Moral injury and America’s endless conflicts

A legacy of a new kind of war

Published December 8, 2019 5:00AM (EST)

Silhouettes of seven fighter planes with exhaust trailing behind (Getty Images)
Silhouettes of seven fighter planes with exhaust trailing behind (Getty Images)

This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

When an announcement of a "Moral Injury Symposium" turned up in my email, I was a bit startled to see that it came from the U.S. Special Operations Command. That was a surprise because many military professionals have strongly resisted the term "moral injury" and rejected the suggestion that soldiers fighting America's wars could experience moral conflict or feel morally damaged by their service.

Moral injury is not a recognized psychiatric diagnosis. It's not on the Veterans Administration’s list of service-related disabilities. Yet in the decade since the concept began to take root among mental health specialists and others concerned with the emotional lives of active-duty soldiers and military veterans, it has come to be fairly widely regarded as "the signature wound of today's wars," as the editors of "War and Moral Injury: A Reader," a remarkable anthology of contemporary and past writings on the subject, have noted.

For those not familiar with the tag, moral injury is related to but not the same as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which is a recognized clinical condition. Both involve some of the same symptoms, including depression, insomnia, nightmares, and self-medication via alcohol or drugs, but they arise from different circumstances. PTSD symptoms are a psychological reaction to an experience of life-threatening physical danger or harm. Moral injury is the lasting mental and emotional result of an assault on the conscience — a memory, as one early formulation put it, of "perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations."

The idea remains controversial in the military world, but the wars that Americans have fought since 2001 — involving a very different experience of war fighting from that of past generations — have made it increasingly difficult for military culture to cling to its old manhood and warrior myths. Many in that military have had to recognize the invisible wounds of moral conflict that soldiers have brought home with them from those battlefields.

That shift was evident at the moral injury symposium, held in early August in a Washington, D.C., hotel. The feelings and experiences I heard about there were not necessarily representative of the climate in the wider military community. The special operations forces, which put on the event, have their own distinctive character, culture, and experiences, and a disproportionate number of the 130 or so attendees were mental-health specialists or chaplains, the two groups that have been most open and attuned to the very idea of moral injury. (A military chaplain in the Special Operations Command, in fact, first had the idea for the symposium.)

Still, the symposium emerged from the same history the rest of the military has lived through: 18 years of uninterrupted violence, of war without end in distant lands, that has killed or wounded some 60,000 Americans and a far greater number of foreign civilians, while displacing millions more and helping drive the worldwide refugee population to successive record-setting levels. Against that backdrop, those two days in Washington proved gripping and thought provoking in their own right. What follows are some of the thoughts they provoked in my mind as I listened or when I later reflected on what I heard.

Something said, something unsaid

In the sessions I attended, virtually every speaker mentioned one relevant fact about our present wars and the soldiers who fight them. But a different relevant fact on the same subject was almost completely missing.

Again and again, participants spoke about the great change in how soldiers experience war. In past generations, for the great majority of service members, war was a one-time event. In the 18 years since 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, war has become a permanent part of soldiers' lives in a continuing cycle of repeated deployments to battle zones. (And that’s not to mention the even more startling change for those who see combat remotely, sitting in front of screens and firing missiles or dropping bombs from unmanned aircraft flying over targets thousands of miles away.) As nearly all the symposium speakers pointed out, that change in the war-fighting experience has also changed the nature of combat trauma and the military culture's understanding of and attitudes toward it.

Here’s the reality that almost nobody mentioned, though it's closely related: the reason these wars have lasted this long and have become a permanent part of soldiers' lives is that they have not been successful. My notes record only one presentation where that connection was even touched upon, and then only implicitly, not directly.

That single indirect mention came in a discussion group conducted by Air Force Lieutenant Colonel David Blair, the commanding officer of a Florida-based remotely piloted aircraft squadron. He mentioned that his MQ-9 Reaper drone crews increasingly have come to prefer missions in theaters other than Afghanistan. Specifically, he said, they were most positive about strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria where they "could see the front lines moving." (That suggests he was referring mainly to the 2016-2017 period when those Reapers were supporting American and Iraqi ground forces recapturing territory that had been under ISIS occupation.) Those missions led to "less trauma" for his operators, he said. At another point, he added that "if it [an engagement] ends well, they look back on their lives differently."

