Military Moral Injury Psychology Sociology

Recovering From Moral Injury

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 WarRita 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.

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  1. I was not expecting to be so touched by your website when you followed my blog today. My brother is a veteran with PTSD and has been “on the edge” for several years. This article really helped clarify a lot of things for me! It’s hard to understand what he’s been through and how it’s affected him and many other like him. Thank you for your website!

  2. I’ve read a couple of your blog posts now, and I was thinking about events in my own life. Outside of the context of moral injury in warfare. It should be theoretically possible to have a moral injury any time there is a contradiction between one’s perceived morals, and the actions that they take when called upon to do so. Failing to live up to one’s own standards, leading to regrets, or just general guilt/shame/despair.

    It may not be as drastic as taking another human life, but depending upon convictions, would it not be comparable to killing animals if a person is a vegan? Or any other sort of moral offenses that one does that goes against their “grain”? Being drilled with bodily shame, and original sin if Christian (Catholic…etc)? Developing convictions that go against what is “sensibly acceptable”? Ex; with most religions there’s an advocacy for an “afterlife”…there’s no evidence of such, and even if there were. Couldn’t one conceivably wonder if this life is an “afterlife” already? Thus destroying ascetic convictions? In short there always seems like there could be a moral stance that contradicts one’s own.

    Anyways, just some my thoughts, and thanks for the follow on my blog. Not sure why you did to an extent, but I’m not gonna probe (looking a gift horse in the mouth type notions). Although I will say, a lot of my work on my game, “Decayed Laurels”, came from a perceived moral injury, and the notion of a decadent society. Thanks again.

  3. Steve another great post. In my 4 1/2 years in the Army, back in the Vietnam Era, I was not in “combat arms”. So, I did not go through any such, first hand, sense of moral loss. However, I do see some semblance of this, one in recent events, and one in a well-regarded book that I look forward to reading.

    Captain Humayun Khan had last spoken to his mother, Ghazala Khan, on Mothers’ Day 2004. When she asked him why he must go back to Iraq, since his time in the Army had ended\, he said that he must return to protect his men. You might recall seeing Captain Kahn’s parents, Khizr and Ghazila, confront Donald Trump, on TV as Gold Star Parents, from the DNC Convention, in Philadelphia recently.

    There is also a book, “Tribe,” by Sebastian Junger, which discusses this very point. In fact, A couple of hundred years ago, in frontier America, there were situations where Colonists, who had been captured by Indians, were “rescued”; however, they returned to live with the Indians for their communal way of life.

  4. soldiers or grunts are the castoffs of society that doesn’t believe there is such a thing as society, but rather a collection of winners and losers and the latter only have themselves to blame. Your post gives another perspective, but you’re preaching to the converted.

  5. As a rather old veteran from America’s Southeast Asian conflict, I recalled long forgotten thoughts as I read your post. Religion to me is an important component of any war. The conflict of the clergy wearing military uniforms and the clinging to whatever faith one has in desperate times was and is confusing to me. Although I possess limited knowledge of psychology I appreciate your purpose in writing this piece. Thanks.

  6. Steve:

    I found these thoughts to be profound, and depressingly challenging. I have a sense, though, of a bridge that needs to be crossed. In reading Junger’s War, I had a clear sense that those in combat are conditioned to operate in a pathological neurochemical state. By implication, healing may require strategies similar to drug rehabilitation.

    A common theme here, as I understand it, is that returning veterans are also acutely sensitive to the lack of meaning in modern consumer culture. We have an attenuated connection to the mechanisms that sustain our survival (farming, protection from the elements, etc.) and so we focus our energies on social and political conflicts that are meaningful only over years or decades.

    Moral rehabilitation seems to open a third aspect to the mix, potentially affecting the sense that investment in social reintegration is merited.

    This leads me to the conclusion that therapy and reintegration must be tailored to the returning warrior. If so, what methods are used to assess the strategy to be pursued?

    And as regards rituals for moral rehabilitation: are the armed forces open to the development of such practices? What kind of participation is needed from civilians?

  7. Hello Steve, ‘Recovering from moral injury’ is the very first article I’ve read from your hand. Thanks for your insights, especially on spirituality. Despite – or just because – the fact I live my life completely ‘godless’, being an atheist freethinker, I like your article very much. Also my compliments for the ‘clean’ layout of your blog. And, by the way, thanks for following my blog ‘Unbelievable!’. Until next mutual ‘readings’!

    1. Thank you for this comment. My start to blogging was in the freethinking realm; I had written a blog for a few years titled, ‘atheist spirituality’, so your area resonates with me. I think you’ve been able to connect with this article, despite your atheism, due to my sociological interpretation of religion and spirituality that does not posit a particular set of transcendental truth claims.

    1. Thank you again for your comment and your interest in my articles. I don’t think it’s necessarily one or the other, but rather, a wide range of issues that are often being reported too narrowly through a psychological discourse.

  8. Has any work been done on the way that funerals (not one’s own, obviously, but those of others which a person attends) can be helpful or harmful in this?

    Recently I’ve had cause to plan funerals for military veterans, and I have been uneasy at the way their military service has been presented within the liturgical framework, but I am not sure if that is just personal unease or an instinctive sense of something unhelpful/unhealthy at work.

    1. Thank you for this intriguing comment! I have not seen any literature on this, but I am now very interested in learning more! Can you tell me exactly which aspects you felt uncomfortable with?

      1. Very often, in the context of a worship service, military service is presented in terms of service and sacrifice; which, in a religious framework, take on sacred meaning, as these are also key ideas about God and our relationship with God.

        There is seldom any acknowledgement that the military service may not have been oriented to holy ends, or that the experiences of war may have been other than what God would have wanted that person to do (so the moral injury is glossed over in romantic rhetoric and with solemn ceremonies involving flags and poppies and all that stuff).

        And I can’t help but feel that this is not honest, and not appropriate, and yet how do you, in a funeral where you are trying to honour the deceased and farewell them in a respectful way, find a way to say, “Well, actually, this person got caught up in something ghastly and we shouldn’t pretend that it was noble?”

        Does that make sense?

        1. I completely agree that there is something uncomfortable about the state narrative. This reminds me of a Canadian story that came out a few years ago on a veteran who died by suicide, leaving a note saying that he did not want a military funeral, expressing his frustration with the institution. The military hid this note and did a military funeral anyway. A few years later the family discovered this cover-up and went through a long legal process to express their grievances and receive some kind of apology/ acknowledgment regarding the truth of their son’s passing.

  9. Steve: Thanks for this post on moral injury. In my experience working with veterans, it is often missed under our current hyper focus on the specifics of critical events believed to cause problems like PTSD. And, extraordinary events can over-whelm one’s nervous system in their own right. Reactions of shame and guilt, however, almost invariably point to a moral component which presents a significant challenge to the usual ways of understanding military trauma. An equally important reaction to moral trauma on the other end of the spectrum is outrage – the failed promises of specialness, the disjuncture between military codes/values and what actually transpires on the ground in these places, and the return to anonymity, separatenes, and silence when soldiers return to their units post-deployment. I think we need to understand why so many veterans are intensely angry (at least among those I work with). I have addressed this issues and offered some suggestions in my recent book: Ghost in the Ranks: Forgotten voices and military mental health.

    Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks again for another thought-provoking comment, John! I just bought your book and want to do a post on it in the future. If it’s okay with you, I would likely do a post similar to this one where I discuss the book’s central insight with a series of important quotes and some reflection on the practical application.

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