Moral Injury & Theology

I was reading this article on moral injury and came across this quote:

The question of moral agency in the current circumstances is also important because making tough, life-and-death decisions “takes its toll on people as moral actors,” said Kate Ward, assistant professor of theological ethics at Marquette University.

This, in a nut shell, sums up what so many veterans and healthcare workers face on a daily basis: the problem of deciding who lives or dies on a daily basis. For the combat veteran, it’s often not really a conscious choice in the moment. Instead, it is a reaction drilled into the Marine or soldier since the very first day of boot camp. Threat, response, assault through. In the succinct military vernacular: “kill them all and let God sort them out.” Furthermore, there can be the intense guilt of survivorship which can occur when a fellow military member jumps on a grenade in a selfless act of courage. The self-flaggellation may begin almost immediately: “am I coward because I didn’t jump on the grenade?” or “Why John? He has two kids at home,” etc.

In my personal experience, moral injury tends to be additive; it is not just a one-off like PTSD is framed. What do I mean by additive? I simply mean that they accumulate, with even small transgressions (or perceived transgressions) layering on top of each other until one begins to question one’s participation in an institution that claims to be serving some higher, moral purpose, when, in fact, its actions and edicts point to the opposite. When people wonder why some veterans appear so angry, it is often a result of this accumulation. This was especially prevalent in Vietnam veterans: their anger towards the military and government for enslaving them [the draft] and forcing their participation in an immoral enterprise.

People often ask me or other veterans what they can do to help. I usually respond with “just witness and drop the platitudes.” This quote from the above referenced story is another way of saying that.

“telling the truth in response to suffering, refusing to look away.”

When a veteran or other person who is faced with life and death decisions is telling you her truth, refuse to look away. Is it uncomfortable? Yes. That’s the point.

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