The extant of moral injury
War is good for the economy. A million and one needs that the state has put to the side suddenly become necessary if it increases the likelihood of winning a war. Sanitary towels (period pads) or mass produced supports for bodies who have periods were first claimed by and then produced for Red Cross nurses during World War 1. Before this, dealing with periods was a private thing, mostly using home-made materials. Tea bags were how Germans made sure their troops had tea on the battlefield. They called them tea bombs. During World War 1, the Germans invented a lot of things that eventually made their way to market: veggie sausages and sun lamps, for example. Zippers were created by a Swiss manufacturer and mostly lay dormant until the US military put them on Navy uniforms and then a market was born. Penicillin and computers owe their success to World War 2. Conservative economies go eager and loud when there’s a war on. It’s why capitalism loves a battlefield. “Free” product testing.
I keep thinking about this as I read about moral injuries. Have you heard of this concept yet? It’s an injury to one’s values or conscience when a person has witnessed, perpetrated or failed to prevent an act that compromises the person’s values or morals. In other words, it’s what happens when you participate in - either directly or indirectly - something totally awful and evil, something that goes against everything you believe in, and you do nothing to stop it. This contradiction of your own values is so impactful that it becomes its own form of trauma. It can lead to depression and suicide and it can lead to acting out, to taking that pain and rage that should have erupted that first time and then leaking or harshing it out at the world around you. The concept of “moral injury” has been developed as a way of understanding the complexity of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in military veterans. Examples of experiences that could lead to moral injury: being in battle and participating in the murder of civilians, giving orders that result in the death of a servicemember, failing to report knowledge of sexual violence directed against yourself or another servicemember, a change in belief about the need for the war you just participated in, and following any kind of orders that contradict your deepest held values. Moral injury, according to those developing this concept, is a soul wound rather than a physical wound. It causes deep harm to the foundational part of a person, the part of us that says yes, my life has value.
This conversation about moral injury, which began specifically in response to the experience of some military veterans, is like all war time products, now moving into other conversations including focusing on those in law enforcement and those who work in corporations which put profits above the health and safety of their staff and/or customers. It’s being used to talk about health care providers who feel powerless about the impact of insurance companies on the care they are able to provide. What each of these reflections talk about is a freeze around shame and guilt; an inability to move forward into a creative connected life because of the debilitative impact of this unfinished moral injury.
I was driving around rural Wisconsin when I first heard someone talking about moral injury. It was on a podcast about craniosacral therapy. The guest speaker, by way of giving an example, said the phrase “moral injury” and, without even hearing what he meant by it or how it was applicable to the conversation, I burst into tears. Those words aren’t specific enough: I gripped the steering wheel in my hands and felt this raw wail start somewhere below my belly and come clawing its way up and out as tears and a high keening sound that took me by surprise. Yes, worried friends, I pulled over. Hitting rewind, I sat and listened as these two men talked about moral injury on the podcast. It took me a few times to actually hear what they were saying because something deep was going on that was way before words, way outside of linear thought.
Moral injury. Moral injury. When someone has witnessed or participated in horrific things in such a way that this experience shapes them afterwards. A moral injury is the pain of the unwilling, the shocked, the frozen, the perpetrator.
Growing up, I was hurt badly by some of the people in my family. For whatever reason, during these periods of violence, I remember knowing as a child that this perpetration was not really who they were. I remember knowing as something I felt without clear intellectual understanding that this violence was the result of the violence they experienced and so on before them and before them in this chain of harm. Powerful, right? An understanding of collective historical violence as some kind of instinct. Except I spent entirely too much time explaining or understanding those who were harming me rather than just being rageful and saying no, I didn’t deserve that. Today I know it’s about all of it, the truth of how violence is handed down as a collective generational thing and the truth of individual agency and accountability for participation in that violence. Healing is the weaving between.
