Conversations We Should Be Having About War

“American Sniper” highlights the disproportionate burden of war carried by combat veterans.

The release of American Sniper prompted plenty of debate, and a flurry of opinionated speech concerning the past decade of war, proving once again how hard it is to discuss something we know so little about. Here are a few points of conversation regarding war that Americans would do well to have.

Who bears the burden of war?

How have the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq affected your life over the past 13 years? Seriously, how big of a price have you personally paid? Unless you have served overseas or you have a family member or close friend who served, then your answer is probably very little.

We should probably talk about this, America.

Instead, what we’re talking about is what silly thing Michael Moore or Sarah Palin Tweeted about American Sniper. It’s too bad, because this movie could be just the thing to jumpstart a long overdue conversation about war.

For the past 13 years, the burden of two wars has been born disproportionately by combat veterans and their families. The financial cost of war is shared evenly throughout society, but that’s where the sharing ends. When it comes to the physical wounds, the relational strain, the psychological impact, and the emotional price tag of war, soldiers and their families have done all the heavy lifting.

Some 52,000 soldiers have been physically wounded. As stunning as that number seems, five to ten times that many (between 275,000 and 500,000) now suffer from PTSD. However, a new diagnosis may hold the key to allowing the emotional burden of war to be more equally shared among the general public. It’s called Moral Injury, and although the mental health community and the Pentagon have not officially endorsed this diagnosis, more and more soldiers are using the term to describe the impact of war upon their lives.

Moral Injury and today’s soldier

Moral Injury refers to the emotional and psychological damage incurred when a soldier has to do things that violate their sense of right and wrong — their morality. Soldiers are often put in situations where they have no good options, but have to act nonetheless. The now-famous scene from American Sniper involving a woman and child walking a grenade toward a convoy demonstrates what a moral minefield war can be. Moral Injury has been described as a bruise upon the soul.

Rita Brock, co-director of the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School, says that part of the problem is the kind of war today’s soldier must fight. “When you throw people into a war where there’s no army and no military . . . and they’re only fighting civilians,” Brock says, “the moral ambiguities become quite fierce and horrible, and you have soldiers having to kill children, pregnant women, dogs. It becomes a terribly morally compromising situation even for people who feel good about being in the war, want to be there, and want to serve their country.”

Brock says our society has yet to come to terms with what it means to take young people from among our communities, schools, churches, and homes, to train them to kill other human beings. When we send our brothers and sisters to war, we know full well that they will be involved in the kinds of violent behaviors that will leave deep scars upon the soul.

It seems disingenuous or naïve. “We bring them home, and with a little bit of interviewing and a few hours maybe of talking to, we put them back in civilian society,” Brock says. “. . . the rest of us just think, well, they’ll just get over it and go on with their lives and be the same.”

It doesn’t work that way. Often they are never the same.

Lt. Col. Douglas A. Pryer, an active-duty Army counterintelligence officer who has written extensively about Moral Injury, says that one of the most troubling symptoms of Moral Injury involves a deep sense of alienation from society after a soldier returns. Emotional distancing often leads to what Pryer calls “self-handicapping behaviors” — alcoholism, spousal abuse, and suicide attempts — all of which are more closely associated with Moral Injury than with PTSD.

The treatment involves us all

Treatment for moral injury involves the rest of society owning up to the part they played in sending soldiers to war. The rest of us may not have given the order or pulled the trigger, but we asked the soldier to go in our place. We did so knowing what that would involve.

Owning up to the part we have all played involves some sort of public confession.

Dr. Jonathan Shay, the clinical psychologist who coined the term Moral Injury, says, “I’ve been twisting arms all over the place, pointing out that our society lacks any real understanding of what’s needed for purification after battle.”

Shay notes that most other cultures have found ways to acknowledge the fact that emotional healing after war requires the involvement of the entire community. From ancient Hebrew soldiers, to Roman Centurions, and Native American warriors, nearly every culture but ours has created “purification rites,” for soldiers returning after war.

Shay says, “We need rituals, we need liturgies, we need narratives, we need artworks,” all of which allow the community to come along side the soldier and confess the truth: “What you did was done in our name, at our request. We cannot bear your physical wounds, or psychological scars, but we can bear the moral responsibility with you. Your transgressions in war, they are our transgressions, too. We confess this together, and seek forgiveness together.”

