In February 2010, among Helmand province’s perpetually hot and arid wadis and fields, 22-year-old Nick Rudolph, a Marine infantryman with 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, was in the middle of a deadly gunfight in Marjah, Afghanistan.
He and his fellow Marines had been fighting Taliban insurgents for hours when Rudolph caught a glimpse of someone firing at them from around the corner of a mud wall. He aimed down his sights and saw the shooter: It was a young boy with an assault rifle. Rudolph had seconds to make a decision. He fired and killed an armed child.
Rudolph’s story, featured in an upcoming book by journalist David Wood, “What Have We Done: The Moral Injury Of America’s Longest Wars,” is just one staggering example of countless moral paradoxes and pitfalls faced by those we sent off to war.
Situations like this were not uncommon in Iraq and Afghanistan, where civilians became combatants by picking up a weapon, and civilians again just by dropping it. What that Marine did was legally justified and tactically sound, but that doesn’t change the way it must have felt then, and later back home with time to square his actions against his own beliefs. Values instilled by the Marine Corps, reinforced by the knowledge that he protected his fellow Marines, defend his decision to pull the trigger, but that has no bearing on how it feels. It’s that conflict, between what you know to be right and what you did, that leads to moral injury, which is the focus of Wood’s book.
Wood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, explores moral injury in his new book through a series of case studies, where he recounts the stories of soldiers and Marines, like Rudolph, who Wood met while embedded with 1/6 in Garmsir, Afghanistan, in 2008.
Wood’s writing is heavily researched and supported by his own extensive experience covering conflict. The senior military correspondent has reported on war and the military for more than 35 years. Wood embedded with U.S. military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan numerous times between 2002 and 2010. When Wood started writing for The Huffington Post in 2011, it was an opportunity to explore another aspect of the war, by writing about the severely wounded. It was at this time that Wood began delving into the impact of war on mental health, and eventually, moral injury.
Moral injury occurs when individuals are unable to reconcile their core values with something they’ve seen or done; it’s a violation of that which you hold most dear, like a bruise on your soul, and it can be tremendously damaging.
Wood spoke with Task & Purpose about his upcoming book, moral injury, and how we can begin to reconcile the differences in experience between veterans and civilians, as a means to heal in the wake of a decade and a half of continued warfare.
In your upcoming book “What Have We Done: The Moral Injury Of Our Longest Wars,” expectation versus reality seems to play a pretty major role as a cause of moral injury. Can you tell me how one person’s inability to reconcile their own core values with the brutality of war leads to moral injury?
We all walk around with a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong — the kind of things we just absorb from infancy. We have a sense of what’s fair and what’s not fair and what kinds of things ought to happen and what kinds of things ought not to happen. We want to believe that people are basically good, and that we’ll be treated well, and we’re the kind of people that will treat others well.
“The problem is … in wartime, it becomes impossible to live up to those values.”
… In a lot of the military training, boot camp, and basic training, those kinds of values are really reinforced, pretty hard. Especially the sort of core values of honor, and duty, and decency, and doing the right thing when no one’s looking, and taking care of your buddy, no matter what. All those kinds of things kind of build into a pretty rigid moral code that we send people off to war with.
That’s great and those moral values really represent the best of our culture. The problem is … in wartime, it becomes impossible to live up to those values. For example, the case I wrote about where a Marine killed a young boy who was shooting at him in a firefight. The boy had been armed by the Taliban and was shooting at them, and he returned fire and killed that boy. The boy was maybe 10 or 12. Where do the military values and where does our core sense of what’s right come in, and how do you apply it in that situation? Tactically and legally, the Marine was correct in killing that combatant, but he killed a child. That really violates his sense, and my sense, of what’s right. You don’t kill children.
When I say it’s impossible to live up to those values … it’s the kind of situation where we, the United States, put people in the position of having to make snap judgements on hugely difficult moral dilemmas that they live with for the rest of their lives. So, that’s moral injury.
A lot of guys sign up for combat-arms jobs, especially infantry, because they want to see combat. Do you think the military is doing enough to prepare them for that, mentally, morally, emotionally?
Well, first I do not think that the military does a good job for preparing people for the moral dilemmas they will face in combat. It’s not something I think that comes easily to the military. When I first started talking about this three or four years ago, I couldn’t get anybody in the Pentagon to even recognize there was such a thing as moral injury. Slowly, however, and on the edges of the Defense Department, there is a growing recognition that there is such a thing as moral injury and there are ways you can prepare people at least, for the expectation that they will run into morally difficult circumstances.
“People go off to war and a different person comes back. It’s very difficult to come back and fit into their old lives.”