Other than that single remark about his crews preferring missions in other theaters, Blair never made any explicit comparison between Afghanistan and any other conflict zone. However, what he did say sounds like plain common sense. It's logical that when a military operation is relatively successful, it’s easier for soldiers to explain to themselves and live with their own actions. It must help mitigate moral injury symptoms, at the very least, if they can tell themselves that a greater good was accomplished.

Conversely, if you did something that leaves you with doubt or regret but achieved no positive results, that would lead to more painful feelings and less defense against them. So, in one way, it seems odd that, except in those few moments, I didn’t hear anyone make the connection between the lack of victory in America’s wars and the incidence of trauma.

On the other hand, it's not so surprising that such connections were not made more often or more clearly. They would only have reminded the participants of an uncomfortable reality: that America's wars in the present era have, on the whole, fallen far short of producing any greater good that would help justify the moral injury so many soldiers are struggling with, not to mention all the other human damage those wars have caused.

I can't know their inner feelings, but I can guess that it would have been painful for many symposium participants to admit that fact out loud or to let themselves think it at all. Probably it wasn't something the organizers would have liked to hear either or remember when they face troubled soldiers in the months and years to come.

Moral clarity versus moral injury

Another moment in that same session suggested a different but related link between the nature and circumstances of a military operation and the likelihood of trauma. This one had to do with the moral perception of the operation itself.

Since his crews are not physically at risk when carrying out their missions, Lieutenant Colonel Blair pointed out, the traditional "kill or be killed" formula of the battlefield can't help them explain their war to themselves. Instead, the drone fighter's explanation has to be "kill or someone else will be killed." In turn, that determines not just what they do, but who they feel they are. "Being a protector of others," Blair said, becomes their "core identity."

A couple of quotes in a December 2017 article on an Air Force website show how the missions against ISIS strongly validated that identity — and, indirectly, suggest why operations in other theaters have not.

The article, which I found after the symposium ended, was a feature about a remotely piloted aircraft unit (not Blair's) that supported the ground operation to recapture Raqqa, the Syrian provincial city that ISIS designated as the capital of its so-called caliphate. One quote is from a squadron commander: "It wasn’t our aircrew just striking ISIS targets. We also were safeguarding and watching over [friendly Syrian troops] as they cleared civilians moving out of the city to safe locations." The article also quoted a sensor operator: "My favorite part of this job is that I’m able to help civilians be safe and I’m able to help liberate whatever city we need to. There’s no better feeling than knowing you can directly impact the battlefield and other people’s lives."

Obviously, when their screens showed them the civilians they were helping, and not just the enemies they were killing, those crewmen found moral clarity, rather than moral conflict, in their experience. From Blair's comments, one can surmise that was true for his crews as well, presumably for similar reasons.

Sadly, it is also pretty obvious that such a sense of clarity has been the exception, not the rule, in the wars Americans have been fighting for nearly two decades. That doesn't automatically mean those wars were not moral, but whatever their moral nature, it would only rarely have shown up on the drone operators' screens — or in the sightlines of soldiers looking at actual battlegrounds in real space — as clearly as it did for those airmen remembering their Raqqa missions. (Not that Raqqa raised no moral questions at all. Yes, the fighting there liberated its inhabitants from an exceptionally brutal occupation. But it also destroyed most of their homes, largely in air strikes by U.S. and allied planes that, by one estimate, dropped 20,000 bombs on the city. By the time the campaign was over, Raqqa, like a number of other Syrian and Iraqi cities, was in almost complete ruins.)

A question, maybe farfetched...

I didn't frame it this way when I was at the symposium, but this question later came to mind: Has the U.S. military as an institution, not just its individual service members, morally injured itself over the last 18 years?

