The Perils of Moral Injury

Perils of Then and Now

In 1964, when I was 12 years old, new to junior high school, and soon preoccupied with getting good grades, while chewing gum and obliviously gaping at girls, the U.S. Selective Service was  bringing the Vietnam war to the American homefront, by way of its military draft process. 

As I turned 16, new to high school, and quickly becoming consumed with my first girlfriend, the Vietnam war’s largest military campaign was coming into play.

The “TET Offensive” — an unprecedented assault coordinated for nine solid months by the North Vietnamese against South Vietnam — prompted the US military to accelerate its mandatory drafting of male Ameicans 18 to 25 years old. 

Meanwhile, the US media made Americans clearly aware that an overall victory in Vietnam was not at all imminent. That was when my attention turned to media sources that followed the latest news about fellow Americans fighting non-stop in what ended up as a 19-year-long marathon of warfare.

Many of them were only two years older than me, including locals — some of them, big brothers of my high school friends. Scores of men from every state in the Union were called up by means of a lottery process — the first lottery for military drafts since 1942. (In the period from 1964 to 1973, the U.S. military enlisted 2.2 million of those young American men.)

Well, lo and behold — 6 weeks after I was 18, and a registered draftee — I watched, with rapt attention, as the lottery numbers were revealed. I was shocked to receive a startlingly low number which made me one of the first who would be called. Instantly, I saw my college years disappearing, for active duty to my country nearing!

After two solitary weeks of panic-stricken worry and pensive soul-searching, I decided not to petition for “Conscientious Objector” status, out of concern that, in doing so, I would be disloyal to many friends who were dedicated to heartfelt, selfless duty to Country.

Two days after I made that decision, I was grateful when my parents invited me home for dinner. When I arrived, they both were alight with excitement over some good news!

The short version of the “good news” that Mom and Dad were about to tell me is this:

My quite influential grandfather (by some mysterious means not ever to be discussed), had seen to it that my mandatory draft status disappeared, while active study for my college degree  reappeared!

On the one hand, I immediately floated into a blissful trance of grateful relief!

And yet, on the other hand, a few days later, I experienced a deep, self-consciousness shame: I asked myself, “Why am I spared from military service, when many of my friends are already heading for an inescapable “running of the gauntlet”: “Either kill others or be killed yourself”?

Powerful, unresolved emotions profoundly challenged my deepest senses of both mortality and  morality. Each led me to mistrust myself, and at times, to question why I continued to live at all. 

Well, that was “then” (50 years ago); and this is now …

And I find myself recalling those times in a new light, because I recently came upon a mental health condition called “Moral Injury.” That awareness let me know that signs of moral injury had visited me at times; Yet mine were quite mild as compared to those of soldiers active in combat.

In that wise, Rita Nakashima Brock, Director of the Shay Moral Injury Center at Volunteers of America, speaks of moral injury, as follows: 

“‘Moral injury’ is a relatively recent term used to describe the internal suffering that results from breaking one’s own moral code — a wounded conscience that soldiers have faced for centuries. Imagine a soldier who takes a life in the line of duty. No matter how much good he does, he believes he is a bad person. He hates himself, hurts himself. Yet anyone can experience it.

“Moral Injury breaks the spirit. It is an ‘undoing of character’ that makes people question their ability to do the right thing and leaves them contaminated with the feeling that they’re ‘bad,’ ‘disgusting,’ or ‘beyond redemption.’ That often leads to self-harm. People turn to alcohol, drugs, and self-isolation to avoid the pain of feelings that leave some emotionally dead.”

I now see that moral injury may well be as perilous to the internal wellbeing of a person as any major chronic disease is to one’s physical body. Maybe more so … 

As to the question of whether conflict is ever a good way to engage with fellow human beings:

I’ll go with the vision of Abraham Lincoln — a man of honor — just, moral, and ethical.

At his first inaugural address, President Lincoln spoke, with a spirit of beneficence and reconciliation, to the Confederate States of America and to people of the South at large, at a pivotal time — similar in so many ways to ours here and now — when political ideologies were polarized, and racial injustice was intransigent. His message was this:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, It must not break our bonds of affection.

“The mystic chords of memory will yet swell the chorus of our Union, when again touched, as Surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

6 thoughts on “The Perils of Moral Injury”

  1. Very thoughtful Pendell. The wounding of that time was deep and affecting far beyond the battlefields. Your willingness to unpack your own “moral injury” is not only good for your soul but provides a “lift” into the collective consciousness, so determined at this time to be divided. I so appreciate the Lincoln quote as your conclusion. Better angels indeed!

  2. Thank you PenDell, These were trying times for sure. I recall too many fellow high school students who did not come home.
    Your quotes are appropriate for today: particularly the notion of being touched by the better angels of our nature. Today (10-2-20) is the memorial of the Holy Guardian Angels. May we be cognizant of their presence and open to their guidance.

    1. Thank You, Elaine, for your quite salient points …
      And at your mention on Friday, I immediately “tuned in” to the “Memorial of the Holy Guardian Angles”, where I sensed strong currents present that were openly respecting and protecting of a sublime guiding presence. How beautifully and powerfully reassuring … Thank You …

  3. Thank you PenDell,

    Yes. Our ‘better angel’ makes an appearance and guides us when we consciously invite that one into mind and heart and let them use us to bring reconciliation and healing to our world.

    In another sense, human beings do themselves ‘moral injury’ by being too busy to do just that. Our ‘Spirit’ is broken when we are not letting it work creatively through us, especially in the most challenging situations we face.

    Your mediation offers succour in these divisive polarized times. Again, Thank you.

    In friendship,

    Gary

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