Veterans and the Moral Injury of War
|Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954-55|
NOTE: I first posted this brief essay on the topic of moral injury last February. I am reposting here, since WBUR public radio in Boston explored this topic in depth last week.
I was recently pointed to the work of Dr. Jonathan Shay, who lives and works, as I do, in the Boston area. Upon investigation, I learned that Dr. Shay is not only an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but is also at the forefront of helping us understand the "moral injury" that afflicts those who have experienced war as soldiers. In the introduction to an illuminating NPR "Talk of the Nation" episode on this topic, which featured Dr. Shay, we are told: "'Moral injury' is a term used in the mental health community to describe the psychological damage service members face when their actions in battle contradict their moral beliefs." Moral injury is a category distinct from PTSD.
Looking further into the topic I came across a well-researched article by Nan Levinson, also of the Boston area, called "Moral Injury and American War." I'll quote her intro at length to give you a sense of what's at stake:
The veterans at the heart of this story—victims, heroes, it doesn’t matter—struggle to reconcile what they did in those countries with the "service" we keep thanking them for. We can see them as sick, with all the stigma, neediness, and expense that entails, or we can recognize them as human beings, confronting the morality of what they've done in our name and what they’ve seen and come to know—even as they try to move on.
Also appearing on the "Talk of the Nation" show was Tyler Boudreau, a veteran and author of Packing Inferno: The Unmaking of a Marine (Feral House, 2008). His take is that
it's very easy for the American public to say, hey, yeah, let's take care of those veterans. Let's get them to doctors. Now, with moral injury ... it's not necessarily a medical issue anymore. Now it's a social issue. Now when a veteran says, hey, I have something that's challenging my moral code, that means it's challenging society's moral code.
Also participating in the "Talk of the Nation" discussion was Rita Nakashima Brock, who explores these themes in her book Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury After War (Beacon Press, 2012), co-authored with Gabriella Lettini.