This article was originally published on March 16, 2016.
It’s April 2004 and I’m in Baghdad, anxiously waiting by our truck as my team leader takes a closer look at some ordnance our robot has deemed relatively safe. As I watch him, some kids approach me. They ask me for candy, as kids here often do. I don’t have any candy, but we have some water bottles in the truck, and they’re still cool from being in the freezer at the beginning of the morning.
I think: I’ll do a good thing and give these impoverished kids some water. So I get the water out of the truck and move to hand a couple of bottles to the kid in front. The boy, who’s probably about eight, refuses – after all, what he asked for was candy. Something sparks inside of me. Here I am, risking life and limb, with my team leader downrange checking out an explosive, and this kid won’t take something I’m offering out of the goodness of my heart.
I rip the cap off the liter bottle in my hand, dump some of it out on the ground, and throw it at him. An old man, most likely his grandfather, rushes up, grabs the boy, and pulls him away. The old man looks at me, not with anger, hate, or even sadness. His eyes are full of fear. He’s afraid of me.
In that moment, I don’t recognize that look, because I don’t recognize myself. How can he be afraid of me? I’m one of the good guys, after all.
While in a prison in Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the poem “Who Am I?”:
Am I really what others say of me? Or am I only what I know of myself? Restless, yearning, sick, like a caged bird, struggling for life-breath, as if I were being strangled. ... Is what remains in me like a defeated army, fleeing in disarray from victory already won?1
My life is nothing like Bonhoeffer’s. Yet the question posed by his poem gives me pause. Who am I? I am a husband and a student. I am an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and an aspiring theologian. I am a combat veteran, a former Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialist in the US Army. These are identities I am proud of, identities I cling to. They’re how others might identify me. Yet these identities obscure another, more private identity, the something that “remains in me like a defeated army.” I am someone who bears a moral injury.
Moral injury is not a veil that obscures what really happened: it is a ripping away of the veil, a permanent showing, a continuous truth-telling.
I first encountered the term “moral injury” during my studies at Brite Divinity School. According to the authors Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini, moral injury “comes from having transgressed one’s basic moral identity and violated core moral beliefs. ... Moral injury destroys meaning and forsakes noble causes. It sinks warriors into states of silent, solitary suffering, where bonds of intimacy and care seem impossible.”2
Moral injury is now receiving growing attention across various disciplines as well as in clinical discourse. The concept was first introduced by clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay,3 who works with veterans who have experienced trauma during and after war. According to the thorough working definition of moral injury developed in Clinical Psychology Review, morally injurious experiences include:
Perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations. ... The individual also must be (or become) aware of the discrepancy between his or her morals and the experience (i.e., moral violation), causing dissonance and inner conflict.4
Moral injury has to do with questions of right and wrong. Thus it is distinct from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is caused by experiencing life-threatening situations, not by moral conflict.
Though it’s impossible to say where moral injury resides – whether in the mind, body, or spirit – I believe that moral injury has much to do with the question of “who.” Describing who I am requires remembering the stories that have shaped me, some of which cause me as much pain as the one above. Of course, there was more to my war experience than throwing a bottle at a young boy. There were better things, and there were worse things.
In his address to the nation on September 11, 2001, then-President George W. Bush declared, “We go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.” At the time, I thought that “we” included me, and I really believed that as part of the army I was going forward to do something good. Yet many of the memories I carried home still cause me guilt and shame.
I remember walking past bound detainees sitting in the heat indefinitely behind the building where I stayed with my team. I remember responding to calls that came in late at night to pick up weapons or ordnance, and seeing men led hooded from their homes in the dark. I remember seeing a civilian who’d been shot dead in the street one night. I do not know who shot him; he was there when we got there, and he remained there when we left. I remember when, while recovering from exposure to a chemical weapon,5 I watched the Abu Ghraib prison scandal unfold on the news.
These memories have blurred in the time since my deployment. Nonetheless, taken together, the feeling they produce is grief. I know I am not who I thought I was. I am something different, something I never planned on being.
