Many are quick to label (informally) or diagnose (formally) military members struggling with the aftereffects of their service as suffering from PTSD. As a result, one of the major emphases of commanders (and consequently chaplains) is on resiliency. Resiliency, commonly understood, is the individual’s ability to ‘bounce back’ or ‘spring back’ after experiencing some traumatic experience. While resiliency is a logical approach to deal with PTSD, the current state of affairs with veteran suicides over the past several years at a sustained nearly-all-time-high leads me to believe that PTSD is not the entire problem and, therefore, resiliency training is not the complete solution.
We need to look beyond PTSD to find the real problem and right solution. My suggestion is that the root problem is not the psychological injury of traumatic stress but the moral injury suffered as a result of a never-before-seen level of lethality and efficiency in today’s combat operations. The feelings of guilt and horror suffered by today’s veterans are not primarily a reaction to traumatic stress but are the result of the primarily ethical and moral (over against psychological) problem of killing in combat. As a result of protective rules of engagement adopted to protect against IEDs, suicide bombers, etc. today’s fielded troops sometimes kill civilians who ‘broke the rules’ by approaching too closely, not yielding to shouted orders, or making gestures interpreted as threatening or hostile. Remotely piloted aircraft operators watch over potential targets from places of complete safety isolated from the combat zone, sometimes for days or weeks, before being given the order to shoot and kill an individual or group of people whose sole ‘problem’ was fitting a profile of behavior that our experts associate with terrorists.
Prior to our day, combat generally took place between uniformed armies in the field. Today’s military operations look nothing like those of the past. In a war where the enemy has no uniforms, every man, woman, and child is a potential enemy combatant and, hence, a potential target.
All too often, our soldiers come back physically wounded–sometimes beyond repair. At the same time, they often come back morally wounded–beyond the repair of PTSD-focused treatments and their amoral approach to traumatic stress.
Without exception, all our current combat operations fall outside of the bounds of what would historically be considered morally defensible according to the Just War tradition. While our citizenry seems uninformed about this reality and our politicians either live in a world of denial or vain self-interest, the reality of this moral judgement cannot and does not escape our warriors. Any combat, no matter how ‘just,’ will unavoidably result in at least some immoral actions. Today’s combat operations, however, are morally indefensible. And our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines–many of whom come to the military with deeply held religious convictions–cannot escape the resulting moral wounds.
Moral trauma requires moral treatment. Guilt without forgiveness continues to fester and hurt more and more over time. Left alone, time does not heal all wounds. The role of the chaplain today is more important than it has probably ever been. Healing from moral wounds comes not at the hands of a doctor, nor at the chair of the psychiatrist, but only through the words of absolution and pardon spoken by the chaplain in the name and in the stead of Christ Jesus.
(NOTE: This is a continuation of my thoughts from an earlier post.)