You are herecontent / WAR, VETS AND MORAL INJURY


It’s not just suicide. It’s also drug overdose, car crash — quasi- or secret suicide, carried out in fearful isolation.

Young Iraq and Afghanistan vets are dying in increasing numbers by their own hands in “a largely unseen pattern of early deaths that federal authorities are failing to adequately track and have been slow to respond to,” according to a recent story in the Austin American-Statesman based on a six-month investigation of the causes of death of 266 Texas veterans, out of the 345 known to the Veterans Administration to have died since their return from duty. At least 142 of those deaths were self-inflicted in one way or another.

These are the forgotten dead. Their autopsy reports, the American-Statesman story tells us, “paint a mosaic of pain, desperation and hopelessness among a significant number of Texas veterans.” And of course it goes beyond Texas. Similar numbers, similar stories, similar wreckage, can be found in every state.

In a profound sense, the vets were abandoned — by the VA, which lacks the capacity to deal with so much need and injury, but also by American society as a whole. This goes beyond “treatment” of physical and/or psychological injury to something that can’t be reduced to a clinical problem. Waging war is a collective decision, but when the vets come home, their pain remains an individual matter. It’s called PTSD; it’s psychological. Treat it with drugs or, maybe, counseling. But it’s your problem, vet — a malfunction, a thing to fix. And that’s where the matter is usually left.

Nan Levinson, writing last June at, noted: “When it comes to veterans, it seems like the only response we can imagine is to feel sorry for them. Victim is one of the two roles we allow our soldiers and veterans (the other is, of course, hero).” Both categories — vets’ PTSD-ification, you might say — push them away from us, into a dimension of irrelevance.

And Iraq vet Tyler Boudreau, in an excellent piece last year that appeared in the Massachusetts Review, wrote: “So when veterans or soldiers feel something hurt inside themselves, there is still only one brand to choose — PTSD. That’s not good. It’s not always accurate. And it renders soldiers automatically into mental patients instead of wounded souls.”

Both writers point out that a new way of thinking about the inner wounds of soldiers and vets is emerging. In war, some — perhaps most, perhaps all — participants suffer from moral injury, a transgression of deep belief in how to treat others. This idea is sheer common sense. Such transgression is the nature of every war, whether it’s arguably just or imperialistic, aggressive and unnecessary.

“The most serious blind spot in the reporting on military suicides is an absence of discussions about the moral impact of military training and its implementation in combat,” RitaNakashima Brock, a co-director of the Soul Repair Center, at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, wrote in July at Huffington Post. “Soldiers are trained to kill. . . .”

She quotes from the military drill chant “Sniper Wonderland”:

“See the little girl with the puppy;
Lock and load a hollow-pointed round.
Take the shot and maybe if you’re lucky
You’ll watch their lifeless bodies hit the ground.”

Killing is not a simple matter. It’s not a joke. The argument can be made that on occasion it’s necessary, but military killing is not about self-defense. Soldiers are trained to kill on command, and this is done not simply through physical preparedness exercises but through dehumanization of the enemy: a cult of dehumanization, you might say. Turns out we can’t dehumanize someone else without dehumanizing ourselves. A sense of moral injury only occurs as we reclaim our humanity.

The results of a 2009 study of the causes of PTSD, conducted by the San Francisco VA Medical Center in conjunction with the University of California, San Francisco, found that “the negative psychological effects of killing” made all other factors pale in comparison. Sometimes, during battle, “the humanity of the target intrudes,” said Dr. Shira Maguen, the study’s lead author.

The hell of moral injury is its isolation. It can’t be fixed in a clinical setting, where the vet’s isolation remains intact and the potential solution is superficial at best. A vet’s moral injury calls into question the war in which he or she fought, and only in the context of addressing that question — not as a loner on trial, but publicly, in the same collective context in which the war was launched — is healing possible.

And as Boudreau points out, “Nobody wants to talk about the Iraqis. It’s always about the troops. But ‘moral injury’ by definition includes the memories of those who have been harmed.”

He adds: “What’s most useful about the term ‘moral injury’ is that it takes the problem out of the hands of the mental health profession and the military and attempts to place it where it belongs — in society, in the community, and in the family — precisely where moral questions should be posed and wrangled with. It transforms ‘patients’ back into citizens.”

The national soul has been wounded by a brutal, unnecessary war. How many more vets will we force to bear this enormous wound alone?

 Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage GrowsStrong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at, visit his website at or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.



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