Moral Injury: The Wounded Soul


Veterans For Peace UK members John Bourton and Daniel Lenham each gave a fascinating talk at the Hexham Debates recently on ‘how to turn your child into a killer’ and ‘moral injury’ respectively. (See video above).

John discusses ‘the psychological processes that go on to turn you from a child into a killer, which, essentially is what basic training is there to do.’  This, of course, is something never admitted to by the military recruiters but is vitally important to publicise. I would urge you to watch John’s talk in full and share widely.

But it is Daniel Lenham’s talk I want to focus on here, simply because moral injury is, in the UK at least, largely unheard of yet impacts the lives of those affected severely and has implications for the war machine itself when examined too closely for its comfort:

Daniel explains, at the beginning of his talk, that it’s important to make a distinction between PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and moral injury:

‘Pretty much every psychological injury that veterans are having is being categorised as post-traumatic stress disorder. I think in order to deal with both PTSD and moral injury we need to identify and address the distinction between the two.’

PTSD, according to Dave Wood in his book What Have We Done: The Moral Injuries of Our Longest Wars, ‘springs from fear’, whereas moral injury is described as ‘a bruised soul’,  a definition favourable to Lenham because it is, he says, ‘very accurate’. I have heard other veterans express their satisfaction with the description also which indicates to me that here is where stark, clinical language fails and only metaphysical or spiritual expression can convey the depth of the experience. A ‘bruised psyche’ will not do for moral injury – it is more profound than that.

The ‘official’ definition of moral injury, Daniel informs us, is ‘a lasting psychological, biological, spiritual, behavioural and social impact of perpetuating, or failing to prevent, or bearing witness to, acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.’ Yet another definition favoured by Lenham is coined by author Jonathan Shay: ‘a betrayal of what’s right by someone who holds legitimate authority in a high stakes situation’. ‘The key word there is ‘betrayal’, says Lenham, explaining: ‘I can relate to that…anyone who’s served in any war, but certainly the recent ones – from a personal level, Iraq and Afghanistan, and Libya – I think there’s been a huge sense of betrayal, and that’s something that resonates with me.’

Daniel Lenham discards his medals outside Downing St.

Daniel recommends Shay’s book Achilles in Vietnam, which compares the combat trauma of the Trojan War of Homer’s Iliad to that of  the Vietnam War. In it, the author expounds that moral injury is a violation of ‘themis’, an Ancient Greek term denoting fairness, rightness and natural law. To the Ancient Greeks themselves, the female Titan, Themis, was ‘the personification of divine order’, and so it is that the ‘betrayal’ of this fundamental justness lies, as Lenham testifies, at the heart of moral injury.

Shay, a US Veterans’ Affairs (VA) psychiatrist, maintains that the essential symptoms of moral injury: ‘sorrow, grief, regret, shame and alienation’ are deep wounds which might be overcome but for that sense of betrayal. ‘This makes moral injury an issue of knowledge, not just an emotional experience for which the psyche was unprepared.’ he states. A crucial observation considering the ‘danger’ an awakened veteran presents to the sociopaths running the military complex.

Indeed, military training, as Lenham points out, requires recruits ‘obey orders with “unquestioning acceptance” (British Army, 2000) for which they relinquish sovereignty over their choices.’ How else is a rapacious war machine to be run?  ‘Any hesitation to follow an order was brutally punished.’ says VFP UK’s founder Ben Griffin in his compelling talk The Making of a Modern British Soldier which I encourage you to watch.

Daniel expands: ‘we hand over any autonomy of decision-making, any kind of responsibility to the system which we view as noble, as righteous, as benevolent. And I think that more often than not that’s where this conflict comes from: this inner turmoil is created, from a betrayal of what we believe is right by this instrument, this institution. The degree of trust that comes within the military – we’re often viewed as the good guys – and that shapes our understanding, our moral and social horizons, and it’s only when an event or experience occurs, and post-event, when we attempt to reintegrate or transition back into civilian society that our moral belief systems and horizons then expand. When we look at some of the actions and behaviours that we committed within that military system is when a lot of the (moral) injuries can come to light. It’s not necessarily a sudden thing; it could be weeks, it could be months, it could be years.

