In the fall of 2002 when my seventeen year old son called and told me over the phone he wanted to join the Marines, I remember feeling like my ears were stopped up with cotton and everything seemed to be happening in slow motion, just like the combat scenes in Saving Private Ryan. My first question was, “You want to kill people?” The topic resurfaced when I was in seminary studying pastoral care and counseling.
Soldiers can experience two types of psychological injuries in a prolonged war which can play out as shame; one is survivor’s guilt and the other is moral injury. When you were not successful in preventing someone’s death and blame yourself for still being alive, that is called survivor’s guilt. On the other hand, moral injury results from having killed a person when that violates your moral beliefs. David Wood, What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars (2016) interviewed several soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. One of the most fascinating stories was that of Jim Gant.
Gant, whom Wood described in 2014 as “the apotheosis of the ancient warrior and a pure killer”, reasoned that “when you go to war and want to win, you kill as many of the enemy as necessary. War is an opportunity to prove yourself on the battlefield.” Several years down the road Wood interviews Gant again. This time Gant questions whether killing all those people has actually provided security or been effective in any way. He explains that he had a series of internal moral walls, i.e. killing an innocent civilian is wrong. The most internal one had been killing another person is wrong. Eventually Gant tells Wood that all his moral walls were broken down.
In the past, the language of the military avoided using the word killing in training. In this century, as seen in Marine Corps training materials, the reality of killing is not sidestepped anymore. More important is how soldiers are prepared and later helped if someone is not coping well with neutralizing or eliminating the enemy, i.e. suicide attempts, drug and alcohol abuse, nightmares or flashbacks. Another more revealing note is that many soldiers who have been in combat do not engage with the enemy or would rather shoot trees. Either way, it appears that shame surfaces.
Soldiers are trained in boot camp to cover your battle buddy’s back, which is the “right thing to do,” by both internal and external standards. This code takes precedence over “killing another person is wrong.” When the stakes are high, quick life and death decisions are made in the moment. Briefly your mind and soul struggles with impulses versus demands. You feel overwhelmed, you or your buddy are threatened, and your military training takes over. The conscience is bypassed. Betrayal of what is “right” happens.
Guilt, whether false or true, is internalized and the soldier concludes that they are not worthy of forgiveness or love. Shame resonates with the feeling of being unacceptable. You compare yourself to others and don’t measure up. You believe God doesn’t love you and will never forgive you because of who you are and what you have done or left undone.
The military used to believe that just debriefing afterwards, a time to talk and be heard, gave the soldier all that was needed to cope with the traumatic event. Journalist Wood (2016) reported soldiers who were most needing help were not showing up for the debriefing. Now mental health is more readily available and with less stigma attached, although one major sticking point is that seeking mental health may delay being discharged. Also, every Marine battalion has at least one chaplain. Many soldiers would prefer and still do approach a chaplain more often than pursue mental health avenues. Perhaps because moral injury is a spiritual as well as psychological wound, this is a very good place to begin the healing.
There is a happy ending to Jim Gant’s story. Several years after Gant is discharged, Wood receives a letter telling of his new life. He is engaged to be married, enjoying outdoor sports and has become deeply religious. He says that he is getting a second chance as a parent and he is blessed to be alive. The war and killing, the recent suicide of a commanding officer in Iraq, are still in his subconscious but losing power over his days.