Skip to main content

Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War

Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini
Published by Beacon Press in 2013

Killing from the Inside Out: Moral Injury and Just War

Robert Emmet Meagher
Published by Cascade Books in 2014

Afterwar: Healing the Wounds of Our Soldiers

Nancy Sherman
Published by Oxford University Press in 2015

God Is Not Here: A Soldier’s Struggle with Torture, Trauma, and the Moral Injuries of War

Bill Russell Edmonds
Published by Pegasus Books in 2015

Jeremy S. Stirm is a military chaplain and independent scholar and taught most recently as an adjunct instructor for Truett Seminary. He served two tours of duty, one in Afghanistan with Special Forces and one in Iraq as a chaplain.

Since the dawn of war, the physical wounds of war have been readily acknowledged, and warriors were and are encouraged to seek treatment. If one was stabbed with a sword or endured a gunshot wound, for example, it seems rather unlikely that one would discourage the wounded person from seeking treatment. Even more unlikely would be the ignorance of the need for such treatment. The point being, the physical signs of a gunshot wound are simply too obvious to miss or ignore.

Not all combat trauma involves external injury, however. Through the years, proficiency in recognizing the non-physical injuries associated with combat has grown. The apex of the proficiency in identifying the non-physical or psychological injuries of war came with the designation of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). PTSD as a clinical psychiatric diagnosis was not introduced until the post-Vietnam era of the 1980s. Since that time, numerous service members have benefited from this diagnosis and subsequent treatments, and many still do to this day.

Conversely, in recent years, a growing number of researchers and clinicians have become increasingly dissatisfied with the PTSD diagnosis in some cases. Moreover, these clinicians have begun to note the ineffectiveness of the subsequent treatment prescribed under such a diagnosis. In their experiences working with veterans, they began to discern the manifestation of injuries not sufficiently accounted for under the current PTSD paradigm. These injuries, it is coming to be discerned, are of a moral nature.

Part of the unproductiveness in identifying these “new” moral injuries is due to the ethical nature of the injuries. Researchers assert that PTSD is often associated with the emotion of fear. In distinction, moral injury is associated with feelings of guilt and shame over something one has done or failed to do. Warren Kinghorn, who holds a joint appointment with the Duke Divinity School and the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences of Duke University Medical Center, explains,

In current nomenclature, persons with PTSD must have been “exposed to a traumatic event” in which (for adults) “the person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others [and] the person’s response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror.” In light of this, PTSD is often presumed to be driven primarily by the emotion of fear.1

He goes on to write, “Clinicians who work with soldiers and combat veterans, however, are increasingly dissatisfied with a fear-based conceptualization of all forms of PTSD.”2 What is more, Kent D. Drescher writes, while “current evidenced-based PTSD treatments are chiefly based on fear conditioning and extinction models, they may be less suited to help warriors for whom moral conflict, rather than fear, is the most salient source of postdeployment difficulties.”3 One may have PTSD and moral injury, or only one of the two, or none. It is, however, important to realize that, while related, they are distinct.4

What does it mean for moral injury to be associated with moral conflict and not some sort of fear response? Moral injury may be understood as “an act of serious transgression that leads to serious inner conflict because the experience is at odds with core ethical and moral beliefs.”5 As this definition highlights, moral injury is not necessarily something done to you which causes a long-term fear response. Rather, moral injury comes about when one acts in such a way as to violate deeply held moral convictions and beliefs. What is more, moral injury may also be understood as “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.”6 This definition highlights the fact that one need not act in an immoral fashion personally, but that even failing to prevent others from doing so may cause moral injury.

The four books discussed in this review essay have as a unifying theme this burgeoning concept of moral injury. Each of the authors brings his or her unique perspective, experiences, and intellectual resources to bear on this perilous post-war injury plaguing numerous service members. I summarize the books chronologically according to publication date.

The summaries serve to present, among other things, the basic content and focus of each text. Having examined each text briefly, I then put the texts in conversation with each other. Some of the authors harbor underlying disagreements, while others complement each other, highlighting aspects of moral injury only alluded to in other texts. Through this dialogue, it is hoped, a richer account of moral injury emerges and certain shortcomings are more readily identified. In the closing section, I offer critiques of particular texts and seek to ferret out helpful and healing practices that may be utilized in soul repair of the morally injured.