In my opinion, the reason the war system doesn’t want to talk about moral injury is because it takes away the responsibility for it’s acts around the world. If you frame everything as PTSD it’s more about the individual… there’s a lot of talk about how PTSD is related to prior behaviours, experiences and situations pre-military recruitment, but I think with moral injury you have to look at what you’re doing as an institution, as a system. What can we do about moral injury?’ We have to identify its existence. All the literature that I’ve read is reactive in dealing with the trauma – there’s no prevention of it.’ (Daniel sighs at this point). In my opinion if you want to remove or completely eradicate moral injury then you have to look at stopping sending young men and young women to operations and wars around the world.’

Daniel then ends on a quote by Vietnam veteran Camillo Mac Bica which he says resonates strongly with him in the context of moral injury:

‘We are the victims of politicians’ hypocrisy; the scapegoats for the inevitable affront to the national conscience and a sacrificial lamb sent to slaughter in retribution for our collective guilt and inner inadequacies. In fact, no-one knows the sacrilege of war better than we who must fight it and then have to live with the memories of what we have done, and what we have become.’

Having now listened to or read Daniel’s words; if you heard John Bourton’s, and if you watched Ben Griffin speak, you will understand that Daniel, John, Griffin, Joe Glenton, Michael Lyons – all the members of Veterans For Peace UK and US, in fact, are now considered ‘dangerous’ in the extreme by a maniac elite for whom the lives of combat troops and civilians alike mean absolutely nothing. ‘Dangerous’, because if we find dissent here, in the very place the elites expect absolute obedience, where they have put these men through a conditioning process so thorough they hoped it would extinguish all independent thought, then there is unnerving proof that their depraved programme is not inviolable. If these individuals survived that psychological onslaught and came out with their critical faculties and their humanity intact, and are using them to expose the very system that tried to crush them, then there is a way out of this perpetual war nightmare for all of us. 

That is why the voices of dissenting service men, women and veterans must be heard. There is nothing more powerful than a first-hand account from an insider. There is nothing that carries more moral force than a man or woman acting out of their conscience. Nothing is more inspirational than an individual breaking free of a corrupt system then turning to expose its rotten core for all to see. And gratifyingly, this exposing of elite criminality appears to have benefits regarding moral injury also: Joe Glenton, during an online discussion on the subject with other VFP UK members said something significant when he asserted that, in dealing with moral injury, ‘rebellion is the best therapy.’ A riveting phrase crystallising the healing potential a stand taken against the military behemoth can contain. If moral injury is ‘soul damage’, then rebellion is ‘soul relief’. Psychomachia becomes deliverance. Veterans For Peace’s work, it’s very existence, the efforts of its members, is a wound in the heart of the beast that will bleed no matter what tattered and inadequate dressing is applied.

And we can be sure, the damage that individuals like Joe Glenton, Mike Lyons, Chelsea Manning –  and anyone willing to be imprisoned rather than ‘make a butchery of my conscience’, as John Bunyan had it – have inflicted upon that deeply iniquitous system is significant. Why punish them so severely otherwise? Theirs is an apostasy that can never be forgiven, and it is their badge of honour.

Veterans For Peace march to the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday

Those of us who have never been through a war or had our minds manipulated in military training camps cannot know what this means to experience. Only others who have been through it know. We who campaign for peace have only our empathy to help us understand. But empathy is imperfect, because we weren’t there. All we can do is try to amplify the voices of those who were and hope the message penetrates the miasma of propaganda, apathy and ignorance that are the enemies of peace and social justice. The ‘mainstream’ news media, of course, will never give these voices their airtime. Not for these soldiers the gushing praise of so-called journalists selected for their obedience to the same corporate system which prosecutes illegal wars.  Those who are ‘off-message’ are simply silenced. I have written previously on the failure of even our most ‘radical’ news outlets to tell the truth about war, which is why this website is committed to giving a platform to these truth-tellers at every opportunity. Their stories are too important not to hear.

Alison Banville is co-editor of BSNews







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