War can be an Experience of both Heaven and Hell

Many combat veterans have a love/hate relationship with their wartime experiences. They love the profound sense of purpose that their liv...

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 https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/co-occurring/moral_injury_at_war.asp

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 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

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 

Leaders should love their soldiers

    The first time I heard the expression, “Leaders should love their soldiers,” I dismissed it as corny, soft, and unrealistic. Over the course of my Army career, however, my understanding of what it means to love soldiers grew steadily. I now believe that military leadership entails a moral obligation to love soldiers in ways that are appropriate for senior-subordinate relationships.

    I initially made sense of the dictum to love my soldiers by interpreting it strictly in military terms. I embraced the famous adage by German General Erwin Rommel that “the best form of welfare for the troops is first-class training, for this saves unnecessary casualties.” 

    According to this approach, leaders love their soldiers by being professionally competent. It’s a task-oriented, “they may hate me now, but they’ll love me later” form of love that focuses on pursuing outcomes that are unquestionably good for soldiers—victory and survival. However, this approach can leave some soldiers feeling that they are mere cogs in the military machine. Even soldiers who win and survive due to great training and well-led operations can feel used and exploited by their leaders.

    I observed a second, more individualized type of love in units during and after their combat deployments. It is the love of admiration and appreciation. When leaders witness their soldiers dutifully executing missions day after day, month after month--despite the fear, exhaustion, and disillusionment they all are enduring—intense feelings of respect and gratitude arise within the leaders. 

    This “Band of Brothers and Sisters” form of love often lasts for a lifetime and is evident at unit reunions. This love is sublime and praiseworthy but ultimately insufficient for leaders, for it is a love focused on the subordinate as a soldier, not necessarily as a person who possesses other meaningful identities as well. When soldiers are loved by their leaders because they performed their duties well in very difficult circumstances, it’s a conditional love that’s best described as camaraderie. Soldiers may still be left feeling that they were merely brave, honorable cogs in the machine.

    I began to understand a third, even more meaningful approach to loving my soldiers when a fellow Army leader challenged me with a penetrating question. “Do you think of your subordinates primarily as soldiers who happen to have personal lives on the side?” he asked. “Or, instead, do you think of them primarily as people just like you who happen to be soldiers at this point in their lives?” 

    I had to admit to myself that I unconsciously held the former attitude. I thought of my soldiers primarily as human resources to be developed, trained, and led to accomplish missions. I did genuinely enjoy their company and care about their welfare. Nevertheless, I related to them as soldiers, not as people who had their own life histories and dreams. I didn’t think about how they had grown up as civilians and would likely live many more decades as civilians after they’d finished their military service. 

    Reflecting on these questions also opened my eyes to how deeply I wanted my own leaders to appreciate me for who I am, not only for what I could do for them and the unit. As a soldier, I wanted to believe that any leaders who might send me on life-threatening missions would at least recognize that my entire life, not simply the welfare of one of their soldiers, was at stake.

    This “recognition of each soldier’s humanity” form of love has enormous practical implications in units. Leaders who see the humanity of their soldiers are able to empathize with them, and empathetic leaders are more effective and less toxic. They are also more likely to recognize the humanity of enemy combatants and civilians on the battlefield, and thus be more apt to lead morally in war.

    Through my opportunities to study combat leadership and moral injury over the past two decades, I came to appreciate a fourth way that leaders can love their soldiers—by providing them moral leadership. 

    When soldiers enlist in the Army, they willingly accept risk not only to their lives but also to their souls. In their Oath of Enlistment, they vow to obey the orders of the officers appointed over them, knowing full well that those orders may require them to kill other human beings. Military enlistments, then, are awe-inspiring, humbling expressions of trust by the enlistees that their country will provide them with morally trustworthy leaders. Out of love for their country, soldiers allow their consciences to become vulnerable to leaders they have not yet met.

    Soldiers in war want to do what’s right and honorable, but war creates conditions that make that difficult. Soldiers deserve leaders who direct and permit them to do only what is morally right, who help them make sense of the moral complexities of war, and who have earned the “moral capital” to steer them through moral dilemmas. 

    We know that leaders’ moral character and decision making in war have impacts on their soldiers’ consciences in the years ahead. Soldiers who had confidence in their leadership’s character and who did not commit illegal acts are less likely to suffer from post-war psychological and moral injuries. For the sake of their soldiers’ long-term moral and psychological well-being, then, leaders can love their soldiers by demanding that their units always do the right things, for the right reasons, because they value their own and their soldiers’ moral integrity.  

    A fifth, most-demanding form of soldierly love is expressed when leaders put themselves at risk to protect their subordinates. One reason that combat veterans remember fondly (and even yearn to re-experience) their combat deployments—despite the risks and horrors of war—is the sacrificial love that characterizes many small units in war. For the only time in their lives, soldiers are surrounded by people who literally would die for them and for whom they would willingly give their own lives. 

    Leaders have many opportunities to sacrifice for their soldiers during peacetime operations, too. Unfortunately, when it comes to protecting their subordinates, many leaders are more willing to risk their own lives in war than their careers at home station. 

    I was privileged to witness a situation in which a leader did sacrifice his career to protect one of his soldiers. A good Army captain had made a bad error in judgment and faced a career-ending general-officer memorandum of reprimand (GOMOR). The captain’s rater, a lieutenant colonel, went to the general officer and took full responsibility for the climate in which his subordinate made the fateful error. “If someone’s career is going to end over this, let it be mine,” he reportedly said. 

    The general obliged him. The lieutenant colonel received the GOMOR and retired soon after; his once-high likelihood of promotion had been reduced to zero. The captain went on to achieve a successful career. I continue to be inspired by that leader’s example of selfless love for his subordinate. 

