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Nancy Sherman on war and homecoming

The philosopher asks what we owe to returning soldiers

By Jonathan Derbyshire  

In April 2007, US Army captain Josh Mantz was on patrol in Sadr City in Baghdad when a sniper opened fire on him and his troops. A bullet severed the aorta of his staff sergeant, Marlon Harper, before richoteting into Mantz’s right thigh, severing his femoral artery. A medic arrived and began tending to Mantz, whose wound was more visible than Harper’s. It was Mantz who survived, not his comrade.

Four years after his return from Iraq, Mantz suffered a profound emotional collapse. “It’s the moral injury over time that really kills people,” he said later. “Soldiers lose their identity. They don’t understand who they are anymore. Most people don’t appreciate the awful weight of that moral injury.”

In her new book “Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers,” the American philosopher Nancy Sherman tells Mantz’s story and those of other US military veterans. The notion of “moral injury” evoked by Mantz is central to her attempt in this book to expand the field of “Just War” theory (that is, the philosophical exploration of the morality of warfare). When I spoke to Sherman recently, she told me that she sees herself as very much “part of the circle of individuals who do Just War theory, beginning with Michael Walzer. But it’s been very narrow: it’s about the justification of war, or the conduct of war or circumstances and treatment after war—but not [what happens] at home.”

The problem, she thinks, with the traditional partition of Just War theory into “jus ad bellum” (which deals with the circumstances under which states are morally justified in going to war), “jus in bello” (which deals with the moral rules governing the conduct of war) and “jus post bellum” (which deals with the conditions of a just peace) is that it neglects the obligations that a state or a political community which sends men and women to fight abroad has to veterans when they return home. I asked her what those who don’t fight and stay at home owe to those who do (setting aside the question of whether or not one regards the war as having been justified; in Sherman’s view, the two questions are separate).

NS: We often focus in the media on institutional obligations, especially in the US of late—veterans’ hospitals that have had massive failures, long waiting lists, unemployment. But we fail to think about the ways in which we as individuals are implicated and have accountability. So I focus on those kinds of duties and obligations—you might say, of care and concern, which get manifested in emotions.

JD: A thought that occurs to you several times in the book is that simply saying to a veteran “Thank you for your service” is inadequate.

It occurred to me that “Thank you for service” is what a Freudian would call a “reaction formation”—a way of reacting to and trying to compensate for what we didn’t do. The response is often resentment—simmering resentment, below the surface. In part because they [the veterans] think it’s too little, too easy. Also they may doubt the sincerity. It doesn’t go anywhere. It just stops. And it usually happens in an airport where you see these tired guys getting off a plane in cammies.

Is resentment towards civilians on the part of soldiers returning from combat one of the symptoms of what you call “moral injury” therefore?

Often people say, “We’ve been at war and you’ve been at the mall.” That sense of “You don’t get it” plus, “You don’t know how hard it is for me” does linger. I think the military-civilian barrier is huge.

The idea of “moral injury” is one the key analytical categories in the book. What does it involve?

Moral injury is an old term that has come back into fashion, especially in veteran circles. The idea derives from Bishop Joseph Butler in the 1720s, I think, who in his sermons talked a lot about the feeling of being injured by insults and other kinds of injustice levelled against you. You are wounded and you want someone to acknowledge that wound through some sort of apology or the like. He was worried about it in terms of it not being very Christian to be angry. But that general notion of being injured by transgressions against you, in the second person; about transgressions you as an agent do, in the first person, where you wouldn’t feel resentment but you’d feel guilt; or the idea of being a bystander or onlooker, perhaps a very involved one, where you speak out against a transgression you see others committing against other people—this is third personal—and where indignation is the emotion—those are all emotions that register or express moral injury.

They are what [the philosopher] Peter Strawson called the “reactive attitudes”. Those are never discussed in clinical writings, because clinicians don’t think about things in that way through a philosophical lens. But they are really the emotional attitudes that express, and to some degree constitute, the injury—they are at the heart of the injury. They all share something a sense of holding oneself and others to account. A sense of moral responsibility. They’re not just grief or sympathy or something like that. They have a more specific flavour.

What’s critical in thinking about them from the point of view of mental health is that they are a different kind of injury from post-traumatic stress disorder. In 1980 [that was recognised as] a diagnosis—for good reason: these psychological injuries needed to be counted as real, not just [dismissed as] malingering or cowardice. But they were also based on hard external factors—there’s a life-threat, an extreme life-threat, and you react with hyper-vigilance, with numbing or with intrusive thoughts like flashbacks. That’s a pretty narrow and behavioural definition of trauma. It’s done great service, but it’s also done disservice to all the different ways in which people have anxiety about war, where they really think they’re no longer good. They [think they] are bad because they can’t reconcile what they think are transgressions in war with what they did in peacetime existence. They also hold themselves to very lofty standards. As a result, for young folks who are highly idealistic and have pretty black-and-white views of what’s good and bad, there are millions of ways you can go wrong and do bad—including not bringing your buddies back. Or killing kids in collateral incidents that were viewed as legally OK and were probably morally permissible, but leave awful stains. All that stuff registers in deep emotions where you take account or hold yourself and others to account. They can kill you slowly.

How seriously does the US military bureaucracy take both moral injury and the need for what you call “moral repair”?

They’re beginning to think about it. I briefed the Army chief of staff, Ray Odierno, a few weeks ago. He realises that there is a very small and vulnerable staff going forward. There have been enormous cuts in the military and we probably won’t have the same kind of land troops out there again, but we will have lots of smaller footprints with probably a lot of special forces going out. And they are going to be very vulnerable.

Does the kind of fighting special forces do—counterinsurgency, especially— pose distinctive moral problems? You discuss the case of US Airforce Colonel Eric Goepner, who talks about the “mission-ineffective” character of counterinsurgency. Is there a moral dimension to the problem he identifies—some fuzziness or haziness in the rules of engagement in counterinsurgency, and asymmetric warfare more generally, which compounds the moral injury that veterans suffer?

That’s a great question. There’s a training problem here. Informally, through training, soldiers, sailors, marines are all taught that you don’t leave buddies behind. You take care of each other. You watch the other guy’s back. That’s an ideal. It’s what we would call an “imperfect duty”—you can’t fulfil it perfectly. But if you’re young—18,19,20—and you’re in charge of others, you don’t feel good when you can’t do that.

Another part of Just War theory in addition to protecting your forces is taking risk off of civilians, indeed minimising that risk. And of course exactly what counts as minimisation is the name of the game. It’s a trifecta—you minimise risk to civilians, you minimise risk to your force and you don’t risk your mission. So you’re always moving the risk around between those three goals. When you put a lot of your energy into minimising the risk to civilians at the cost of your own forces, that’s hard. It’s hard because it’s demoralising. It’s also demoralising to get caught in a collateral incident where you kill civilians. It’s also demoralising not to get your mission accomplished. The informal motivator in all war is “Bring my buddy home.”

Nancy Sherman’s “Afterwar” is published by Oxford University Press (£16.99)

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