A Review of
War and Moral Injury
Robert Emmet Meagher and Douglas A. Pryer, Eds.
Reviewed by Shaun C. Brown
In 2014, Robert Emmet Meagher published his book Killing from the Inside Out: Moral Injury and Just War (Cascade Books). Therein he begins by saying that in 2012, there were an average of thirty-three suicides per month in the military. Meagher notes that this number does not even represent the gravity of the situation, for it does not include the number of suicides among veterans of past wars, or deaths due to self-destructive behavior (e.g., drug and alcohol abuse). While the military has known of the crisis for decades, they have done little to improve the situation. In the preface, Meagher states, “Our military, any military, knows all about killing the enemy. It is what they do, and our forces do it more effectively than most. What we are painfully coming to realize, however, is that we are also especially good at killing our own, killing them ‘from the inside out,’ silently, invisibly” (xiii).
In that volume, Meagher provides a critique of just war theory and the attempt to distinguish “murder” from “killing” (xiv). He argues that “just war doctrine lies at the root of our complacency with war as well as our inability to comprehend the fact of our military ‘heroes’ marching off to take their own lives is that so long as we cling to the moral justification of our wars we remain blind to the moral injury they inflict” (xvi). He says further:
As it is mostly used today, the term “moral injury” designates the violation, by oneself or another, of a personally embedded moral code or value resulting in deep injury to the psyche or soul. It is what used to be called sin. The haunting question raised and pursued relentlessly in this book is “how can there be moral injury in a just war?” (xvi–xvii).
While Moral Injury (MI) is a relatively new term—coined by psychiatrist Jonathan Shay in his 1994 book Achilles in Vietnam—the concept is ancient. So within Killing from the Inside Out, Meagher traces the history of MI from the Bible and the ancient Greeks and Romans, through Christendom to the present. His argument comes not only from research, but from experience listening to and conversing with veterans who have experience with Moral Injury (MI).
Building upon his work in Killing from the Inside Out, Meagher has partnered with Douglas A. Pryer, a retired US Army lieutenant colonel, in publishing War and Moral Injury: A Reader. They say:
This volume began several years ago with a conversation and meeting of minds that was initiated and fostered, as so often happens today, on the Internet. It was, on the face of it, an unlikely alliance and friendship that ensued between a career military officer and a life-long peace activist, a combat veteran and a college professor. Their—our—point of contact and convergence was Moral Injury or, more precisely, what each of us independently was wrestling with and writing about it. The book began with our reading of each other’s work, our listening to each other’s voice, and our recognizing in that voice a partner—not a “partner in crime” as the saying goes, but rather a “partner in care” for those wounded in war, wounded so deeply and invisibly that their rending pain is still mostly unrecognized, misunderstood, and unaddressed (3).
While some may experience both PTSD and MI, the contributors differentiate MI from PTSD. For example, Douglas A. Pryer says, “PTSD sufferers can be helped via physiological remedies like drugs, acupuncture, and Rapid Eye Movement treatment, but the morally injured require therapies designed to help them find forgiveness and regain faith in themselves and others” (63). While some military leaders deny that MI can apply to US soldiers and veterans, this volume provides compelling accounts and relies upon social scientific studies that demonstrate that while MI may not be the only factor in increased suicide rates or other similar problems among soldiers and veterans (others include PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, etc.), that it is a significant factor.
Meagher and Pryer note that there is currently no consensus on the cause or treatment of MI. They hope, however, that displaying the variety of views on MI within this reader can bring about a fuller understanding. They therefore bring together the voices of veterans, as well as those from various professions and disciplines, such as veterans, medical personnel, psychologists, chaplains, journalists, lawyers, and social scientists. They divide the volume into five parts: Poets, Warriors, Reporters, Chaplains, and Scholars. They note that this division is in part artificial, for some of the authors fall into multiple categories. While they include writings from experts, the editors sought to include accessible pieces—some previously published and some original—while providing recommendations for more technical studies. The editors note: “this book presents a strong, vivid, to some painful or challenging argument against war. It does not, however, argue that war is never necessary” (6).
A consistent theme throughout the volume is that MIs do not always stem from the commitment of atrocities like genocide or torture. Marine veteran Tyler Boudreau says, “In some cases, we injure ourselves through acts of commission or omission, through direct participation or indirect approval” (58). Boudreau himself says that his MI came from participation in the search of a farmhouse that resulted in no physical injuries. Some of the pieces also discuss MI in relation to the hazing and sexual harassment and assault present within the military.
The contributors throughout the volume note that MI not only involves the military as a whole, the VA system, or individual soldiers and veterans. Not only combatants can be affected by MI, but soldiers who have never participated in combat or noncombatants and civilians in close proximity to the fighting. Meagher says, “Studies reveal that even those who only train for war, witness its chaos and death, even second-hand, can also bear the inner stigma of war’s slaughter, savagery, and destruction” (322). It also notes that MI impacts entire nations and societies. As Meagher again says, “The entire nation goes to war when it deploys sons and daughters. That makes us a nation of warriors, a warlike people. Moral Injury is the signature wound not only of our military but of our militarized society as well” (322–323). This perspective is reminiscent of the position the Catholic Worker took during the outbreak of World War II, which ran the headline, “We Are to Blame for New War in Europe” (September 1939, pp. 1, 4).
Few of the contributors to this volume explicitly espouse a Christian faith. In fact, one piece discusses a Buddhist perspective on MI, while another by a World War II Code Talker, engages MI from the perspective of Navajo spirituality. While the volume does not often directly discuss the church, churches can learn much from the insights provided, and it can assist them, when possible, in providing support and healing to those in their midst impacted by MI. This does not mean churches should overreach in their attempts to serve those with MI. Several contributors note that soldiers with MI that seek help often want to speak with counselors or others with military experience. When possible, however, churches can assist these soldiers and veterans in forgiving themselves and others, as well as helping them rehumanize themselves and the people they fought.
Christian pacifists and just war advocates can partner with one another to study and care for those affected by MI. They can benefit on this path by reading War and Moral Injury: A Reader by itself, or alongside Meagher’s Killing from the Inside Out.
Shaun C. Brown is a PhD Candidate in Theological Studies at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. He will soon defend his dissertation, “The Israel of God: Scripture, Ecclesiology, and Ecumenism in the Theology of George Lindbeck.” He lives in Amherst, NY with his wife Sherri and daughter Adalyn.