Small Wars Journal

SWJ Book Overview & Excerpts: "War and Moral Injury: A Reader"

Tue, 04/10/2018 - 12:50am

About War and Moral Injury: A Reader

War & Moral Injury

The volume’s co-editors are Dr. Robert Emmet Meagher, one of the world’s most eminent classicists, and LTC(R) Douglas A. Pryer, who retired from the U.S. Army in August 2016 from his position as a Middle East Political-Military Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. LTC(R) Pryer has been an SWJ contributor. From LTC(R) Pryer:

  • Contributors to War and Moral Injury come from the fields of psychology, theology, philosophy, psychiatry, law, journalism, neuropsychiatry, classics, poetry, and, of course, the profession of arms. Their voices find common cause in informing the growing, international conversation on what can be war's deepest and most enduring invisible wound—Moral Injury.
  • There are five sections in the reader, “Poets,” “Warriors,” “Reporters,” “Chaplains,” and “Scholars.” Nine of the 11 selected poets and 16 of the 30 chosen essayists are combat veterans. Most of the remaining essayists are either military veterans or have a strong past or current association to military service schools as professors or lecturers. In short, many of them have "been there," and all of them have a respect for servicemembers and veterans and a passion to help both.  All editors' and contributors' proceeds, in fact, go to “Soldier's Heart,” an organization founded by one of the volume’s contributors (the psychologist Ed Tick) to help heal veterans' moral injuries.
  • A major theme of the volume are the varied approaches to healing Moral Injury and how the physiological, often drug-based treatments associated with PTSD can be inadequate, even harmful, to the morally injured. Another important theme is the role society and leaders play in limiting occurrences of Moral Injury in war. Yet another theme is the crucial importance that morally-aware narratives should play in all strategic calculations regarding war.
  • The publication date of the paperback was April 5. Hardbacks will be available in May-June. War and Moral Injury may be purchased from Wipf and Stock Publishers or Amazon.

“Recovering from Moral Injury” by Eric Newhouse

Eric Newhouse, a retired newspaper editor who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for a year-long series of stories about alcohol abuse in Montana, is the author of the books Alcohol: Cradle to Grave and Faces of Combat: PTSD and TBI. His book Faces of Recovery, a sequel to Faces of Combat, was published in 2017. For more information, visit his website at http://www.

Excerpt from “Recovering from Moral Injury”

. . . So, PTSD is a learned behavior by a brain that is molded by the conditions that surround it, which is a condition called neuroplasticity. The problem with PTSD is that symptoms like hypervigilance continue even after the warrior leaves the battlefield. Night terrors and flashbacks continue to make the battlefield threats seem current. However, neuroplasticity also dictates that the brain will begin to change again as new conditions are experienced.

How to help vets unlearn those survival tactics is a critical question for our society today, particularly since American soldiers have been in combat around the world virtually nonstop for the past half century.

But that’s just half the issue of PTSD, because it only involves what others are trying to do to you. And the other half goes largely unrecognized by the medical community.

Killing violates our inborn moral code and failing to save our buddies leaves us feeling powerless. Anger, guilt, and depression are common symptoms, as is survivor guilt. Therapists such as Jonathan Shay, a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, Edward Tick, director of the private group Soldier’s Heart, and Brett Litz, a VA psychologist, argue that what happens in war may more accurately be called a Moral Injury—a deep emotional wound that pierces a person’s identity, sense of morality, and relationship to society.

Both aspects of PTSD often occur simultaneously.

Let me give you an example: my friend Jack Jager, who was a scout dog handler during the war in Vietnam. That meant he lived in the field, using his dogs like bird dogs to flush out enemy soldiers or to sniff out mines and booby traps. That put him on the cutting edge of combat.

“We got overrun once, and that was my last combat experience,” he told me a few years ago. “We ran into a camp of NVA regulars, and our battalion commander told us to withdraw a little. But in the evening, we got surrounded. Later I found out it was called the Easter Massacre because it happened on Easter Sunday. Out of the twenty-one men in our squad, we had eleven killed and six wounded. I remember a guy with his arm blown off asking how the hell he could load his rifle with just one hand. So, we withdrew. We had a river at our backs, and two guys who were mortally wounded tried to do their best to hold them off. We slipped into the river, floated downstream, got out on the riverbank, and spent most of the day eluding them.”

