Military Sociology

Losing God in War

“… 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 DevilAgainst 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 Repairthe 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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  1. I am enjoying your articles as they open me to possiblities which instigated changes within my eldest brother, a retired Master Sergeant, USMC, who served 3 times as a combat gunner in Vietnam with a lengthy career following in the service for nearly 30 years.
    He is very detached at times and often very circumspect. Things are either black or white, never shades of gray, ever. Some of it is generational but it is clearly influenced by experiences I will never grasp.
    My immediate family is large. My eldest brother is 18 years older, while my nephew is closer in age with 6 years separation between us.
    His eldest son followed in his foot steps in the 1st Gulf conflict, the second Gulf War, Afghanistan, and recently retired after 25 years. He is not the man I grew up with and it’s disheartening to me.
    We will never bridge the gap but may be I will understand the shaky rope bridge that divides us. Thank you.

  2. Good thing you used examples from Rwanda, where moral imperatives were relatively clear-cut.

    Had you cited the illegal, predatory, pre-emptive wars of Iraq,Afghan, Syrian nature-it would be a different discussion entirely.

    How do you explain depleted uranium effects to SOLDIERS?


    “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.”

    These moral injuries extend even to those who did NOT choose war and soldiering as a career path. Yet the primacy of moral guilt is laid at a soldiers feet-rather than his mothers, cousins, or others who taught him/her that patriotism trumps morality.

    Why weren’t they here, at home, joining the resistance, rather than following the sound of the shofar, calling them into Zionist exploitation of moral narratives?

  3. This is such a great topic and so worthy of discussion. As a veteran and friend of some who have and do suffer from PTSD, I thank you for this.

  4. Love your work! I’ve linked to four articles on my site, ChurchAndMentalIllness on So happy to see the classic community-based thought systems being revived! Carlene Hill Byron

  5. Wars are actually brutal ,irony is that its increasing as world is getting greedy ,lust of power ,money is taking this world to a place called moral death ,soldier shoots a person with whom he doesn’t has any enmity just because he has been ordered to do so .

  6. My comment, Steve, is “utilitarian” stimulated by reading your excellent discourse on religion and war. My response on my blog will be called “Can your religion fulfill for you the vision and mission as intended by God?”

  7. This is a very sobering post, and it should be. It really should help us all to appreciate in a demonstrative way, the pangs of those who serve. While I totally understand how someone who is not grounded in their faith in God could easily lose their faith by what they are confronted with, it is my belief that only God could help them walk through. Thanks for this one.

  8. I wonder about your definition of religion. It neatly sidesteps the truth claims of religions, and unquestioningly gives any religion whatsoever the credit for “binding individuals together into moral communities”. That seems to me a naive and simplistic view of what religion does, and implies also a reductive view of morality.

      1. I never said it did. I said it avoided them as a means of naturalizing religion and effectively positing that religion *is* society (e.g. the claim that to lose god is to lose one’s sense of place in society).

  9. Perhaps we need t stop
    Thinking of
    Boundaries and diversity. The solution has to be political and the media needs to
    Be lead by
    Humanitarians not people who want to make a quick buck and
    Incite hatred.

  10. Steve,
    Thanks for such an enlightened and enlightening contribution to the body of thought on the impact that war has upon those who are sent to fight them. Your blog should be required reading for politicians, military commanders and the parents who continue to give up their sons and daughters to serve their countries.

    Veterans do not want sympathy; sympathy is for losers – and that is one thing that veterans most certainly are not. They do need empathy and understanding from the public on whose behalf they serve.

    To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill – if enlightened men saw more of war, simple folk would see less of it.

    Thank you once again,

    Barry Alexander
    Major (Retired)

    1. Thank you for these words, Barry.
      I would like to add another fitting quote by William Francis Butler: “The nation that will insist on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards.”

  11. Look at how Americans treat each other these days if you want proof of the degrading social impact of war. If the Commander-in-Chief and Congress were required to fight these wars, instead of sending naive 18-year olds, we would have a lot less of it. Why are so citizens many fleeing Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan? Because the US is in there stirring the pot of conflict. From their perspective, we must indeed look like Satan.

    And the VA, in its hypocrisy, thinks to mitigate this overwhelming slaughter and its ramifications by diagnosing PTSD and putting the survivors on psychotropics.

  12. Steve, thanks for delving into the moral impact of war. In dehumanizing our enemies, we ourselves become dehumanized.

    We have to end our endless War on Terrorism. To work towards this, we have to choose our next president wisely.

  13. Interesting read & a complex issue. One’s morality (to include spirituality) never escapes war untested or unscathed. I read a lot of thoughts from fellow veterans encouraging more death and destruction. I don’t know their experiences so I’m not sure what to think. Personally, I advocate more humanity and reserve violence as a last resort

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