Long before the number of suicides in the US military exceeded the number of combat deaths, Drs. Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini were working together to help veterans recover from the “moral injuries” they received during service. Cofounders of the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School, they’ve run workshops, lectured widely on the topic, and coauthored the book Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War. Now, as President Obama prepares to again increase the number of troops in Iraq, the lessons in “soul repair” developed by Brock and Lettini may be more critical than ever. “Moral injury,” they write in the book’s introduction, “results when soldiers violate their core moral beliefs, and in evaluating their behavior negatively, they feel they no longer live in a reliable, meaningful world and can no longer be regarded as decent human beings.” It is, according to Brock and Lettini, a state of despair particular to soldiers, and one that can have dire consequences. “When the consequences become overwhelming,” they warn, “the only relief may seem to be to leave this life behind.” In a longer passage, they outline exactly how this moral suffering plays out in a soldier’s life:
The tired truism, “war is hell,” is also true of its aftermath, but the aftermath can be endless. War has a goal and tours of duty that end; its torments are intense and devastating, but they are not perpetual. War offers moral shields of honor and courage. Its camaraderie bonds warriors together around a common purpose and extreme danger. War offers service to a larger cause; it stumbles on despair. On the other hand, moral injury feeds on despair. When the narcotic emotional intensity and tight camaraderie of war are gone, withdrawal can be intense. As memory and reflection deepen, negative self-judgments can torment a soul for a lifetime. Moral injury destroys meaning and forsakes noble cause. It sinks warriors into states of silent, solitary suffering, where bonds of intimacy and care seem impossible. Its torments to the soul can make death a mercy.
The suffering of moral injury is grounded in the basic humanity of warriors. That humanity lies deeper in them than its betrayal in war. They learned their ethical values first from their families, neighbors, schools, and religious and community organizations. Whether people are religious, spiritual, or secular, most of us are trained to respect others, to relate to a world bigger than ourselves, and to feel compassion for those who suffer. For many families, a military career is one way to embody core moral values like love of country and service to others.
When veterans return to our communities after war, we owe it to them and to ourselves to do our best to support their recovery. To do so, however, we must be willing to engage the same intense moral questions that veterans undertake about our own responsibility as a society for having sent them to war.
The healing, then, must be undertaken at the societal level as well as the individual level, something particularly difficult to do when the war is contested in the court of public opinion:
After World War II, the “good” war, the country cheered battle-weary troops, gave them parades, and welcomed them home with open arms. After Vietnam, the “bad” war, most people turned their backs, called the troops baby killers, or just went on with their lives as if it hadn’t happened, as if it had not dominated national attention for years. The reactions to troops returning from Iraq have been mixed: a “thank you for serving,” some local parades, but mostly silence. Silence, perhaps, because such a small proportion of the population is serving in the military or because people have mostly been going on with their lives all along anyway, ignoring the wars. These are all ways the public disposes of war and attempts to leave it behind. The silence was encouraged by the media blackout on the images of dead soldiers and their coffins arriving home. While the administration explained the blackout as a form of respect for fallen soldiers, it functioned to hide the costs and consequences of war from public consciousness.
The Afghanistan and Iraq wars enjoyed wide popular support when they started, a fact that seems to have faded from people’s memories over the years. Debates about them as just wars fell on deaf ears because they were launched with the language of “holy” war, as a “crusade.” On September 16, 2001, President George W. Bush declared, “This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while.” The first crusade in 1095 was not a just war, but a holy pilgrimage, an invasion to liberate Jerusalem from the Muslims, accompanied by pogroms against Jews and internal attacks on Christians who opposed the crusade. When the war on terror began in earnest in Afghanistan and Iraq, a kind of national hysteria ensued. Congressional support was nearly unanimous, though few representatives’ adult children ever served in the wars. Because France opposed the wars, Congress banned the use of French and ate “freedom” fries, chefs poured out French wine, the Dixie Chicks had to apologize for denouncing the President and his wars, and Bill Maher and Chris Hedges got fired for opposing the conflicts. Islamophobic incidents erupted like wildfires. Only late in the summer of 2005 did public opinion turn against the war in Iraq. In August, after a month-long antiwar occupation of Crawford, Texas, and the furious arrival and devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the polls tipped away from the Iraq War and the administration that launched it.
The “holy” wars have dragged on well beyond the capacity of the public to remember the heady patriotic days of their popularity. Regardless of popular opinion or its lack, however, a war does not end when the troops return. It simply comes home and embeds itself in civilian life. Veterans face a return to a society obsessed with political posturing and polarized debates. The public has, thus far, demonstrated scant willingness to fund veteran recovery, and discussions are few about our moral responsibility for sending others to fight a war in our name. Even fewer citizens seek to know or hear what war has done to our own people or to other countries.
So what can the public do to help? According to Brock and Lettini, “veterans need the love, respect, and support of friends and family who know them personally and who will accompany them on the long struggle to recover from war.” If you are unable to help a veteran personally, the Soul Repair Center has a great list of how citizens can get involved in healing their own and others’ moral injury.