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Battling Moral Conflict - Understanding is the Key

The human brain is hardwired for resilience, to adapt and make sense of the incomprehensible. For members of the military who have served in combat zones, that cognitive plasticity is tested to the limit – and sometimes beyond. (Moral Injury: It’s not PTSD…)

“The very nature of working in combat theatres means military personnel are thrust into situations where they make difficult decisions, where they must do things that go against their moral upbringing,” said Adrian Bravo ’12, assistant professor in William & Mary’s Department of Psychological Sciences. “For instance, what happens when there's a child soldier trying to kill you — and you kill them? You know on a deep level not to kill children, so how do you grapple with that decision?”

Adrian Bravo says the internal conflict between doing what is required in combat and doing what is moral is an understudied, but vitally important aspect of military psychology. He explains that failure to make sense of such moral dilemmas can lead to the development of moral injury, a condition that leads veterans to harbor a deep sense of guilt, shame, and anger.

In 2009, a group of VA clinicians began to distinguish moral injury from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These clinicians described moral injury as a deeper, longer-lasting form of suffering and acknowledged that the VA has not been treating to this level, nor does it have programs in-place to do so. Moral injury, unlike PTSD, is not based in terror, and what works for treating PTSD often does not work for depth of moral injury. So, it remains unresolved and untreated. Hence, the mission of God’s Word for Warriors, to help our fellow veterans to better understand and resolve the moral and spiritual nature of conflict and injury resulting from military service.

Moral injury is often expressed as an affliction of moral conscience. It’s a judgment we either consciously or subconsciously levy on ourselves in response to violating our moral values or beliefs. The mere exposure to evil often experienced in many regions of conflict today can contradict with our existing world view. It can lead us to feel as though we are unforgivable for either something we did or failed to do, something we witnessed, or some event we endured. It can even drive us to conclude that we are no longer a good and decent person, and thus, undeserving of love and compassion.

Over the past decade working with fellow veterans, I have seen these self-judgments fuel a host of emotions such as anger, guilt, shame, grief, remorse, disgust, and unforgiveness. Sadly, when we lose our meaning or our faith, we also lose our ability to trust others, ourselves, or the world around us. As one client stated, “it’s as if we become divided against ourselves.”

After entering the military there is a transformation or metamorphosis in our core values as we adjust cognitively to the very real nature of war and conflict. Learning to inflict intense violence more effectively than our enemy and exhibiting aggression at the flip of a switch in the face of danger is a vitally important character trait for our nation’s warriors. Veterans clearly understand that the courage to fight and serve others is based on bonding with those to our left and right. Our continued existence on this earth is placed in their hands, and theirs in ours.

These bonds of “brotherly love” can become so deep that they emerge as the closest relationships in a military members life. This is difficult for those outside the bond to understand, but true regardless. I have read it expressed as Losing a brother or sister in combat is like losing one’s soul mate. Such loss is met with intense grief and often with the feeling of survivor’s guilt. Kevin Powers, author of The Yellow Birds, stated it this way, “I don't deserve anyone's gratitude and really they should all hate me for what I've done but everyone loves me for it and it's driving me crazy."

The military values that veterans learn can’t be easily set aside like our uniform following the conclusion of our service. This applies to all service members, regardless of if they have engaged in combat or not. The military can and often does reshape the individual, and in so doing, it can then become difficult to relate to those we associated with before our service, even some family members. However, with time, education, and self-awareness, such post military relationships can be formed and rekindled. Once our internal changes are viewed through a lens of growth, it becomes easier to begin closing that gap of service and post-service self.

For some veterans who have experienced moral injury, the transition back to civilian society and values can seem almost impossible as their moral construct imprisons them in isolation, mistrust, and agony of self-punishment. This can drive one to feel emotionally hollow and numb to the point where they can’t find their way back from the dark room of emotional isolation, they lock themselves into. They can become angry with the entire military establishment, government, and even God. They may conclude that God hates them, or He does not exist, because after all, how good a good God allow such pain and loss? Such emotions grounded in moral and spiritual injury can be carried for years, even decades, and are often silent, hidden sufferings.

I wish I had the answers as to why some suffer more than others. Why wars and rumors of wars will continue, or why we lose those we love so horrifically. What we do know is that scripture tells us we can only see a portion of the answer now, but all will be revealed one day. “For now, we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially; but then I will know completely.” (1 Corinthians 13:12, CEB)

Be the light and help our warriors walk through the darkness. Together, we can heal.

Jim Humphrey

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