THE CHAPLAIN'S LAST SERMON
The stage is dimly lit. There are several men sitting in folding chairs. They are not moving. They are young men in fatigue uniforms. Their backs are to the audience. In front of them, upstage, facing the men (and the audience), is a podium.
An elderly man in comfortable and casual civilian clothes enters from the wings, pauses to look at the tableau, then walks downstage to address the audience.
Bangkok, Thailand. 1970. Army barracks. Dayroom. I remember it well. But you see, unlike you folks out there, those of us stationed in Bangkok during the 1960s and 70s didn't have the advantage of seeing "the war" on television or on the internet every day.
(looking into the audience)
What's that, young man?...Oh, I was referring to the Vietnam War. The one...the one that got away from us...Although, we did take second place. Anyway, as I was saying, we didn't have the advantage of seeing The War on television or on-line every day. Nor did we have the outpouring of books, plays and films to interpret to us the Why and Wherefore of our Vietnam experience. All that came later. But we did have one great advantage over those who have never experienced military life: we had the complimentary (and mandatory) services of an interpreter who alone, in the face of doubt and confusion, understood fully, and, in the presence of ignorance and error, revealed patiently why America had decided to challenge the process of Vietnamese nationalism.
(walks a few steps and gestures toward the
And perhaps it is precisely because those of us stationed in Bangkok during The War were merely on the edge of the action, that I can see clearly that multi-media coverage of America's longest nightmare - then and now - has failed to do justice to the one man whose task it was to interpret the slaughter to men no longer open to interpretation. I mean, of course - the chaplain.
(Stage lights up on dayroom scene 1970
Bangkok. A CHAPLAIN 30 - 40 years old
walks into the dayroom and up to the
podium. He places his Bible on the podium,
opens it and remains standing silently)
The man who succeeded in splicing together the ultimate feature-length Gothic of Christian faith and saturation bombing into one meaningful and desirable double feature. The assistant director who helped advance God's celestial plan with its celluloid layers of light-sensitive emulsion by means of interpreting and defending the paradisiacal pull-down claw as it locked onto the sprocket-holes of over 58 thousand American, and over one million Vietnamese hearts. The running-gag narrator who promoted the story line, approved the shooting script, applauded the rushes, defended the answer prints and successfully engineered a B-grade exploitation film into a box-office spectacular. The undespairing adjudicator and supernal connoisseur whose swish-pan promises provided smooth transitions between more than one million wipes. The man who told us - who dared to tell us - why.
(Moves to one side of the stage)
But the chaplain - at least, our chaplain - seemed prepared for disaster. And, in its immediate absence, he was well prepared to give detailed notice of its malignant effects. He would begin training sessions by discussing the dangers of bacterial inflammatory diseases of the genital tract which resulted from indulging in sex with Bangkok bargirls. Although he never suggested any concrete alternative to male-female relations, sometime during the session, he would invariably shuffle his notes, look us over for several seconds, and finally, speak confidentially, soldier to soldier, sinner to sinner.
Remember men, you don't get this kind of stuff from just looking at girlie magazines. Magazines can't hurt you. Think about it.
(GIs jump us and carry out the following
actions and then sit down again)
Even as we thought about it, curtains were closed, lights were dimmed, doors were locked, and the chaplain expertly prepared and projected what we dubbed "blue movies," slides of the faces, breasts, arms, mouths, lips, tongues and intimate anatomical parts of both men and women who had contracted particularly horrible and presumably incurable sexual diseases. The chaplain never mentioned where or when the slides had been taken but we suspected they actually portrayed the effects of some great epidemic which had struck an especially sinful and hedonistic European community in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, for those tempted to abandon magazines in favor of more perilous forms of stimulation, the wrath of a righteous, no-bullshit God was clearly in evidence.
(If it is not possible to suggest
slides being shown, the CHAPLAIN
might hold up pictures or have some
on a stand out of the view of the
At one session, one of the newer members of the unit fainted during the first ten minutes. (One does) As Hogbody, Butterball, Whore House Charlie and I sat well toward the back of the dayroom, we seldom had a clear view of the screen. But unlike during the sermon itself, the chaplain took considerable interest in what effect the blue movies were having on his congregation. As he knew Hogbody was a "breast man," during the screening of one disease-ravaged breast enshrined in a colorful but slightly unfocused close-up, the chaplain turned to him and said:
What do you think of that breast, eh, Hog? I wouldn't be very anxious to get her bra off.
After several moments of observing the screen without any visible emotion, during which we assumed he was asleep, Hogbody turned to the chaplain and spoke with unaffected dignity:
It has been my experience, sir, that a breast in the hand is worth two in the bra.
