some musings on moral injury

stfrancisI’ve been talking to the new startup The War Horse about working together. And now I’ve been authorized to come up with a refreshing reporting strategy to explore “moral injury,” a concept that in 2011 seemed so fresh even as it was very very old.

Very old, of course, just as Jonathan Shay points to Homer and Virgil  and Logan Isaac to the Bible’s martial saints – highlighting war’s damage to one sense of self as a moral being. It could even be conceived as one of humanity’s core dilemmas. (Above:  squire Francis of Assisi returning from Perugia.)

But it has taken this generation, armed with 21st-century tools and the  voice of boomer/GenX parents, to demand that when such conflicts are burned into their bodies, it needs to be examined and treatments explored. And the VA, to their credit, has started asking smart questions, including what brings this on?  In 2011, a group of Palo Alto researchers asked veterans, in an effort to trace some of the damage:

 Emerging themes included betrayal (e.g., leadership failures, betrayal by peers, failure to live up to one’s own moral standards, betrayal by trusted civilians), disproportionate violence (e.g., mistreatment of
enemy combatants and acts of revenge), incidents involving civilians (e.g., destruction of civilian property and assault), and within-rank violence (e.g., military sexual trauma, friendly fire, and fragging). The authors suggest that an important next step would be to directly interview Veterans about their experiences to help expand this list.

That last sentence has sent a score of other researchers, journos like me and assorted therapists scuttling toward that ground, with predictable pushback from the PTSD skeptics. (Sally Satel, never to be ignored, even twists the concept into another partisan tool, accusing the rest of us of inflicting “moral injury to the nation.”

There are nonetheless solid thought leaders on the issue, from those Palo Alto researchers including Shira Maguen; theologians from Brite Divinity School and Logan Isaac; pioneers like Tyler Boudreau, who’s declared himself done with this discussion but whose work on it still cuts close to the bone, and the recent work of Michael Yandrell.

And we’ve had good discussions since, including this week at Stars and Stripes, Shay himself and others on NPR,  and Army Surgeon General Elspeth Ritchie, who I interviewed in 2006 for my masters’ thesis “Saving Sgt. Aguilar” and who usefully explored moral injury for TIME Magazine.

So what’s left for the War Horse to do? I’m looking at that list of “possible causes” listed earlier, and wondering if I might be able to reach out to combat-trauma survivors and see what speaks to them. I want to leave the spiritual aspects to the theologians, but hope there’s some moral/political language left un-despoiled by Internet tropes.

I’ll keep thinking. Anyone reading this who might have thoughts about what’s next, in the context of post-9/11 wars? Any feedback would be hugely appreciated.





Friday news dump, belated

AintMarchincoverbyAlexAs what one writer has called “this insult of a month” comes to an end, a baker’s half-dozen to keep us warm:

  • Famous Veteran: Leonard Nimoy. As many of us mourn the guy who made smart cool, IVAW’s Geoff Millard points out this Q&A in which Nimoy offered vets tips on making their dreams real.
  • One dissenting soldier interviews another: at CounterPunch, a dialogue between Vincent Emanuele, who’s been writing up a storm 6+ years since his mesmerizing Winter Soldier testimony, and Kourtney Mitchell of Deep Green Resistance, who emerges as a feminist environmentalist while still officially an Army AWOL.
  • In case you thought the end of DADT and Prop 8 meant equality for queers in the military: Texas VA told this Iraq vet and her wife that their marriage didn’t exist.
  • Thank you for your service, VVAW’s Jan Scruggs, who made the Vietnam Wall real and is now stepping aside as his foundation’s president. You deserve the time off,
  • At Foreign Policy, Tom Ricks’ thoughts on the moral-injury concept. Between him and David Brooks, you’d think the idea was nonpartisan or something.
  • And to finish off with Hollywood (where we sorta began), the LA Times on Edward Snowden as a movie star, now that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is playing him in an Oliver Stone movie.

