Military Moral Injury Sociology

Moral Injury

Invisible injuries inflict psychological pain that can drive sufferers to end their lives. Although many of these invisible injuries are now well-known, there is a new name for a timeless problem that has affected millions, under the radar.

In recent years, moral injury has come to be defined as a profound sense of guilt or shame resulting from a perceived moral transgression or sense of disillusionment resulting from an institutional betrayal.

It is no surprise that moral injury is a major problem among those who find themselves in the fog of war, fighting for survival, having to make snap life or death decisions; Is the car barreling toward the camp a suicide bomber or a lost and frantic civilian? Or on a broader level, are we actually helping the people we were supposedly sent to help?

Those who are sent to do our nations dirty work are also often burdened by the crushing moral weight of bearing the conscience of a nation. War exposes the best and worst in humanity. Although we like to celebrate the valor, bravery, and altruism with metals and parades, our nation of civilians and political elites are not nearly as quick to confront the messy moral reality of its conflicts and the impact it may have on those who bear its burden.

Moral injury occurs when a person blames themselves for an incident they did not have control over. In order to encourage healing, we need to confront the issue publicly by listening to those on the front lines of our nations foreign policy. Rather than blaming themselves, the national conscience needs to process the complicated moral reality of war.

Those who fight our nations battles must come to see themselves within a complicated social environment that is impossible to navigate with certainty. As stated in a previous post: the need to make a decision in the fog of war is something that happens to an individual. Specialist Joe Caley, U.S. Army. 1st Cavalry, 25th Infantry realized his lack of agency, stating: “It’s not what I did in the war, it’s what the war did to me. That was a self-revelation.”

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  1. perhaps “Although we like to celebrate the valor, bravery, and altruism with metals and parades,” isn’t a like, but a need? or at least, an attempt to mitigate the moral injury and awfulness of it all?

  2. Thank you for conducting those interviews! Every Service Member has a story to tell- worth telling. It’s such an honor to be able to facilitate the sharing, because there’s SUCH healing found in it. How great to help them unpack their experiences. Well done

  3. Reblogged this on Belle Papillon 24/7 and commented:
    This is quite interesting. I’ve been vocal about my passion in supporting the elimination of the stigma surrounding Mental Illness, about suicide prevention among other things. I have to admit, I haven’t really heard of the term “Moral Injury” until now. I feel really sad seeing homeless vets in the streets with obvious signs of mental illness. After all they’ve done to serve our country… all the sacrifices they’ve made… we’re enjoying our freedom and we hear about these things. Thanks for this post. We should really bring awareness to this issue and hopefully it can be addressed.

    ❤ BP

  4. Hello Steve,

    You stated that ‘war exposes the best and worst in humanity’. The worst i can easily visualize. But for the best and good side, I ask u to elaborate on this point, a good example will do.


  5. “Moral injury occurs when a person blames themselves for an incident they did not have control over” I’ve never out a phrase to this before. Just thought of it as shame. Moral injury is a term I am going to use now. Thank-You.

  6. Moral injuries can oftentimes be more devastating than physical injuries. Physical injuries can over time heal. However, if moral injuries are not properly addressed, they can linger on for a long time with severe consequences. Petaling Jaya, Malaysia

  7. Being married to a USMC combat vet, I’ve personally witnessed the guilt my husband puts on himself for something he had no responsibility in. Great post! 💜

  8. Great post!

    Something I wonder, apart from the military veterans if there are others who too feel the in the same way.

    For example, the individuals who decide and declare a war (following which the military moves to the war zone) do they too suffer from any moral injury?

  9. Steve, Thanks for another great post on veterans’ psychological issues. To what extent do you believe that the idealized version of conflict propagated in popular culture generates unrealistic expectations and self-perceptions that make moral injury more likely?

    1. I think this is fundamentally part of the issue. The idealized version glosses over all of the messiness of war and the lack of clear-cut boundaries, particularly in today’s counter-insurgency style of warfare where it is difficult to even distinguish between friend and foe.

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