There have been a couple of experimental programs where soldiers and Marines are run through a series of role-playing exercises where there is no right answer and the idea is to teach them that this is something you may come across, and it’s difficult to tell us how to react, but you should be prepared to do this kind of thing. I think eventually it’s going to be recognized that the human factors in warfare are hugely important, and part of that is the responsibility of the military to ensure that our combatants feel morally justified in everything they do. Otherwise, it starts eating away at your performance, I think. We’re getting there slowly, but we’re surely not there yet.
In your opinion, is war a coming-of-age experience for a lot of young men? If so, how do you think someone reconciles their identity as a man, as a Marine, a fighter, with what they’ve seen or done to get there?
I definitely think it’s a coming-of-age experience. I don’t compare myself to anyone who’s served in uniform in war, but my experience as a very young reporter in combat was shattering and life-changing. Similarly, the year I spent embedded with a Marine battalion was also life-changing for me. I don’t see how a person could go off to war at age 18, 19, or 20, do one combat tour and not come home as a completely changed person. That’s one of the things we fail to take into account when we talk about veterans. People go off to war and a different person comes back. It’s very difficult to come back and fit into their old lives. I think a lot of veterans struggle to figure out who they are and what to do in life. As long as I’m on that subject, one of the things that struck me was so many people undertake military service because they want to be part of something big and noble, and it is. … When you go back to civilian life, getting a job in an insurance agency just doesn’t seem to have the same amount of nobility to it and importance, and I think a lot of veterans struggle with that.
Are there things that just can’t be understood by those who have never been to war, never been in a firefight, never had to make those tough calls?
It’s very, very hard to understand what goes on in war unless you’ve been there. I’ve struggled my entire career to write about war in a way to makes people understand, but it’s pretty hard. One of the reasons I wrote this book was because I wanted to give people a window into what goes on in war, and the kind of things that happen, and I want to encourage civilians to be curious about what happens in war and to encourage veterans to tell their stories. It’s hard and you gotta start out slow, but I really think it’s so important as we move into the future that we try to address that huge gap between civilians and veterans.
“We don’t have any mechanism for understanding what it is we asked our warriors to do, and what our responsibility is in understanding that.”
I watched the Vietnam generation come home and really feel totally abandoned, and I don’t want that to happen with this generation of veterans. When the Vietnam generation came back, nobody wanted to hear their stories and they didn’t want to tell them because they thought, probably rightly, that their stories wouldn’t be received well. They were isolated and there was a lot of mental trauma that came out of that.
In your opinion, what’s the perception of our veterans, mainly post-9/11 veterans, and of our standing military?
I think veterans have a very high standing in the public. Everybody likes and admires veterans, but we don’t know them and so the admiration of veterans is, to me, kind of skin deep. I think there are a lot of people who want to make sure veterans have jobs, that’s great, but I think we’re in danger, sometimes, of making too much of them, calling them all heroes and venerating them at ball games and patriotic events. That’s all great and well-deserved, but I do think that we miss a better understanding of veterans and what they went through.
Do you feel that PTSD is being used a catchall phrase to define any sort of mental-health issue, maybe not by healthcare providers, but by the media and more broadly speaking in pop culture, on TV, and in movies?
My sense is that the public assigns the tag PTSD to any veteran with any kind of mental-health challenge, and, look, we all have mental-health challenges in daily life, we all do. I don’t mean to separate out veterans, but PTSD is a thing that I’m not sure many people understand. I am positive that the mental health professional community does not understand what PTSD is because people keep changing the definition of it and if you dig down into the research, really nobody’s quite sure what it is and what we’re coming to is a place where we’re going to get rid of that designation and start talking about more specific mental health diagnoses.
What do you hope to achieve by writing about moral injury?
… I feel very strongly that the rest of us civilians need to understand this. We’re the people that send you all into war, and we have some responsibility for that and what happens there. In almost all previous societies there’s been some formal ritual of welcoming warriors back into society. During the Middle Ages for example, it was pretty common for the church to expect that you do penance if you killed someone in battle. There was a whole menu of things that you might be expected to do given how many people you killed and under what circumstance. There was a recognition that killing in war can impose a moral injury on the killer … but we don’t have anything like that. … We don’t have any mechanism for understanding what it is we asked our warriors to do, and what our responsibility is in understanding that.
I hope to spark a lot of local and informal kind of discussions between civilians and veterans so we can understand each other. I think one of the moral injuries we bear, we civilians, is that we sent a lot of people off to war and we didn’t go. Not only didn’t we go, we didn’t even pay attention while you were over there. We don’t really know what happened because we were busy doing other stuff. That’s a moral injury if we really stopped and thought about it and recognized what our responsibility is. I think there needs to be a two-way conversation. We need to talk to veterans about how we felt about that and I would like them to feel comfortable talking about their experiences.