Narrating Moral Injury

Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini’s Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War represents a watershed book concerning contemporary discussions of moral injury. The book grew out of their work at the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School and their earlier work with the Truth Commission on Conscience in War held at the Riverside Church in New York City in 2010. They understand moral injury to be “the result of reflection on memories of war or other extreme traumatic conditions. It comes from having transgressed one’s basic moral identity and violated core moral beliefs” (Brock & Lettini, xiv). Put simply, moral injury is “The violation of core moral beliefs” (Brock & Lettini, viii).

On the one hand, Brock and Lettini note the insidious nature of moral injury when they write, “Moral injury feeds on despair. When the narcotic emotional intensity and tight camaraderie of war are gone, withdrawal can be intense” (Brock & Lettini, xvi). On the other hand, they further note what could be deemed the “positive” side of moral injury. They write, “The suffering of moral injury is grounded in the basic humanity of warriors” (Brock & Lettini, xvi). While it is not “positive” that service members suffer from moral injury, I take this “basic humanity” to include the notion that humans are moral creatures, hence the mere possibility of “moral” injury. Furthermore, that service members are experiencing moral injury indicates that they still feel something. They are neither emotionally nor morally numb, though without healing many may be heading down this path. In other words, the mere presence of something like moral injury among veterans points to the fact that many veterans hold to a high moral standard.

Brock and Lettini’s work tells the story of four military veterans: Camillo “Mac” Bica, a Marine Vietnam veteran and philosopher; Herman Keizer Jr., another Vietnam veteran and military chaplain with a passion to expand the military’s regulations concerning conscientious objection; Pamela Lightsey, a military veteran, the spouse of a fellow soldier, and now mother of a veteran of the Iraq War; and Camilo Ernesto Mejía, a veteran of the Iraq War. The chapters of the book follow the narrative of the veterans as each of the four enlist (chapter 1), experience war (chapter 2), return home after war (chapter 3), and seek to live with their war experience and moral injury for the rest of their lives (chapter 4).

The chapters of the book also outline the manner in which moral injury is so often manifested, according to Brock and Lettini. Through repetitive training and drills, young people who join the military are trained to kill and are instilled with a deep sense of camaraderie among their fellow soldiers. The circumstances of combat often amplify these conditions. But in the fog of war, especially in the counter-insurgency environment of Iraq where the battle lines are not clearly defined, difficult decisions must be made, often quickly and with limited knowledge. “Is that a rock or a grenade in that child’s hand?” Faced with the Scylla of killing a child or the Charybdis of watching your comrades get blown up can tax one’s moral sensibilities. In combat, the decision is made and one moves on to the next mission.

As service members begin the process of returning home and as the adrenaline and intensity of combat fades, in time, they begin to consider what they have done. They know in their mind that killing the child with the grenade saved many soldiers’ lives and that it was perhaps the right thing to do. Nonetheless, feelings of guilt and shame creep in. It is at this juncture that the public’s disconnect is perhaps most amplified. Quoting Mac Bica, Brock and Lettini recount, “So, appreciating and thanking a veteran for her ‘service,’ calling her a hero, is counterproductive, as it creates a distraction from the difficult task of confronting the moral enormity of the enterprise of war” (Brock & Lettini, 96). Killing changes one, and returning home to accolades is unhelpful. Thus the journey to heal from and live with moral injury continues for some time.

By engaging in the retelling of veterans’ stories, Brock and Lettini provide a readable and engaging account of moral injury. They do a good job of introducing this important topic and highlighting some of the possible impacts of moral injury if left unchecked. They begin the conversation of how communities may get involved in aiding the healing of our veterans, but the book lacks specific practical guidance. The book is accessible to a wide, general audience.

Nancy Sherman’s Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers is more topically arranged than Soul Repair, with sprinklings of narrative accounts utilized to support her topical arrangement. Sherman highlights the need to address the civilian-military gap in chapter 2. She argues that disingenuous displays of “gratitude” by civilians to returning service members may actually serve to exacerbate moral injury rather than aid in the healing process.