This kind of practice would have the added benefit of forming a society that might not be so quick to go to war.

Theologian and Ethicist Stanley Hauerwas (Duke University), is fond of asking the question, “What do you do with a wrong so wrong it can never be made right?” His answer is always the same: tell the truth. The truth is that war is hell. War is always a wrong so wrong it can never be made right. The best we can do for the soldiers who fought in our place is tell the truth about it.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Tim Suttle
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  • Greg

    Mr Suttle, I appreciate the fact that in this article, you put the emphasis on the person – the individual soldier – rather than on the policies or events that sent him to war in the first place. However, you make an assertion at the end of your piece, i.e. “War is always a wrong so wrong it can never be made right,” which is vague and unnuanced, that it’s wrong.

  • Tim_Suttle

    Greg, thanks for reading & commenting. I was careful not to say that everyone who comes back from war suffers from Moral Injury, or that the damage to those who do is permanent.

    The line you reference is not meant to represent a general disavowal of war, as would be the case with many of the common liberal views on pacifism. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that as a Christian, I follow the teachings of Christ, who unambiguously told his followers to live non-violently. It’s not a comment on just-war theory, so much as it is a comment on the nature of war from the point of view of the Christ follower. War is wrong because humans were not created to kill each other.

    I always find it interesting that just-war theorists have typically been able to justify any war that they believe is in their own best interests. I find it even more interesting that the most ardent interlocutors on the subject are not politicians or ideologues, but soldiers who fought in wars and now have to find a way to live with the things they’ve done.

    Christian realism views on war usually follow the logic that all war is wrong, but it’s a lesser wrong that the wrongs the war is attempting to right. So, even from the point of view of just war theorist and Christian realism (R. Niebuhr), we must still call war a legitimate wrong (though from that point of view, it is a necessary wrong). This is pragmatism. I don’t see the cross and resurrection as pragmatic.

    As for me, I think that whether or not a war can be called “just” is simply not my argument. I’m always looking for another option, a more creative way to actively resist evil. Both the typical liberal pacifist views of war, and the typical Niebuhrian realism views seem to suffer from a lack of Christian imagination. Neither one seem to take seriously the cross and resurrection.

    • Greg


      Though you claim to not be arguing the liberal pacifist point of view, you are. The difference is that you are coming to pacifism through your understanding of Christ’s teaching, which is not a bad place to start, I grant you. But if you are utterly convinced, as Hauerwas is, that war is antithetical to Christianity and that a true Christian may not participate in the enterprise of war, then I’m sure nothing I say here will convince you otherwise.

      I will only point out that Jesus was “unambiguous” about a lot of things that many (most?) Christians and Christian denominations have found a way to contextualize to their benefit and convenience. Heck, even Jesus himself seems to say contradictory things in the gospels, not to mention the fleshing out of his sayings that the rest of the New Testament writers tried to apply to the earliest Church. I don’t think you’re a red letter fundamentalist, are you?

      Secondly, you assert that “humans were not created to kill each other.” That’s a lofty sermonette – and I would agree that at least from a theological and philosophical perspective you are right – we were not created to kill each other. But to look at nature and history and to come to any other conclusion that killing and conflict are inherent and natural to all animal life, is delusional.

      Here’s a conversation about war you might want to have: How can we, who are obviously the beneficiaries of the sacrifice of millions of soldiers (and their widows and orphans) who fought to protect our free exercise of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom of the press, who fought to halt totalitarianism and deter aggression: how can we who take for granted all the freedoms we have, which they fought for, then turn around and use the very freedoms they ensured to us to denounce what they did to make it so?

      I’m not trying to be snarky. I really do believe those are good questions for the Christian pacifist to wrestle with.

      Regards – Greg

      • Tim_Suttle

        Greg, I don’t typically use the word pacifism to describe the position to which I hold. Mostly because others inevitably try to characterize my position for me. (as you did: “Though you claim to not be arguing the liberal pacifist point of view, you are.) This isn’t the place to offer a primer on liberal pacifism as opposed to a Christogical position on non-violence. But the main way you know a position is not the common liberal pacifist view is that everything I say becomes unintelligible if Jesus isn’t Lord of all creation. It’s not a position against war, it’s a position about peace that only comes through forgiveness and reconciliation. Nonviolence is not a strategy to rid the world of war, but an obedient response to the unambiguous (sorry brother, but you cant get around this) life and teaching of Jesus.

