Healing Moral Wounds

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have so far resulted in more than 5,000 American deaths and 50,000 wounded, as well as hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi casualties. In addition to the loss of life, a new report from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard estimates the economic cost for the American people at $6 trillion, or $75,000 per household. But there is still another cost, incalculable but still manifest in men and women returning from the battlefield: moral injury. It is the long-lasting damage to soldiers who experience moral contradiction when they kill another human being or are devastated by their failure to rescue a comrade. When ethical ideals meet the harsh realities of war, it can afflict a person’s core identity.

According to David Wood, author of “The Grunts: Damned If They Kill, Damned If They Don’t,” a three-part study published on The Huffington Post (3/18), moral injury is the “signature wound” of this generation of veterans. It is not the familiar post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by crowds, noise or arguments that results in “startle” reflexes or flashbacks. Moral injury results from a violation of what a person considers right or wrong, and it provokes grief, shame and alienation. Both illnesses share the effects of depression, nightmares and self-medication with alcohol and drugs; but unlike PTSD, moral injury is not officially recognized by the Pentagon. Nevertheless, a moral wound may transform a young person otherwise committed to ideals like loyalty and courage—on which military life depends—to one crippled for years by survivor’s guilt.

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Mr. Wood’s report tells the story of Nick Rudolph, 22, who is taking aim at a young boy, maybe 13, firing shots at U.S. soldiers. With a split second to decide, Nick pulls the trigger and kills the boy. Then what? “We just collected up that weapon and kept moving,” he explained. “He was just a kid…. You know it’s wrong. But…you have no choice.”

Another soldier, Stephen Canty, described how a person’s “morals start to degrade” in a warzone. When a dying Afghan man was pulled into a Marine camp, “I just lit him up,” Stephen said. “One of the bullets bounced off his spinal cord and came out his eyeball.” Then Stephen just walked away, feeling nothing. Now he wonders in what kind of a world “some dumb 20-year-old” can “smoke” a 40-year-old (probably with children at home) and feel nothing. “Once you’re able to do that, what is morally right anymore?”

Amy Amidon, a clinical psychologist at the U.S. Naval Medical Center in San Diego, knows the symptoms well. She oversees the center’s moral injury/moral repair therapy group, a safe space for veterans to share stories of war trauma, and to listen to and support each other. To help overcome their isolation, the participants are encouraged to do community service and acts of kindness. “The idea here is for them to begin to recognize the goodness in themselves, and to reinforce their sense of being accepted in the community,” she explained. Near the end of the eight-week program, the veterans are invited to write themselves a letter of empathy and acceptance. Some also choose to draft an apology, even if they cannot send it to another person. One soldier wrote to a boy he witnessed trembling during a Marine raid on his family’s house. The letter, he explained, “wasn’t about me forgiving myself,” but “more about accepting who I am now.”

A study conducted in the first year of the Iraq War found that two-thirds of Marines in Iraq had killed an enemy combatant, 28 percent felt responsible for a civilian death and more than half had handled human remains. The mental and moral wounds that result from experiences like these far outnumber the physical injuries. The Pentagon reports that between 275,000 and 500,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are affected by PTSD—a reminder that soldiers are human beings, not machines that can be repeatedly sent into battle without consequence.

To help prevent these wounds, national leaders must seriously examine the act of war itself and remember its long-term effects, especially on young people, whenever contemplating armed conflict. For those already afflicted, faith communities can play a crucial role in the healing process. In the report, Mr. Wood tells the story of a chaplain who invited a group of soldiers to write down things they regret. He then collected the papers, put them in a basin and set them on fire to be rid of them.

For Catholics, the sacrament of reconciliation offers a privileged opportunity for healing and forgiveness. Parishes should reach out to veterans, make them feel welcome and, whenever possible, create opportunities like the therapy group in San Diego. Military chaplains also need more support so they can be more effective ministers of mercy. Veterans want and need more than a “thank you” for their service. The church can be of service to them.

