“… I started thinking God hates me… I’m not religious or anything, but I felt like there was this hate for me…” – Sergeant Brendan O’Byrne on life after deployment
Throughout the past few posts I’ve taken the risk of using religious language to describe the experience of war. Here, I expand on this complicated issue by demonstrating the exact opposite of the phenomenon described in my previous post.
As a sociologist, influenced by the work of Émile Durkheim, I view ‘religion’ as a system of beliefs and practices regarding sacred things that bind individuals together into moral communities. In this sense, the experience of losing ‘god’ means losing one’s moral community or sense of place in the broader society. In this sense, ‘god’ is a society’s reflection of itself. In contemporary Western societies, our image ‘god’ generally refers to a moral force that promotes an ethic of universal human dignity.
War is an experience that can deeply challenge one’s moral conscience, contributing to psychological difficulties among those who fight them. In Warrior Rising, by Chris Linford, he describes his experience deployed with a medical unit to Rwanda following the genocide. One of the most difficult parts of his experience was the feeling of guilt for not being able to do more to prevent the atrocities:
“The military is very good at teaching us how to fight and survive in war zones but, they have not taught us to survive what we saw and did in those war zones… I lost my identity as a person, and as an officer; I lost my soul as a human.”
His use of the word ‘soul’ refers to the sacred value we place on the dignity of all human beings. Having witnessed the inhumane neglect of Rwandans amidst the brutal slaughter, he states:
“What I have come to realize as the root of it all, however, is the fundamental indifference of the world community to the plight of seven to eight million black Africans in a tiny country that had no strategic or resource value to any world power.”
Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian General in charge of the UN’s mission in Rwanda, shares this same experience in his book Shake Hands With the Devil. Against the stereotype of the stoic emotionally-detached warrior, he illustrates the profound impact of moral atrocities on soldiers at war when he states:
“You know, soldiers are very unusual people. On the outside, they are the hardest, most demanding, severe people, but underneath that, they are the most human, the most feeling, the most emotionally attached people who exist.”
When confronted with moral atrocities, soldiers are trained to shut out emotional interference to remain focused on the mission, but after the conflict, the emotional impact remains. This has been called a ‘moral injury’ by recent psychologists. In the book Soul Repair, the authors define it as the following:
Moral injury results when soldiers violate their core moral beliefs, and in evaluating their behavior negatively, they feel they no longer live in a reliable, meaningful world and can no longer be regarded as decent human beings.
This form of injury extends beyond the individual and can also result from witnessing an institutional betrayal:
Seeing someone else violate core moral values or feeling betrayed by persons in authority can also lead to a loss of meaning and faith. It can even emerge from witnessing a friend get killed and feeling survivor guilt. In experiencing a moral conflict, soldiers may judge themselves as worthless; they may decide no one can be trusted and isolate themselves from others; and they may abandon the values and beliefs that gave their lives meaning and guided their moral choices.
In order to repair the moral conscience of those who fight our nations battles, we need to recognize that moral injuries are not simply an individual problem like PTSD:
“…it is not just an individual diagnosis. It is part of a larger social consequence of war and, therefore, not simply a private problem that can be solved by therapy. To address it requires engaging moral questions about decisions to go to war with families, communities, and society.”
We need to consider the deeper moral impact of going to war. As with past ages, we can no longer justify violence by dehumanizing the enemy. A nation that stands for universal human dignity needs to uphold these ideals when deciding when and how to put its nations warriors into harms way. As started by Romeo Dallaire:
“…no matter how idealistic the aim sounds, this new century must become the Century of Humanity, when we as human beings rise above race, creed, colour, religion and national self-interest and put the good of humanity above the good of our own tribe. For the sake of the children and of our future.”
If you liked this, you may also like the following articles:
Finding God Amidst War
Is War a Spiritual Experience?
How Veterans Experience Anomie
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