original posted: 11-1-2016
Level of violation
The perceived violator of moral goodness
Leader who wielded authority over the soldier (e.g., section leader, commander, POTUS)
Whoever is responsible for the world, aka, God.
“I did something terrible. I’m a bad person.”
“I was screwed by ‘higher.’ I trusted them literally with my life but was used and abused. I risked my life and took others’ lives, and my buddies died, for someone who didn’t care.”
“No real God would allow this situation to take place. This is irrational, horrifying, unfair, more than I can handle. This world sucks.”
Guilt, shame, self-harm, risky behavior.
Anger at the organization, cynicism, loss of faith in human institutions, inability to trust.
Anger at God, loss of faithin God, doubt goodness of world, demoralization.
substance abuse, suicidality
- One catalyst of moral injury is feeling deeply betrayed by a legitimate authority. This thesis was initially put forth in the 1990's by Dr. Jonathan Shay, a Veterans' Administration psychiatrist who had worked with Vietnam War veterans for decades. Shay argues that moral injury is caused by three elements:
- A betrayal of what’s right
- By someone who holds legitimate authority (e.g., in the military--a leader)
- In a high-stakes situation
In the decade previous, I'd written about this form of moral injury--calling it PTSD or PITS--in non-peer-reviewed media:
Instances of senseless, unfair evil that have been described to me include: good people dying horrible deaths and bad people escaping death, due to “luck”; the carnage after a VBIED, including innocent children grievously wounded or blown literally into pieces; encountering the victims of sectarian cleansing, tortured to death by power drills to their heads or other inhumane methods.
A framework that accounts for all three catalysts of moral injury would be:
- A betrayal of what’s right
- By "someone" you previously trusted, which may be:
- yourself--your own moral judgment/courage; and/or
- a legitimate authority in your chain of command (from NCO to President); and/or
- In a high-stakes situation such as war
Moral injury is the psychological, social, and/or spiritual harm that results from experiencing a violation of a deeply held moral belief, perpetrated by a trusted authority, in a high-stakes situation such as war.
- the soldier, when he/she does something that violates their own moral code.
- a leader (or entire chain of command), when he/she disregards the humanity of the soldier.
- God, or the soldier's sense of the divine, when the soldier encounters senseless, unfair suffering.
Army Chaplain (COL) Timothy Mallard has made a similar point, arguing that while "warriors often do experience moral injury as currently defined [definitions 1 and 2, above], they also often suffer something else"—what he calls 'spiritual injury'. He concludes, "Moral injury and spiritual injury are sibling twins of the same mother, yet they are undoubtedly distinct; like all twins, they must be treated as individuals."
Perhaps that is the case, or perhaps all moral injury is spiritual injury. Moral and spiritual injury may be the same phenomenon, looked at through different lenses. After all, if God is the foundation of morality, then even definitions 1 and 2 implicate God.
I recommend Mallard's entire article, The (Twin) Wounds of War," available at https://providencemag.com/2017/02/twin-wounds-war-spiritual-injury-moral-injury/
Also, if you're interested in how leadership can prevent or reduce moral injury, I invite you to read "Military leaders' role in mitigating moral injury" posted here on Veterans Day 2016: http://soldier-ethicist.blogspot.com/2016/11/the-military-leaders-role-in-mitigating.html