My Conscience vs Public Affairs

Today I came across an email I wrote in 2004--an email that empowered me to create this blog 13 years ago.  I'd like to share the story of that email.

In March, 2002, Military Review published my first essay on war-related moral injury, "Military Leaders' Obligation to Justify Killing in War." That November, a New York Times Magazine article, "A Bulletproof Mind" by Peter Maas, quoted from my essay:

"A recent article in Military Review, a magazine published every other month by the Army, warned that reflex-quick killing can be a psychological time bomb. “Training soldiers to kill efficiently is good for them because it helps them survive on the battlefield,” wrote Maj. Peter Kilner, who teaches philosophy at West Point. “However, training soldiers to kill without explaining to them why it is morally permissible to kill in combat is harmful…. When soldiers kill reflexively—when military training has effectively undermined their moral autonomy—they morally deliberate their actions only after the fact. If they are unable to justify what they have done, they often suffer guilt and psychological trauma.”

The articles led to a request by 60 Minutes for an interview, but Army Public Affairs forbid me to participate.  In fact, for the next 16 months, the Army Public Affairs HQ denied every media request I received, explaining to me that "killing is not a 'good news story' for the Army" and that it's mission-essential to maintain public support for the war by supporting only positive stories.

As I witnessed the problem of undiagnosed war-related moral injuries proliferate among veterans of Afghanistan and then Iraq in 2003-04, my conscience demanded that I speak out. I sent the following email to leaders in Army PAO in the Pentagon:

[begin text of email]

My father’s brother returned from the Korean War as one of the most decorated Marines in history.  And then he spent several years in a mental hospital and was, in the words of my grandmother, “never the same.”  He never talked about the war, and everyone was afraid to ask him about it.  But, no problem, the media never got word of his condition.

And the 50-ish guy working at the USMA blood drive in 1999 who screamed, “There’s no FUCKING morality in war” (after I had told him, in response to his small-talk question, that I taught a course on morality and war).  He and I didn’t talk about it.  Shaking and near tears, he told me he wasn’t ready to talk about the war yet.  After all, it had only been 30 years since his tour of duty.  But hey, no problem, the media never got word of it.

And the 1SG who had served in Desert Storm and who had killed two Iraqi soldiers point blank in a bunker.  He was in Walter Reed in 1997 when his former platoon leader, a classmate of mine, visited him after his second attempt at suicide.  My classmate talked with this emotionally destroyed former warrior, and he attributed the breakdown to the killing that his 1SG had done in battle.  But again, no problem, the media didn’t get a hold of it.

And the PFC who killed himself several years after he fought with the Rangers in Mogadishu.  Like many of his buddies, he was afflicted by PTSD.  His platoon leader—another classmate of mine--and his platoon sergeant both urged me to pursue the issue of combat and PTSD, because they have seen what has happened to their soldiers.  But I don’t know what they’re worried about—after all, the media hasn’t gotten hold of the story.  No bad press, no problem.

And the Engineer platoon leader in the 3rd ID in the Battle for Baghdad—who was an absolute hero at OBJ MOE.  He resigned from the Army after his redeployment, telling me, “I’ve done more than my share of killing for my country.”  The hollowness in his eyes betrayed a deep sadness.  But as long as he doesn’t talk to the media, no problem.

Gosh, I still remember it to this day, my commissioning oath, when I swore to never do anything that could risk the short-term public-relations image of the Army, even if I had to neglect the welfare of America’s sons and daughters.  To be honest, sometimes I do lose sight of my oath, and find myself feeling a strong attachment to those who are willing to give their lives to ensure my country’s security.  And then I get an email like I did today from all of you and I’m reminded, soldiers are mere props for public relations.  Thanks for setting me straight.

Perhaps I should, as you suggest, stick to talking only about CompanyCommand and PlatoonLeader [popular websites I helped run].  But here’s the catch. The fire within that compels me to serve company-level leaders via leadership of professional forums also beckons me to serve combat soldiers by doing whatever I can to protect their psyches.  The day I stop putting Soldiers and the Mission first is the day that my fellow professionals should tell me that I am no longer worthy to bear the title of Army officer.  

Despite my best intentions to serve God, country, community, and family, I am sure that some people will be able to say bad things about me when my days on earth are done.  But they will never be able to accuse me of moral cowardice.   

