I recently attended a panel entitled “Coming Home: Dialogues on the Moral, Psychological, and Spiritual Impacts of War”. The event was about the invisible scars many veterans bear long after he or she experienced the horrors of war. How the scars were inflicted and how the afflicted recover from them is something those, like me, who have never been in combat can hardly understand.
One of the panelists at the event related the experience of a fighter pilot who on a bombing run was unable to see clearly what he had hit. Viewing his cockpit screen footage later, he saw that a carport had been totally demolished by his bomb. Amidst the rubble were four small bicycles. For years afterwards the pilot had a recurring nightmare in which he enters a bombed-out building and picks up a dead child from among the rubble. As he hugs the child to him, he sees that the back of the child’s head has been blown off. Simultaneously, the face of the child morphs into that of his own son.
Such anguished memories are sometimes referred to as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), sometimes as “moral injury”. There’s a difference. PTSD is a mental disorder which makes it difficult for a vet to reintegrate himself back into civilian life. Moral injury is a “soul in anguish, not a psychological disorder”, as one psychiatrist puts it. It’s been defined as “an injury to an individual’s moral conscience and values resulting from an act of perceived moral transgression”. If a veteran survives the wound to his morality, he may not only successfully get on with his life but make an especially valuable contribution to his country.
A second panelist at the event, a lady fighter pilot, came back from her tour in Iraq uninjured either traumatically or morally. Without a twinge of conscience, she gushed about how good it felt to drop a bomb on a car filled with ISIS terrorists, knowing she had killed the personification of evil. She felt no more empathy for the those she had killed than do our drone pilots, raining down death from thousands of miles away, who refer to the victims of their bombs as “bugsplat”.
I was tempted to try to inflict a little moral injury on the gung-ho Top Gunness, so cocksure she was of the rectitude of her “good kill”, but I decided that wouldn’t be very nice. If I weren’t such a nice guy, I would have pointed out to her that the United States has a long history of working with Islamic extremists to counter governments we don’t approve of, the most overt case being our support of the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
In more recent times, our attitude vis-à-vis the Islamic State (ISIS) has been disturbingly ambiguous. The thousands of foreign fighters who poured into Syria to join ISIS came through the territory of our NATO ally, Turkey—apparently with that country’s blessing… and, by extension, our own. Our good friend Qatar is generally credited with being a major financial backer of ISIS. Would we tolerate such behavior from a faux country like Qatar with a measly 300,000 citizens and an American military base within a stone’s throw of the Emir’s palace if we didn’t approve of their generosity?
So long as ISIS directed its attacks against the Syrian government, we had no problem with it. Only when it diverted its attention to trying to take over Iraq did we decide it needed to be reined in. Even then, a number of times we bombed Syrian or Iraqi forces engaged in battle with ISIS—all a big mistake, of course. Someone less kind than myself might have suggested to “Miss Crack-shot USA” that those grisly videos of masked evildoers beheading some hapless victim, which so enraged her as to free her from any soul-searching about exterminating some noisome bugs, owed more to American stage managers than to some mullah’s fiery rhetoric.
I suspect growing up just down the road from the Air Force Academy, then attending the Naval Academy, made the pilot immune to my contrarian point of view, but not every veteran is so lucky. Killing a fellow human being without guilt qualms is not normal. That’s why many soldiers—even in the heat of battle—never fire their weapon. It’s also why the army, I’ve been told, came up with the rapid-fire M16: you don’t aim it at anyone in particular, you just start blazing away.
According to one expert, moral injury occurs when “(i) there has been a betrayal of what is morally right, (ii) by someone who holds legitimate authority and (iii) in a high-stakes situation.” Sending those who trust you into battle on the basis of lies (e.g., Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction; staged gas attacks in Syria) is a gross betrayal of their trust. Many returning from the war which gave us the term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the Vietnam War, concluded that’s what happened. That’s why they founded Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW).
I can only imagine what pangs of guilt must haunt the slumber of those who feel they’ve been lied to. Killing in a justified cause is hard enough to reconcile with our deep-seated aversion to the taking of human life; without legitimate justification, it becomes simply murder. How decent, good-hearted, feeling ex-soldiers deal with this “immoral injury”, as I call it, is a mystery to me. Maybe that’s why many Vietnam vets don’t like to talk about their experiences. No one likes to admit to having been duped, even if they were only eighteen years old at the time and most of their older and supposedly wiser compatriots let themselves be duped as well.
I hope those trying to help troubled veterans do not seek to have them forget their shame, anger, and disgust over being betrayed by those in power. Having been injured themselves, the vets can instruct those of us who have never paid the price on the techniques employed by unscrupulous leaders to get us into illegitimate, aggressive wars. That’s the special contribution I mentioned earlier that veterans can make to our country. Many members of the VVAW are doing just that today.
Whatever methods are being used to “cure” those suffering from immoral injury, they have not been completely successful. Last year, the number of attempted and successful suicides amongst marines—active and former—hit an all-time high: 354. Professor Lawrence Wilkerson of William & Mary—who in a former life was Col. Larry Wilkerson, Chief of Staff to Colin Powell when he was Secretary of State—offers this explanation: “GIs have killed or helped to kill more than 400,000 human beings in these wars [Afghanistan, Iraq]. Killing at that level affects people. It particularly affects people when they are unable to explain the reason for the killing…. The U.S. government has told these young men and women that they are killing these people for freedom’s sake, for democracy, for women’s rights, for justice, to protect Americans, and for all manner of reasons that these troops know are just so much hogwash…. These GIs know that, on account of many of these lies, they are killing people, wounding people, destroying their homes, bombing their towns and villages, and generally wreaking havoc for ‘God and country’. They know this is a lie. But what are they to do about it? Some of them kill themselves.”
The next time you see someone in uniform and are inclined to express your thanks, keep in mind what Col. Wilkerson has to say about this: “[T]he 99 percent of America with no skin in the game of war makes sure to say quite frequently ‘thank you for your service’ to any of these GIs encountered at airports, in restaurants, on the street, or elsewhere. From my own experience talking with serving troops and veterans—including a triple-amputee at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center— nothing galls them more. They see the 99 percent assuaging their guilt with a few meaningless words that don’t do a thing to alleviate the GIs’ concerns. In fact, such triteness deepens those concerns.”