War wounds

moral injury coverBook | Moral Injury – unseen wounds in an age of barbarism | Edited by Tom Frame

By Penny Mulvey

What happens to those who, due to particular circumstances, are faced with having to make unacceptable decisions; choices which in normal life are not just illegal, but shocking, deeply offensive, and from which most of us would revile?

This is the environment in which the modern-day soldier inhabits. It is why there are strict rules of war, an international code of acceptable behaviour within a war context. But war is changing. Increasingly sophisticated weaponry and terrorism in particular, have disrupted the military landscape.

Moral Injury grapples with the differences between Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and what has been termed ‘moral injury’, as health professionals have sought to help veterans recover from the impact of war.

The book features a series of essays by a range of highly qualified Australian academics, theologians, ethicists, soldiers, chaplains and medical professionals. Editor Professor Tom Frame, director of the Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society (ACSACS), outlines in the foreword that the project developed out of a growing interested in “the subject of unseen wounds within and beyond the Australian Defence Force”.

The ACSACS’s mission “is to assess the past, present and likely future impact of armed conflict on institutions and individuals in order to enhance public policy and raise community awareness”. This particular book is the result of a major multi-disciplinary study of moral injury which began in July 2014.

Each chapter is a stand-alone essay that adds new and sometimes contradictory insights to the concept of ‘moral injury’. Urban warfare creates many complications for soldiers, as was presented so graphically in Clint Eastwood’s anti-war movie American Sniper. Is the killing of civilians merely seen as ‘collateral damage’? The evidence is that soldiers are damaged in a manner beyond PTSD when they are forced to take action that goes deeply against their belief system.

A soldier faced with killing a human shield of women and children, in the knowledge that behind them are enemy soldiers seeking to kill them; a person sitting in front of a computer screen who is given the order to send the drone into a building thousands of miles away, detached and unbloodied.

American clinical psychiatrist, Dr Jonathan Shay, was one of the first to write on moral injury. He described it as a ‘soul wound inflicted by doing something that violates one’s own ethics, ideals or attachments’.  Rhiannon Neilsen, a Canberra academic, claims that moral injury ‘is an experience specific to the agent who regards him or herself, rightly or wrongly, as the perpetrator or culpable bystander of a morally unacceptable act’. For Neilsen, the difference between moral injury and PTSD is the role the individual inhabits. She believes PTSD can develop ‘when people are victims of or witness to a traumatic and possibly, but not necessarily, immoral event’.

Another essayist argues that ‘moral injury’ only occurs when the person has been morally changed by the event. For example, if the person sending the drone into the building no longer even considers the impact of what they are doing, a moral injury has been incurred because the very fibre of the individual’s being has been distorted.

The concept of ‘moral injury’ reinforces why, as Christians, we must continue to advocate for peace. However, it also invites us to consider what we have to offer in the way of healing to those among us who have been damaged by war.

This is a fascinating and challenging book, a valuable contribution to our understanding of the deep wounds inflicted on men, women and children which might take a lifetime to understand and heal.

UNSW Press (2015). RRP: $39.99


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