In chapter 3, Sherman addresses the issue of survival guilt. She traces the account of Eduardo “Lalo” Panyagua, a Marine veteran of the Iraq and Afghan Wars. Lalo lost three Marines in Afghanistan. Lalo’s “imposition of oversized liability” on himself, as Sherman terms it, causes him to struggle to release the guilt of not bringing home all of the Marines for whom he was responsible.

Chapter 4 recounts the struggles of Major Jeffery Hall, an Iraqi War veteran who had enlisted at the age of 17. One incident in particular colors his deployment and sets the stage for his subsequent moral injury. An Iraqi family was caught in the crossfire of a U.S. attack on an HVT (high-value target). In the course of the firefight, the father was killed instantly and the mother and son died later from injuries sustained during the fighting. Hall was ordered to find the remaining family and make amends. In the end, the Army paid the family $750 for the loss. Hall was ordered to break the news and deliver the “compensation” to the family. Hall felt guilty for not being able to do more.

Chapter 5 explores moral injury in light of sexual assault, and chapter 6 attempts to articulate hope from Sherman’s philosophical perspective, what she terms “normative hope,” hope in others, and “pragmatically rational hope,” hope in outcomes. The book concludes with a chapter on homecomings and an “Afterword” describing the current status of some of the characters in the book.

Sherman casts her work from a “philosophical perspective” (Sherman, 20), sprinkling in quotes from the likes of Kant, Nietzsche, and Greek mythology. The advantage of this approach is not readily apparent, though her Stoic approach comes through in places. She makes no mention of the role of religious communities in dealing with moral injury, and she seems to cast veterans in the role of victim and not so much struggling moral agents as Brock and Lettini do.

Robert Meagher writes well, and his abundant knowledge in the classics is readily apparent. His text, Killing from the Inside Out, unfolds primarily along historical lines, beginning with Ancient Greece (chapters 1-3), then turning to Imperial Rome (chapter 4), to Christian Rome (chapter 5), to Medieval Christianity (chapter 6), and finally to Early Modern Europe (chapter 7). He draws upon lessons from Ancient Greek mythology in the early chapters to highlight, among other things, the inseparable link that has existed between moral injury and war from the beginning. That is, like Brock and Lettini for instance, Meagher recognizes the ancient origins of moral injury. Like other authors (such as Chris Hedges and David Grossman), Meagher notes the peculiar relationship of sex and violence in Greek mythology and in a discussion of intention versus consequences, the manner in which this relationship informed early Christian deliberations concerning marriage and serving in the military.

Having set the agenda in the early chapters (1-3), Meagher transitions to a historical investigation of the development of the just war tradition within Christianity. However, the connection between sex and violence lingers. Meagher proposes the following observation and question: “Christianity brought no end to war, much less to sex, but it did raise the novel question: can a Christian go to battle or to bed without sin?” (Meagher, 49). Meagher looks to Christianity’s developing views toward sex and violence for a possible answer.

The answer concerning sex was the development of a “two-caste system” within the church. Meagher writes, “The clergy are to be without taint, without sin, without pollution, which means that they are to be both celibate and nonviolent; for only the virgin and the pacifist bear true and perfect witness to Christ” (Meagher, 59). However, he further notes, “Renouncing sex and marriage, however, was not on the table (much less in the bed) for the majority of Christians” (Meagher, 57). Therefore, “The church, without blessing sexuality, had made room for marriage by assigning it to the laity, the worldly underclass of half-Christians who accepted their marginality in return for the pleasures of intimacy and the comforts of family” (Meagher, 65). Thus, while the early church made concessions concerning sex, violence was still widely held to be off the table. Christianity’s relationship toward violence, however, was about to change.

As is the case with other critiques of the just war tradition, somewhat unsurprisingly, Meagher adheres to the “Constantinian Shift.” The early Christian church was predominantly pacifist, but all this changed when Constantine came to power. Thus, the church had to somehow narrate how Christian service in the Imperial military was not only acceptable but laudable. As Meagher writes, “It was Ambrose of Milan and his protégé Augustine of Hippo who constructed the bridge – a characteristically durable Roman bridge – from the pacifism of the New Testament to the militarism of post-Constantinian Christianity” (Meagher, 71). The just war tradition was born, according to Meagher.