As I was listening to this podcast, something deep in my gut burst forth with hiccuping grief. It wasn’t personal grief, stories of things that happened to me dancing behind my eyes. It was older than that, something that felt pulled out of ancestral lines, overwhelming and too complex for anything as mundane as specific details and story. Once that intensity started to quiet, a whole host of other things came in its place. The first was this: fuck you, US military and war time. Fuck you for your tenderness to your soldiers, your willingness to take on the truth of trauma when you are talking about those people who take on your orders. Fuck you every single institution that is thinking about moral injury as a way of explaining what happens to those who have social or structural power and feel bad about what they do with that power. Fuck you. Fuck you, FUCK YOU!!!
Ok. So that’s the rage part. And it came in hot and heavy and loud, just as loud and intense as the grief that was first there. It’s not entirely gone. There is a low burn anger in my belly; an anger about the victims of those acts of violence, a rage that recognizes how rare it still is for all who have been victimized to be visible and held in the pain of violence’s impact.
But there’s something else going on as well. You see, I think this perspective is necessary; more than necessary, I think it’s an essential part of breaking the cycle of violence. The perpetrator learns to be a perpetrator and then passes it on through what is done and not done. There is a particular kind of harm around the experience of being a perpetrator; a harm that is then defended against and protected and turned into justifying stories that only increase the perpetration, isolate the victim, and freeze the trauma into a repeat loop. Folks who are thinking about moral injury describe it like this: people with moral injuries may see themselves as immoral, irredeemable and irreparable and may believe that the world is immoral so what does it matter anyway. This can result in all kinds of shit: self harm, lack of self care, substance abuse, recklessness, hopelessness, decreased empathy, self-loathing, preoccupation with internal distress, and self-condemning thoughts. It’s about a deep level of shame, shame and more shame to the extent that folks will often become angry, aggressive and self-defensive.
Hel-lo?! Military!? All of you who are working with present time veterans and noting the impact on their lives of the orders they have had to carry out, can you expand your gaze a bit? You realize that this description of moral injury pretty much defines the impact of the founding of this country? I see generation after generation, from families coming to “new lands” to make a better life for their children who then pick up arms and kill the families who had been living on this land for thousands of years, to white folks who were “Christian” and “community leaders” and who enslaved African people, used beatings, lynchings, and other forms of violence and then defended the acts of other community members who committed that same violence (and thus was the concept of “white” created). I see the recklessness and decreased empathy, the preoccupation with internal distress in the postings of white supremacists as well as regular old white Americans who are tired of not getting what they feel entitled to. Moral injury refers to the evolution of US patriotism, it’s the reason we are here, in this particular political moment in time, only the deep shame of it all started a bunch of generations back so in some cases, all we see is the culture that formed to protect the children of the morally injured from having to feel the impact of that injury. I think moral injury and its impact pretty much defines white supremacist culture*.
I am writing this on a day when the current President is about to visit Minneapolis. The battle between his supporters and others has escalated because our mayor called out the president and his supporters are even more activated. I couldn’t sleep last night and something has been pushing its way through my body demanding attention so I cancelled my day and I am giving it attention. And in the midst of the need for rest, this piece is itching at me. It’s been a chunk of days where the reports of attacks on synagogues, the fact of Joshua Brown’s murder, the US allowance of potential genocidal war directed at the Kurds, the melting of Greenland ice shelves that wasn’t supposed to be reached until 2070, the considering of LGBTQ basic rights at the level of the Supreme Court, the constant reporting of actions and words directed against immigrants, against indigenous people leading up to Indigenous People’s Day, the presence of the Oath Keepers at today’s rally in Minneapolis, and so much more is the current visible presence of perpetration as US daily culture.
The cycle of violence that began with the original wounds that created this country has to end. I don’t think that most of those early Euro folks were inherently evil. Without minimizing the extant of their harm, I think they were making choices based on the best sense of their own survival that included committing or witnessing acts of unspeakable violence that they were then never accountable to. They then kept pushing forward, making excuses, and letting part of their, of our, humanity die. I believe that most believed they had no other choice. I believe that the result of this is a deep and pervasive moral injury that has become defended as culture. It’s a trauma that is not about victimization like other kinds of trauma because, as I wrote above, compassion for what caused the harm that then created the act does not replace the deep and primary need for accountability to the crime.