Moral injury results from exactly this kind of irreversible schism between one’s perceived moral self and one’s actions. A person is morally injured when she comes to recognize herself – when she has witnessed herself failing to live by her own moral convictions, especially in profoundly demanding circumstances. For veterans, this circumstance is war, however directly or indirectly it is experienced.
Simone Weil, in her essay “The Love of God and Affliction,” describes affliction as something beyond and different than suffering. Rather, it’s an uprooting of a life; it’s something that takes hold of a person’s body and soul. Weil writes: “God can never be perfectly present to us here below on account of our flesh. But [God] can be almost perfectly absent from us in extreme affliction. This is the only possibility of perfection for us on earth.”6
Moral injury is an affliction in Weil’s sense, because the schism – the moral identity crisis – at the root of moral injury is a type of moral absence. In my case, the moral self I thought I had been cultivating my whole life went missing in the moment when I saw fear in the eyes of a young boy’s grandfather. In that void, God seems absent too.
Weil describes the afflicted person:
She struggles like a butterfly pinned alive into an album. But through all the horror [she] can continue to want to love. ... [She] whose soul remains ever turned toward God, though the nail pierces it, finds [herself] nailed to the very center of the universe. It is the true center; it is not in the middle; it is beyond space and time; it is God. ... [T]his nail has pierced cleanly through all creation, through the thickness of the screen separating the soul from God.7
Before the war, I thought of myself as good, as someone capable of choosing goodness. I recognize now that I am not good, and that I have never been good in the way I once used to imagine. Yet to think that I can heal from such recognition, or that my moral injury is somehow reversible, is a false pathway to hope. Rather than returning to some glorified past, I must come to terms with who I am and then must look toward becoming something new.
By casting all veterans as heroes, even as flawed or tragic heroes, our culture makes them easy to ignore.
Iris Murdoch writes that when we are suffering, “we console ourselves with fantasies of ‘bouncing back.’”8 Murdoch insists that, on the contrary:
We must hold on to what has really happened and not cover it with imagining how we are to unhappen it. Void makes loss a reality. ... We have ... a natural impulse to de-realize our world and surround ourselves with fantasy. Simply stopping this, refraining from filling voids with lies and falsity, is progress.9
Veterans cannot “unhappen” events. That is a fantasy in which we must not indulge. Instead, we must “hold on to what has really happened.”And just what has really happened? What happened when I threw a bottle of water at a child? What happened when an old man saw me wearing armor, carrying a weapon, and acting angrily toward a child – and looked on me with fear? What really happened?
A few years after my deployment, I found myself in a psychiatric ward in Little Rock. I had cut myself. Alone in a hospital room, under the influence of a cocktail of antipsychotic drugs and sedatives, I was too tired and too ashamed to take my own life. One of my superiors had told me that if I succeeded in committing suicide, he would spit on my grave. I felt incapable of doing anything good, of being anything good. The most I could do was see the good around me – and long for it. I was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and fortunately left the army with a medical discharge. I could not ignore what had happened in Iraq, and I had to come to terms with the fact that I would never be the same person I’d been before the war.
I do not mean to imply that moral injury and mental illness are one and the same. After all, moral injury cannot be treated with medication, nor can it be compartmentalized. Rather, moral injury is like a nail that pierces through layers of interconnected trauma. It pierces me with a sobering clarity, illuminating not only my illness, but my entire life – past, present, and future. Thus, moral injury is not a veil that obscures what really happened: it is a ripping away of the veil, a permanent showing, a continuous truth-telling. And it hurts.
Naturally I wish that I could stop thinking, talking, and writing about moral injury. I want the fantasy to be real – I want to live my life outside of the shadow of war and of my role in it. Like other veterans, I wonder how my fellow Americans manage so well to pretend that their lives are not deeply intertwined with ongoing global warfare. When I enrolled in an undergraduate music program after leaving the army, I used to envy other students for whom war was a distant, seemingly unconnected concept. Now, as I study theology, I wish I could pursue thoughts of God and good without seeing permanently through the lens of a past war.