    From my first day as a military professional, I knew that I had a duty to lead my soldiers. Over the years, I learned that I also have a duty to love them, due to the unique character of military service. Military service is more than a job or even a vocation; it is a 24/7/365 relationship between soldiers and their leaders that involves the highest possible stakes—life and death, killing and dying. 

    Out of love for their country, soldiers willingly risk everything they love. They deserve leaders who love them back.

                                                   by Pete Kilner, Lieutenant Colonel (Retired), US Army

Beware the Dark Side of Loyalty

Loyalty has long been considered a military virtue, which it can be, but it must be kept in check. Unlike other Army Values, loyalty is not a reliable guide for ethical conduct. Feelings of loyalty often compel soldiers to disregard their ethical responsibilities.

When it comes to loyalty, the challenge for Army leaders is to ensure it doesn’t grow out of control and begin to strangle more important organizational values.

In my December ARMY article, I challenge leaders to ensure that misplaced loyalties do not undermine their unit's ethical climate.

Is Loyalty Overvalued?

Think deeply. Act justly.


Refuting some bad assumptions about morality and war

As a military ethicist who strives to engage in constructive conversations about the morality of war, I’ve come to recognize five common misconceptions that sabotage efforts to think critically about morality and war. The mistaken assumptions undermine any realistic possibility of a war being morally justified. Therefore, the misconceptions must be addressed and debunked to set the conditions for meaningful discussions.

The five misconceptions are:

  1. Peace is always an option.
  2. Both sides in war are always wrong.
  3. Warfighting is analogous morally to a sports competition.
  4. Motives must be pure for a war to be just.
  5. Any immoral acts in a war make the entire war immoral.
I invite you to read the entire article and share your thoughts.

Think deeply. Act justly.


Practicing What We Preach has Ethical Implications

Whenever an organization preaches one standard but practices a different one, all of its standards are compromised. Members don't know which standards really matter. 

In war, ambiguity about ethical standards can lead to terrible consequences. Therefore, military eaders should go out of their way to ensure alignment between their unit's words and deeds on ethical standards.

I addressed this topic in my September 2017 ARMY column, which concludes:

"Ethical ambiguity leads to ethical confusion, and ethical confusion sets conditions in which there is greater risk that unethical behavior will spin out of control. That is unfair to soldiers and dangerous for everyone involved.

Leaders can foster ethical climates by encouraging their soldiers to identify and bring to their attention any gaps between stated standards and enforced standards. Leaders and their soldiers should discuss any gaps as professionals to make a good determination about which standard—the stated one or the practiced and enforced one—ought to be adjusted.

Leaders should never abdicate their duty to explicitly state and take responsibility for their units’ actual standards—particularly when changes are needed—because soldiers deserve to know unequivocally what is expected of them, especially ethically. Soldiers have volunteered to fight, kill and even die for what is right, so they deserve to know with certainty what is right."

Bending the Rules: Ambiguous Standards, Falsified Records Cause Ethical Harm

I invite and welcome your comments. A two-page essay can never address any complex topic's issues as deeply and thoroughly as we'd like.

Think deeply. Act justly.


Ethical Challenges of Advising Foreign Militaries

The U.S. Army has 187,000+ soldiers deployed to 140+ countries. Few of them are engaged directly in combat operations.  Instead, most of them are advising and training foreign military forces.

Very often, those foreign military forces behave unethically, at least as we outsiders perceive the situations. 

Commanders owe their soldiers clear guidance on how they expect them to approach the intercultural ethical challenges they will encounter. Advisers are most effective when they have a shared understanding of when to intervene, when to influence and when to ignore a counterpart’s behavior.

My August 2017 column in ARMY magazine addressed this topic.
Divergent Ethics: Facing a Foreign Partner who has a Different Moral Code

I welcome and invite feedback and discussion.


Deployment-related Professional Development Resources

I know that units ramping up for a deployment are incredibly busy. You want to conduct professional-development sessions on deployment-related topics but may struggle to find the time to prepare them. In conjunction with your Association of the United States Army, for whom I’ve written for over a decade, we offer this compilation of off-the-shelf LPD packages. Each topic includes 2-3 articles from AUSA’s monthly ARMY magazine. We are pleased to support your professional-development program. 

Enforcing Standards within Bounds of Mission Command

Ethical Standards on Deployment

Preparing for and Dealing with Death

Preparing for and Dealing with Killing in War

Preventing and Healing Moral Wounds of War

The Experience of Being Wounded in War

Post-Deployment Stress, Support and Healing

The "Company Command" column in ARMY ran from 2005-2015 and refers often to the Company Command forum, which over the years evolved into the Junior Officer Forum,  https://juniorofficer.army.mil  I encourage junior officers and cadets to join their professional forum.

Resisting Hatred as We Resist Aggression

It would be a major moral and social victory if the Army figured out how to accomplish its wartime mission while simultaneously protecting its soldiers from succumbing to hate. Soldiers should be taught that they inflict lethal violence on enemy combatants in war not because they hate the enemy—and not because the enemy soldiers are evil—but because they love those they are sworn to protect and defend. 

See my July column in ARMY: Know Thy Enemy: Better Understanding Foes Can Prevent Debilitating Hatred

Correcting Unethical Conduct by Superiors is Especially Challenging

The most troubling and challenging ethical situations I have faced in the Army involved misconduct by leaders who were senior to me. The Army’s culture would improve if there were a shared understanding about all soldiers’ duty to hold their leaders accountable to the Army’s ethical standards.

See my June column in ARMY here: When "Moral Compasses" Need Calibration