What led you to write this book?
Writing this book has been a profoundly personal endeavor for me. War invaded my life and family from youth and, like an army of occupation, has never left. I find no fascination in war, only grief and responsibility. All my life I have been aware of its wreckage, especially human wreckage, and have wanted to play some small part in closing and healing the wounds it inflicts, especially those wounds inflicted so deeply that they can hide even as they kill. I have for years worked with and for veterans in a range of capacities and organizations, nationally and internationally. From the start it has been a search for understanding, because without understanding we are useless, just as I am convinced that the military is useless or worse in their mostly blind and misdirected efforts to address the suicide epidemic in their ranks. Above all else I am resolved to listen, long and hard, and with an open mind and heart to how veterans describe and self-diagnose their inner pain, darkness, and desolation, trusting that they know best their own condition. To my surprise, in all this, I have found that on many occasions my responses—drawn from my own scholarship and experience—to others’ experiences and stories were revealing and helpful; so we passed together from monologue to dialogue, from narrative to discussion. And, at first imperceptibly, this book was conceived.
What do we mean today by “moral injury”?
“It should break your heart to kill,” writes Sergeant Brian Turner, a former infantry team leader in Iraq and the most notable poet yet to emerge from that war. And it does. “What happens when our boys kill?” writes former Marine Captain and Iraq veteran Tyler Boudreau. “No matter how well we desensitize them, no matter how just the cause, the violence they inflict in battle will seep into their souls and cause pain. Even in self-defense, killing hurts the killer, too.” In war, the killed go dark in death, and the killers go dark in life. This is what we have come to call “moral injury,” the violation, by oneself or another, of a personally embedded moral code or value resulting in deep injury to the psyche or soul. It is what used to be called sin. Taking a life breaks the heart and darkens the soul. Virtually every ancient and traditional society from India to Greece to Native America, however warlike, knew this. Our veterans know this. War, in other words, is hell not because it is a place of physical torment but because it is place of distilled evil.
What is “just war theory or doctrine”?
It is in fact a tradition of thought that had its origins in the writings of Saints Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo in the 4th century and was developed, adapted, co-opted, and abused for centuries, eventually finding its way into the body of what we know as the Law of Nations or International Law. The core of the Christian just war doctrine can be stated very simply. It is the claim that wars, or at least some wars, and all the killing and destruction they entail, are—in addition to being necessary—good and right, even virtuous and meritorious, pleasing in the sight of God. This calls for a new species or category of homicide: “killing” that is radically distinct from “murder,” a distinction that hadn’t previously existed in Christian ethics. “Murder” violates the will of God and darkens the soul of the murderer, but the other, “new” kind of killing doesn’t. The difference lies not in the level of violence, death, suffering, and destruction involved but in the “intention” of the killer. If the intention is to do the will of God, which the tradition identifies as the will of the Church and its ordained spokesmen or else the will of a legitimate secular sovereign authority, and if all that is done is done with “love,” or at least not in hate, then there can be no moral injury because there has been no moral infraction, no sin. If the intention is pure, all is well in heaven and so on earth.
How close is our contemporary understanding of just war doctrine to its original meaning?
The way that “just war theory” is understood and applied today bears little relationship to its roots. For example, according to Ambrose and Augustine, the one form of lethal violence that was never just and always sinful and to be condemned was personal self-defense. The truth is that our modern wars would never qualify as “just” according to the measures provided by the just war tradition. The deepest line of continuity between ancient, medieval and contemporary “just war” lies not in theory but in practice. “Just war” teaching was from the beginning a doctrine of convenience—conceived, promulgated, and perpetuated by men who themselves, as clerics, men of God, would personally eschew service in the military and the conduct of war. They and their successors in the tradition would readily raise a hand to bless the troops but never themselves lift a hand to wield a sword or carry a rifle. There would be no blood on their hands. Once the Christian Church found itself in a position of power, which is to say that once the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire, the exercise of lethal force and the waging of war, that is, killing, became its ecclesiastical responsibility. In fact, service in the army, the imperial legions, was confined to baptized Christians. How, then, could the Christian Church say that military service was sinful? How could it maintain and deploy an army of Christians whose very service put their souls at peril? A pacifist Church was one thing, but a pacifist Christian empire was something very different, and untenable. Augustine, and his mentor Ambrose, both of whom had once aspired to a secular career in the imperial service, came up with the solution, a new theory of war and killing that would not only permit but endorse killing for “God and Country,” as it were.
