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Moral injury: An assault on the soul

...just to watch parades or hear macho defenses of the military or ponder theological “just war” arguments will not go far enough, now that we realize anew that moral injury of this sort can be fatal to individuals and cultures.

U.S. Soldiers photo

Moral injury is a recently diagnosed but agelessly known assault on the soul. While it cannot be isolated and defined as (relatively) precisely as PTSD, or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, it has received much attention in the past decade. The unending wars of our years, the polarizations in society, and the uncertainty about reemploying religious categories in a wildly pluralist society have worked to press something like moral injury on our minds, consciences, and communications media as seldom before.

Every Veterans Administration caregiver and all those who minister to the needs of the spirit, whether in formally religious channels or not, have come to be alert to the devastating effects of “M.I.,” which has sent them scurrying to the new experts. Regular attention to ex-G.I. suicides is serving to alert veterans’ families and citizens in general about the need to probe and to go deeper than earlier diagnoses allowed them to go.

“Stop!” one can hear in the face of any claim that new diagnoses serve new purposes in new crises. Those who fought in and survived World War II, the Vietnam War, and other conflicts saw killing and perhaps killed combatants and civilians alike on scales undreamed of today, when drones do the killing in battle, as it were, sparing sensitive humans the terrible necessity of focusing on the head of another human and killing one who would have had a life to live and who did one no direct injury. No doubt moral injury to the soul has always afflicted millions of good men and women combatants. But each generation must face the conscience issues of its own time and develop resources for facing up to them.

A latecomer to the discourse, I became alerted to all this by the work and writings of thoughtful experts. For example, I have carefully read and now recommend Moral Warriors, Moral Wounds: The Ministry of the Christian Ethic by Wollom A. Jensen and friend James M. Childs, Jr. One is a military chaplain and the other a theological ethicist; the two provide close-up and soul-deep analyses and reports. Earlier I was alerted and stunned by Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini, through their work Soul Repair, and more recently Georgetown professor Nancy Sherman, who is widely consulted and quoted. The list of resources is growing and should meet wide acceptance.

While all moral injury is interpreted and tended to in at least implicitly religious terms (the “home base” for discourse on such subjects), the authors and other experts—often aware that interpretation of “wounds” is grounded in particular communities—are not confined by them, and want to understand and to serve believers and non-believers alike. But as I read and study these matters, I am constantly thrown back to empathize with those who have professional and then vocational and especially religious-vocational commitments. These come into focus most in the calling of military chaplains, a fact that led me to the work of Jensen and Childs.

The reasons should be obvious. Most people of conscience, whether formed by faith texts or not, know so well that “thou shalt not kill.” But the military people they serve are trained and told to kill. Do the chaplains who are to interpret these canons and creeds and calls opt for one command over the other? Or, if both, how do they relate? Right off, one learns that just to watch parades or hear macho defenses of the military or ponder theological “just war” arguments will not go far enough, now that we realize anew that moral injury of this sort can be fatal to individuals and cultures. Cheers for those, including the chaplains, who confront these issues.

RNS-MARTIN-MARTYAuthor, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

This post appears courtesy of Sightings, a publication of the University of Chicago Divinity School’s Martin Marty Center.

To read previous issues of Sightings, click here.