The British Royal Navy employs 86 vicars. Julian Ware, head of special projects at Darlow Smithson Productions, found it strange that in a secular society the military would employ this many religious men. So he sent two filmmakers to find out what they’re doing on the frontlines.
Commando Chaplains follows two Royal Marine chaplains who treat Afghanistan as their parish, administering to the wounded, and acting as social workers for the soldiers. Due to the confidentiality of conversations between soldiers and the chaplains, the one hour doc for Channel 4′s ‘Religious Revelations’ strand focuses on the two men and their feelings about their service to the soldiers and follows them as they attempt to build bridges with the local community.
‘One of the chaplains says, ‘We can act as a moral compass for the armed forces,” says Ware. ‘So I think he very much sees that as one of his important roles, to be that moral compass, [and] to make sure the people, although they’re at war, behave in as decent a way as possible.’
In addition to that role, Ware also describes the vicars as a barometer for the morale of the troops and a pressure valve for the soldiers to release their feelings. ‘You’ve got a lot of young commanding officers, some of them 24 or 25 years old, just out of military training. Suddenly they’re in this war zone in command of 30, 40 or 50 men and they’ve got no one to talk to about it. They can talk to the vicars knowing that anything they say will be in total confidence.’
Because the chaplains have no rank they can speak openly with any soldier. Ware says the soldiers, regardless of religious views, take comfort in having the chaplains with them on the frontlines, and it’s particularly evident in the memorial services the DSP filmmakers documented.
The two filmmakers sent to Afghanistan by DSP were Claudio von Planta (best known as the cameraman for Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s series Long Way Round and Long Way Down) and Jim Foster. Foster is ex-British Military and von Planta was trained in the Swiss Army, so they were somewhat prepared for filming in the region. However they were still quite impressed by the vicars.
‘They’re very brave people,’ says Ware of the chaplains. ‘To the Taliban, who see this as almost a crusade against their religion, in a way their biggest enemies are the chaplains because they [represent] this infidel God that has been taken into their territory. [The chaplains] are a target in their own right. So to see them on patrol without a gun going into these villages… they’re extraordinarily brave people.’
Commando Chaplains will air on C4 Sunday, July 12.