This is a military force that never stops declaring it's the best and strongest in the world, but has not successfully concluded a significant war for nearly 30 years or maybe longer. (The first Gulf War of 1990-1991 looked like a great win at the time, but appears like anything but an unequivocally positive accomplishment in retrospect.) It may sound farfetched, but is it unreasonable to wonder if that dissonance, that wide gap between goals and actual accomplishments, might leave a collective sense of sorrow, grief, regret, shame, and alienation? That's the list of feelings that Glenn Orris, a Navy chaplain, displayed on a chart in his symposium presentation and specified as the ones that keep morally injured service members awake at night.

I'm posing this as a question, not offering it as an answer. Certainly, at various moments during the symposium, I had a sense not just of individual but of collective trauma. As an outsider in that world, I can’t and won't venture to evaluate the emotional state of the military as a whole. Still, the question doesn't seem ridiculous.

A new idea of what moral injury really is

The final event of the second day — an unusual closer for a professional or academic conference — was a reading of Sophocles’ play "Ajax," as rewritten by Bryan Doerries. After the reading, Doerries, artistic director for Theater of War, the company that put on the performance, moderated a discussion with a panel of four recent veterans and members of the audience.

Essentially, he attempted to draw out the panelists and the audience on what the play was trying to say and how that 2,500-year-old story of a warrior's depression, madness, and suicide might connect to their own experience. Listening to various responses, I found myself thinking that perhaps the main purpose of his, if not Sophocles's, version was to make the audience think about what war is. What it really is, not the heroic myth humans have made of it from ancient times on. And then I thought, maybe that's what we'd been talking about for the previous two days. Maybe that's what moral injury is: realizing the true nature of war.

Along with that thought came another, one that first occured to me nearly 45 years ago when, as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, I personally witnessed the disastrous end of the Vietnam War. I've believed ever since that covering war from the losing side gave me a truer knowledge of its nature than I'd have gotten from that or any other war's winning side. Maybe I should say darker, not truer, since I suppose the winners' war is real, too. But whichever word you choose, my experience, I felt, gave me a more unobstructed view of war. I could see it more clearly for what it was precisely because there was no good result to balance against the death and loss and terror and despair. There was no excuse to explain away the human disaster I'd seen and written about for several years, no way to tell myself that the war was necessary or had served any purpose.

That bit of personal history makes me think it's not accidental that our present consciousness of moral injury has come out of wars we didn't win. They haven’t been lost in the same clear-cut way that the war in Vietnam was. They haven't (yet) ended in the kind of catastrophically decisive final act I witnessed there in the spring of 1975 in the weeks that led to Saigon's surrender. But these recent wars haven't accomplished their goals either, or given our soldiers a worthwhile reason for what they've gone through, which is surely a key piece of the moral injury story.

I was a civilian journalist, not a soldier. I went to Vietnam to report, not to fight. I didn't come home with any trauma symptoms. But I have all the feelings that Chaplain Orris listed as identifying markers for moral injury: sorrow, grief, regret, shame, and alienation. Those emotions come from what I learned about war, not from anything I did, and that makes me believe it may not be wrong to think that what we call moral injury might not be just one person's response to particularly troubling events, but a symptom of something larger, of seeing war individually and collectively for what it truly is.

A last thought

In closing, I will turn back to the editors of "War and Moral Injury." In their introduction, Douglas Pryer, a retired army intelligence officer and Afghanistan and Iraq veteran, and Robert Emmett Meagher, a classicist and professor of humanities at Hampshire College, pointed to an aspect of war that is missing in their anthology, the symposium, and in American culture more broadly:

"We must acknowledge a great gap in this text as in nearly every other on the subject of America's wars and veterans: the deaths and wounds, physical and spiritual, inflicted on the 'others,' our enemies, especially our 'civilian enemies.'"

Pryer and Meagher are right. Such an acknowledgement is almost entirely absent from the national discourse about our wars and their legacy. But without it, no moral wound, whether an individual's or a society's, can truly be healed.

Copyright 2019 Arnold Isaacs

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By Arnold R. Isaacs

Arnold R. Isaacs covered the final years of the Vietnam War for the Baltimore Sun and later wrote "Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia," now available in an updated edition. He is also the author of "Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy," and an online report, "From Troubled Lands: Listening to Pakistani and Afghan Americans in Post-9/11 America."

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