Sometimes when I look at the intense reactivity directed by mostly-white folks at gay pride marches, at pipeline protesters, at children in school playgrounds and adults in community who wear hijab, at folks protesting confederate flags or the assumption of Christianity as the normal that everyone needs to hold, there is a small feeling that maybe this intense reaction is a sign of lingering humanity, a moment of protesting too much as a way of covering up something that feels confusing or shameful or wrong. I will keep repeating this; individual accountability for acts of violence is a hugely necessary thing, the only thing that makes way for re-entering collective human space and, at the same time or woven through it, there has to be compassion for the experiences that created the possibility of acting against the deepest and earliest life expression that always, given the choice, prefers to love.
My fear, and not an irrational one, is that the concept of moral injury will become just another tool that protects those with the most social power from having to be accountable to power’s impact. Those poor veterans and oh how they have suffered. My worry is that, like the current movie the Joker seems to show, moral injury will become another way that white mass shooters and corporate executives and trigger happy police officers are understood and forgiven while meanwhile, the deep moral injury that is the United States continues to roll forward, ignoring the bodies that it crushes. As a child, it made deep-self sense to understand that the harm I was experiencing had generations behind it. I forgave the harm by understanding it before I learned how to be angry about what had happened. It’s the other way around for the moral injury of the United States. I start in anger and rage and struggle with deep-self sensing the truth of the generations behind it.
Conversations about moral injury separate perpetration-based injuries (the person with the moral injury committed the acts themselves) from betrayal-based injuries (the people trusted to lead committed the acts and/or made you commit the acts). What a nuanced gift for talking about how, in the case of white supremacy culture, children become white. I’ve long talked about this as a betrayal injury; being betrayed by caretakers who, directly and indirectly, teach their child to turn off their heart to other people for reasons that make zero sense to life’s desire to connect (which they learned from their parents and those before them). Those who work with veterans experiencing moral injuries are instructed to help the veteran make meaning out of why they did or didn’t act as they did, to understand the context that created the conditions and then, along the way, to deepen their ability for self-compassion and forgiveness. Part of their healing includes looking for opportunities for repair, for re-engagement, for reconnection.
Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, when you read the material about moral injury, it reads like a guidebook for working with dominant culture folks, the steps you go through to bring someone from numbed out dominance into collective humanity again. Is this a potential crack in the defense system around the original moral injuries of this land? Am I being foolish for feeling some kind of hope? And where do I go, who do I talk to, to widen that crack because oh lord, please please, may this crack widen and deepen and split into pieces all of those things which keeps mass perpetration in place, split into tiny bits of understanding and repair. To every god and creator and ancestor and scientific ideology that exists, here is my prayer, again and again, may it be so.
*To be clear, I don’t think that “moral injury” only refers to white folks or those raised as agents of white supremacy. Because of the relationship between race and poverty, because of how military recruitment happens, because soldiers have always been disproportionately the poorest and least accessed in a community, the people dealing with the impact of following orders are also Black and Brown. And because of how generational dominance impacts the economic safety of folks of color and white poor folks, all kinds of people make survival choices that compromise their deepest held values. It’s one of the things I first learned when working in support of homeless young people: you want to find young people on the streets as quickly as possible because every one of us is likely to contradict our own values within 48 hours of homelessness in order to survive. Homeless youth supporting folks, many who have been homeless themselves, have long talked about how much harder it is to heal from this self-compromise than from some of the other impacts of homelessness. Moral injury is a complex topic that touches every community. I mostly feel deep compassion for the real people living real lives who are trying to figure out how to be home again, with themselves and the world around them. The point of this writing is to look at how culture, in this case white supremacist culture, is shaped by collective moral injury that does not heal but instead congeals.
And also, absolutely everything written here can also be said - and should be said - about rape culture, this other European import that came along with colonization and enslavement and continues to show up at every level of family and community.