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.