        • Greg

          So, it’s not just war you’re against, but a Christological position of non-violence? I guess that means all violence. So you’re against the police, too? Do you prefer a society without police? I suppose you are also against violence to protect a family member from harm. (Offer him the other cheek as well!) I could turn this into an argumentum ad absurd am, but I won’t. However, I do not believe you are serious. Oh, in your mind you might be – in your idealized version of how you think you would/should act in situation x,y, or z – but you certainly do not live your life eschewing all violence. You are protected by the use and threat of violence everyday.

          You never addressed my challenge for you to grapple with the question I suggested. Why?

  • Martin Hughes

    Thomas Hobbes argues quite persuasively that we are indeed created to kill each other in that this is what must happen when reason is added to animal nature – since reason enables us to anticipate and fear the plans of others – until we accept an overriding authority.

  • dart

    Mr. Suttle, Thank you for writing about this topic. After reading the article and then looking at the comments, I’m realizing that those who have commented are off topic of your core message. The central theme of the article, from what I can discern, is about acknowledging that there are nuances of mental injury, and by knowing that, we as a society can find ways to more effectively heal those affected. My point is not to criticize their comments, for I believe we definitely need to be discussing the nature of warfare. However, I believe that the subsequent discussion is just a microcosm of the discussion that gets played over and over
    on the national level. Somebody raises awareness of the mental state of veterans and problems that many have returning
    to society after warfare. Then, because we’re afraid to confront that challenge, the conversation gets sidetracked into
    Just War Theory, foreign policy, supporting our troops, defending democracy, etc. And a short time later, the topic
    dies down because a more sensational news story comes along, and veterans are left on their own with little national progress.

    My worry is that those who argue in favor of Just-War would use it as an excuse to not give credence to Moral Injury, as if fighting for a cause that is deemed “just” lessens the life and death choices that impact a man or woman. In my limited opinion, the concept of moral injury is a huge step forward in the collective healing process. But the biggest challenge is figuring out a
    way to actually implement it.

    There are two challenges that I’d like people to consider when talking about the healing process: 1) acknowledgement of PTSD/Moral injury even among service members and 2) the manner in which service members transition from their home life to the battlefield and back.

    To elaborate on the my first point: Yes, it can be difficult for the civilian population to not fully understand or empathize with those who have fought. However, it can be devastating when those who know someone the best don’t support or believe the
    injured. In 2006, I remember listening to an NPR story focusing on PTSD and soldiers returning to Ft. Carson, CO. A Noncommissioned Officer being interviewed was, in a sense, claiming that another soldier was trying to game the system by
    claiming PTSD. He explained that he experienced and saw the same things the other soldier did, and he himself wasn’t affected, so he couldn’t understand that someone else could be affected. My blood boiled at the callousness and lack of understanding exhibited by the NCO. For as long as they were in the same unit together, the one with the injury would not be able to heal because there is no acknowledgment. This isn’t to say that this attitude is common across all units and services. However, the fact that there can be resistance even among service members must be acknowledged even though our understanding of mental health has gotten much better over the past nine years, and we’re light years ahead of where we were with mental health after Vietnam. But there is still a long way to go.

    For my second point, and one that may be even more difficult to overcome. The manner in which the military is deployed
    presents an enormous challenge to healing moral injury. Since 2001, units of all services have been rotating into and out of combat areas. Each service has its own deployment lengths. When one is called to go to Iraq for a year, be home for 12 months,
    deploy to Afghanistan for 12 months, be home for 18 months, deploy to Afghanistan again for 9 months….you get the picture….when is the healing process supposed to take place? Each time the service member is home, a scab can form, but then it’s ripped off each time they return overseas. There is no time of transition from one surreal place to the next. This is even exacerbated by the rest and relaxation time some may get. On Thursday, they can be launching a grenade at a target, or driving through an IED blast, and on Sunday morning, be arriving home to be with their family for two weeks before they leave again to be on a battlefield within three days. There is no time to process these intense changes. More damage done, more time to heal is needed.

    “The truth is that war is hell.” Yes it is, no matter how just the cause is. And the casualties keep piling up.