Even with its limited allowances for the ethical use of violence in the just war tradition following Augustine, many still recognized the danger to the soul of those who killed. As such, the practice of penance for killing in war, even a just war, continued into the 11th century. While there is little agreement among scholars as to why the practice of penance for returning warriors fell into disuse after that time, Meagher notes, “It goes without saying that the imposition of penance for killing in war … was difficult to reconcile with the waging of holy war. Military service in holy wars, after all, was held to be both compulsory and meritorious” (Meagher, 105). As such, with the penitential practices out of the picture, returning warriors were left to deal with their moral trauma alone and in silence.

In the penultimate chapter, Meagher traces the further developments of just war theory from the “codification of ecclesiastical or canon law in the twelfth century to the birth of international law in the seventeenth century” (Meagher, 109). He does so through an investigation of such thinkers as the jurist Gratian, the Spanish Dominican theologian Francisco de Vitoria, and the Dutch Protestant jurist Hugo Grotius. He understands this time as a period of further testing for the just war tradition and claims that the tradition is found wanting. Indeed, Meagher observes, by the end of the 18th century, “European common law had wholly eclipsed the last remnants of the just war tradition” (Meagher, 127). He concludes his historical survey with these comments:

Remarkably and with presumably good intentions, centuries after its obituary had been filed, there was a concerted effort to resuscitate the just war theory following World War I, and the result is that it has haunted political and moral discourse and debate for the past century. (Meagher, 128)

Among the books reviewed in this essay, Meagher’s is the one with the most clearly identifiable agenda. Through his explication of moral injury, he offers a harsh critique of the just war tradition. His acumen in dealing with Greek classics and his skillful use of historical illustrations will cast a wide appeal and garner a broad readership.

Lieutenant-Colonel (LTC) Bill Edmonds, a Special Forces officer who deployed to Mosul, Iraq in 2005, is the author of the last book reviewed, God Is Not Here: A Soldier’s Struggle with Torture, Trauma, and the Moral Injuries of War. During his deployment, he was faced with several morally taxing situations that caused him to struggle to reintegrate to life outside of the combat zone once he returned home. Finally, in September 2011, six years after his time in Iraq, he sought assistance for his trauma. Unannounced, he went to a behavioral health unit. He was subsequently informed that he could not just “drop in” but that he needed to make an appointment. While they did have an opening in 14 days, he was invited to try the clinic closer to his home. This clinic was able to “fit him in,” and he was able to speak with a counselor.

During the counseling session, Edmonds lost track of time while he recounted his deployment to Iraq and the subsequent six years of post-deployment struggle. After listening to Edmonds bare his soul for over an hour, the counselor stated, “You show indicators, but you don’t fit the profile [presumably for PTSD]. You just can’t handle your stress” (Edmonds, 278). He was encouraged to take a stress management class, listen to soothing music, and perform some deep breathing exercises. This was Edmonds’ first and last visit. At work, he was suspected of malingering, and so Edmonds was left to sort through his problems seemingly alone. He decided, “I will write my way through this,” and God is Not Here is the result (Edmonds, 280).

Edmonds’ mission while deployed to Iraq in 2005-2006 was to oversee operations at an Iraqi prison and interrogation site and to ensure that the rule of law was maintained. He worked closely with Saedi, his Iraqi counterpart, whom Edmonds was to mentor. Saedi had recently joined the newly established Iraqi Army as an Intelligence Officer. However, Saedi was no neophyte. He had years of experience as an interrogator and intelligence officer serving in the Kurdish Resistance.

Edmonds felt ill equipped to handle the mission at hand. At one place in his memoirs, concerning the mission in general, he notes, “I give advice on the rule of law in a lawless society. I try to instill morality in a place devoid of human decency” (Edmonds, 126). Concerning Saedi in particular, Edmonds recounts, “We rarely saw eye to eye on what is ‘right’ when fighting ‘wrong’” (Edmonds, 22). Eventually though, given the seemingly endless barrage of suspected terrorists, rapists, and murderers brought before them in the prison to be interrogated day after day, Edmonds came to understand Saedi better and soon Edmonds became the morally conflicted protégé of the Kurdish interrogator.

