A Selection from What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars

Chapter One: It’s Wrong, But You Have No Choice


Broad-shouldered and lean at six foot two, Nikki Rudolph, an affable sandy-haired Californian, was twenty two years old when he was sent as a marine infantryman to Afghanistan, where he shot and killed a young boy. This was not uncommon in the murderous confusion of our recent wars, where farmers and mothers and young kids might seize a weapon and shape-shift in a moment into a combatant and back again to innocent civilian and young Americans peering into the murk would have a moment to decide, kill or not. This time, an exhausting firefight with Taliban insurgents had dragged on for hours in the superheated desert wastes and tree-lined irrigation canals of Helmand Province. Late that afternoon, Nik saw from the corner of his eye someone darting around the corner of an adobe wall, spraying bullets from an assault rifle held against his small hips. Nik swiveled his M-4 carbine, tightened his finger on the trigger and saw that it was a young boy of maybe 12 or 13. Then he fired. 

According to  the military’s exacting legal principles and rules, it was a justifiable kill, even laudable, an action taken against an enemy combatant in defense of Nik himself and his fellow Marines. But now Nik is back home in civilian life, where killing a child violates the bedrock moral ideals we all hold. His action that day, justifiable in combat, nonetheless is a bruise on his soul, a painful violation of the simple understanding of right and wrong that he and all of us carry subconsciously through life. 

Those two emotions, pride in having prevailed in a firefight, and a sickening sense of wrongdoing, together illustrate the baffling and often cruel paradox that so often dominates the lives of those we send into war. Duty and honor define Nik’s decision to pull the trigger. Strangers thank him for his service and politicians celebrate him and other combat veterans as heroes. Inside, Nik carries on his conscience that he killed a child.

Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming to understand Nik’s lingering pain as a moral injury, a trauma as real and as damaging as a flesh wound. In its most simple and most profound sense, moral injury is a jagged disconnect from our understanding of who we are and what we and others ought to do and not do. Experiences that are common in war -- the senseless violence, the sudden violent maiming of a loved buddy, the suffering of refugee families -- challenge and often shatter our reliance on the world as a good place where good things happen to us, the foundational beliefs we learn as infants. The broader loss of faith, loss of innocence can have enduring psychological, spiritual, social and behavioral impact.

Each of us, of course, has experienced at least a twinge of moral regret and sometimes deeper and lasting moral injury. History is marked by immense human calamities and periods of unspeakable moral violation. Yet the moral jeopardy of war and especially the wars the United States began and fought in Iraq and Afghanistan is different. These wars demanded the intense and prolonged participation of a tiny fraction of the nation’s youth in sustained campaigns built on the intentional, planned violation of the ancient sanctions against killing.

In my experience, to be in war is to be exposed to moral injury. Almost everyone who goes to war returns with some sense of unease about what we’ve seen and done and experienced, about how well we lived up to our own standards. Most of us are unprepared to disentangle the emotions of anger, sorrow, shame or remorse that can result. It is common, researchers say, for those who have experienced a moral wound to react with cynicism or bitterness, to distrust authority; to be more prone to anxiety, depression; perhaps to seek comfort in isolation or the self-medication of drugs, alcohol or overwork. Most commonly, to never talk about the war. 

Despite impressive advances in the understanding of moral injury and some breakthrough therapies that hold promise of helping those most afflicted, my sense that most veterans, like Nik, carry their regret and sorrow and heartache on into life and rarely speak of it. In that sense, moral injury is the enduring if hidden signature wound of our most recent, and longest, wars. 

It is important to understand that while some veterans cannot find peace after a moral injury, most of those who have felt morally injured are not disabled, are not broken or dangerous, do not fit the insulting stereotype of combat vets as lunatic unemployed homeless drug-addled criminals. Nor does moral injury necessarily describe legal wrongdoing. Moral injury does not imply that an atrocity or war crime has been committed, simply that an individual’s internal sense of “what is right” has been violated. 