Moral injury in real time

MI_1-web-9301There’s a reason why one of my chapters is tentatively titled “The Moral Injury of the Long War.” The great Jonathan Shay may have coined the term, based on the accumulated grief of Vietnam, but this generation has claimed it as they try to parse what honor means when it also means killing for uncertain reasons. (At right, a radio exploration of the same.)

In “How We Learned to Kill,” an essay whose title recalls both David Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Consequences of Learning to Kill in War and Society and Richard Rhodes’ lesser known work on serial killers, Timothy Kudo narrates that parsing in all its complexity:

“Take the shot,” I responded. It was dialogue from the movies that I’d grown up with, but I spoke the words without irony. I summarily ordered the killing of two men. I wanted the Marine on the other end to give me a reason to change my decision, but the only sound I heard was the radio affirmative for an understood order: “Roger, out.” Shots rang out across the narrow river. A part of me wanted the rounds to miss their target, but they struck flesh and the men fell dead.


Kudo even references Grossman’s book, and ends in its spirit of resignation: “We live in a dangerous world where killing and torture exist and where the persecution of the weak by the powerful is closer to the norm than the civil society where we get our Starbucks. Ensuring our own safety and the defense of a peaceful world may require training boys and girls to kill, creating technology that allows us to destroy anyone on the planet instantly, d ehumanizing large segments of the global population and then claiming there is a moral sanctity in killing. ” But you can feel him doubting that very assertion: his journey isn’t over yet. I’d love to ask Tyler Boudreau, Logan Isaac (Laituri), or the Soul Repair Center where they think it will end.

Back in the Jurassic era, I once interviewed Grossman for a magazine called The Objector. And I can’t but think that Kudo’s essay may find its way into more than one conscientious-objector claim.

bowe bergdahl, who walked away from Omelas


I meant to post this eons ago, before Bowe Bergdahl returned to duty and began facing the prospect of court-martial for desertion. But it’s actually time now, with the new-sorta war that has everyone I know on tenterhooks — including/especially those who, like Bergdahl, have spent time in the Sandbox wondering why,

Imagine how much more you’d be if after three months home, and six weeks after talking to Army investigators, you were in limbo at Fort Sam Houston with no idea when or if your life will transform again.His attorney, the sterling mensch Louis Fidell, told reporters this week that he feels like “the Maytag repairman…I’m just waiting for the phone to ring.” That hasn’t stopped the professional talkers, from Fox News to the House of Representatives, from using Bergdahl’s release last spring as a political boomerang thrown at President Obama.

Despite all the time and spilled pixels, it feels like we know less about Bergdahl than we did when he was still a Taliban prisoner and we had only Michael Hastings’ vivid 2012 Rolling Stone portrait.  What we have instead is speculation, and the understandable anger from members of the unit he walked away from, never to return, and measured words from his parents and his attorneys.

In The Nation, Robert Musil fell back on stories of Vietnam-era deserters, to  urge  compassion for”an American kid stranded in the middle of Afghanistan who feels he has no choice but to go away from his unit.” Telegraph UK writer Tim Stanley wrote about Bergdahl, “The rebellious soldier is a paradox that is hard to process.” That word ‘paradox’ was also used by AP’s Martha Mendoza, which calls Bergdahl’s story ” a complicated paradox surrounding a complicated man.” Her narrative includes the soldier’s homesschooling with Calvinist parents, his progressive/hippie college girlfriend, his fantasies of heroism with the Foreign Legion before enlistment and his agonized letters home from Afghanistan.

The New Yorker’s John Cassidy turns to literature to unlock the puzzle: “If anything, he sounds more like Captain Yossarian, the antic antihero of Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22”—who considers his superiors to be nuts and eventually goes AWOL—than Sergeant Brody, the double-dealing protagonist of “Homeland.” In his early twenties, engaged in a war on the other side of the world that many people, including his Commander-in-Chief, would ultimately decide was counterproductive, Bergdahl, seemingly, had had enough.”