The book’s title comes from one rather memorable experience in Edmonds’ story. During an intense interrogation session, after being beaten, a prisoner confesses to killing 10 Iraqis. His compensation paid by an Iraqi insurgent for the beheadings and shootings is the sum of $50 each. Now crying and bleeding the prisoner pleads to Allah. Edmonds recounts the repulsive scene: “From only a few feet away I feel the shimmers of evil come off this man, this same man who dares to sit here and plead for God’s help. Well, God is not here” (Edmonds, 28).

This gruesome scene sets the stage for much of Edmonds’ time in Iraq. Edmonds is morally conflicted. He knows torture is morally wrong, but is it morally right to let a known terrorist go free? Saedi and Edmonds engage in countless exchanges over the utility and morality of employing “harder techniques” (Edmonds, 149) and “strong procedures” (Edmonds, 195) in the interrogation chamber. Edmonds’ moral confliction is evident after one such exchange. He writes,

If these men talk, an innocent will be saved and who would ever know how we attained the information? It’s the positive result that matters. Really. I feel stuck between two bad choices and I must decide which choice is the worse. Do I protect a terrorist who kills and rapes and as a consequence risk not getting the intelligence that will save another innocent, an Iraqi or maybe even an American? By not allowing “harder” interrogation techniques, do I risk not getting a confession so that when these killers are turned over to the Iraqi police they will just eventually be released, only to kill again? (Edmonds, 150)

Initially, Edmonds is sure he should stop Saedi from employing these “harder techniques” in order to obtain a confession. However, as time goes on, Edmonds wants to do even harsher things to some of the prisoners, even contemplating killing some of them. Edmonds writes, “I not only want to hit and slap, but sometimes I want to hurt, to kill these killers. I’m not sure what to do” (Edmonds, 166). In addition to the moral struggles over torturing to obtain confessions and executing a prisoner in order to keep a terrorist off the streets, Edmonds struggles with the suspected ineffectiveness of his reporting chain that is supposed to enforce the rule of law.

He learns that some prisoners were tortured, possibly by fellow Americans, and then sent away to another prison camp in the hopes that the abused prisoners would get lost in the shuffle and the abuse would never come to light. Edmonds has been operating in an environment where the Iraqis have little respect or interest in maintaining the human rights of the terrorists they are interrogating. Now he discovers that the U.S. military is reluctant to investigate the possibility of torture by Americans. He realizes that the military leaders are dealing with the deaths of American service members daily and recognizes that the possibility of tortured terrorists may not be their number-one priority. He sometimes questions if the struggle for “right” is worth it.

The book can be a bit tedious to follow at times. The text is based on two separate private journal accounts: Iraq, 2005-2006, and Germany, September 2011. The book jumps back and forth between these journal accounts separated by some six years. The reader is treated to three or four pages from Iraq in 2005-2006, then two or three pages from Germany in 2011, and on goes the cycle. Formatting weaknesses aside, Edmonds provides a penetrating account of one service member’s spiral into a dark moral abyss and his techniques in attempting to keep the demons at bay once he returned.

Dialogue, Critique, and Constructing a Post-War Narrative

While diversity abounds in each of these accounts of moral injury, commonality does exist. One of the more readily discernible similarities is the manner in which all the texts explore the topic of moral injury. To a certain extent, all the authors seek to expound the issue of moral injury through the retelling of service members’ stories. Through the narrative accounts of first-hand combat experience and the various experiences of coming home and attempting to reintegrate into civilian society, the authors explore the various moral and ethical dilemmas and hardships endured by the service members, in combat and after. It is their stories the authors seek to communicate.

A brief, perhaps overly simplified, summary of the relationship between the four texts at hand may run as follows. The earliest published text explored, Brock and Lettini’s Soul Repair, makes a concerted effort at describing and defining what moral injury is. The book concludes with some initial thoughts on the difficulty some service members experience while attempting to reintegrate back into civilian society. Brock and Lettini likewise briefly explore the moral responsibility of that public which sent the warriors off to do its fighting for them. Sherman’s Afterwar picks up where Brock and Lettini conclude. Sherman focuses her energy on the treatment of returning warriors with moral injury and the moral responsibility of the public in the post-war environment. Her chapter “Don’t Just Tell Me ‘Thank You’” sets the tone for much of the discussion in the rest of her book. Meagher’s Killing From the Inside Out presents his analysis of moral injury through an eloquent recounting of certain Ancient Greek warriors. In the course of his project, Meagher presents an evaluative judgment on the just war tradition in light of moral injury. Edmonds’ God is Not Here is an intense, and in places dark, personal memoir of a Special Forces captain caught in a seeming minefield of moral dilemmas. One may think of Edmonds’ text in terms of a penetrating, first-person, expanded version of Brock and Lettini’s book.