Jack came home and tried to live a normal, civilian life, but couldn’t. He was nervous about living inside, so he found a wooded area behind his apartment, built a camp, and lived there with his dogs for protection.

His breaking point came when his mom asked him what had happened to him over there. But he couldn’t tell her. Instead, he fled to Montana, got an isolated job as a long-haul trucker, drank heavily, and fell in and out of four marriages.

“I felt very guilty,” Jack told me. “There are things I did that I feel very guilty about. I was brought up right, brought up to do right, but in war the compassion is not there. Human beings were not made to kill each other. I saw some soldiers who just could not pull the trigger on an adversary face to face, and they died. After all the depravity of war was over, I was afraid people would know what I was, so I just ran away from it . . . ”

“Respecting Moral Injury by Brad Allenby

Brad Allenby is President’s Professor of Civil, Environmental, and Sustainable Engineering, and of Law; Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics; and co-chair of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative of the Center for the Future of War, at Arizona State University. He moved to ASU from his previous position as the Environment, Health, and Safety Vice President for AT&T in 2004. He received his BA from Yale university, his JD and MA (economics) from the University of Virginia, and his MS and PhD in Environmental Sciences from Rutgers University. He served as an officer in the US Army Corps of Engineers from 1972 to 1975.

Excerpt from “Respecting Moral Injury”

. . . A brief discussion cannot hope to outline a systemic response to the challenges of Moral Injury in today’s rapidly changing geopolitical and technological environment. Nonetheless, a few salient closing observations may be helpful.

1.  Realities, narratives, and identities are not fixed but, especially in today’s information environment, are contingent and subject to manipulation and weaponization. This is not a new observation, but the tools, techniques, contexts, and complexities of current conflicts have combined to create challenges for military and security organizations and personnel that are different in kind, not just degree, from past conditions.

2.  Moral Injury is not just a serious issue requiring respect and treatment; it is also a systemic challenge. Inability to adapt to profoundly different value systems on the part of individual warriors is not just a personal weakness; it is an exploitable military weakness and a long-term deficiency in American power.

3.  Identity needs to be an explicit military design space for military recruitment, training, and operations. It is as strategic as any other element of military and security operations. It must be done within the constraints of, and align with, current US culture and western values. Moreover, those values and their expression in American culture, life, and behavior are themselves an important component of American power.

4.  Within the practical constraints of the military mission and environment, civilians entering service must be trained to become more psychologically flexible and adaptive warriors, without lowering ethical standards or condoning simplistic relativism. Warriors need strong values given the tasks, such as killing other human beings, that they are asked to do, but inflexible psychologies are more prone to break, rather than adapt, when challenged at the limits.

5.  One way to square this circle is to train warriors to think of themselves in the dual role of warrior and problem-solver. The “problem-solver” identity can enable individuals to maintain strong personal values and the warrior identity, while also being able to work with very different, often conflicting, perspectives. Because other worldviews become a part of an external problem that warriors need to solve, rather than an implicit challenge to identity, they can be objectified and treated and considered in a less stressful way. Moreover, being able to adopt a problem-solving persona not only enables warriors to reduce the chances of Moral Injury but also prepares them for the many, often conflicting roles they are expected to perform in today’s conflict environments.

6.  Identity and Moral Injury domains are not static, especially nowadays. Accordingly, the strong tendency within military and security communities not to discuss such topics because they are perceived as indicating weakness is not just obsolete but increasingly dysfunctional. Rather, continuing and effective communication regarding these issues at the individual and institutional level should be regarded as an absolute necessity, both for prophylactic purposes (e.g., to help individuals cope when faced with disturbing situations), and for strategic purposes (e.g., are narratives and identity domains being weaponized by adversaries, and if so how may they best be countered?).

It is unlikely that Moral Injury in war will ever be completely avoided, and taking that as a goal might even be undesirable if the result is to evade the deep moral questions that any commitment of lethal force by a society should raise. But it is also apparent that many individuals and their families, and the military as a whole, are unnecessarily damaged by Moral Injury today, and that there may well be prophylactic or mitigating actions that could, and should, be taken against this growing problem.

About the Author(s)