Moral injury is an emerging concept whose deep spiritual reality should be obvious to Quakers.
A deep sense of transgression including feelings of shame, grief, meaninglessness, and remorse from having violated core moral beliefs.
Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini
Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War (2013)
A violation of conscience regarding what a person did, or sometimes what the person did not do, in a morally ambiguous situation under authority in a military system.
CDR David Thompson, CHC, USNR (Ret)
“Moral injury: an often untreated veteran injury,”
The Military Chaplain, Volume 87, Number 3, Fall 2014, (6-8)
The damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress their own moral and ethical values or codes of conduct.
The Moral Injury Project,
The phenomenon of moral injury is currently being explored seriously in the areas of military service and torture experience, and it has been recognized as a genuine challenge by leaders of the U.S. Armed Forces branches and the Department of Veterans Affairs.1 It is also becoming the object of broader serious discussion in areas of human experience relating to sexuality, abortion, child abuse and poverty.
In recent years staff of Quaker House in Fayetteville, NC, have carried out a mission to inform Quaker Meetings and the larger community about moral injury. (See Quaker House Moral Injury Resources, and “Matthew Hoh: Recovering from the Darkness of PTSD and Moral Injury.”)
In 2015, Quaker House published an important and useful introduction to the reality of moral injury, Moral Injury and Conscientious Objection: Saying No to Military Service [full text PDF], by Alice Lynd, with the assistance of Staughton Lynd.
This quiet pamphlet documents the serious groping of earnest people in identifying this experience of moral injury and to permit people to move forward in their lives by identifying strategies for its relief and mitigation. The pamphlet focuses primarily on the experience with moral injury of members of the United States military.
More recently, Quaker House has published Help for Moral Injury: Strategies and Interventions, by Cecilia Yokum, Ph.D. (2016).
Another important source of thinking and resources on moral injury from an additional Christian perspective is the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School.
See also the perspective of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability.
When humans, most recently and visibly women and men in the military, believe they did or witnessed something that violates their deep sense of right and wrong, that experience creates an inner conflict. Self-blame can challenge their moral foundation in all aspects of life. They feel that what they did or passively witnessed is unforgivable. They have experienced moral injury. It poisons all their current and future relationships and motivations.
This moral injury reaches beyond personal acts of killing or cruelty. The self-betrayal also involves experiences of passive observation, helpless inaction, or chosen inaction to stop or mitigate the death or cruelty that violates what is right in the view of the morally injured person.
Moral injury also includes the experience of personal reactions to atrocities that are commanded or condoned by superior authorities. Right or not, moral injury discussion usually focuses less on this betrayal of trust by higher authorities in the organization. Currently, the professional discussion of moral injury focuses more on personal acts and personal observation of the acts of others.
Are there universal characteristics for moral injury? There are differences among individuals and among groups regarding what acts of killing and cruelty trigger moral injury. The injury depends on the moral world of the individual and on the shared moral values of the individual’s group. It is easy to project different and lower standards of moral injury on current enemies and equal standards on friends.
Are there universal human limits to the cruelty we do or observe?
There is a growing understanding that moral injury overlaps with but is not the same as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A person can suffer from both PTSD and moral injury, and the two phenomena have a complex relationship.
PTSD results from being the target of others’ attempts to kill or injure, or from having survived injury or death when others did not. PTSD creates a sense of fear and constant mortal threat from all persons in all contexts. It signifies a violation of trust between the person and the world, and it includes the loss of a general sense of safety.
By contrast, moral injury is the effect of being a killer or injurer, or of failing to prevent death and injury at the hand of others. Moral injury deals with shame, anger, outrage, and guilt. It involves the lost ability to trust and the loss of one’s own and others’ ability to keep our shared moral covenant.
Cure and mitigation of moral injuries reaches deeply into the area of religious experience. Quaker House and Brite Divinity School are examples of our human groping, within our religious communities, for recognition of and assistance in healing such woundedness. Both groups provide language and documentation of research regarding moral injury, particularly in the area of military moral injury. These institutions offer leadership and advocacy. They collect insight and experience in effectively addressing moral injury in the lives of persons from many backgrounds.
Quakers have been helpful in identifying and implementing practical ways for preventing wars, and for mitigating the effects of wars, for applying faith and practice to historical situations. Quaker experience with conscientious objection (CO) engages the issue of moral injuries, even though the concept of moral injury has been little recognized until recently. Quakers also influence public policies that supports and provides services for children, mentally ill, prisoners, and veterans.
Moral Injury: What can Quakers say? What can we humans say? What can we do for moral repair?
1 “Moral Injury in the Context of War,” by Shira Maguen, PhD and Brett Litz, PhD, PTSD: National Center for PTSD, U.S. Dept of Veterans Affairs (2016).
- “Healing: Can We Treat Moral Wounds?,” by David Wood, Huffington Post, March 20, 2014.The image above of soldiers in silhouette is from this article.
U.S. soldiers stand at a checkpoint around Lakokhel camp in Afghanistan in 2010. Many soldiers return from war suffering from “moral injuries,” or dealing with the fact that their sense of right and wrong was violated. Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images.
- “Moral Injury Is The ‘Signature Wound’ Of Today’s Veterans,” NPR: Fresh Air, November 11, 2014.
- “The Moral Injury,” by David Brooks, The New York Times, February 17, 2015.
- “Healing a Wounded Sense of Morality,” by Maggie Puniewska, The Atlantics, July 3, 2015.