The moral injuries of war

By Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini Every day brings us new stories of soldiers affected by Post Traumatic Stress … Continued

By Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini

Every day brings us new stories of soldiers affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which the VA posits as affecting one in five soldiers. What is less known is that in December 2009 a group of VA clinical psychologists, led by Dr. Brett Litz, identified moral injury as a wound of war, distinct from PTSD, that is rarely addressed.

The groundbreaking study suggested that PTDS does not fully capture the moral and spiritual distress of moral injury, which is especially connected with a sense of transgression of the moral order. While PTSD may accompany it, moral injury is not a medical or pathological condition, but a spiritual and moral issue.

The Litz study defines moral injury as resulting from “perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” The long-term impact can be devastating at the emotional, psychological, behavioral, spiritual and social level, wounds that can last an entire lifetime. Moral injury can be found in internal conflict and self-condemnation so severe that the burdens become intolerable and lead to suicide. People may lose their core system of beliefs and values and reach a point of not being able to make sense of life and human relationships. What people believed about the world, humanity and themselves no longer rings true.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq place soldiers in situations of much greater ethical ambiguity than traditional wars. With insurgencies and guerilla warfare, especially in urban contexts, soldiers constantly face the issue of harming or killing innocent civilians, even children. Furthermore, frequent redeployments force soldiers to experience morally shattering situations repeatedly. The psychological effect of witnessing or taking part in acts of brutality can haunt veterans for the rest of their lives, as people experience deep shame and self-condemnation that undermines their relationships to others and even to life itself.

Moral injury is not only connected to acts of moral transgression committed by soldiers, but also to the betrayal felt by soldiers when the motivations that were given for going to war were discovered to be false. This betrayal is what Marine Capt. Tyler Boudreau recounted in his testimony before the Truth Commission on Conscience in War. He shared his long struggle to finally admit that he was not in Iraq to discover Weapons of Mass Destruction and even less to help the Iraqi population. Many soldiers interviewed by Nancy Sherman in The Untold War reported that they felt “betrayed,” “used,” “morally tainted,” “suckered.”

The Truth Commission on Conscience in War recently released its report at an interfaith Veterans Day service honoring moral conscience in the military. We list among our recommendations that religious, educational and scholarly communities can have a fundamental role in addressing the moral injury of war by becoming more educated about the issue. Veterans should not be left alone in this struggle. The support and understanding of communities willing to listen to veterans’ experiences of moral injury and to help them struggle with their moral questions are crucial to their journeys towards recovery.

Why should you care? In his Truth Commission testimony in March, retired Army Chaplain Rev. Herman Keizer stated “If you sin against your conscience you commit moral suicide.” Moral injury is a serious, long-lasting injury of war. It affects and concerns not only war veterans, but our whole society.

The authors are Co-Chairs of the Truth Commission on Conscience in War.

Comments are closed.

Read More Articles

5783999789_9d06e5d7df_b
The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

shutterstock_188022491
Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

Pile_of_trash_2
Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

shutterstock_134310734
Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

The author of the Church of England’s autism guidelines shares advice any church can follow.

Valle Header Art
My Life Depended on the Very Act of Writing

How I was saved by writing about God and cancer.

shutterstock_188545496
Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

shutterstock_178468880
Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

sunset-hair
From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

colbert
Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

emptytomb
God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.