Expanding on my previous post on moral injury, I want to emphasize why it is so dangerous. Moral injury often lurks under the radar, taking lives and leaving survivors unable to make sense of the tragedy. Since moral injury has not yet been officially adopted into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, mental health professionals have not been able to properly diagnose this invisible injury.
Defined as a profound experience of guilt/shame or an institutional betrayal, persons who suffer from moral injury often blame themselves for an incident they did not have control over or become disillusioned and lose a sense of identity or meaning in their lives. As previously discussed, this is common among those on the front lines of our nations conflicts who are often tasked with making life-or-death decisions amidst the fog of war.
Moral injury is so dangerous because its symptoms align with the interpersonal causes of suicide. As discussed by Thomas Joiner in his book Why People Die by Suicide, suicidal desire stems from two factors: 1) thwarted belongingness; and 2) perceived burdensomeness. Moral injury deeply impacts both of these factors by making sufferers feel isolated due to their perceived transgression, as well as making them feel like a burden on others due to their suffering or perceived lack of propriety.
Morality, the social consensus of right and wrong, is the glue that bonds social groups. Our moral community is comprised of everyone we trust to conduct themselves in alignment with a code of unwritten rules. Beyond the legal system, morality gets to the heart of our sense of identity and our ability to trust. It is like a sacred canopy we all stand under, giving meaning and purpose to our communal lives, to borrow a concept from Peter Berger’s definition of religion.
Beyond any religion, the moral code of universal human dignity largely governs us on a global scale. As Karl Marlantes states in What it is Like to Go to War, “…any conscious warrior of the future is going to be a person who sees all humanity as brothers and sisters.”
Throughout the history of human evolution, our instinctual drives recede like melting ice, exposing the fertile ground of moral consciousness. Rather than simply responding to instinctual reflexes, we now have the conscious ability to contemplate the ethical consequences of our actions.
With this development, like the spring thaw, comes the increased responsibility of cultivation. As this moral consciousness expands to embrace an ethic of universal humanity, we must now consider others beyond our local group or nation. This consciousness forces us to readjust to a moral reality where we cannot simply label outside groups as subhuman.
One form of reaction to this increasingly globalizing world may be to simply deny an ethic of universal humanity, reaffirming a strengthened ethic of exclusion to bolster an identity based on hatred. But this merely works to cut ourselves off from our own humanity. By neglecting the humanity of others, we neglect our own humanity.
In the case of moral injury, the ethic of humanity is strongly upheld. Although it is a good thing to have a “conscious warrior,” who holds a global perspective, this awareness also makes it difficult to cope with perceived moral transgressions amidst the fog of war, causing the victim of moral injury a great deal of pain due to the experience of shame.
Shame is one of the most powerfully isolating emotions. In the case of moral injury, it cuts one off from a sense of belonging to under the sacred canopy of universal humanity. It strips one of a sense of identity as a decent human being, leading to profound sense of isolation. This is why it is so dangerous.
Luckily, there is hope of recovery. Part of this recovery requires one to recognize the broader forces that contributed to the incident in order to remove the sense of self-blame. 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.”
In my next post, I will expand on various programs and therapies dedicated to healing moral injury. As for now, I hope this has been helpful in conveying the danger of moral injury and how understanding it will help us prevent suicides among veterans.
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