The Public Humanist

The Dark Matter of Moral Injury

By now most every American is painfully aware of the runaway suicide rate in the military, averaging 33 suicides per month in 2012, roughly one every seventeen hours. Even this number—representing confirmed suicides among active duty troops—falls far short of the dark truth. Off the DOD’s map and spreadsheets are the veterans who, weeks or months or years after their war service, take their lives, often without much national or even local notice. Here the numbers are even more shocking—22 a day in February 2013, nearly one every hour. Then there are the uncounted other deaths among veterans that result from clearly self-destructive behavior, but for a range of reasons are either not seen or reported as suicides. And what of the broken survivors, the legions of others whose lives, though spared in combat, have sprung so many leaks that they spend the rest of their days and nights just staying afloat?

In search of a cause for this crisis we are most often answered with an acronym: PTSD, a broad spectrum of “disorders” spawned by an even more broad spectrum of “stressors,” ranging from multiple combat deployments to the death of a “battle buddy” to something called “moral injury.” Recent studies focus on the last of these — moral injury — as the principle wound at the root of the most severe, intractable PTSD and of many if not most military and veteran suicides. Moral injury, in the view and experience of many, represents the “dark matter” that we must understand and address if we as a nation hope to cauterize and heal the open wound that so many of our men and women in uniform daily endure.

Moral injury is a term, or more accurately a concept, that a great many Americans cannot seem to comprehend or accept. The Marine Corps, in fact, has disavowed it altogether, on the grounds that military service rests on a high ethical standard, exemplifying rather than eroding moral character and behavior. The idea that military service does violence to the souls and humanity of those who take it up would seem to be sheer folly, even blasphemy; and yet this is what many of our veterans have painfully confessed, all too often in the words they have left behind before taking their own lives. We need to listen long and hard to them and to their brothers and sisters in arms who know their pain all too well. Claiming to be a “grateful nation,” it is the least we owe them.

One such opportunity to listen and to learn about moral injury will occur on April 24 [7pm, Calvin Coolidge Room, Forbes Library, Northampton] when Marine Captain Timothy Kudo will speak to the question of moral injury and military service. The idea that dutiful service to one’s country in war can be simply “wrong,” putting at risk one’s humanity and very soul, is blasphemous and unthinkable to nearly everyone except those who have experienced it to be the case. It is an idea that many or most veterans are unwilling to express, for they know the anger and resentment they will provoke with their words. Timothy Kudo, a Marine captain who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, learned this when he submitted a piece to the Washington Post in January 2013, entitled “I killed people in Afghanistan. Was I right or wrong?” This was a question that at his own admission he never examined or resolved until his return home. “We were simply too busy,” he explained, “to worry about the morality of what we were doing.” Now, however, he thinks about it every day, because he knows and lives with the “ethical damage” that killing does to the killer, which he admits “may be worse than the physical injuries we sustain.” The best he can do is to say that “killing is always wrong, but in war it is necessary.”

Perhaps understandably, Timothy Kudo’s brief, honest, and heart-wrenching admission that the killing he did for his country was wrong—not because the war was unjust but because killing is always wrong—spawned a storm of outrage and dismissal. One particularly offensive response to Kudo was an article that soon appeared in the National Review, entitled “A Morally Confused Marine,” in which the author said that he has “to wonder why, given his belief that killing is always wrong, Timothy Kudo ever enlisted in the Marines.” The fact is that when Kudo enlisted the morality of killing was not on his mind. It was a question he hadn’t yet asked. It was the experience and inner aftermath of killing that raised the question and brought him to where he is now. He learned from doing, rather than from reading. The fact is that Captain Kudo, far from succumbing to moral confusion, has come to moral clarity, a moral clarity that sheds appreciable light on a dark matter we as a nation need to understand and confront.

Timothy Kudo will be joined by a panel of three respondents: Rev. David Whiteley, who served 20 years in the Army and has served for another 20 years as a VA Chaplain; Very Rev. Jim Munroe, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Springfield, a Marine combat veteran of Vietnam and a founder of the Veterans Education Project; and Bob Meagher, Professor of Humanities at Hampshire College, author of Herakles Gone Mad: Rethinking Heroism in an Age of Endless War, and (forthcoming in Fall 2014) Killing From the Inside Out: Moral Injury and Just War.

© 2014 The Valley Advocate