Paying the Moral Debt of War

soldier

War confers on soldiers the right to think and do what is immoral and illegal in peacetime society. This creates a moral debt that must be paid or otherwise ethically discharged in order for the nation at war to return to peacetime business as usual. The returning soldiers bear the burden of this debt, and society must help them be freed of it, although there is little heart for enduring the narcotic withdrawal required:

“However much soldiers regret killing once it is finished, however much they spend their lives trying to cope with the experience, the act itself, fueled by fear, excitement, the pull of the crowd, and the god-like exhilaration of destroying, is often thrilling.”

“Fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our place on the planet are laid bare when we watch those around us sink to the lowest depths. War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the surface within all of us. And this is why for many war is so hard to discuss once it is over.

Chris Hedges, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

“How do you talk about morally reprehensible things that have left a bruise on your soul?” asks the author of The Conversation We Refuse to Have About War and Our Veterans, Medium (May 24, 2019). The article is insightful and moving, and I’ll quote it at length:

“The guilt and moral tension many veterans feel is not necessarily post-traumatic stress disorder, but moral injury — the emotional shame and psychological damage soldiers incur when we have to do things that violate our sense of right and wrong. Shooting a woman or child. Killing another human. Watching a friend die. Laughing about situations that would normally disgust us.

“Because so few in America have served, those who have can no longer relate to their peers, friends, and family. We fear being viewed as monsters, or lauded as heroes when we feel the things we’ve done were morally ambiguous or wrong.

“As Amy Amidon, a Navy psychologist, stated in an interview regarding moral injury:

‘Civilians are lucky that we still have a sense of naiveté about what the world is like. The average American means well, but what they need to know is that these [military] men and women are seeing incredible evil, and coming home with that weighing on them and not knowing how to fit back into society.’

“Most of the time… people only want to hear the heroics. They don’t want to know what the war is costing our sons and daughters in regard to mental health, and this only makes the gap wider. In order for our soldiers to heal, society needs to own up to its part in sending us to war. The citizen at home may not have pulled the trigger, but they asked the soldier to go in their place. Citing a 2004 studyDavid Wood explains that the ‘grief over losing a combat buddy was comparable, more than 30 years later, to that of a bereaved spouse whose partner had died in the previous six months.’ The soul wounds we experience are much greater. Society needs to come alongside us rather than pointing us to the VA.

“Historically, many cultures performed purification rites for soldiers returning home from war. These rites purified a broad spectrum of warriors, from the Roman Centurion to the Navajo to the Medieval Knight. Perhaps most fascinating is that soldiers returning home from the Crusades were instructed to observe a period of purification that involved the Christian church and their community. Though the church had sanctioned the Crusades, they viewed taking another life as morally wrong and damaging to their knights’ souls.

“Today, churches typically put veterans on stage to praise our heroics or speak of a great battle we’ve overcome while drawing spiritual parallels for their congregation. What they don’t do is talk about the moral weight we bear on their behalf.

“Dr. Jonathan Shay, the clinical psychologist who coined the term moral injury, argues that in order for the soldier and society to find healing, we must come together and bear the moral responsibility of what soldiers have done in our name.

“As General Douglas MacArthur eloquently put it:

‘The soldier above all other people prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.’”

More next time.

Photo by Obed Hernández on Unsplash