On April 25, 2019 Georgetown Professor of Philosophy Nancy Sherman gave a lecture titled “Moral Injury and Resilience through a Stoic Lens: Homecomings for Iraq/Afghanistan Veterans.” In her lecture, she made the case that the moral injuries soldiers experience in war are carried back with them upon returning home, and that looking back to classical Stoic philosophy in a more critical way can serve society in helping to resolve this contemporary issue.
As a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, I was interested in attending the lecture and responding to her argument regarding moral injury and Stoic philosophy as it relates to the modern warfare soldier. Rather than focus on the exact definitions of Stoic philosophy, I will explain how the modern soldier can relate to it so well in perspectives of war.
Before I begin, I want to make clear that I use the word “soldier” as an all-encompassing term. My use of “soldier” stems from my own service in the Army, even though I know that the term does not apply to service members in the Navy, Marines or Air Force. With that said, I come to my first point: moral injury.
This term refers to the anguish, guilt and moral tension many soldiers feel, but it is not necessarily always coupled with PTSD. Moral injury refers to the emotional shame and psychological damage incurred from experiences that soldiers have witnessed, or of which they have been a part, through no fault of their own. As I have explained it here, it does seem to overlap with the signs and symptoms of PTSD, but the perceived differences will be covered later. Here, moral injuries are not physical wounds but psychological. However, it is important to note that they are still wounds nonetheless.
They are not only caused by bullets or bombs. They are caused whenever a soldier’s sense of right and wrong has been violated, whenever their sense of morality is upended. They can also be caused whenever a morally wrong decision must be taken in order to protect one’s life or the life of another. Consider, for example, the decision to airstrike a military target, leading to collateral damage of civilian casualties.
Technological innovations since 2001 have made U.S. soldiers sent to Iraq and Afghanistan the most well-equipped and skilled in history. But that technology has placed a heavy burden on soldiers to make morally questionable decisions that are legally justified in the Rules of Engagement (ROE).
The ROE are directives given out by military commanders that outline the circumstances and limitations under which forces will engage in combat with the enemy. Simply put, these are the rules for killing another human being. If the ROE has justified a possible action, a soldier has the legal right to shoot to kill.
But what if moral issues come into play? What if the enemy combatant is a woman or child who is supplying ammunition or arms to insurgents? Worse yet, what if that woman or child is the enemy combatant? Legally and technically under the ROE, a soldier can kill those individuals. But upon doing so, that soldier will live with the morally ambiguous decision that they have taken. The morality is questionable, the legality justifiable. What further complicates this situation is that military officers are given authority to adjust ROE as needed and based on differing situational circumstances. The battlefield is a complex, fluid and constantly changing environment. The fight now becomes a two-front affair; one with a visible enemy, the other with an invisible moral wound.
In general, it is easy to think of soldiers as Stoics, or individuals who can experience extreme adversity without expressing emotion. In our modern vernacular, the term has come to mean controlled, disciplined and not easily agitated or disturbed. In many ways, basic combat training is a soldier’s introduction to Stoicism. Military leaders and non-commissioned officers cultivate these traits, and soldiers abide by them in their daily lives.
It is also because Stoicism tries to teach self-sufficiency, and the importance of detaching oneself from dependence on the worldly goods that make us vulnerable, that the modern soldier adheres to Stoic tenets so easily. Stoicism, to the modern soldier, is attractive because it also advocates for the detachment of emotions that marks our investment in morally fraught situations that are beyond our control. Stoicism prepares a soldier for war and the situations in which they must make difficult decisions without emotional attachment.
This can be a high a price to pay. There are missions that come first and brothers-and-sisters in arms that depend on the soldier to perform their duty above all. The capacity to grieve, to mourn someone’s dead companion, or the ability to comes to terms with actions taken, is crucial to a soldier’s survival. But in war, contemporary soldiers do not have time to grieve. Yet deferring this grief has devastating psychological consequences later on for the soldier.
In my view, a soldier’s enemy’s actions are rarely as harmful as the moral injury soldiers incur and the effects of symptoms of PTSD. Normally, the two terms are seen as having differences. Moral injuries are less likely to be caused by physical injury, and PTSD injuries are more likely to come from physical injury.
However, these two terms overlap: The soldiers experiencing PTSD, and the ones facing the consequences of moral injury, endure similar moral crises: questioning actions taken, dealing with survivor’s guilt, doubting the moral validity of or justifications for their involvement, and feelings of isolation and despair. Furthermore, they face mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. In its extreme forms, moral injury or PTSD can alter a soldier’s very character. This change in character can occur in part because, upon return, most veterans experience a disconnect with the society that deemed it necessary for them to go to war in the first place. In fact, only a very small percentage of the population today serves in the armed forces when compared to the proportion that served in Vietnam and WWII (Pew Research Center, “A Profile of the Modern Military” 10.05.2011).
The citizen-soldier divide must be fixed, so that society can share the burden of moral injury with today’s service members. The gap between citizen and soldier is growing even wider than just the numbers. Whereas in WWII the entire nation’s focus was on purchasing war bonds and defeating the Nazis, today’s populace is forgetful and virtually unaffected by wars abroad. Because the populace is more concerned about their day-to-day lives, the soldier’s work and experiences render them an outcast, feeling as though nothing they did mattered for the country they served.
The romanticized ideal of soldiers fighting “the good fight” against a morally evil enemy persists, furthering the disconnect. Everyone is more intrigued by heroic narratives we assume to be truth than by the ugly reality of what combat really is. They cannot relate to their peers, friends or even family for fears of being viewed as some type of monster, or being lauded as some kind of hero when they feel the things they did were morally ambiguous or wrong. No citizen wants to have the conversation with the soldier for fear of being disrespectful to their service, because they opposed the war, or because they feel like they won’t be able to relate because they themselves did not serve.
As a society that has remained complacent in creating moral injuries, we are responsible for providing aid to the soldiers who carry moral burdens when they return home. In our democracy, we vote to put people in charge of our governing bodies that send our troops overseas. Even if you don’t vote, elected officials will continue to send people to war, and these individuals will continue coming home with moral injuries weighing on them, preventing their reintegration into society.
As Dr. Jonathan Schay, the clinical psychologist who coined the term moral injury, says, in order to find healing, the soldier and society must come together. He states that we must come alongside the soldier and confess: “What you did was done in our name, at our request. We cannot bear your physical wounds, or psychological scars, but we can bear the moral responsibility with you. Your transgressions in war, they are our transgressions, too. We confess this together, and seek forgiveness together” (Medium, “The Conversation About War and Our Veterans We Refuse to Have,” 05.26.2016).
Recovery for modern soldiers can only happen in community. According to combat-wounded veteran Benjamin Sledge, “Whether you are opposed to or agree with war, what we must remember is that these are our fellow brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, flesh and blood, who are desperate to reconnect with a world they feel no longer understands them. We must try and find common ground together. We’re not asking you to agree with our actions, but help us bear the burden of carrying them on behalf of the country you live in” (Medium, “The Conversation About War and Our Veterans We Refuse to Have,” 05.26.2016).
No one in their right mind wants war—we want peace, and no one exemplifies this desire more than the soldier.