The chaplain never spoke to Hogbody again.
(The CHAPLAIN picks up his notes and strides
As for the quality of the chaplain's sermons, it was never easy to judge. What does one look for in a sermon - correct grammar; ironclad logic; eloquent appeals; mass conversions? But, as it was "in" in the "Real World" at the time to be "relevant," the chaplain often tailored his sermons - and God's plans - to his military audience. Unfortunately, he often traveled to Vietnam and some of his sermons had obviously been designed for those about to be blown away in battle zones. He never did understand that for GIs stationed in Bangkok, The War might as well have been on the far side of the moon. But the one sermon I want to tell you about was the one that was to be - although we didn't know it at the time - the chaplain's last sermon. It was usual for the chaplain to ignore his inattentive and inconsiderate audience. He habitually spread the Word of God in the face of hostility, derision and other obstacles painstakingly prepared by the antichrist such as (the GIs act out the following) Butterball's burps, Hogbody's snores, Whore House Charlie's running comments on the sexual proclivities of chaplains, and heated arguments over both clandestine and overt card and dice games, none of which ever once caused him to shoot a glance in our direction.
(The CHAPLAIN reappears on stage and slowly
makes his way to the podium. He acts as
But I began to notice that each time the chaplain returned from Vietnam, his sermon was shorter, less audible, and less coherent - and his concern for our salvation less evident. His eyes seemed less able to focus, his face appeared more drawn and pallid, and his uniform seemed both too big and too small for him at the same time. He would prop up his notes, place his Bible on the lectern, blow his nose repeatedly, clear his throat nervously, shift from one foot to the other as if trying to keep warm, and address himself to the few pairs of eyes which remained open.
(The NARRATOR move to the other side
of the stage)
It was only during this last sermon that there was no blowing, clearing or shifting. It wasn't until years later that I realized why this particular discourse had seemed so singular and unnatural. It was that it was missing the one ingredient a congregation always expects to find at even the most soporific sermon - an attempt at communication. It was precisely this unexpected abeyance of resolve and unintended display of humor that, only moments into this speech, achieved for the chaplain's last sermon both total silence and rapt attention.
(The NARRATOR walks a few steps toward
the wings and stands quietly)
Men, I want to talk to you today about prayer. I know many of you - as professional soldiers - may feel ill at ease when humbling yourself before God. But I have a pleasant surprise for you. I have come to understand that praying to God is like stepping on a land mine.
(At this point, GIs begin to stop
gambling, talking, laughting, etc.
and begun to listen intently)
Yes, there is nothing more explosive than faith in God. Now, I know you cannot always tell a good gook from a bad gook. But God can. God knows which gook plants rice and which gook plants land mines. I do not have to remind you that planting rice is Good and planting landmines is Evil. And God wants you to recognize Evil when you see it; that is why He created landmines in such a way that when you step on them they blow you away. Of course, I do not mean to imply that land mines planted in His name are Evil. (But, remember, all personnel blown away in His Name have Life Everlasting.) You cannot see God - and you cannot see a land mine; but both are there and both are capable of responding. This is because both have power. Enormous power. But God has far more power than ordinary land mines. Land mines can blow you away when you step on them. But the power of God is unlimited. He can blow you away anytime, anyplace, under any conditions, war or peace, out on patrol or while cleaning your rifle, standing in the chow line or marching in parade, engaged in a firefight or walking to the latrine, combatant or non-combatant, officer or enlisted man, mama-san or baby-san, soldier or queer. Even, somewhat unfairly, perhaps, in a demilitarized zone.
(As the CHAPLAIN pauses, the NARRATOR
again walks out and speaks to the audience)
A speech delivered for humorous effect which fails in its goals results in embarrassment. A serious speech which produces hilarity may be even more embarrassing. But this was not the resignation of one who has tried to share an important message with an insolent audience and failed; rather the ingenuous manner and sincere tone of one whose speech conveys utter madness with an excruciating ignorance and unspeakable equanimity, surpassing, in horror, despair and shame, the most deliberate obscenity, the most catastrophic defeat and the most poignant embarrassment.
