Upon returning from war, many veterans experience a sense of guilt or shame resulting from incidents that occurred during their deployment. As discussed in my previous post on why moral injury is so dangerous, the sense of isolation and shame can result in suicide. Here, I consider a few novel ways moral injury can be combated, beyond individual psychological treatment.
In the book, Soul Repair: Recovering From Moral Injury After War, Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini provide insight into the power of community in healing from moral injuries. It is this sense of community we may be sorely lacking in the modern world. They state:
In many traditional societies, all returning soldiers were required to undergo a period of ritual purification and rehabilitation before re-entering their ordinary lives after war.
Religion developed as an institutionalized means of ensuring social solidarity in traditional contexts where widely shared moral precepts regulated behaviors, integrating individuals into communal life. The christian church developed their own version of ritual purification. The authors state:
Christian churches in the first millennium required anyone who “shed human blood” to undergo a rehabilitation process that included reverting to the status of someone who had not yet been baptized and was undergoing training in Christian faith.
This form of ritual serves powerful cognitive and communal functions. It allows individuals to process difficult experiences, facilitate grieving, and integrate the individual back into a larger communal whole.
In modern society, traditional institutions have taken a back seat to secular systems that often fall short on effective methods of reintegration. Psychological screening and preparatory transition courses are beneficial, but they focus on the head, often neglecting the metaphorical heart. Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini state:
…many veterans do not believe their moral struggles are psychological illnesses needing treatment. Instead, they experience their feelings as a profound spiritual crisis that has changed them, perhaps beyond repair.
The concept of spirituality often varies, but citing Robert Wuthnow in his book, After Heaven, he argues that “at its core, spirituality consists of all the beliefs and activities by which individuals attempt to relate their lives to God or to a divine being or some other conception of a transcendent reality.” This concept of a transcendent reality is composed of an idea regarding the “true”nature of reality. This often anchors our moral precepts, guiding our concept of what it means to live a good life.
Traditionally, religious communities provided the foundation to our spirituality, providing us with rituals, texts, and creation narratives. In modern society, spirituality has become relatively detached from religion and many people are turning to individualized forms of experiencing the sacred. We do not like the idea of religious institutions providing us with life-templates.
The problem is that we cannot simply do away with institutional life and the meaning-systems that have oriented our communal lives. This is especially relevant for those undergoing fundamental life transitions, finding themselves disoriented in a world that no-longer makes sense.
Whether provided by religion or a secular institution, we require a sense of the sacred to regain purpose. In this sociological sense, the word ‘sacred’ simply refers to something collectively regarded as special, held in high regard, and is often associated with an idea of purity. A sense of service to the modern sacred ideal of universal humanity can fulfill this purpose.
When this sacred obligation is transgressed during the fog of war, individuals need to reorient themselves by grieving any losses and undergoing a form of atonement that brings them back within the sacred ideal. At its etymological root, to atone means to be “at one.” Reentry into communal life requires one to regain a sense of service to a sacred ideal. Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini state:
A society that ends a war with a parade and returns to its entertainments, consumerism, celebrity worship, and casual commitments in order to forget its wars offers no purpose worth pursuing.
Harms from war are not just part of an individual diagnosis, rather, we need to look at how social processes produce individual and collective problems. This requires not only thinking more carefully about our reasons for going to war, but also about the institutional gap our veterans are expected to navigate during the transition home. As one Veteran states in Soul Repair:
I belonged. I knew what was expected of me, and I had become ruthlessly proficient at fulfilling those expectations. Here I am a misfit, an aberration, isolated and alone.
Lucky, in the U.S, U.K, and now in Canada, we are making progress building transition programs that help bridge the institutional gap. Team Rubicon is making great strides allowing Veterans to regain a sense of humanitarian service through being redeployed to assist in disaster relief, allowing them to use their skills to help others in need.
Recovery from moral injury cannot happen in isolation. We need to consider forms of counseling, group therapy, and innovative programming that allows individuals to regain a sense service upon leaving the service.