And as the Hamas-Israel and Russian-Ukraine wars continue to rage, I was struck by Mike's mention of a term I've heard several times before but to which I've paid little attention: Moral injury.
"Much has been written about moral injury in the last decade or so," Mike writes, "but not enough has been done about it." Exactly.
Just what is moral injury? I gave you a link above to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' description of moral injury and you can read a lot about it there. But let me quote some of that for now.
"In traumatic or unusually stressful circumstances, people may perpetrate, fail to prevent or witness events that contradict deeply held moral beliefs and expectations. When someone does something that goes against their beliefs this is often referred to as an act of commission and when they fail to do something in line with their beliefs that is often referred to as an act of omission. Individuals may also experience betrayal from leadership, others in positions of power or peers that can result in adverse outcomes. Moral injury is the distressing psychological, behavioral, social and sometimes spiritual aftermath of exposure to such events. A moral injury can occur in response to acting or witnessing behaviors that go against an individual's values and moral beliefs.
"In order for moral injury to occur, the individual must feel like a transgression occurred and that they or someone else crossed a line with respect to their moral beliefs. Guilt, shame, disgust and anger are some of the hallmark reactions of moral injury. Guilt involves feeling distress and remorse regarding the morally injurious event (e.g., "I did something bad."). Shame is when the belief about the event generalizes to the whole self (e.g., "I am bad because of what I did.") Disgust may occur as a response to memories of an act of perpetration, and anger may occur in response to a loss or feeling betrayed. Another hallmark reaction to moral injury is an inability to self-forgive, and consequently engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors (e.g., feeling link you don't deserve to succeed at work or relationships).
"Moral injury also typically has an impact on an individual's spirituality. For example, an individual with moral injury may have difficulty understanding how one's beliefs and relationship with a Higher Power can be true given the horrific event the person experienced, leading to uncertainty about previously held spiritual beliefs."
Moral injury is happening every single day now in Israel, Gaza, Ukraine and Russia -- and certainly isn't limited to those fraught locations. But while we're focusing on those two conflicts, let's not limit our accounting just to physical casualty numbers and the numbers of dollars (or whatever currency) being spent to wage war. Those are important numbers but they don't count the morally injured and the enormous cost of healing people afflicted with such injuries.
In some earlier wars, before the term moral injury was widely used, people talked of shell shock and of post-traumatic stress disorder. Those terms almost certainly were previous ways of saying moral injury or at least they pointed to reactions that included moral injury.
The so-called walking wounded quite often display no physical symptoms, such as a lost limb. But they need help, and our healthcare systems should be set up to recognize that mental ailments need to be treated just as carefully and aggressively as physical ailments.
(The graphic shown above came from here.)
As we dedicate ourselves to a more peaceful world, our success would mean fewer victims of moral injury. And that's a goal worthy of all of our efforts.
Speaking of moral injury here is an article from a journal of the American Association of Medical Colleges that focuses on moral injuries experienced by physicians. Among other interesting things, it reports that "a 2020 study of U.S. health care workers found that 45% felt betrayed by leaders at their institutions."
Moral injury also happens when we fail to live up to our own moral standards. An excellent current account of such a failing is found in the new book Enough by Cassidy Hutchinson, former top aide to former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. In it, she describes how she first let herself testify untruthfully to the Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol.
She was guided in that terrible decision by lawyers from Trump World, who were trying to protect the former president. Eventually, she found that she couldn't live with herself if she didn't do her civic duty to tell what she really knew about that catastrophic day by describing what happened in and around the White House then. She chose truth over moral injury. As she writes of her thinking as she decides to testify truthfully, "I know the impact I could have, a White House staffer with extensive access testifying in an open hearing to what amounted to, at a minimum, President Trump's shocking dereliction of duty. I know it will expose how much he was prepared to hurt the country to assuage his own wounded pride. I know it will reveal him as a reckless, dangerous man. I see that plainly now. January 6 was a dark day -- traumatizing -- a genuine threat to the health of the world's greatest democracy."
In the end, she concludes this: "The country needs to see someone from the Trump administration put the country's interests before politics and self." Her own initial failure to do that is what led to her moral injury.
Finally today, as we think about moral injury, I am linking you to this stark opinion column by Alvin H. Rosenfeld, director of Indiana University’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism. Rosenfeld argues persuasively that the brutal Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas was rooted in a twisted, fundamentalist version of Islam -- (as was the murderous violence of 9/11).
"Whatever its other aims on that day (Oct. 7)," he writes, "Hamas was looking to win a 'Victory for Allah.' Fueled by religiously inspired hatred of Jews, they will keep at it unless and until they are decisively defeated. That must include defeating their ideology, which is shared by others in the region and well beyond. It will be a task for the generations."
It's one more example of what happens when the worst, most assured forms of fundamentalism take over the thinking of people of faith. The outcome is almost inevitably catastrophic. So the global battle for the soul of Islam continues, and if there is to be peace in the Middle East, the radical Islamists, who represent nothing close to a majority of Muslims, must lose that battle.
(And speaking battles for the soul of a religion, see my next blog post this weekend for a description of why certain fundamentalist Christians are actually thrilled about the Hamas-Israel war. They think it will lead to the Second Coming of Christ. All of that is rooted in a literalistic reading [well, misreading] of scripture, especially the strange New Testament book of Revelation.)
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POPE FRANCIS HAS HEARD ENOUGH FROM HIM
Even -- and maybe especially -- in a hierarchical church -- there must be standards of behavior that leaders should not cross. Clearly there are such standards in Catholicism, as proven by the recent action by Pope Francis to remove a schismatic bishop in Texas, Joseph E. Strickland. As Mark Silk's RNS opinion column about this concludes, "Francis effectively had no choice but to remove from office a man evidently determined to become an ecclesiastical martyr." Hard to argue with that.
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