It appears that psychologists and other mental health professionals are beginning to acknowledge the moral (or spiritual) affects of war on individual soldiers. As veterans return home from war, many suffer from what has been termed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – trauma associated with threats to a soldier’s life. Recently, some have gone a step further and said that many vets suffer from “Moral Injury,” which has been defined as, “a wound that can occur when troops participate in, witness or fall victim to actions that transgress their most deeply held moral beliefs.” When you take a step back and think about it, this seems obvious.
As we grow up, the vast majority of us are taught that it is wrong to kill. For those who grow up in a Jewish or Christian tradition, one of the ten commandments is, “Thou shalt not kill.” Many other Faiths also teach that killing is wrong. We grow up with this belief and it forms part of our intrinsic core values. When individuals later become soldiers and find themselves in combat situations where they kill the enemy and also witness their fellow soldiers and friends being killed, it seems inevitable that moral questions and conflict will arise, even if they believe their actions are justified.
In a book titled The Untold War, Nancy Sherman, an ethics professor, interviewed veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and World War II. She wrote, “Regret doesn’t begin to capture what the soldiers I talked with feel. It doesn’t capture the despair or depth of the feeling — the awful weight of self-indictment and the need to make moral repair in order to be allowed back into the community in which he feels he has somehow jeopardized his standing.” Having committed and witnessed death in battle, it’s difficult for soldiers to return home and readjust to normal life. War not only inflicts physical and psychological scars, but also moral ones – soldiers can lose their sense of having the capacity to be a moral or virtuous person.
Some veterans take issue with the term “moral injury,” and feel it describes them as immoral simply because they’ve been to war. This, of course, is not the case. But I do believe that the act of killing others affects one’s soul. And I think the numerous psychological and emotional problems that many returning vets suffer from bears witness to this.
To read more about this, check out: Beyond PTSD: Soldiers Have Injured Souls