Paul Andersen: Our nation is suffering from moral injury
“Moral injury is debilitating psychological or spiritual damage resulting from transgression of deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.”
This definition of moral injury focuses on war as described in a study from Arizona State University. Moral injury is exactly the impetus behind upheavals in the United States today as the Black Lives Matter movement plumbs moral depths not touched in decades.
To explain moral injury, the ASU study looks at the story of a combat soldier who takes the life of a child:
“In any war there’s hardly time to register the life-altering events that stream past, let alone absorb them. … It was on the outskirts of Marjah, in a firefight that went on for hours. At one point Nik, then a lance corporal, noticed someone coming around the corner of an adobe wall, firing at him and his fellow Marines. Nik got him in the sights of his M-4 rifle and saw that it was a kid of maybe 12 years. Without hesitation, he fired.”
The military calls what Nik did a “good kill.” But Nik will never forget that trigger pull. He suffers for it today and probably will for the rest of his life.
According to the study, “Nik killed a child, and when he came home to California, that fact came home with him. In that one act, he was both tactically and morally correct and, in his darkest moments, guilty of a heinous crime. It didn’t help that politicians lauded his combat bravery and strangers thanked him for his service.”
Some police officers identify the same moral rationale to the deaths they cause, considering them justified. But their brutality violates all sense of moral justification. That’s why George Floyd’s death and continual acts of violence toward black men is for an entire nation and many parts of the world comparable to the moral injury Nik holds in his mind, heart and soul for killing a child.
A nation stricken with moral injury struggles to purge that mortifying injury with tears and outbursts, with toppling statues, with scores of outraged citizens stretched out prone on city streets and whispering, “I can’t breathe.” Time calls it, “The Overdue Awakening.”
Ours is a nation at war with itself, a civil war of conscience battling the centuries-old demons of injustice. The social contract has been shattered. The Constitution has been fed into a shredder. Civil rights remain a dream someone once had.
“We find these truths to be self-evident — that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with inalienable rights.” Where is self-evidence of equality when one race dominates others, when inalienable human rights are trampled, when an underclass is held down in ghettos and prisons?
Of what value is the assurance of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” when manipulators conspire to hamper democracy by throwing obstacles in the way of voting rights for marginalized citizens of low income levels and different skin color?
We can expect no better with a president whose moral compass gyrates wildly on the whims of right wing incendiaries, one of whom is a recipient of the Medal of Freedom — the freedom to foment hate with unbridled rage and in whispered tones of conspiracy.
Moral injury is crippling. It eats like a cancer until it is exposed to the light of love and understanding. For veterans of war, telling their stories is the first step in opening the moral wound, releasing the pestilent corruption and inviting the light of day.
“The costs, consequences and the responsibility to address social injustice belong to us all,” wrote war psychologist Ed Tick. “Holism must include body, mind, heart and spirit in community.”
This nation is speaking now through its people, not only as individuals, but in concert with a broad, international community. The world is purging the poison of racism with protests and demonstrations and, in extreme cases, with pent up violence.
America is going through a rebirth, which means enduring birthing pains, the social contractions that send shock waves throughout society. This rebirth requires relief from debilitating moral injury. It begins by addressing the wrongs that have caused it.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.