There are deeper connections and differences among the texts, as well. For instance, on the one hand, Soul Repair and Afterwar have similar objectives, identifying society’s responsibility for war and the role it should play in the recovery of veterans from such injuries. Brock and Lettini write,

When veterans return to our communities after war, we owe it to them and to ourselves to do our best to support their recovery. To do so, however, we must be willing to engage the same intense moral questions that veterans undertake about our own responsibility as a society for having sent them to war. (Brock & Lettini, xvi)

In Afterwar, Sherman identifies “the primary aim of this book: understanding the one-on-one obligations and expectations that are part of bringing soldiers home” (Sherman, 39). Thus, both these texts and their authors seek to explore society’s role not just in sending our sons and daughters off to war, but also aiding in their return and recovery.

On the other hand, while Brock and Lettini mention the importance of the larger society taking moral responsibility for war as they conclude Soul Repair, in Afterwar, the military-civilian gap becomes a major focal point from the beginning. Sherman highlights the resentment that some in the military may feel toward their civilian counterparts. For instance, she writes, some service members feel “resentment at too easy a beating of the war drums by civilians safe from battle, infused with militarism at a distance” (Sherman, 26). “Resentment,” Sherman writes,

is a reactive anger grounded in a belief, thought, or perception of being wrongly injured by another….There is the implicit complaint that civilian fellow citizens, or some subset of them, fail to assume an adequate degree of moral responsibility for the wars they (indirectly or directly) help wage. (Sherman, 31-32)

She further notes that some service members “can rightly feel ‘used’…when gratitude is merely instrumental” (Sherman, 33). Thus, Sherman seeks to highlight the presence and causes of much of the resentment veterans feel upon returning home. She likewise explores possible connections between this resentment and moral injury.

Another difference is the basic paradigm for approaching the issue of moral injury. Brock and Lettini work out of a theological context: both are professors at divinity schools. Furthermore, both are readily open to the integral role faith communities may play in the healing process. Sherman, on the other hand, melds philosophy “with a research background in psychoanalysis” (Sherman, 21). While perhaps not blatantly opposed to the role of religious communities in dealing with moral injury, she nowhere brings them to bear on her horizon of care made available to returning service members. Sherman utilizes a “philosophical perspective” and seems beholden to a therapeutic or clinical model of diagnosis and recovery.

Of the books reviewed in this essay, Meagher is related perhaps most closely with Sherman, with the two employing a similar methodology. Both authors utilize accounts from Greek mythology to make points concerning moral injury and contemporary warfare. Sherman makes occasional reference to the ancient Greeks, while Meagher utilizes them extensively as conversation partners, primarily in the early chapters of Killing from the Inside Out. Meagher does a masterful job of recounting and relating certain accounts from Greek mythology, utilizing these ancient tales to highlight the moral complexity of contemporary warfare.

While methodologically similar, Meagher and Sherman find themselves at odds philosophically concerning the relationship of moral injury and the just war tradition. In the Foreword to Sherman’s Afterwar, retired Lieutenant General James M. Dubik locates the post-war care of soldiers’ wounds (to include moral injury) within the developing discussions of the principles of jus post bellum. The just war tradition has historically been understood to deal with the ethics of warfare at two primary junctures. In the just war tradition, discussions concerning the ethics of warfare prior to the outbreak of war were subsumed under the principles of jus ad bellum. The ethical conduct pertaining to the waging of war is the domain of jus in bello. And ethical deliberation concerning the post-war environment has witnessed a spike in recent times: jus post bellum is the “new” arm of the just war tradition. Noting the manner in which Sherman seeks to describe moral injury and offer ways to heal moral injury, Dubik has dubbed Sherman the “Jacques Cousteau of jus post bellum” (Sherman, xvi). He further states,