I wish I could be free of the idea, which still gnaws at me, that – regardless of whatever good I may do in the future – my greatest impact on the world will be the things I did to other human beings as a young and naïve soldier. I wish I could be rid of the haunting idea that my realest self is the one I saw then. Yet having once seen into the void of moral injury, there is no unseeing it.
To find hope in the midst of moral injury, veterans must seek out encounters with people who, like us, wish to hold on to what really happened: other soldiers, teachers, mentors, family. What really happened when our nation indulged in a fantasy of bouncing back, of getting even, of acting with force across the globe? What really happened to those we fought? What happened to the people who sent us into combat? We must ask the hard questions and go on living, constantly turning our heads to catch a glimpse of the good – or of God.
Veterans must continue to try to articulate the void of moral injury. Their neighbors must continue to try to see it, to hear it, and to come to terms with it. There must be people and institutions capable of bearing that responsibility in order to open pathways of hope. The church can be one of those institutions, if it makes the effort. As Bonhoeffer said in his Ethics:
The church today is that community of people which is gripped by the power of the grace of Christ so that, recognizing as guilt towards Jesus Christ both its personal sin and the apostasy of the Western world from Jesus Christ, it confesses this guilt and accepts the burden of it. It is [in the church] that Jesus realizes his form in the midst of the world. That is why the church alone can be the place of personal and collective rebirth and renewal.10
It is clear that Bonhoeffer thought much of Jesus Christ, but this should not be taken to mean that Christianity offers the only pathway to hope. Bonhoeffer wrote of the church in this way because it was the Christian church that had so horrifically failed, in his time, to address the world around it. It was the Christian church that had failed to hold on to what really happened, that had wrapped itself in a fantasy of empire.
In our time, the Christian church and other places of faith can serve as pathways of hope through individual and collective guilt. Murdoch suggests that we can “make a spiritual use of our desolation” and that “in the more obscure labyrinths of personal relations it may be necessary to make the move which makes the void appear.”11 In places of worship, the void can be permitted to appear and can be confronted face to face.
Religious communities are unique in this ability. Will the Department of Defense or the US Army hold on to what has really happened in war? Will political leaders dispel their fantasies and meet veterans in a place of honest reflection? Certainly not. These people and institutions cannot bear the weight of it.
By casting all veterans as heroes, even as flawed or tragic heroes, our culture makes them easy to ignore. And so I offer this challenge: If a morally injured veteran walks into your house of faith and says, “I am guilty!” don’t let her continue to bear her guilt alone. Don’t welcome the veteran only to wrap her with fantasy, and don’t try to help her unhappen what has really happened.
If a veteran enters your church, your synagogue, your mosque, or your temple, be the eyes and ears to see and hear her. Help your house of faith become deep enough, honest enough, true enough to be “the place of personal and collective rebirth and renewal” she needs. If you see that she is pinned like Weil’s butterfly, alone at the center of the universe, join her there. She can show you things.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, volume 8 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010), 459–60.
- Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini, Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War (Boston: Beacon Press 2012), xiv, xvi.
- Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (New York: Scribner, 1994). Shay continues to develop the concept in Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (New York: Scribner, 2002).
- Brett T. Litz, Nathan Stein, Eileen Delaney, Leslie Lebowitz, William P. Nash, Caroline Silva, Shira Maguen, “Moral Injury and Moral Repair in War Veterans: A Preliminary Model and Intervention Strategy,” Clinical Psychology Review 29, no. 8 (December 2009): 695–706; 700.
- C.J. Chivers, “The Secret Casualties of Iraq’s Abandoned Chemical Weapons,” New York Times, October 14, 2014.
- Simone Weil, “The Love of God and Affliction,” in Waiting for God (New York: Harper Perennial, 1951), 75.
- Ibid., 81.
- Iris Murdoch, “Void,” in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 502.
- Ibid., 503.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 111.
- Murdoch, “Void,” in Metaphysics, 503.