Moral Injury in the Terror Wars

There’s a new term for the deeply held emotional damage often caused by combat: moral injury. Moral injury is a fascinating, if not equally morbid, subject that should interest anyone in an authoritative position, but most often affects common veterans and active service members. People don’t choose their morals, at least not all of them. That’s the nature of it. Morals attach themselves to us over the course of a lifetime and we must deal with them; how could you identify and regret violating one’s morals if they weren’t there in the first place? People usually think of morals as abstract philosophical bites of trivia, but most people play them much closer to the chest than many realize. Morals, like a person’s personality, comes from individual experiences and how our emotions connected to those experiences.

Just for reference sake, let’s generally define “moral injury”: “Like psychological trauma, moral injury is a construct that describes extreme and unprecedented life experience including the harmful aftermath of exposure to such events. Events are considered morally injurious if they ‘transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations’”. Thus, the key precondition for moral injury is an act of transgression, which shatters moral and ethical expectations that are rooted in religious or spiritual beliefs, or culture-based, organizational, and group-based rules about fairness, the value of life. This broad definition comes straight from the Veteran Affairs” (VA) Agency’s web page on moral injury in the context of war.

Veterans are habitual victims of moral injury in the military, but the contours of the experience are different for every service member. If someone never observed any Jewish customs, why would they care that Private Bob demands to observe the Sabbath? Morals are our own, and, in the military, because service members are detached from their normal social and moral circles, the only reinforcement of those morals comes from within. But if a leader cares about the soldiers he served with or commanded, he can’t choose to ignore his subordinates” morals. A religious example serves here as this is one of the simplest kinds of moral injury someone might suffer in service, along with the fact that established religion is something the military generally respects. Leaders need to know their troops, inside and out, so this could be seen as a patently leadership trait, but this writer sees it as something every trooper should know about his comrades. But most importantly, especially for direct leaders, the soldier needs to have a handle on his own morals.

Here’s the stern reality about moral injury for veterans like me: the United States Department of Defense (DOD) does not recognize moral injury. Take a few breaths and really think about that: the heaviest financial burden on the American taxpayer is our military. The U.S. expends seven times what Russia spends; almost three times as much as China. And still, that entire organization doesn’t acknowledge the concept of moral injury. The VA, however, does, and even has programs geared towards helping veterans deal with the affliction. It’s an absolute head scratcher: that our largest recipient of government spending – the DOD – conducts combat operations around the world and yet refuses to acknowledge moral injury,

while its sister branch (the VA), second in government spending, does acknowledge it. Cognitive dissonance: thy name is American militarism.

Recently, David Wood, on the US Army’s History and Education Center’s podcast, broke down some fascinating aspects of moral injury. Foremost, he mentioned that everyone, veterans and non-veterans, should embrace the idea of moral injury, as it’s something that anyone can experience; that this is not a military-only or combat-only phenomenon. Police officers’ more morbid experiences in the line of duty, doctors that lose patients in surgery, and even in the way people raise their children, can cause a variety of people to feel deeply wounded because they feel they’ve violated their basic sense of goodness and morality. Of course, these are only a few stereotypical examples.

Take the 9/11 attacks. September 11, 2001. The events of that day affected our entire country, but how each person was affected varies a lot between different people based on their diverse locations. My friend and co-host of our podcast, Danny Sjursen, has regularly mentioned a few of his own experiences. As a lifelong resident of Staten Island and a cadet at West Point on that day, his home, family, and military service were forever affected by that day. He comes from a family of firefighters, police officers, and service members. Now, the streets where he grew up are often named for fallen firefighters and police officers who gave their lives on 9/11. His entire life, and especially his time at home after 9/11, have been filled with the constant reminders of who and what was lost. As for myself, I’m from Oregon, and despite my strong love of country, along with the horror and empathy I felt for all affected, I can say without reservation that I doubt 9/11 externally affected my life in the same significant way. The closest to home was the knowledge that my high school history teacher, Gerry Iken, lost his brother Michael, when Tower 1 was hit.

Still, internally, 9/11 was a different story for me. I watched the fallout from 9/11 on a huge TV sitting at the Military Entrance Processing Station in Portland, which we un-affectionately referred to by its acronym, MEPS. The place was full of teenagers and even a few older recruits waiting to be processed into military service. I watched people sign their enlistment papers and be sworn into military service on that day. It was in that moment that I made the mental commitment to help right the wrongs of that day. I didn’t know how or when or where or really anything else that could quantify this feeling, but my sense of morality and national-duty told me that this is what I needed to do.

Of course, I had my own personal reasons for enlisting, but they definitely took a huge back seat to the injury I felt after witnessing the death and destruction of that day. And Mr. Iken’s brother death was really hard to handle. When you see people you care about in pain, you can’t help but take some of that pain with you. On my last assignment as a police explorer (essentially boy scouts who shadow cops and learn about the job), I participated in a procession in remembrance of 9/11. Cops, firefighters, and EMS from all over our area came to honor their fallen brothers, and Mr. Iken rode up front with our Chief of Police. A year later, I spent the first anniversary of 9/11 honoring the fallen with the entirety of the Military Police (MP) Corps stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. An entire brigade of new MPs stood together to remember the events of September 11; it was definitely a sight to behold.