Preparing soldiers for war also includes – or should include – helping soldiers figure out what war will do to them morally, and thereby to the networks of relationships and communities within which each of them lives. This dimension of jus post bellum is – or should be – as much a subject of professional military education and training for combat as any other. (Sherman, xvii)

For his part, Meagher does not locate the healing process of moral injury within the purview of the just war tradition. Rather, Meagher seems to imply, rather strongly in places, that the just war tradition, with its failed promise of “at least the possibility of war without sin, war without criminality, war without guilt or shame” (Meagher, 129), is to blame for many instances of moral injury. Thus, while Sherman remains open to the just war tradition, Meagher incontestably does not.

Sherman’s chapter “Don’t Just Tell Me ‘Thank You’” sums up a large portion of what these authors are trying to convey. There is a divide between service members and the civilian population that in essence sends them off to war. There is a disconnect between what service members have done on the civilians’ behalf and what civilians know has been done on their behalf. There is perhaps, on the part of society, a certain sense of guilt in seeing veterans they have sent off to foreign lands to do things they may not really want to know about. In this awkward encounter, civilians feel they must say something; the silence is deafening and uncomfortable.

The Old Testament book of Job is instructive at this juncture. Having learned of the calamities that have befallen Job, his friends come to offer comfort. The text states,

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place. … They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. … And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. (Job 2:11-13, English Standard Version, emphasis added)

This scene from the book of Job may shed some light on the resentment felt by some veterans at what are sometimes perceived as hollow gestures of appreciation. The tritely spoken “Thank you for your service” engenders feelings of resentment on the part of some service members, perhaps because this phrase indicates a haste to break the awkward silence and not acknowledge the real suffering of some veterans. Do those offering these accolades speak to avoid the possible discomfort in hearing a veteran’s stories?

As a veteran myself when someone thanks me for my service I have often thought, though I have not yet said it, but perhaps a time is coming when I will, “If you really want to thank me and show your appreciation, be an informed citizen. Hold the politicians and citizenry to account when they begin to tune the war drums. If we are going to send our sons and daughters into harm’s way, make sure it is for a good reason. Service members do not want to be the forces for anyone’s political posturing or poll data. Service members will readily go and fight this country’s wars, but make sure what we are fighting for is worth the lives it will cost to achieve.”

The just war tradition plays a significant role in this process. The moral categories of the just war tradition provide the tools and the language necessary to hold such public dialogues concerning morality and accountability both in the hallowed halls of the politicians and the bloody fields of far off combat zones. At least for these reasons, I think Meagher’s overarching thesis misses the mark.

While I agree with Meagher’s basic premise, that war can cause moral injury, I disagree with his conclusion that the just war tradition is a “dead letter,” and, therefore, should be jettisoned. He overstates his case when he argues that because the just war tradition stamps certain wars as justified, one may thus assume service members should not experience moral injury in a just war. Such a claim glosses over the complexity of warfare itself. A particular war as a whole may be considered just or unjust; however, a war is composed of many discrete acts, each of which may be either just, unjust, or some shade in between. As such, service members fighting in an unjust war may do so in a just fashion. Likewise, service members fighting in a just war may do so in an unjust fashion.

Moreover, if we discard the just war tradition, what are we left with? There is a danger of a resultant moral vacuum, perhaps analogous to the power vacuum in places like the post-Saddam Iraq. There needs to be more training and more teaching concerning the just war tradition in churches, divinity schools, and the military, not less.

Some of the difficulty with Meagher’s assessment stems from the fact that he ends his investigation of the just war tradition prematurely. Because he ends his investigation of the just war tradition so abruptly, he fails to take into account many of the developments of the tradition since the close of World War I. The recovery of the just war tradition since the mid-20th century has been carried out by the likes of Paul Ramsey, James Turner Johnson, Oliver O’Donovan, Kenneth R. Himes, Daniel Bell, Jr., and Tobias Winright, to name just a few. Many of these scholars may question Meagher’s account of the “Constantinian Shift.” However, like Meagher, they recognize the shift that has taken place in just war thinking from a theological moral theory to an emphasis on international law has not always been for the best. These scholars, Christian ethicists and theologians themselves, likewise are calling for a more robust and theological account of the tradition, not claiming it to be a “dead letter” (Meagher, 129).