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Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 6 months ago
This article is getting at the heart of the sin of war/killing, so often denied, hidden and ignored under the banner of patriotism. Thank you for putting this out there. We can't talk about it enough.
Leonard Villa
3 years 6 months ago
"Mr. Wood’s report tells the story of Nick Rudolph, 22, who is taking aim at a young boy, maybe 13, firing shots at U.S. soldiers. With a split second to decide, Nick pulls the trigger and kills the boy." Well in any situation, say a policeman, with a teen shooting at him, and the policeman defends himself repelling deadly force with deadly force, (you would like to wound or find another way to repel the force) to defend yourself, so is this wrong in those circumstances? Does Mr. Wood consider the kind of enemy that is arming thirteen-year olds? Communists used to use civilians as shields for their armies on the theory that American forces would be reluctant to fire on them because of what's called collateral damage. You can't just focus on our soldiers; you have to focus also on facing a savage, immoral enemy bent on our destruction. The Huffington post? I don't trust it.
LAWRENCE HANSEN
3 years 6 months ago
Do we know that the boy Mr. Rudolph killed was "a savage, immoral enemy bent on our destruction?" The tragedy of this war--or any war, for that matter--is that once the shooting starts, moral considerations go away along with the truth. How else to explain the firebombing of Dresden or the My Lai massacre? I don't blame Mr. Rudolph. I blame the people who put him--and the boy he killed--in that situation in the first place.
Christopher Rushlau
3 years 6 months ago
I was in Iraq with the National Guard. Somewhere along in there, with my law degree, I formed the rule, "Burglars don't have the right of self-defense." I told my first sergeant when I got back that it would have been a "moral catastrophe" if I'd had to shoot at someone and had done so effectively. The guy in the editorial who shot the 13-year-old: I dismissed him as a prop in my gibe at the editors (see above). He said it was wrong. Maybe what he meant is that he had no right to shoot anybody there who resisted the US invasion. "Burglars don't have the right of self-defense." It's not so much "who put him there" as why. You ought to read about My Lai a bit before you exonerate the poor lieutenant and his boys who shot the 300 villagers. Into the valley of death, no, they were there already and this bunch of US soldiers, doing what, exactly, decided to shoot them all. Let's parse it. You have no right to kill anybody in an illegal war. You have a duty to know if the war you're in is legal. If you violate other tenets of the law of war, such as killing civilians, you compound your wrong. Let's say the Vietnam War was a precursor of the Global War On Terror in that both were mainly motivated by racism, and at least the latter all the more so in aid of Israel's state religion, which is racism. Who's doing wrong now? If you're diagnosed with a moral injury--if I'd just diagnosed you with racism and violence in aid of racism by your endorsing the GWOT and/or Israel--what do you do now? Do you have any conscience left, or was it entirely destroyed in the moral injury? Since I'm sharing at length, I think this rule covers the whole question: you can't lose your mind: it's attached to your body. You can lose your way, but only by deliberately embarking on folly. So you don't really lose it: you throw it away. How about invincible duress: all your fellow members at the country club won't talk to you at the annual dinner-dance because you asked a waiter's sister-in-law, who looked like an Arab, what Israel is supposed to accomplish in the way of personal or cultural survival of anything or anybody described by themselves or others as Jewish: you'd said to this person, "So, ideally, how does a Jewish and democratic state work?" So now your reputation is in the trashcan. Have you suffered enough for your defiance of the party line? Is there a government program to help you heal and get back in the good graces of your buddies? Are you really supposed to stick up for the innocent injured party, in this day and age? Didn't we settle that Samaritans and Jews are . . . have I done enough so you can jam on the riff? What is a moral injury?
Mark Mitchell
3 years 6 months ago
As the Fort Hood event was happening Wednesday, I was running a workshop On ":Moral Injury & PTSD" at Loyola Marymount University. See http://extension.lmu.edu/crs/ for info. It was 5 chaplains of different faith and what each faith tradition brings. As Catholics we need to open our churches in a formal way to families where they can come, discuss. We Catholics have a tradition of rituals of healing that are powerful to vets/families but the church needs the political will to serve this population. The deacons and the lay folks may be the best folks for this since priest shortage is strong. I am training deacons and some priests in this direction here in Southern California where there is the largest concentrating of vets. Go to your church, starts a discussion group, so our holy families have a Manger to go to.:)
Mike Evans
3 years 6 months ago
Even in your editorial the nearly one million civilian casualties and hundreds of thousands of opposing forces killed and wounded are trivialized. The huge cost of these misadventures by our military will cripple both our economy and he world's economy for many years to come. The hardening of attitudes over killing with drones, high altitude bombs, cruise missiles and collateral damage to civilians and their livelihood will take nearly forever to repair. The sharp contrast and lack of religious tolerance between Sunni and Shiite, Muslim and Christian, has escalated and spread to many other mideast communities. And finally, the serious and lasting damage to our own soldier youth may never be cured. Apparently now we consider the morality of their acts, while at the time too many urged total anialation and and disregard for the real victims of these wars.
Christopher Rushlau
3 years 6 months ago
You are teasing us with the amoral Jesuit bit, right? The one soldier kills someone shooting at him and the other murders someone. No difference, same damage to moral apparatus. Tsk, tsk.
Timothy Saenz
3 years 6 months ago
Thanks for a poignant editorial. My son is in the Marine Corps and he is about to deploy for a second time. I encourage him every way I can, and tell him I will always love him no matter what, and I pray unceasingly for him and for his fellow Marines, as well as for the enemies he may face. I cannot wait until all of our boys and girls are home.

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