Does this mean that all killing is wrong and unacceptable? “Wrong” and “unacceptable” are not the same thing. Judging whether an act is right or wrong is a matter of moral insight and understanding; but accepting or not accepting it, which is to say doing or not doing it, is a deliberate decision. We could do worse than to consider our moral compass in this regard by Albert Camus, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ernesto Cardenal, and Michael Lapsley, men of conscience in dark times, “pacifists” who reluctantly and painfully affirmed violence in the face of atrocity. The truth is that violence, even killing, in a violent and murderous world, can be “necessary” without being right or good. Bonhoeffer came to believe that “innocence” is not the only or highest calling of a Christian and that to be “sinless” in a sinful world can be irresponsible. Thomas Merton too struggled with pacifism and responsibility until his untimely death and was concerned not to be a “guilty bystander.” Neither governments nor churches are empowered to offer moral “waivers” or licenses to kill. Killing is killing and any clear distinction between killing and murder is wishful and delusory. This is the conviction and testimony of countless former combatants and we need to listen to them.
Is there a connection between moral injury and just war teaching?
The fact is that just war doctrine lies at the root of our inability to comprehend moral injury and to make sense of our military “heroes” marching off to take their own lives. Why can’t our veterans see themselves as we see them—luminous in their service and lucky to have the rest of their lives ahead of them? Why can’t they leave the war behind? The truth, of course, is that warriors bring their war home with them, not like a tan acquired on holiday but like a secret they wish they hadn’t been told. Their secret is that what they have seen and suffered and especially what they have done in war all too often darkens their days and haunts their nights. They are expected to deny their own pain, ignore what war has taught them, and take up their civil status as heroes. Many, however, feel more like criminals, not because they have committed war crimes, but because they have become convinced of the essential criminality of war. Commanders-in-chief of nations routinely and rightly acknowledge the grave responsibility and burden of sending others into harm’s way, but never have I heard mention of the full extent of that potential harm. Life, limbs, and wits—physical and psychological well-being—are all openly at risk; but soul injury and death never come to mind or speech, except afterwards, and then mostly in closed circles. One notable exception was when former Senator Bob Kerrey, a Vietnam combat veteran, revealed that “I thought dying for your country was the worst thing that could happen to you, and I don’t think it is. I think killing for your country can be a lot worse. Because that’s the memory that haunts.” It is for us to ponder these words, to listen to our veterans, to stop using the convenient rhetoric of just wars, and to heal the wounded and the haunted.
What do you want readers to learn and take away with them from this book?
What I hope is that this book will bring clarity and conviction to its readers on certain matters of great urgency and import to us all:
• Moral injury is not the same as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or TBI (traumatic brain injury). Moral injury has more to do with what we do than with what we suffer, with what we inflict on others than on what is inflicted on us. Moral injury may coincide with PTSD/TBI and/or share many of their manifestations or symptoms, but the site of its injury is not the brain or the psyche but the soul. This is why many clinicians and psychiatrists are at a loss to address it.
• Just war theory today is, in the words of Thomas Merton, a “practical impossibility.” Modern wars fall so far beyond the bounds of anything conceived or endorsed under classical just war doctrine that to invoke just war theory to validate or commend any modern conflict is anachronistic folly.
• Moral injury is a principle, if not the primary, cause of the virtual epidemic of military and veteran suicide, a crisis that cannot be understood much less addressed so long as we “justify” our wars and insist on a radical distinction between killing and murder. From its beginnings, “just war” was an oxymoron, an ethical black hole, and “moral injury” must remain a mystery so long as killing in war violates neither civil law nor any moral or religious code acknowledged by either side in a conflict. To shed light on the invisible injuries inflicted by war and to open a path of healing to those who have waged it, we must dismiss these dysfunctional categories and find a way to think beyond them, which is exactly what this book sets out to do.
• It is a more careless than truly grateful nation that watches and applauds its sons and daughters as they go off to war and return, and yet fails to notice or care that they come back different and often desperate. The fact that the majority of their wounds are invisible is no excuse. What we cannot see we can still come to know through listening, and it is the duty of every citizen to do just that, to listen long and hard and with heart to our veterans. We have a social contract, a profound moral responsibility, to understand, support, and whenever possible to heal their wounds—physical, psychological, and spiritual.