“War is vile. There are some things that are more vile and that’s why we fight, but that vileness affects you down to your core,” David Sutherland once told me.  A soldier for 30 years, Sutherland commanded the 12,000 men and women of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team task force of the 1st Cavalry Division. For 15 months in 2006 and 2007 in Iraq, they fought day and night. Sutherland had vowed to see every one of his badly wounded and dead troops and he did that, visiting the hospitals and morgues, putting his hand on the body bag or head of each one and praying. It nearly broke him. “Guilt, shame, sorrow, bereavement [are] normal human reactions, but as commander I couldn’t shut down. I was in a battle every single day. I’d wake up to an IED exploding and go to bed with an IED exploding.”

Staff Sgt. Donnie D. Dixon was part of Sutherland’s security detail as they traveled the battlefields, and on Sept. 29, 2007 Dixon was shot and killed, He was 37 and left a wife and four children. “When Sgt. Dixon was killed, that affected all 17 members of my security detachment, and some of us more than others: we were standing right by him when it happened,” Sutherland told me. “How do you not believe this is a moral injury?”

For most of us, war-related moral injuries are invisible because we are so divorced from the lives of the men and women who serve in the military. Almost two million of them are home from Iraq or Afghanistan, proud of their difficult and demanding service and profoundly affected by their experiences at war. Almost all of it was lived in vivid extremes far removed from the ordinary: there are dazzling highs and depressing, boring and sometimes despairing lows; the burning devotion of small-unit brotherhood, the adrenalin rush of danger. The pride of service, the thrill of raw power. The brutal ecstasy of life on the edge and the deep grief of loss. Nik Rudolph thinks of it as “the worst, best experience of my life.”

The men and women we sent to our two longest wars spent months or years in that alternate moral universe, where many of rules and values they grew up with are revoked.  Do unto others, suspended. An alien world in which complex moral puzzles, like confronting a child killer, demand instant decisions by those who are least fit, for reasons of incomplete neurological development and life experience, to make. An environment for which the United States has trained its warriors exhaustively in physical fitness and military tactics, but left them psychologically and spiritually unprepared. An environment from which they return to find their new understanding of the world, and who they have become, fits awkwardly or not at all back into their old lives in peacetime America. They return to an American public whose sporadic attention to veterans largely fails to comprehend or acknowledge the experiences they have absorbed on our behalf. 

This is the dark truth of war, a secret we are all complicit in keeping. We know, though we rarely acknowledge it, that war imposes terrible costs on human beings, and that while some are strengthened by the experience, others buckle. We understand at some level why combat veterans shrink from sharing their stories: we don’t want to know them. In our sometimes frenzied veneration of war heroes, we are too eager to rush past the shadowed doorway where lurks what the poet Peter Marin calls “the terrible and demanding wisdom” of war. In the lofty discussions about putting “boots on the ground” among Washington’s strategists and national security experts, those in government service or awaiting their turn in the city’s comfortable think tanks, there is little room for considering the inevitable cost of the well-being of those we will send. 

But out there, it will get worse. The brutal new conflicts that tempt American intervention as we move deeper into the 21st century pose intense new moral challenges. The old signposts that pointed to “what is right,” the Laws of Land Warfare, the Geneva Conventions, the Just War tradition, seem increasingly irrelevant in a world of drone killings, the beheading of hostages and the deliberate massacre of schoolchildren by Islamist extremists. Traditional ideas about “victory” against these groups are obsolete, battered relics of a bygone age, given that the wildfire spread of weapons technology has enabled them to armor their utter ruthlessness with the killing power once reserved for nations. Moral challenges face us back home as well as we continue, as we always have, to recruit, train and dispatch our youth for military action of which we are deeply skeptical. 

What we know of the veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, and what we fear of the future, demand that we finally pay urgent attention to the moral dimension of war. As we consider committing a new generation to 21st century warfare, we must do so with full knowledge and acceptance of the price they will pay on our behalf.