That said, there are no “neat answers,” he said.

The Roman Catholic church, however, won’t forbid any servicemember in the parish from fighting in the war, Booth said.

“For each Catholic, and I would say for every believer, they’re going to have to make a decision in light of the teachings of their faith, and on the basis of their own prayer and reflection,” he said.

Military members who do not wish to participate in war of any form or bear arms may apply for conscientious objector status. In 1962, the Department of Defense implemented a policy to allow conscientious objectors to be discharged or transferred to noncombatant duties. Each service, including the Coast Guard, has regulations based on the directive.

“I don’t think it’s risen to the point of conscientious objector,” Booth said of Yokota’s 650 to 700 practicing Catholics — the average weekend Mass attendance, including family members.

But it may have elsewhere.

In the past six months, the Air Force has received seven applications for conscientious objector status. Four were approved, one request was disapproved and two others are under review, according to statistics provided by the Secretary of the Air Force public affairs office.

No other details from the applications were available.

Since 1990, the Air Force has approved from six to 32 applications annually for conscientious objection; the 32 were approved in fiscal 1991.

A military member may apply for conscientious objector status at any time, during war or peace.

author picture
Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up