A Scar on the Soul

Killing from the Inside Outby Robert Emmet Meagher

Cascade Books. 178p $22

In February, the New York Times columnist David Brooks published an essay on the concept of moral injury in war. Noting recent literature on the topic of post-traumatic stress disorder, Brooks highlighted the fact that studies of the trauma U.S. soldiers suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan has rightly focused on the inescapable moral harm of war. In Brooks’s words, civilians “live enmeshed in a fabric of moral practices and evaluations. We try to practice kindness and to cause no pain,” but “people who have been to war have left this universe behind. That’s because war—no matter how justified or unjustified, noble or ignoble—is always a crime.”

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In defending this claim, which will likely strike many as implausible, Brooks draws on David J. Morris’s book, The Evil Hours, Phil Klay’s Redeployment and Nancy Sherman’s Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers.

To this list of fine books I would add Robert Meagher’s Killing From the Inside Out. Just as Morris, Klay and Sherman attend to the self-imposed “moral exile” that veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan appear to experience, Meagher begins with the grim statistics of veteran suicides in recent years: 33 per month in 2012, 22 per day in February 2013. Indeed, the title of the book is taken from a comment that the mother of a suicide victim made to Meagher. Her son’s mortal wound was not from an I.E.D.; his wound, she said, killed him from the inside out.

While Meagher would certainly agree with Brooks that war is always a crime, he goes much further than Brooks in condemning war and the traditions of moral thought that sustain war. Pre-eminent among these traditions is the just war theory, which Meagher refers to as a “lie” sustained by Christian belief that must be cut out root and branch. The burden of the book is to perform this uprooting.

When summarized this bluntly, readers might be inclined to dismiss Meagher’s book as a polemical diatribe. That would be a mistake. This is a complex work that weaves together moral reflection, historical scholarship and psychological accounts of P.T.S.D. to frame an account of war that explains the inescapable moral injury that appears always to accompany war.

I cannot do justice to the many aspects of Meagher’s argument, but two are worth noting. The first is his insistence that we hold ourselves accountable for actions done in ignorance or without intent to harm. Some will find this claim to be deeply counterintuitive, but Meagher argues powerfully for its moral truth. He asks us to consider the phenomenon of “forgotten baby syndrome.” On average, 38 children die in the United States every year from heat stroke when they are left in a car by a parent who has forgotten they are in the car. In the vast majority of cases there is absolutely no evidence of ill intent or premeditation; a child care schedule has changed or a sleep-deprived parent is distracted by a crisis at work or something similar.

Nevertheless, in over half of these cases criminal charges are brought against the parent, and many of us would say that the parent has done something horrible. The fact that the parent did not intend the death of the child does nothing to change the fact that something horrible has been done. As Meagher puts the point, even the unintended taking of a life leaves one morally tainted. When we consider the self-lacerating reaction of those whose actions resulted in the inadvertent death of a child, we should not be surprised by the self-hatred that frequently afflicts combat veterans. Even if the actions of soldiers are defensible in moral terms, they killed.

This argument about the polluting nature of actions that result in death is intertwined with a second point about the role of Christian tradition and just war theory in framing the moral assessment of killing as dependent on intentions. Meagher cites the words the author of Luke attributes to Jesus on the cross about his tormentors: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” “These words,” Meagher writes, “bring us to a new place, a new conception of agency and responsibility that will profoundly reshape the discussion of war and sex...in the early Christian centuries and clear down to the present day.”

According to Meagher, it is precisely the idea that actions are one thing and intentions and inner dispositions are quite another that Augustine uses to justify killing by Christians in war. Meagher quotes Augustine: “When a soldier kills an enemy, or when a judge or an officer of the law puts a criminal to death...the killing of a man does not seem to me to be a sin.” This killing is not a sin because there is no malicious intent on the part of the soldier or the officer of the law.

According to Meagher, the Augustinian view that killing in war is not wrong so long as the war is justified and no evil intent is involved is the heart of the just war tradition. Unfortunately, this view can make no sense of the idea that an agent is morally harmed if he or she brings about the death of another human being. The idea that killing another threatens one’s very humanity, that killing irrevocably leaves a scar on one’s soul, cannot easily be accommodated by the just war tradition. Just war thinking thus leaves us particularly unprepared to respond to the existential despair that veterans frequently experience.

There is much to contest in Meagher’s volume, and it would have been better if he had directly engaged some of the most important theorists and historians of the just war tradition, like Michael Walzer or James Turner Johnson. Still, no serious supporter of the just war tradition can afford to ignore this frontal assault on just war thinking, particularly as it has been embraced and supported by Christian tradition.

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