(Again, the NARRATOR walks a few steps
toward the wings and listens)
Now, men, I want you to think of God as a powerful weapon. Because God is smarter than the smartest bomb, more powerful than the most destructive artillery, and don't forget, He can see in the dark. Think of God as a Great Being looking at us all through an infra-red starlight sniperscope. Wherever we are, the eyes of God follow. We are forever lined up in His sights. And one day this Supreme Being will peer through those sights, squint through that scope, slowly squeeze the trigger and neutralize each and every one of us - regardless of race, color, creed, sex, age, I.Q., name, rank and serial number. God needs no illumination rounds or saturation bombing to rubbish His chosen targets. His rifle never jams; His ammunition is Everlasting. The day will come when each and every one of us will be trapped in one of God's multi-divisional search-and-destroy sweeps, or by angels deployed by God to mop up. And let me assure you that God's angels are perfectly able to bomb and strafe any pockets of resistance that hold out, however briefly, against them. Let there be no doubt about it, the day will come when God will frag all of us. And when that day comes, when God in His wisdom springs His ambush, when God booby-traps your trail, when God chooses to evacuate you from the battle zone forever, when He discharges you from our army to reinforce His own celestial combatants, be absolutely certain that you have been adequately briefed for your new mission. Because on that final Day of Judgment, when what we call our universe is finally and utterly defoliated for all time, God will gather the elite troops of his most crack division around him, while those soldiers who surrendered to temptation, who refused His love (or who performed unnatural acts,) will be condemned to a free-fire zone forever. And of those who still feel they might escape God's Incoming Rounds, remember, even Jesus was not issued a flak-jacket. Quite the contrary. Out of His Great Love for the world, God fragged His own son! And that is something to think about.
(The NARRATOR again steps forward)
It was at this point, when the chaplain became quiet for nearly a minute that some of us started to get up. (Some do) But no sooner had we risen than he began again. For it was his intention to close with a prayer. (They sit again)
(The NARRATOR steps back)
Now, men, even after the war is over, people will still have faith in God - and they will still have children, some of whom will become soldiers themselves, and some of whom will be blown away by stepping on leftover land mines - regardless of race, color or creed, boy or girl, tall or short, military dependents or draft resisters, students participating in R.O.T.C. or deserters, applicants to O.C.S. or queers. God calls everyone. And he who steps on a land mine hears the call of God. But how
many who have ever stepped on a land mine have actually paused to consider...consider how one path can lead back to base - and how one path can lead to Life Everlasting. As I've said, men, land mines cannot be seen, neither can God; but both exist, and both are waiting - Out There. Now, you may never step on a land mine, but that does not mean God does not love you. Let us pray.
O Lord our God, Thou who art greater than any weapon yet conceived by man, Thou who exist in greater depth than any land mine yet planted by man, Thou who has blown away more soldiers on more battlefields, than even we are able to do, give us this day the power to tell good gooks from bad gooks, and to know which gooks serve in Your Name and which gooks should be neutralized - in Your Name. Give us the firepower to destroy Thine enemies. Give us the strength to understand Your Wisdom, to glory in Your Plan, and - when that time comes - to readily and gratefully allow our bodies to be rubbished in Your Name. When you call us back to base, O Lord, when we stand before you in Divine Interrogation, lead us not to report that our mission was aborted or that our air-strike against Thine enemies was canceled because of unfavorable weather conditions. Let us salute proudly and smartly and with confidence our Supreme Commander-in-Chief; and let us never stoop to inflating a body count in order to make a favorable impression. And give us this day the ability to recognize that beseeching Thy aid is - if we sincerely and humbly request it - as simple and as uncomplicated as stepping on a land mine. We ask this in Your Name and in the Name of Your Only Begotten Son whom You saw fit to rubbish on our behalf. Amen.
(As the CHAPLAIN picks up his notes
and shuffles off stage, the GIs stand
at attention. A new CHAPLAIN walks
on stage and salutes the old one as
he passes. The old one fails to
return the salute. The new one briefly
stares at him, then places his notes
on the lecturn. The GIs sit down)
At the following training session, a more conventional chaplain delivered a more conventional sermon. After he'd finished, Hogbody stood and asked:
Excuse me, sir, but what happened to our usual chaplain?
The man smiled knowingly, and said:
Well, son, I'm afraid your usual chaplain became quite unusual in many ways; I'm told he deliberately walked across a minefield in Vietnam; and before anybody could get to him, he stepped on a land mine.
And he added - in the manner of one sharing a dirty joke:
But I'll tell you this, son; it might have been just as well that God called him home: just before he crossed the minefield the man had been babbling about how stepping on a land mine was absolute proof of God's love for mankind.
And with a slow shake of the head, he added:
The man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.
Hogbody fell silent for several seconds, but when he spoke it was with the quiet confidence and artless candor of a man who knows he is stating a Truth:
I think, sir, that a chaplain who believes that praying to God is as easy as stepping on a land mine, is worth two chaplains who don't.
The chaplain never spoke to Hogbody again.
Rewritten from a chapter of the novel
Memoirs of a Bangkok Warrior by Dean Barrett
Copyright 2014 Dean Barrett
No part of this play may be performed or published without written permission from the playwright