War-related moral injury: what is it? What helps? 


I’m reading David Wood’s What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars (2016, Little, Brown and Company). David is a journalist and has experiences embedded in military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. PTSD is well-known and discussed, especially in the context of war. If you have listened to the news, you know that many veterans struggle with it and struggle with return to civilian life. Suicide rates of current and former military members should grab your attention and tell you that we have a serious problem on our hands. If you have read further, you probably have heard about treatments such as Prolonged Exposure and Cognitive Processing Therapy being used by VA mental health practitioners. 

This book, however, introduces readers to the concept of moral injury, a cousin to PTSD. While the features may look similar to PTSD, moral injury may better account for some of the experiences, especially where terror (the emotion, not behaviors) may not have been the main experience. 

The book opens with a story of a Nik, a Marine whose position came under fire from a small boy with an assault rifle. 

“According to the military’s exacting legal principles and rules, it was a justifiable kill, even laudable, an action taken against an enemy combatant in defense of Nik himself and his fellow marines. But now Nik is back home in civilian life, where killing a child violates the bedrock moral ideals we all hold. His action that day, righteous in combat, nonetheless is a bruise on his soul, a painful violation of the simple understanding of right and wrong that he and all of us carry subconsciously through life. 

… At home strangers thank him for his service, and politicians celebrate him and other combat veterans as heroes. And Nik carries on his conscience a child’s death.” (8)

The author goes on to argue with illustration after illustration that to go to war is to suffer moral injury, to suffer the disconnect between deeply held values and the experiences during war. While it is easy to see moral injury in the forced choice to kill a child vs. save one’s own life, moral injury can also result from being sent on a fool’s errand–political reasons sent to war vs. need to protect or defend freedoms. 

PTSD v. Moral Injury? 

Post-traumatic stress disorder is biology. It is the body’s involuntary physical reaction as we relive the intense fear of a life-threatening event and the scalding emotional responses that follow: terror and a debilitating sense of helplessness. (15)

He goes on for paragraphs to depict the experience of PTSD and its cascade of symptoms–“fear-circuitry dysregulation.” But then listen to how he talks about Nik

…Nik doesn’t have PTSD. What Nik struggles with is not the involuntary recurrence of fear. He’s okay with the crowds at Walmart. He doesn’t startle at loud noises. In contrast with veterans who’ve experienced PTSD, Nik didn’t feel the pain of his moral injury at the moment of the incident…. [But] he is bothered by the memory of that Afghan boy and with questions about what he did that day. Like all of us, Nik had always thought of himself as a good person. But does a good person kill a child? …No, a good person doesn’t kill a child, therefore I must be a bad person. …The symptoms can be similar to those of PTSD: anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, anger. But sorrow, remorse, grief, shame, bitterness, and moral confusion–what is right?–signal moral injury while flashbacks, loss of memory, fear, and startle complex seem to characterize PTSD. (17)

PTSD has little to do with sin. It is a psychological wound caused by something done to you. Someone with PTSD is a victim. A moral injury is a self-accusation, prompted by something you did, something you failed to do, as well as something done to you. (18)

Guilt and shame are key characteristics. Not being able to save a buddy, making a quick decision that also included losses of civilian life, betrayal by leaders but being forced to carry out orders, or not being protected by buddies–all can create a moral injury. Add a mega dose of grief/loss from death and loss of companionship after the unit breaks up and you have a serious problem. (Don’t forget once home and safe, the loss of adrenaline, the loss of status, the replacement of dullness and the rebuilding of old relationships without your friends and without purpose will enhance all painful feelings including nagging guilt and shame.)

Definition offered

The lasting psychological, biological, spiritual, and social impact of perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations. (250)

Spiritual community interventions? 

Despite their attractiveness, short-term interventions like CISD aren’t effective (chapter 6 details this). In addition, straight up attempts to challenge distorted thoughts are likely to fail. So, what might work? The book details some listening and validating activities by chaplains, including the burning of cards listing their “sins” as they leave the battlefront symbolizing their remorse and reception of God’s forgiveness. Talking about guilt, confessing failures and shame seem central. Note that confessing and validating do not necessarily mean that others agree that sins have been committed or that perceptions of self are accurate. They merely acknowledge the burden the veteran carries. Even the secular therapy models validate feelings of guilt while finding acceptance and forgiveness. Saying, “don’t blame yourself, you couldn’t help it” to Nik aren’t helpful. Finding a path that doesn’t blame or excuse (237) allows for a different path between all or nothing shame responses. 

It seems that what spiritual mentors and Christian practitioners have to offer in light of these themes are central to recovery from moral injury. 

The reality, says the author, our current therapies are only marginally helpful and sometimes harmful. Near the end of the book he concludes with this conviction,

True healing of veterans with war-related moral injuries will only come from community, however we and they define community–peers, neighborhoods, faith congregations, service organizations, individuals. That means it is up to us. (260)

And thus, YOU have a job to do

Listen. I highly recommend you read his last chapter (“Listen” begins on page 261). He will tell you how to engage a conversation in order to learn. No matter your personal beliefs about war, this is something you can do. Don’t look for the government to do the job, be the one to listen and learn yourself. Be the one to bear witness, as silently as you can. Your presence (more than your words) will convey compassion, understanding, and God’s presence.

1 Comment

Filed under christian psychology, Good Books, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, trauma

One response to “War-related moral injury: what is it? What helps? 

  1. Ray Hutchison

    Thanks for the good posting, Phil. This article is so appropriate for my wife and me as we have a son who served in Afghanistan early in the campaign there. We have seen the effects of moral injury and are glad that the topic is being addressed.

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