The moral injuries of war in Iraq

By Elizabeth Lefebvre| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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A week ago, President Obama announced that nearly all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by December 31 of this year. “After nearly nine years, America's war in Iraq will be over," Obama said. However, for the men and women returning home from Iraq, the devastating effects of the war are sure to continue.

It’s no secret that veterans struggle with post traumatic stress disorder, addiction, brain injuries, increased incidences of violent behavior, and homelessness. (The LA Times reported this week on the increasing number of women veterans who are experiencing homelessness upon their return from service, noting that in addition to issues facing all veterans, women are also often facing sexual trauma, domestic abuse, or pregnancy.) Despite increasing awareness of and treatment for these problems, veterans still account for 20% of all suicides within the U.S. every year.

Within the last few years, the VA has introduced the concept of “moral injury,” a wound of the soul that involves feelings of conflict from evaluating harm that veterans either witnessed or perpetrated while at war. According to the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, moral injury is different from PTSD. PTSD involves a reaction to danger with symptoms of trauma such as flashbacks, nightmares, and dissociations, while moral injury is more of an inner conflict based on an evaluation of having caused harm, involving judgments of personal responsibility.

As Rita Nakashima of the Huffington Post points out, veterans are now more likely to seek out clergy during treatment, as traditional clinical mental health does not train in areas of theology or philosophy, where those suffering from moral injury are seeking counsel. Even within clinical treatment, veterans are often referred to chaplains when asking moral questions or expressing grief or shame. Jim Wallis has also voiced the need for religious support of veterans, saying on the God’s Politics blog at Sojourners, “Religious communities must reach out now more than ever to returning veterans to make sure they have the physical, emotional, and spiritual support they need…No matter what our view of the war, it is our collective responsibility to be healers for those who are coming home.”

Moral injury seems especially to be a problem for the Iraq war, where lines between civilians and combatants are not always easily distinguishable. Many people (including the Vatican) condemned the war and questioned its justification with Catholic teaching on principles of just war. It is understandable for veterans of this specific war to return with internal conflict and lingering questions about what they encountered, and to what purpose.

We must come to terms as a nation with our responsibilities for engaging in warfare and the effects it has on our soldiers, our “opposition,” and on our society’s collective conscience. Are we morally culpable for our troops that were killed, the Iraqi civilians left dead or displaced, the deficit from funding the war, and the deaths of veterans at home? Now that the war is “over,” how will we move forward? Will we be sure to provide care to our veterans? Will we try to make sure that we will no longer place our troops in the face of such injury, both physical and moral?

We will be dealing with the effects of the war in Iraq for years to come. Let’s hope that while we move on, we remember to provide healing for those who fought on the front lines where they often need it most--emotionally and spiritually.

Related:

The morally revolting cost of the war on terror

The wages of war: The steep price of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan