The song Sky Pilot was recorded by Eric Burdon and the Animals for the album The Twain Shall Meet in 1968. It includes a long instrumental section that features sounds of aerial bombing and ground troops fighting, during the Second World War. Despite the Second World War references, the song was written as a protest to the Vietnam war. (The sound of helicopter rotors might not have blended so easily with the guitar solo). Although the video accompanying the song features airmen in battle, the term sky pilot is vernacular for a military chaplain.
The song is structured as a ballad that describes a day in the life of a military chaplain. It begins with the chaplain blessing the troops before they head into battle. The chaplain then waits, communing with God, while the men are out on patrol. The song concludes with the chaplain’s interactions with the troops when they return.
Eric Burdon and the Animals were known for gritty ballads. Their recordings highlighted what could be called self-identity issues; When I was Young; It’s My Life, and Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. Other ballads were about personal downfall or desperation; The House of the Rising Sun and We Gotta Get Out of This Place.
It is no surprise that Eric Burdon and the Animals would record a ballad about soldiers at war. What makes Sky Pilot lyrically interesting is the focus on a relatively obscure character, the military chaplain.
The Doors with Unknown Soldier, and Donovan with Universal Soldier, take the obvious focal point of the soldier in battle. War Pigs, by Black Sabbath, takes aim at the people who callously send men off to war.
I have not found any information on why Eric Burdon and the Animals chose the military chaplain as the main character of their song. However, the song does chart a subtle, but powerful, transition in the relationship between a carer and the people he is administering to. The song starts with the chaplain emotionally close to the soldiers. By the end, he has become distant.
The song raises an important psychological issue; faced with appalling levels of trauma, how does the carer maintain their own humanness, and relate to the humanness of the people in their care, rather than taking refuge in their own beliefs.
Before playing the song, I need to say that the musical emphasis placed on the chorus (Sky Pilot, How high can you fly …) can overwhelm the narrative arch presented in the verses. It takes some effort to stay with the narrative.
Before the instrumental, the chaplain’s relationship with the soldiers is one of care and concern. He makes them feel wanted. He is in touch with their fear. He is relating to them as human beings about to face a terrifying ordeal.
Things shift when the men go into the hell of battle, alluded to in the long instrumental.
While the men face a terrifying experience, the chaplain stays behind and finds solace in God. We are told he feels good, “With God you are never alone.” Psychologically, the chaplain has left the men behind. He makes no attempt to imagine their suffering, nor assess what they may need from him when they return. It is as if he has wrapped himself in a cocoon.
Given both the dramatically different experiences of the chaplain and the soldiers, and the chaplain’s disconnection from the men, it is only to be expected that the relationship has changed when the troops return.
For the chaplain, the men are no longer frightened people needing care. Their humanity has disappeared and they are now “Soldiers of God.” The relationship has also changed from support to lecturing. Rather than being understood, the men must now understand (the fate of the country is in their hands).
It would seem that the men’s return challenges the chaplain with the limitations of his intervention. Despite his care, supported by his faith in God, the men return shattered from a brutal experience. Rather than confront his own limitations, the chaplain psychologically distances himself from the soldiers. To continue to see them as human beings is too devastating. It is easier to see their sacrifice as part of a holy war. This could be the reason the band was attracted to this narrative. It charts how a person can sacrifice the humanness of another person for the comfort of their own beliefs.
I suspect the chaplain does not even sense the shifts he is making in relationship to the troops. In his mind, he would still see himself as caring and supportive, and offering God’s love. It is the ill soldier who reveals the truth when he ironically remembers the sixth commandment, “Thou shall not kill.”
The struggle of the chaplain raises an interesting issue in psychotherapy.
By definition, a successful psychotherapy will include times when the therapist feels lost and overwhelmed. There will be times when they simply do not have enough to give. It is part of the psychotherapeutic role to feel deeply disturbed and terribly alone. It could be argued that a therapy is ultimately about being able to bear overwhelming feelings, without knowing what to do and how it will end. It is up to the therapist to hold these feelings. If the therapist cannot do this, there is no possibility of the patient developing the inner strength to sit through their own feelings of overwhelm.
At these times, a psychotherapist will rely heavily on their knowledge and experience of the psychotherapeutic process. It will provide some solid ground when everything feels shaky. However, the obvious danger is that their knowledge and experience may cause the therapist to see the patient through a lens that reduces the patient to part of a process, rather than a person in their own right. The patient will be subtly dehumanised.
With experience, a psychotherapist will get better at working through these times of feeling lost and alone. However, being in touch with the unique humanity of each patient is an endless challenge. The battle to identify when the psychotherapeutic process helps the therapist to understand the patient, or simply helps the therapist to feel some sense of control, can never be fully resolved.
As Eric Burdon tells us, “You’ll never reach the sky.”