Peter G. Kilner
Major, United States Army

[end email]

I cc'd my boss at West Point, then-Colonel (now BG Retired) Barney Forsythe, on the email to HQ PAO.  He responded, "I'm proud to serve with you!"  I couldn't have asked for better support from my West Point leaders.

After sending that email, I reached out to the journalist who had most recently contacted me, Dan Baum, and worked with him to develop a July 12, 2004, New Yorker cover story titled "The Price of Valor."  That story helped to spark national awareness on the moral and psychological costs of killing.

I'm sharing this story and this email to encourage others to follow their consciences.  Yes, one colonel in PAO threatened to "destroy [my] career," but it turned out to be an empty threat.  I did what was right (I still think that the sarcasm was appropriate to convey my message), and my Army career became even more meaningful.  I am very grateful to all the people who have worked with me over the years (online and off-line) to advance ideas and generate conversations that have been healthy for soldiers, their loved ones, our country, and the profession of arms worldwide.

P.S. It's important to note that the Public Affairs officers could not legally forbid me from talking with media; they could only "strongly advise" against it.  So, I did not disobey a legal order.  I did conclude that their gag order was immoral in the widest sense of the term.

Causes of Moral Injury--Personal, Organizational, and Divine (Perceived) Betrayals

By Pete Kilner, Ph.D.
revision of "A Third Form of Moral Injury" (11-11-2016)

Currently, the academic literature on moral injury recognizes two causes of moral injury. I think that it’s largely overlooking a third cause, one that involves religious belief and the mystery of evil.

Evidence indicates that combat-related moral injury is caused not only (1) by feeling betrayed by an authority figure and (2) by doing (or failing to prevent) actions that violate your own moral beliefs, but also (3) by encountering large-scale, senseless violence and suffering.

Comparing Three Causes of Moral Injury
Pete Kilner, Ph.D.  Updated 16 Jan 2018

  1. One cause 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

2. Over the past seven years, a second cause of moral injury has been discussed--where the injury is caused by the soldier’s own actions that violated his/her deeply held moral values. This view was first published in peer-reviewed journals by Litz, Nash, Maguen, and others in 2009. See

In the decade previous, I'd written about this form of moral injury--calling it PTSD or PITS--in non-peer-reviewed media:

"Military Leaders’ Obligation to Justify Killing in War" (JSCOPE 2000, Military Review 2002)

"The Military Leader’s Role in Preventing Combat-related, Perpetration-Induced, Psychological Trauma" (JSCOPE 2005)

"A Moral Justification for Killing in War" (Army Magazine 2010)

3. A third cause of moral injury is recognized by many military chaplains but has received little attention from researchers; it is moral injury that results from encountering evil so base and widespread that it shatters soldiers' assumptions about human goodness and ultimate justice. Overwhelmed by the injustice and suffering of war, combat veterans cannot make sense of what theologians call “the mystery of evil.” They blame God or reject their previous belief in God, resulting in moral injury.

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
    • God
  • In a high-stakes situation such as war

A definition of moral injury, then, might be…

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 “trusted authority” who betrays and loses that trust can be:

  1. the soldier, when he/she does something that violates their own moral code.
  2. a leader (or entire chain of command), when he/she disregards the humanity of the soldier.
  3. God, or the soldier's sense of the divine, when the soldier encounters senseless, unfair suffering.

Moral injury can be acute (resulting from a particular incident) or cumulative (resulting over time from a series of incidents).

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

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:

Rules of War are Inadequate to Guide Cyber Operations in War

The current rules of war assume that a country can answer three fundamental questions: 
  1.  Are we at war?
  2.  What country are we at war against?
  3.  Whom or what may we legitimately target?

The nature of cyberwarfare muddles the answers to each of those three questions.

A much-needed update to the laws of war should begin with a thorough moral analysis of the nature of 21st-century warfare. That analysis would set the conditions for an informed public dialogue about morality and war. The conversations should be public because war is a public act carried out on behalf of the people and in their name. Now that cyber operations have become integrated into wartime combat operations, their role should no longer be secret. The public dialogue’s resulting consensus and contours would enable international legal experts to write a system of laws that are morally grounded, internally consistent and internationally understood.
See the entire ARMY Magazine (January 2018) article Ethics of Cyber Operations 

The Military Leader’s Role in Mitigating Moral Injury

War is a breeding ground for moral injury. Even in a justified [1] war that is fought justly, combat soldiers are likely to intentional...