At the time of its origin, to apologize meant the opposite of what it means now. In The Apology of Socrates, Plato depicts Socrates defending his beliefs against the accusations of the Athenians. Originally referring to speech in legal defense of oneself or one’s beliefs, the word had undergone major changes throughout the middle-ages when it came to refer to expressing regret for one’s personal transgressions.
The exact opposite of the word’s origin in self-defense, it serves as a means of expressing self-regret. This is why the word ‘sorry’ (rooted in ‘sorrow’), came to serve as an indicator of apology. Influenced by the Christian ethic of confession and forgiveness of sins, expressing sorrow and regrets for one’s past transgressions could absolve one of the transgression if accompanied by the designated religious rituals.
Although the word `sorry` is now strongly associated with making an apology, the words are not necessarily synonymous. Saying sorry is also a common way of expressing sympathy for the misfortune of another individual. In this case, there does not necessarily need to be any moral transgression involved. For example, saying one is sorry for another’s loss in the context of a funeral is a sign of sympathetic sorrow, not seeking forgiveness for a moral transgression.
I argue that in the case of moral injury, the desire to apologize is a symptom, whereas saying one is sorry is a sympathetic response. The former assumes moral agency and personal culpability whereas the latter does not. This is particularly evident in the widely misunderstood case of Lu Lobello. Lu’s story was published in The New Yorker by Dexter Filkins under the name, Atonement.
The event that lead to this story started in Iraq during a furious firefight with the enemy on April 8, 2003. Lu’s company of marines accidently fired on a civilian family who found themselves in the middle of the battle while making a wrong turn on their way home one evening. The company killed a father and two brothers, leaving the mother and daughter desperately trying to alert the marines that they were not combatants. Having survived, the mother and daughter eventually moved to the U.S.
Lu decided to find the family and both parties found peace in coming together, staying in contact regularly. In their initial meeting, Lu said he was sorry without intending to seek forgiveness. Realizing he was not morally culpable amidst the fog of war, he expressed sorrow for the hugely unfortunate situation that brought them together that day in Iraq. In this situation, saying sorry means expressing recognition of the sad vicissitudes of war and the desire to sympathize with the individuals involved in this situation that was out of all of their control.
The internal attributions of agency that occur in moral injury lead to extreme guilt and desire to seek forgiveness. Expressing sympathetic sorrow for a situation beyond individual control is not forgiveness-seeking, is a compassionate human response. Moral injury cannot be dealt with by seeking forgives, but rather, requires the individual to forgive themselves through recognizing the larger social influences. Specialist Joe Caley, U.S. Army. 1st Cavalry, 25th Infantry 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.” Some individuals may come to this realization on their own, while others might require the cognitive tools provided by a trained psychologist.
Specialists need to be very clear on the distinction between moral injury and sympathetic mourning, as seen in the case of Lu Lobello. Moral injury is a real problem, but over-generalizing this diagnosis will only serve to paint broad-strokes, mistaking mourning for psychological dilemmas.