Another story that occurred to me, reading the Hastings profile, is Ursula Le Guin’s classic  “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”  In that oft-taught parable,  the inhabitants of a Utopia are shown the suffering that makes their comfort possible. Most accept it, but a few leave their home, trudging without belongings toward a city hard to fathom. “I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

Similarly, Hastings writes, “Bowe Bergdahl had a different response. He decided to walk away,”  a  sentence written after describing the alternative:  “Active ­duty soldiers in the U.S. Army are currently committing suicide at a record rate, 25 percent higher than the civilian population. Other soldiers lash out with unauthorized acts of violence: the staff sergeant charged with murdering 17 Afghan civilians in their homes last March; the notorious “Kill Team” of U.S. soldiers who went on a shooting spree in 2010, murdering civilians for sport and taking parts of their corpses for trophies. Many come home permanently traumatized, unable to block out the nightmares.”

A Times editorial added that “Thousands of soldiers desert during every war, including 50,000 American soldiers during World War II. As many as 4,000 a year were absent without leave for extended periods during the Iraq war. They leave for a variety of reasons, including psychological trauma, but whatever their mental state, it is the military’s duty to get them back if they are taken prisoner.” And not to make assumptions about their mental state either before or after such an ordeal.

That applies to us, too. To me, even though I’m currently contemplating including Bergdahl in my title. Because we still don’t know anything.

 Telegraph UK’s Tim Stanley does what I’d be tempted to do: state that the case shows ” the damage to a nation’s psyche caused by a controversial war,” note all the auxiliary issues civilians wrestle with at times like this, and conclude:  “Bowe Bergdahl should never have been in Afghanistan in the first place. Bush should never have sent him there; Obama should have brought him home sooner. War makes a Hell of men’s lives.”  I agree, but it’s not enough.

Before I write a word about Bergdahl in this book, I need to do much more reporting. I really want to talk to Matthew Hoh, himself a soldier-dissenter, who knows the family and spoke clearly about Bergdahl’s journey for CNN:


I can only hope to talk to his attorney, one of the nation’s best-known specialists in military law, who I talked to very occasionally in the CCCO days. And just as with Chelsea Manning,  I know there’s no way I can interview the man himself, and thus am skittish about writing any actual commentary of my own here.

I’ll instead give the last word to that attorney, Eugene Fidell — via Sig Christensen, who’s 10X the journalist I’ll ever be and who wrote last week’s story on the Army’s delay.   “Fidell wouldn’t discuss Bergdahl’s activities here but said his client wants to focus on his education once out of the Army. “His time is up. His enlistment has long since expired. He wants to go to college [..] There are many bridges that have to be crossed before he has to make a decision on where he’s going to live.”

Veterans Day musings on moral injury

Note: I know it’s been awhile since I posted here: reasons too boring. But it made sense to share today’s Veterans Day op-ed — which focuses on a theme that ties together s0 much of why I wanted to write this book in the first place.

Air Force analyst Heather Lea Linebaugh never deployed, but she still saw combat, as a participant in the newest layer called “drone warfare.”  “I have nightmares to this day of women I have seen killed, children I have seen lost in vain, fathers who will never return to their families, and soldiers who will never say goodbye to their families,” Linebaugh wrote this past June, not long after I saw her speak at Fort Meade, Maryland. I contacted her almost immediately thereafter; she was voicing an ache I’d rarely heard articulated so well in years of working with and writing about soldiers and vets.

I knew, therefore, that Linebaugh would be my first Veterans Day voice this year.

Rita-BrockClose by would  be that of Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock (left), described in a New York Times  profile as “tending the spiritual wounds of warriors, seeking theological answers to the condition among veterans called ‘moral injury.’”

Daughter of a World War II veteran and Vietnam War  medic, Brock helped create the Soul Repair Center to go beyond the clinical in approaching these questions. Now based at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, the Center has attracted Iraq vets like Michael Yandell, 28, who worked on a bomb disposal team is now a seminarian at Brock’s school, telling the Times “It’s not that you lose your ability to tell right from wrong, but things don’t seem so clear anymore. For me, it’s whether or not what I did, did any good.”  Yandell, like Linebaugh, is among the new generation refusing to call combat trauma a mental illness.

