Soldiers in war are required to make the most consequential, intense and complex moral decisions of their lives. Yet the Army does little to help them prepare for and reflect upon those decisions. As a result, many combat veterans unnecessarily suffer from long-term shame, anger, alienation, loss of religious belief and other effects now known as moral injury.
Until recent years, these symptoms were categorized under post-traumatic stress disorder because they resulted from traumas experienced in war. But PTSD and moral injury are different in important respects. In simplest terms, PTSD is fear-based, caused by what happened to a soldier in war. Moral injury is guilt-based, caused by what a soldier did (or failed to do) in war.
The Army bears responsibility for the prevalence of moral injury among our soldiers and veterans. After all, the Army recruits, equips, trains and orders its soldiers to fight in war, yet it fails to help them understand why it is morally right for them to fight.
Due to this oversight, many soldiers who perform honorably in combat and deserve to feel enormous pride for the rest of their lives instead experience a corrosive sense of guilt, especially after they separate from the military and reintegrate into civilian culture. Unable to reconcile their wartime experiences with their personal moral framework, they incorrectly conclude that they committed immoral acts in war and feel ashamed of themselves, angry at the Army they trusted and alienated from civilians who can’t understand their experiences.
The human cost of untreated moral trauma is substantial. Numerous studies indicate that veterans suffering from moral injury are at greater risk for substance abuse, relationship problems and suicide attempts. Moral injury, therefore, is a soldier-welfare issue that demands the attention of leaders.
First Line of Defense
Army leaders ought to identify and implement practices to reduce the incidence and intensity of moral injury among soldiers. Chaplains and mental health professionals have important roles to play, but unit leaders provide the first line of defense against moral injury. A relatively easy, valuable practice is for leaders to create conversations that enable soldiers to gain and maintain healthy perspectives on their wartime experiences.
Before a deployment, leaders should take every opportunity to integrate moral reasoning into tactical training and operations. The standard approaches to predeployment ethics training do not integrate moral reasoning. They focus on teaching soldiers what to do (and not do) in war, but they do not address the why in moral terms. The Soldier’s Rules and classes on the Law of Armed Conflict, for example, explain soldiers’ lethal permissions and limitations in terms of professional norms and legal rules, not as moral principles.
Those explanations are sufficient for soldiers in training when they fire their weapons at inanimate training aids. When soldiers deploy to war, however, they engage and kill human beings. The nonmoral explanations that seemed perfectly sufficient in training (e.g., “it’s legal”; “it’s what soldiers do”) do not address the moral discomfort of many soldiers’ consciences.
To protect against moral injury, then, leaders should integrate moral reasoning into their tactical training. In after-action reviews (AARs), soldiers should be required to articulate their moral decision-making—using moral language—as they already do their tactical decision-making using doctrinal and legal language.
For example, after a training exercise in which a soldier engaged a civilian on the battlefield who had picked up a weapon and pointed it toward friendly forces, the leader should ask the soldier not only, “Why did you engage him?” and, “Why was that legally permissible?” but also, “Why was it morally right to kill him?” The responses of a well-trained soldier would be, “I engaged him because he was a threat to our soldiers. That was legally permissible because the rules of engagement state that any non-uniformed person who is armed and making a threatening action is positively identified as enemy. And, it was morally right to shoot him because he is fighting for an armed organization that threatens the lives and fundamental rights of the people we are protecting.”
The practice of including moral decision-making in AARs should continue throughout the deployment. The stakes are higher when real lives are involved, which makes the AAR sense-making process even more important. When soldiers inflict violence in war, they do so in support of a collective mission. Their coming to terms with their violent actions should likewise be treated as a collective mission.
In AARs, soldiers who inflicted violence justly should be reassured that they acted morally. Soldiers who acted questionably should be given the benefit of the doubt and then coached to discover what can be learned from the experience. Soldiers who inflicted violence unjustly should be told unequivocally that they acted immorally. That said, not all wrongful actions in war should be treated as war crimes. Context matters, and the context of war is so demanding that it calls for discretion.
Violence of War a Collective Act
Nevertheless, for the long-term welfare of all soldiers involved in an unjust wartime situation—the perpetrator and witnesses—any wrongful act should be named as such and criticized, and any soldier who intentionally commits an unjust act should be punished appropriately. Soldiers cannot be expected to recover from wounds they haven’t been permitted to acknowledge. The violence of war is a collective act. Soldiers should not be left alone to figure out their own roles in that violence. Leaders have a duty to convene and facilitate those difficult conversations.
At the conclusion of a deployment, leaders should create one-on-one and group conversations that help soldiers integrate their morally traumatic wartime experiences into meaningful personal narratives of honorable service. Leaders should personally thank each soldier for protecting their teammates and contributing to the mission—which reminds soldiers of the moral purpose of their violence—and then express their own responsibility for involving soldiers in the moral crucible of war.
The dual name tapes on military uniforms convey a deep moral truth—that soldiers act as individuals (last name) on behalf of the collective (U.S. Army). Soldiers do not start or conclude wars; nor do they plan patrols. Leaders in their chain of command—from top to bottom—are the ones who make the decisions that bring about soldiers’ morally tragic experiences. Therefore, a member of the chain of command—someone who personally knows what the soldier experienced—should take responsibility for the violence that a soldier commits.
In the weeks and months after a deployment, leaders should dedicate time on their unit’s calendar for redeployed soldiers to talk deeply with each other about their experiences. Soldiers benefit greatly from reflecting on and talking about their most troubling deployment experiences, especially with others who shared those experiences. They also benefit from hearing other soldiers’ perspectives on their common experience. Leaders can ensure that such conversations happen by putting them on the training schedule, and they can emphasize their importance by personally participating in them.
Combat deployments are moral crucibles for soldiers who are literally tested by fire. How soldiers react to the intense moral experiences of a deployment will be influenced by their leaders. Leaders can create conversations before, during and after deployment that enable soldiers to be more likely to emerge strengthened—not shattered—by their wartime experiences.