Criticisms aside, there are positive contributions concerning narrating life after war from among the books reviewed in this essay. Brock and Lettini envision a role for society at large, and particularly religious communities, in addressing moral injury. In their account, Vietnam veteran Herman Keizer, Jr. declares, “I want my religious community to see this new work on moral injury as a challenge to make a ‘place for grace’ for our veterans” (Brock & Lettini, 108). To create a “place of grace” for moral injury means, in part, opening a space for honesty, healing, and, when the time is right, forgiveness. It also includes the recognition of our society’s moral responsibility for war, and would at least call for increased conversation concerning the moral questions of war among families, communities, and the larger society.

Brock’s “place of grace” seems out of place in Sherman’s account. Sherman, dependent as she is on the therapeutic model, writes of “the role of therapeutic self-empathy in a homecoming” (Sherman, 101) and “the psychological sense of release from reproach and the move toward credit giving and self-trust, without commitment to the fact of a wrongdoing” (Sherman, 103). It may be that an account of grace is out of step here because, as Sherman relates, “I have focused on moral injuries that may seem only apparent because the wrongs are only apparent” (Sherman, 103). In its present form, Sherman’s work seems uneasy in addressing darker accounts of moral injury like the one LTC Bill Edmonds relates in God Is Not Here.

As noted above, while I disagree with Meagher’s conclusion concerning the just war tradition, he is certainly correct when he states, “Just or unjust, war leaves scars, on souls as well as bodies” (Meagher, 103). Edmonds’ account alone would prove the truth of such a statement. His account provides a positive contribution to the conversation on moral injury in terms of soul repair.

In the closing pages of God Is Not Here, Bill’s mother sorrowfully relates, “We didn’t give Bill the opportunity to share the darkness he was experiencing” (Edmonds, 289). Every person is different, and every person dealing with moral injury will come to terms with what he or she did in various ways. In God Is Not Here, Bill provides a resource to aid in the healing process. Bill shared his darkness through “the Ritual,” his journaling. Through it, he writes, “I created a new life-saving narrative, and understanding – not forgetting, or reducing arousal, or using drugs – is how I came to forgive” (Edmonds, 286). Veterans need a nonjudgmental space to relate their stories and experiences. They need to be allowed to speak and be heard.

Each of the books reviewed in this essay should be commended for their respective efforts in bringing to light this hidden wound of war. These accounts attempt to portray authentically the deep sense of guilt and shame experienced by many veterans and their struggle to return home. The responsibility to veterans does not end with the declaration of war. The reader would do well to remember Edmonds’ admonition, “Going to war should never be an easy, or easily forgotten, choice” (Edmonds, 23). It is hoped that these works, and this essay, will aid all those affected by moral injury—veterans, their families, religious communities, society at large—in the recovery and construction of a peaceful post-war narrative.

Cite this article
Jeremy S. Stirm, “Moral Injury: Narrating Life after War —A Review Essay”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:2 , 173-186


  1. Warren Kinghorn, “Combat Trauma and Moral Fragmentation: A Theological Account of Moral Injury,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 32 (2012): 60. Kinghorn is quoting from American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed. with text revision (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2000).
  2. Ibid., 59.
  3. Kent D. Drescher et al., “An Exploration of the Viability and Usefulness of the Construct of Moral Injury in War Veterans,” Traumatology 17 (2011): 9.
  4. For more concerning the distinction between PTSD and moral injury, see “Are moral injury and PTSD the same?” at the Department of Veterans Affairs website, http://www.ptsd.
  5. Shira Maguen and Brett Litz, “Moral Injury in Veterans of War,” PTSD Research Quarterly 23 (2012): 1.
  6. Brett T. Litz et al., “Moral Injury and Moral Repair in War Veterans: A Preliminary Model and Intervention Strategy,” Clinical Psychology Review 29 (2009): 700.

Jeremy S. Stirm

Texas Army National Guard
Jeremy S. Stirm serves as Chaplain for the Texas Army National Guard.