Book Review – War and Moral Injury: A Reader, edited by Robert Emmet Meagher and Douglas A. Pryer

Reading Time: 5 minutes

 Note: Content within this article regarding mental health issues may be distressing to some people.  

I tell recruits that one of the challenges of Defence Force Recruiting is that Defence wants to recruit people who are willing and able to use lethal force, but never people who want to. The former can be trained as good soldiers who learn how and when to ethically engage in conflict. The latter are more aptly called psychopaths. Yet even for those who join with the truest motives and are prepared with robust ethical frameworks, there are moral costs with military engagement. 

Moral injury is referred to as the “signature wound” of contemporary and especially post-9/11 military conflict. But what is moral injury? How can we prevent or heal its affects? What can we do in Army with colleagues (or our selves) affected by its aftermath, or better prepare those in training for the moral dilemmas they may face? Why is it often unrecognised and not properly treated? These are important questions Army chaplains are asking out of pastoral concern for our commanders and colleagues, trainees and recruits. 

This reader War and Moral Injury is the most wide-ranging and deeply engaging resource I have found on the topic. The project was co-edited by an academic Robert Emmet Meagher, Professor Humanities at Hampshire College USA, and a retired US Army military intelligence lieutenant colonel, Douglas Pryor. They have assembled 41 contributions from poets, soldiers, reporters, chaplains and/or academics. Their insights are cross-disciplinary from psychology, psychiatry, neuropsychiatry, philosophy, theology, journalism, law, classics, and the profession of arms. 

The biggest value of the book comes from insights of soldiers narrating their experiences, veterans describing recovery, chaplains sharing notebook reflections, and therapists reflecting on treatment conversations. These honest and vulnerable descriptions of lived experience helped me better understand the origins, effects and most effective treatments of moral injury. 

Moral injury is not PTSD or traumatic brain injury though it may have overlapping symptoms. It is something deeper affecting one’s moral fibre and ethical space. It is the unseen wounds to someone’s moral life caused by their actions, orders or what they witness. Moral injury can and does come from war crimes, but also from the dehumanization of sexual military trauma or even simply belittling local civilians. For example, Marine officer Tyler Boudreau critiqued an amorous laughing marine “hug” of a young Iraqi man during a raid in the occupation of Iraq as an atrocity; because the hug could not be refused (p.57). Even ethically justifiable actions in conflict can leave a mark of conscience. To kill goes against human nature – it injures the soul and leaves the “mark of Cain”. That voice of conscience makes itself heard – with guilt and shame; loss of innocence and hope; leading all too often to self-destructive behaviours. Moral injury leads to doubting one’s self, undermining trust in one’s superiors, and questioning of faith in a just world and loving God. War buries too many bodies but also too many souls. 

The book’s poetry invites empathy into the sensory world of those who suffer. Consider this poem by a Vietnam Vet who died in 2005 from exposure to Agent Orange:

From a History Lesson, by Steve Mason (p.18)

Since Vietnam,

three things 

hold my universe together

gravity, centrifugal force

and guilt.

It is so strange, therefore, 

that the war is over for me

just like it’s over for you. 




again … 

Two main questions I brought to the book were how can we better prepare soldiers to avoid or face moral injury, and how can we help them recover and heal?

Preparation, different contributors suggested, requires training in moral decision-making, an adaptive mindset, and ultimately the power of saying “We don’t do that” as the red line for any soldier. Preparatory training and after-action reviews must attend to the moral ambiguity and tests of integrity to be faced. It is also important not merely to focus on avoiding large scale genocide or war crimes but careful attention to respect for the human dignity of colleagues, civilians and opponents. Respect for one’s own dignity is important too; e.g. torture is not just ineffective for information-gathering but terrible for the perpetrator’s psyche. 

The most thought-provoking chapter about the context of training and supporting soldiers was by the one Australian writer, Tom Frame, discussing “Moral Injury and the Influence of Christian Religious Conviction”. Fewer Australian soldiers identify as active Christians today compared to years past. Yet Frame explains how theology has resources that can help in interpreting and treating moral injury. War is intrinsically morally alienating in that seeing death and poverty, genocide and other evils, can distort faith in humanity and goodness. Religion can be one source of moral foundations for what is true, beautiful and good. Moulded by the Christian story and a sense that all people are created equal in God’s image, we understand injunctions against killing and destruction. Without values and beliefs about human dignity, wherever they come from, we are prone to toxic behaviour, as Frame suggests:   

“Where a society has lost the ability to make sound moral judgments and there are no restraints on what is considered evil; when human life is not accorded dignity and people are treated as commodities; when expectations of civilised conduct are ignored and the imposition of political will becomes paramount, the likelihood of moral injury is increased substantially in each instance.” (pp.193-94)

Psychology and its practitioners are necessary to understand and help the morally injured, but it is not just about mental health and the mind. As Frame argued in another book I reviewed Moral Injury: Unseen Wounds in an Age of Barbarism, a holistic approach is needed including attention to the religious and spiritual aspects of life, with insights from chaplains.   

Addressing the question of how can we help veterans recover and heal, contributors helpfully suggest the benefits of moving beyond an individualised medicated approach to treatment. Individual therapy and medication can help. But contributors also highly valued the role of commemorative rituals and purification ceremonies and learning from how American Indian warriors were welcomed home. When soldiers have experienced things that make them feel guilt and shame, often what they need is not being told they have nothing to be ashamed of but guidance with the good old tradition of confession and forgiveness. Those with soul wounds need rituals as much as medication, spiritual practices as much as intellectual explanations, exercise as much as therapy, priests as much as therapists, peers as much as professionals. Powerful healing moments can come with tears and emotional release when a veteran shares their story in a trusted circle. Even those who are not religious can see the need of forgiveness and regaining faith in self and others.     

These insights gave me fresh appreciation for the Australian program Warrior Welcome Home convened by Chaplain Robert Sutherland that I would like to learn more about. It utilises the healing power of community, sacred reading, prayer and confession; in ways that are accessible for those with or without a faith background. 

The importance of addressing these questions is underlined with attention to the effects of veteran suicide, reports of unethical conduct, and news of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Soldiers all too often have done and seen things they wish they had not and which the rest of us cannot imagine. This is why War and Moral Injury is highly recommended reading for chaplains and therapists, commanders and anyone preparing, helping and sustaining soldiers and veterans.

About the Author: Chaplain Darren Cronshaw is a member of the Part-Time Army serving in 2021 at 1st Recruit Training Battalion, Kapooka and then back to Army School of Transport, Puckapunyal. For civilian work he pastors Auburn Baptist Church and teaches leadership and research methods with Australian College of Ministries (Sydney College of Divinity).

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

**If you found any of this content distressing and would like to talk to someone, there are a variety of support services available to you: 

Lifeline: 13 11 14

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ADF Chaplaincy Services: 1300 467 425 and ask to speak to your area on-call Chaplain