Reading the Geneva Convention articles regarding Prisoners of War (POW) rules and operations paints images of “The Bridge Over the River Kwai.” We see captors abiding by the rules and chaplains moving about, ministering to soldiers and providing religious services. History however, shows us something different. The Korean and Vietnam wars were simply treated as “conflicts” or “actions,” and neither nation abided by the Geneva Convention. During the 1991 conflict in Iraq, the US didn’t experience any POW situations, although it is not a stretch to think Iraq would not have honored the Articles of the Geneva Convention. In early 2001, a C-130 Hercules aircraft went down in China and the Chinese government held the American crew captive. As no deceleration of war were pronounced, the Geneva Convention remained unnecessary. In the present conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is unlikely that any American soldier would be afforded anything resembling the Geneva Convention protections, just as the United States has also declared the Articles irrelevant to the War on Terror.
Yet, despite the lack of respect for the Geneva Convention rules, it is valuable for a chaplain to understand that the participating nations believed chaplains were to be afforded specific rights that insured the protection of religious activities, even in a prisoner of war camp. Chapters IV and V specifically deal with the role of the chaplain. Article 33 dictates that the chaplain is not technically a prisoner of war and may not be forced to do detail labor. More specifically, they are to continue in their duties as religious leaders. Article 34 guarantees the prisoners the right to worship and attend services. Article 35 gives the chaplain the right to move about the camp, or even between camps, in the exercise of ministry. Article 36 gives fellow soldiers the ability to minister to one another in the absence of an official chaplain. And Article 37 gives the prisoners the ability to actually appoint a person as their chaplain in the event that a chaplain is not available. Religion and faith were important, even in war, in 1949, and just because nations do not honor these articles today does not reduce the importance of a chaplain captured with his or her fellow soldiers.
Chaplains should continue to be aware of the Articles pertaining to their rights and duties as a POW chaplain. Even if a chaplain is treated like any other POW, he should remember that he is first, a chaplain. If detail labor is assigned, the chaplain should still try to find ways to minister and care for his fellow POWs. Even if soldiers are not afforded the right to worship, the chaplain should remain strong, standing up for the soldier’s right to worship and gather for services. If the chaplain is not allowed to move around freely, he should still attempt to visit with soldiers in anyway he can, even if it means meeting with the men as they do detail labor or conversing through the use of the Tap Code as did the men and women in the POW camps during the Vietnam War. And in the terrible event that the chaplain is executed, he should be mindful of the martyred apostles and remain faithful.
While the face of warfare may have moved beyond the Geneva Convention, the duties of the chaplain remain much the same, whether protected by agreed upon and ratified “rules” of war or not. The chaplain should diligently keep the spirit of the Geneva Convention even if his captors choose otherwise.
*This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.