Moral injury, writes former Army surgeon general Elspeth Ritchie, is  “an important concept to help understand the experiences of our service members.” The  term was first coined by psychiatrist and MacArthur Award-winning “genius” Jonathan Shay, in his iconic Odysseus in America:  “Betrayal of ‘what’s right’ in a high stakes situation by someone who holds power.” Shay knew from his decades of work with Vietnam vets that “the consequences for those still on active duty range from a loss of motivation and enjoyment, resulting in attrition from the service at the next available moment, to passive obstructionism, goldbricking, and petty theft, to outright desertion . . . sabotage, fragging, or treason. In a war, the consequences are catastrophic.”  And afterward, he wrote two years ago in Daedalus, that betrayal puts land mines in a soldier’s heart: “The body codes moral injury as physical attack and reacts with the same massive mobilization” in response.

Amid the current epidemic of suicides among veterans (at last count, 22 per day), the Veterans Administration has started to notice the injury. The VA’s Shira Maguen  distinguished it from the more-familiar-sounding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: “There is no threshold for establishing the presence of moral injury,” she wrote. “Rather, at a given point in time, a Veteran may have none, or have mild to extreme manifestations. Furthermore, transgression is not necessary for a PTSD diagnosis nor does PTSD sufficiently capture moral injury, or the shame, guilt, and self-handicapping behaviors that often accompany moral injury.”  Those words and Shay’s definitions of the term even made it into this terrific NPR graphic essay, and vets are being able to raise these issues with people around them.

Most essentially,the new generation  challenges us to look at our own moral injury in these wars. “Moral injuries are not about benefits or blame. They’re not about treatment or medications. They’re not about disability. They are about our society and our moral values,” writes Tyler Boudreau, author of Packing Inferno: the Unmaking of a Marine in the Massachusetts Review. “A moral injury is not inherently the same thing as a war crime, though clearly the two ideas overlap. But when we talk about war crimes, we seek justice; when we talk about moral injuries, we seek a deeper understanding of our humanity.Like Heather Linebaugh, Boudreau is less interested in his own trauma than in its implications in our war-besotted nation.

Other new vets are making common cause with veterans overseas, reaching out to Combatants for Peace in Israel, which works to end the occupation of the West Bank along with  Breaking the Silence, which has posted nearly 1,000 testimonials   on what they saw when serving there. All of these newer groups emphasize that it’s not about the vets own personal trauma, at least not exclusively. Avner Gvaryahu from Breaking the Silence, in a recent interview, used the Hebrew phrase yorim u’vochim, “shooting and crying,” to describe the limits of such testimonials for enacting change. “It’s easy to find people having regrets – saying ‘they forced us to be evil.’ The vast majority of soldiers will admit that,” he said. “We are aware of the fact that many more testifiers suffered from moral injuries,” he added, “but we’re also aware of the fact that we are not victims but rather the victimizers.”

Thus, Gvaryahu’s Breaking the Silence “has a political goal: to create a constituency in Israel for ending  the occupation of the West Bank.  Tyler Boudreau founded founded the Iraq Veterans’ Refugee Aid Association (IVRAA), and in 2010  testified along with hundreds of other young vets at the Truth Commission on Conscience and War. And  last month, Heather Linebaugh co-founded Front Lines International, an international media-based initiative which presents equally stories from both sides of the “front line.”

These days, Linebaugh is training to be a massage therapist, doing yoga and taking care of herself — which for her includes her work with Front Lines International. As she told Facebook in August, “[After]  finishing my shifts at my normal job, I’m heading straight home to do work for my cause and [my] research for my mission to educate on peace and ending cultural misunderstanding and needless violence due to the War and Violence paradigms that exist in our time. This, at times, can be exhausting, but I am more alive, enlightened and in love with the world than ever before in my life.  I will never stop.”