Military Moral Injury Sociology

Is Moral Injury Self-Inflicted?’s not what I did in the war, it’s what the war did to me. That was a self-revelation.” – Specialist Joe Caley, U.S. Army. 1st Cavalry, 25th Infantry

I mentioned in the previous post the difference between between PTSD and moral injury: PTSD is something that happens to an individual, whereas moral injury is the result of something that an individual does or fails to do. Recently, I’ve questioned this distinction, considering whether moral injury, like PTSD, is something that happens to an individual.

In Kevin Sites’ book, The Things They Cannot Say, he describes the experience of Specialist Joe Caley in Vietnam. During his time on deployment, Caley and others killed an unarmed civilian because they thought he was an enemy. The incident haunted him: “You’re human, you’re not brought up to do that.”  Caley’s proper military reaction, given the circumstances, interfered with his moral code of universal human dignity. This is the crux if moral injury: a decision made in the fog of war.

In the documentary The Fog of War, former US Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, reflects on his decisions during the Vietnam war. Describing the “fog of war” he states:

“war is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.”

In hindsight, or from an outsider’s perspective, it is easy to criticize decisions as unreasonable, but given the circumstances in the fog of war, McNamara had good reasons for his decisions. Throughout the documentary, you get a sense that this is a man who truly believed in doing good, but given the complexity of the situation, he was forced into immense moral dilemmas.

So how was McNamara able to live with the thousands of unnecessary killings resulting from his decisions, while Specialist Joe Caley suffered intense psychological anguish from one? Part of it might be the distance: the unimaginably large number is less personal, in combination with McNamara’s distance from face to face combat. This might have played a role, but since the distance also allowed McNamara to recognize that his decisions were mediated by the fog of war, he was able to avoid the resulting anguish of self-blame characteristic of moral injury.

The need to make a decision in the fog of war is something that happens to an individual. Caley realizes this when he states: “It’s not what I did in the war, it’s what the war did to me. That was a self-revelation.” War inflicts moral injuries on individuals by putting them in complex situations where the best decision, given the available information, may turn out to be the wrong decision. Viewing moral injury as something that is inflicted on individuals allows researchers to consider the types of structural arrangements that contribute to this injury and it also allows those who suffer from this injury a way of absolving themselves from the debilitating effects of guilt from self-blame.

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