The moral injuries of the USA military

Three years later, a broadside called Self-Destruction: The Disintegration and Decay of the United States Army During the Vietnam Era, by a military officer writing under the pen name Cincinnatus (later revealed to be a lieutenant colonel serving in the reserves as a military chaplain, Cecil B. Currey), linked problems in Vietnam to the ethical and intellectual shortcomings of the career military. The book was hotly debated, but not dismissed. An article about the book for the Air Force’s Air University Review said that `the author’s case is airtight` and that the military’s career structure `corrupts those who serve it; it is the system that forces out the best and rewards only the sycophants.`

The following is a quote from the site linked at the bottom:

Several years ago, I was doing therapy with a 25 year old E-6 (Staff Sergeant) who had seen more combat in his brief 6 years in the army than most cold war veterans saw in 20-30 year careers. He was a “Texican.” I don’t know how many readers here are familiar with ethnically Mexican Texans, but in general, they are some of the most patriotic Americans I have ever come in contact with. Fiercely proud of their heritage (most of them hail from families whose presence pre-dates the Mexican-American war and Guadalupe-Hidalgo) they are not confused about being American. They are the reason Texas with its huge Hispanic population remains republican.

Anyway, this guy watched the September 11th attacks as a high schooler and as soon as he could, signed up to fight. He enlisted as infantry, knowing this would end him up deployed almost immediately.

He was not depressed. He was not anxious. He did not have PTSD. But he relayed his experiences in Afghanistan (he had deployed 3 times) like this:

On one deployment in particular, his squad regularly occupied the high ground and had a birds eye view of a valley that was not always secure for travel. There was a road going through the middle of it that NATO forces regularly used as a convoy route. On more than one occasion, they would see such a convoy heading for imminent attack by the enemy, entrenched and setting up an ambush. They could see this as clear as day, and they had the unobstructed line of site and range on their weapons to do something about it. They would contact the platoon leader, a lieutenant, and inform him that they could prevent such an attack if they could engage the enemy. The response was always the same: do not engage. Several times, even after the unit they were watching had contact with the enemy, the response was still: do not engage, they are not firing at us. This (or stuff like it) happened several times on this, and his other deployments. By the time he was in my office, he was fed up and could not bear the burden of training soldiers to fight, knowing this would probably happen to them.

The latest literature calls this “moral injury” and it is exactly what it sounds like. This young NCO wanted to kill the bad guys, and that’s exactly what he signed up to do. He had real bad guys in his sights, imminently threatening his comrades, and he was told “no,” several times. He had to watch them get ambushed, blown up, etc.

Mental health providers in uniform find themselves in the midst of a sort of constant, low-level ethical dilemma. That is we have a dual role that never really goes away. Dual relationships in mental health are not always unethical, but they are supposed to be avoided if possible. In this case, the dual role is you are the patients doctor, but you are also responsible to the operational needs of the army. Everyone who signs up for this knows it–in fact in my current position, I am responsible for teaching the new psychologists about it.

I’ll get back to that. However, my patient was getting out of the army at his next opportunity. He said he could not handle the political correct demands of the career landmines of EO and SHARP. And the final straw was one more deployment where the rules of engagement made it impossible to kill the enemy where he stands.

Now, I understand in that particular battlespace, the classified information related to the operation may have been compartmentalized, and a higher echelon told them to stand down for some higher order strategic objective. I get operational stuff.


But what was I supposed to tell the guy? I could focus the therapy on several nodes of departure:

Duty to obey orders does not mean you personally did anything wrong, even if the act objectively caused harm to your comrades.
There may have been an operational reason unknown to you and your unit as to why these men were allowed to be ambushed.
I could have worked through the guilt/shame/frustration from a purely therapeutic standpoint.
Or I could let my objectivity go out the window and say “yep. It’s bullshit. It’s all bullshit and I am getting out at my next opportunity also.”

(Option 4 is arguably a dishonorable act).

I won’t say how I proceeded, but I will say this. It is impossible for a person in uniform to stay loyal to the oath of office and loyal to the ethics code and navigate this problem perfectly without some level of personal and professional compromise.

When you compound all this onto the multitude of discussions we have had around these parts about America and her lack of focused and definable national, cultural and civilizational objectives, you begin to see that an ever increasing managerial state running everything all the way down to whom the E-6 can shoot at is at once, 1. totally logical, and 2. totally unsustainable.

But soldiers need to have moral clarity, or some semblance of it, even in the fog of war. They need a simple heuristic to help them make sense of what they are doing, not PC rules of engagement based on impossible, deep rooted ideals that are not relevant. And those of us who provide the therapy for them need the same moral clarity in order to deliver a service to them. It is important to understand who “we” are as a nation before we engage in the next fight with “them.” These rules exist, at least in part, because we can not longer answer that question collectively.

There must be a better way to organize ourselves. I still have not figured it out, but it’s driving me bonkers.

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