Moral Injury and Modern War

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From Nan Levinson: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/moral-injury-modern-war/

Excerpts:

Of course, to have a moral injury, you have to have a moral code, and to have a moral code, you have to believe, on some level, that the world is a place where justice will ultimately prevail. Faith in a rightly ordered world must be hard for anyone who has been through war; it’s particularly elusive for soldiers mired in a war that makes little sense to them, one they’ve come, actively or passively, to resent and oppose.

When your job requires you to pull sleeping families from their beds at midnight thousands of miles from your home, or to shoot at oncoming cars without knowing who’s driving them, or to refuse medical care to decrepit old men, you begin to question what doing your job means. When the reasons keep shifting for what you’re supposed to be doing in a country where most of the population wants you to go home even more than you want to, it’s hard to maintain any sense of innocence. When someone going about his daily life is regularly mistaken for someone who means to kill you — as has repetitively been the case in our occupations of both Iraq and Afghanistan — everyone becomes the enemy. And when you try — and fail — to do the right thing in a chaotic and threatening situation, which nothing could have trained you for, the enemy can move inside you and stay there for a very long time.

In trying to heal from a moral injury, people struggle to restore a sense of themselves as decent human beings, but the stumbling block for many veterans of recent U.S. wars is that their judgment about the immorality of their actions may well be correct. Obviously, suffering which can be avoided should be, but it’s not clear what’s gained by robbing soldiers of a moral compass, save a salve to civilian conscience. And despite all the gauzy glory we swath soldiers in when we wave them off to battle, nations need their veterans to remember how horrible war is, if only to remind us not to launch them as heedlessly as the U.S. has done over these last years.

When you’ve done irreparable harm, feeling bad about your acts — haunted, sorrowful, distraught, diminished, unhinged by them — is human. Taking responsibility for them, however, is a step toward maturity. Maybe that’s the way the Army makes a man of you, after all.

Recognizing moral injury isn’t a panacea, but it opens up multiple possibilities. It offers veterans a way to understand themselves, not as mad or bad, but as justifiably sad, and it allows the rest of us a way to avoid reducing their wartime experiences to a sickness or a smiley face. Most important, moral repair is linked to moral restitution. In an effort to waste neither their past nor their future, many veterans work to help heal their fellow veterans or the civilians in the countries they once occupied. Others work for peace so the next generations of soldiers won’t have to know the heartache of moral injury.

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Mar. 14, 2012 7:11 am

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