The journey home to peace is perilous after war. It does not have to be. We can make it less lonely and lethal. The veterans’ stories that unfold in this book describe a newly-named wound of war called “moral injury.” The stories reveal the lifelong struggle of veterans to live with its scars, the impact on their families, and the various ways our communities can support the recovery of those who experience moral injury.
Moral injury is not Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but often overlaps with it. Many books on veteran healing confuse and conflate them into one thing. The difference between them is partly physical. Post-Traumatic Stress occurs in response to prolonged, extreme trauma and is a fear-victim reaction to danger. It produces hormones that affect the parts of the brain that are involved with responses to fear, the regulation of emotions, and the connection of fear to memory. A sufferer often has difficulty forming a coherent memory of a traumatic event or may even be unable to recall it.
The moral questions emerge after the traumatizing symptoms of PTSD are relieved enough for a person to construct a coherent memory of his or her experience. We organize emotionally intense memories into a story in the brain's prefrontal cortex, where self-control, planning, reasoning, and decision-making occur. The brain organizes experiences and evaluates them, based on people's capacity to think about moral values and feel empathy at the same time.
The suffering of moral injury is grounded in the basic humanity of warriors. That humanity lies deeper in them than its betrayal in war. Whether people are religious, spiritual, or secular, most of us are trained to respect others, to relate to a world bigger than ourselves, and to feel compassion for those who suffer. For many families, a military career is one way to embody core moral values like love of country and service to others. The psychological and emotional effects of combat are often referred to as the “hidden wounds of war.” But given veteran rates of suicide, homelessness, unemployment, divorce, depression, poverty, and imprisonment, how can such wounds really be invisible or hard to detect?
What would it mean to claim our personal and collective moral integrity? It means understanding that some wounds of war, such as PTSD, require treatment, but, it is not just an individual diagnosis. It is part of a larger social consequence of war, and therefore, not simply a private problem that can be solved by therapy. To address it requires engaging moral questions about decisions to go to war with families, communities, and society.
When such dialogues occur, they mine a deeper level of moral questioning in which language moves from being descriptive to being deeply transformative. Speaking about moral injury places morality, justice, and human dignity at the center of public attention and exposes a collective amnesia about war, its victims and its aftermath. To listen to the witnesses of veterans that struggle with moral injury shifts the conversation from the individual issues of some soldiers after the war to larger questions about war.
The veterans that speak about their moral injury and the cost of the latest wars on US soldiers do so with a deep concern for the people they fought against. They are not asking for public interest in U.S. veterans that would disregard the realities and the humanity of Iraqi and Afghani people.
The veterans in this book are very clear about the complexity of their moral positions and do not indulge in the easy and self-indulgent stance of slipping into a victim role. They remain fiercely committed to avoiding denial and forgetting. They seek to remember what they did personally to harm others and to take responsibility for how they violated their own moral conscience as their route to recovery.
Engaging in collective conversations about moral injury and war can help us all to strengthen the moral fabric of society and the connections that tie us to the rest of the world. Our collective engagement with moral injury will teach us more about the impact of our actions and choices on each other, enable us to see the world from other perspectives, and chart pathways for our future. If we achieve deeper and more open ways to grasp the complexities of human relationships, we will be able to understand power and the vast and complex ways we can misuse our power.
We cannot turn the clock back to pre-war times; we cannot bring back the dead, or undo atrocities and environmental destruction. We must resist offering hasty forgiveness to absolve ourselves and others. If we can take the time, instead, to listen to what veterans say to us, to befriend them as we journey together toward a different world, we can together, discover how deep transformation leads us toward the moral conscience that is the deepest most important dimension of our shared humanity. In doing so, we can come to understand the honor and integrity of military service and the importance of the moral criteria for war, which the military itself teaches, and what it would require of every one of us to send any one of us to war.