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Monday, August 24, 2015 Resilience and Moral Injury

(Posted August 24, 2015)

"Just yesterday you were passing out soccer balls to young Afghani children,"

I replied to the young soldier who had just inadvertently killed a young Afghan girl when a Taliban fighter used her as a human shield.  “You have been standing on the edge of evil, and this is what evil does.  This is what would happen to many other ten year old girls were you not standing up for what is just, right, and true as an Army soldier.” The soldier desperately replied, “I want out!  I can’t handle this!” Thus began a challenging season of moral injury for another U.S. Army soldier. 

Moral injury results from the divergence of one’s deeply held core values and the consequences of their actions.  It is important to recognize that those subject to moral injury may have acted immorally, or they may have acted within moral norms with tragic outcomes beyond their control.  In the short vignette provided above, the soldier was attempting to perform his military duties in a moral manner, yet the unintended consequence was killing a young child put in harm’s way by an enemy combatant.  Even though the soldier did not act immorally, he suffered moral injury because of the deep contradiction with his core values.

In Resilient Warriors1, I defined the Resilience Life Cycle© as a Before-During-After process which Builds Resilience (before trauma), Weathers the Storm (during trauma), and Bounces Back (after trauma, without getting stuck in the toxic emotions of guilt, false guilt, anger, and bitterness).  Just as with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other life traumas, moral injury can be addressed using the Resilience Life Cycle© to prevent, mitigate, and foster recovery from the guilt or false guilt, and lack of forgiveness, central to moral injury.  Let me explain this Before-During-After parallel between resilience and moral injury in terms of Moral Clarity, Moral Memory, and Moral Cleansing.

  • Moral Clarity (Before): An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  In addition to generally acceptable moral behavior, each profession carries with it specific moral implications.  It is critical that we understand the morality of our chosen profession before we face the associated temptations and moral dilemmas.  For example, someone in finance should carefully weigh the ethics (and Biblical outlook) regarding money and lending ahead of time, before they face temptations and moral dilemmas associated with that particular field.  Similarly, the profession of arms carries with it the ethical challenges of legitimate use of lethal force as an agent of the government.  Given that this use of lethal force may result in killing another person, it is critical that the military warrior clearly understand the morality of war before he enters into harm’s way.  This warrior should have wrestled with the question, “Can a Christian be a soldier?” Similarly, it is useful for them to understand Biblical verses such as Exodus 20:13 in proper context (sorting out the distinction between “murder” which sheds innocent blood and “killing” which is legitimate under conditions of self-defense or governmental sanction).  Understanding Old and New Testament views regarding the profession of arms (both positive) is useful preparation, such as Jesus’ commendation of the Roman Centurion, “Never have I seen such great faith in all of Israel.”

    A final element which ensures Moral Clarity is “Know Your Calling,” referred to in our last blog pertaining to the “As for me…” conviction which undergirds calling.  To restate the importance of calling:

    Calling often implies a deep sense of conviction to pursue noble goals, certainly the case for most enlistees putting on the nation’s uniform, or missionaries enlisting in the Lord’s work, or the business owner pursuing excellence on behalf of his employees and his family. Calling is very important, particularly when strong winds begin to blow."2

    The military person who has a solid conviction of his calling, as well as awareness of these other factors of moral clarity, is far better prepared when his moral actions possibly result in tragic outcomes.  Such prior moral clarity helps one navigate and recover from the “moral shocks” (injury) that often befall warriors in the chaos of battle.
  • Moral Memory (During): A familiar leadership saying goes, “When you are up to your neck in alligators, it is hard to remember that your mission was to drain the swamp.”  So it is when the tragic and unintended consequences of your actions throw you into chaos and confusion.  At this point, Moral Memory is critical to proper response.  This is the time to remember your divine calling, your noble purpose, your moral intentions, as well as Biblical truth and law of war doctrine.

    Perhaps a story illustrates this best.  Speaking to fellow prisoners of war in the Cabanatuan Japanese prison camp, Army-Air Corps Chaplain Colonel Oliver made a profound observation, “Men, I’ve learned never to doubt in the dark what I believed in the light.”3   His comment highlights two key principles.   We should work hard to know what we believe when the sun is shining, when life is good.  Then when the dark storm hits, when the moral confusion occurs, we must be careful not to doubt, to remember what we knew to be true in the light.

    As a footnote, it is often the caregiver, or the battle buddy, or the unit chaplain, or the medic who can remind the person in moral chaos to remember, to cling to what they knew to be true in the light.  In the case of the soldier in Afghanistan, I simply reminded him of his “high calling as a soldier in the U.S. Army, standing on the edge of evil in defense of others.”  This reminder helped him “gain altitude” and view his predicament through a healthier lens.
  • Moral Cleansing (After): The primary symptoms of moral injury are deep-seated guilt or false guilt, and a lack of forgiveness from God, self, or others. How do we morally cleanse ourselves of these toxic emotions that hold us captive in moral injury for days or decades?

    Regarding guilt or false guilt, leadership and friends can often help us process the experience.  As others help us lay out the facts of the particular event, we are often able to see that our actions were moral and the tragic outcome was truly beyond our control.  Or, in some cases, we may see that we acted immorally, inconsistent with our core values and training.  This instance requires authentic confession and acceptance of God’s forgiveness (as well as human consequences) for the immoral act.

    Often the biggest road block is self-forgiveness.  Colonel Oliver in the Cabanatuan prison camp expressed the imperative for forgiveness well:

    “If we fail to forgive (to include self-forgiveness), then hatred (to include self-hatred) can become a poison in our veins that will mark us until the Day of Judgment and bring spiritual death an inch at a time.  But if we learn to forgive, we can find true peace with God.  May God help us all to learn to forgive.”4

    Accepting God’s forgiveness, our own forgiveness of self, and forgiveness from others is the best antidote to a lifetime of moral injury. 

Are you or someone you love just entering the profession of arms?  You need to solidify your MORAL CLARITY before you are placed in the crucible of moral dilemma.  Have your actions or the consequence of your actions violated your deeply held core values? Bad things do happen to good people.  It is important for you to exercise MORAL MEMORY regarding what you know to be right and true.  Do you have a besetting spirit of guilt or false guilt, and the heaviness of unforgiveness and moral injury? Your prescription to higher ground is MORAL CLEANSING, achieving the freedom of forgiveness that comes to those who genuinely ask for it from God, self, and others.   

1 Dees, Robert F., Resilient Warriors, San Diego, CA:  Creative Team Publishing, 2011, page 86.
2 Ibid. 
3 Keith, Billy, Days of Anguish, Days of Hope, Garden City, NY:  Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1972, page 148.
4 Ibid.

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Respectfully in Christ, 

Bob Dees
LU Institute for Military Resilience


PS: The next Institute for Military Resilience (IMR) Webinar entitled

"Educating and Nurturing Military Children"

will be presented by Dr. Kristina DeWitt
Associate Professor, Liberty University School of Education

8 PM on Thursday, October 8, 2015. 

Military Children face unique challenges and opportunities as they journey together with their military parents – frequent moves, multiple schools, new cultures, parental deployments, and differing educational environments.  How do teachers best educate and parents best nurture military children? 

See you there for a powerful time of unique insights into
"Educating and Nurturing Military Children "

Register at www.liberty.edu/IMRWebinars.


Posted at 12:29 PM | Comments (0)
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