Now that I’ve established my “credentials” regarding the moral pain over the events of September 11, let us return to the fact that there remain those who discount moral injury entirely, or say that those who weren’t directly affected by an event have no cause to be injured or emotionally battered. This is patently, and clinically, false. More pressingly, another important question lingers:

Where is our collective acknowledgment of the moral injury after 17 years of persistent warfare? This goes beyond the platitude of simply saying “we, as a nation, were severely damaged by 9/11.” Americans’ actions and decisions, both collectively and individually, shaped the country. In what forum, if any, have we acknowledged that this event “damaged” our society? Have we honestly acknowledged that we’ve deployed our country into almost two decades of war because of the deep pain we collectively felt after 9/11?

Therein lies the rub. Moral injury, in order to be felt honestly, has to acknowledge injury in some way. If we don’t acknowledge the injury in the first place, how can our collective morals be affected by it? This leads to a situation today with respect to the national security apparatus our country has created and maintained post-9/11. Our leaders, our generals, carry an “antiseptic” or “surgical” view of combat operations. It can be done “cleanly” or “with minimal chance of injuring service members or civilians on the battlefield,” they regularly proclaim. War, in their framing, is almost like cutting a piece of beef down to the choicest cuts. If the best cuts are perfect, but the parts discarded are diseased are nasty in some way, how can the butcher not acknowledge the whole of his dilemma? All the meat is diseased.

Notice how war hawks are always crying that “the military needs more money,” even when the US already has a huge budget (many times that of Russia and China.)

Past cultures had significant multi-step programs for the reintegration of returning warriors. Veterans might be sent away to atone or absolve themselves of their sins, maybe permanently because of the gravity of their killing in combat, while others would be helped by their entire tribe through prayers and rituals. Comanche code talkers would participate in a ceremony using peyote before leaving for war, calling on the heavenly spirits to help protect warriors and their spirits in battle, while the families of Navajo warriors could sponsor a cleansing ritual for their returning veterans once the warrior had met with the local medicine man to determine their needs. Each ritual was individual to the warrior, as no two experiences could be relieved in the same way. David Sutherland, an Iraq war veteran and former commander of a brigade combat team during Operation Iraqi Freedom, says that “war is vile.” But, he notes, “there are some things in this world that are viler than war and that explains why we fight. But that vileness affects you down to your core.” The act of wearing a hair shirt – which in biblical times was “An uncomfortable garment made of coarse hair or other material worn against the skin, Used in some religious rituals as punishment or penance” – was specifically done to cleanse oneself following fighting in a war. Where, then, shall we find America’s “cleansing shirt?” I remember well returning from my first deployment, taking a month of leave, then quickly returning to train for the next deployment. Sure, I spent time with family and relaxed a good bit.

But quite a bit of the time was spent trying to examine my experiences and where, if at all, they had crossed my own personal moral boundaries. The more important question is: why didn’t we officially do that as a unit when we returned from Iraq? Moral injuries in combat often involve our comrades in one way or another, so their participation in the healing process is paramount. Do remember that in order to atone, you first have to believe you transgressed. Whatever rules and guidelines you might follow, if you have no concept of crossing those lines in a military situation, how then can you care about your comrades’ injuries?

Finally, I want to make a clear distinction for those who haven’t served or are unfamiliar with those who have. PTSD is caused by war. Moral injury can also be caused by war, but they are not one and the same. A person can have PTSD without any moral injury and vice versa. They are not mutually exclusive. A friend of mine, Matthew Hoh, who served in the Marine Corps and was a whistleblower on the reality of the horrible state of the Afghanistan war in 2009, shared something online recently about this subject. Now, it’s not clear what the connection between moral injury and suicide is, but Matthew pointed out that the pain of moral injury is not caused by the psychological damage that occurs in PTSD. Service members hurt and kill themselves because they feel guilty about their actions in combat. But, whether it’s moral injury or simply the crushing reality of their own thoughts about their service, PTSD is generally not the cause of veteran suicides, so for a country that watches listlessly as 22 of their veterans end their lives on a daily basis, it’s really important that people understand that distinction, and more than that, open their eyes to the nature of “moral injury.” Our military is everywhere; currently deployed in 70% of the countries in the world. If we can’t acknowledge our own issues with our military and the morality of its actions, how in the world can we possibly care about the damage we continue to do to non-Americans?

As so many are keen to say: All lives matter.

Chris ‘Henri’ Henrikson is a Iraq combat veteran from Portland, OR. He deployed in support of Operation Noble Eagle at the Pentagon following 9/11 and served two tours in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. A former MP team leader, Chris also served two years as a US Army CID drug investigator. You can find his blog and website at, where he and co-host Danny Sjursen host Fortress On A Hill Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @Rorak11GGD. Email him at