Before I took command of my company in Baghdad, I helped my boss manage interrogation operations for Task Force 1st Armored Division. When the Abu Ghraib prison was established as the military’s consolidated interrogation facility for Iraq, I regularly called the prison and asked them to pull prisoners that we had given them out of the general prison population for interrogation.
I never received a single piece of useful intelligence back from the prison. Those guys have to be the worst interrogators ever, I often thought. But in war, especially a counterinsurgency, you feel you can’t afford to leave any stone unturned in the search for intelligence. So, I kept up a steady stream of requests.
I had no inkling at the time of the awful abuses prisoners were enduring in the prison’s hard site, where interrogation subjects were housed and questioned. That inkling came later, in early April 2004, when my battalion commander told me that there was an investigation into serious prisoner abuse at the prison. Suspicion turned to disgust when, a couple weeks later, I viewed the shocking Abu Ghraib photos on television.
For years afterwards, I wondered if any of the prisoners I had asked Abu Ghraib interrogators to question were in that naked pyramid. Then I learned that the prisoners in the photos were, for the most part, not interrogation subjects. Although the prosecuted abuses took place where interrogation subjects were held, nearly all of the prisoners in the published photos were common criminals. They had been pulled out of the general population tents by a group of corrupted military policemen looking for some late-night fun.
But this fact made me feel only slightly better, since I also learned later that there were photographs of worse abuses that President Obama elected not to release, photographs that involve crimes like rape and probably depict prisoners who were interrogation subjects. I learned, too, that Abu Ghraib interrogators had routinely employed such abusive practices as “Forced Nudity” and “Stress Positions” on their subjects—practices I consider torture.
Most American soldiers feel tainted by what happened at the prison. I feel tainted more than most. It makes me sick to think that, by my making calls to that prison and asking for certain prisoners to be interrogated, I was likely part of the causal chain that led to the torture of certain Iraqis. My feelings regarding my unintended role in torture range between anger and mild depression. This is not the terrible event that would later lead me to such grief and moral distress that, for the period of a couple months, I seriously contemplated suicide—an event I’ve written about elsewhere. I can understand, however, how someone might be so guilt-stricken over their abuse of powerless human beings committed to their custody to actually do it.
I can’t remember the names of the prisoners I asked Abu Ghraib interrogators to question. If I did and I met them, I don’t know what I would say to them. It wasn’t my fault? I’m sorry?
The statement that “the U.S. military currently has a suicide problem” is an understatement. From 1990-2003, the active-duty suicide rates of the four major services remained steady at about 10 suicides per 100,000 service members. Since then, this rate has doubled for the Navy and Air Force, making it comparable to the rate among U.S. civilians of like age and gender. But this rate also more than doubled among Marines and tripled among soldiers. Moral distress from combat has been linked to the suicides of warriors for thousands of years. The U.S. military’s suicide rate began its steep climb with our military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that moral injury could be a significant contributing factor to the U.S. military’s suicide problem.
Not all or even most U.S. service members suffer from moral injury, but the potential for such suffering is great. The military’s 2006 and 2007 mental health surveys of soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan found that ten percent of these troops believed that they had mistreated noncombatants or damaged property “when it was not necessary.” If this ratio holds true during the other years of these conflicts—and there is little reason to think that it does not—then nearly 250,000 soldiers and Marines may have cause to suffer moral distress from their actions downrange. This number does not include those who may suffer from other potential sources of moral injury, such as the legally justifiable killing of enemy combatants and the unintentional killing of noncombatants (for even legally justifiable actions can greatly trouble warriors).
Leaders may minimize the extent of these potential sources of moral injury, saying, for instance, that so-called “enhanced” interrogation techniques were rarely used and, when used, rarely devolved into real torture. Nonetheless, it is obvious from surveys and books that a substantial number of service members believe that they did something wrong, perhaps even terribly wrong, downrange. And with regard to moral injury, what is important is how the individual rates their experiences, not how their leaders judge them.
Moral injury cannot be the sole reason for the U.S. military’s growing suicide rate. It is simply not credible that every service member in the last decade who committed suicide above the annual norm for the pre-9/11 era suffered from moral injury, combat-afflicted or otherwise. Other factors include PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), purely physical ailments that have also been linked to increased risk of suicide. Another obvious factor has been the greatly increased operational tempo of units at home during our nation’s recent wars, a tempo that has often placed great stress on soldiers and damaged their relationships with the very people they depend upon for emotional support.
Still, it is troubling that our military institution does not acknowledge that moral injury may have anything at all to do with military suicides. This is exactly what is happening, though. U.S. military services spend millions of dollars to collect data relative to suicide but are not seeking data that aims to teach us what may actually be troubling our service members. The data collected instead largely involves forms of misbehavior that are rightly considered effects of psychological injury, not its causes. These effects include suicide attempts, substance abuse, and criminal misconduct. We know, for instance, that a suicide victim drank too much before he died, but we rarely know, or express any interest in knowing, what drove him to drink. In 2012, the Department of Defense’s Suicide Event Reports did begin requiring commanders to provide information on the “behavioral/counseling health treatment history” of suicide victims. However, victims’ sources of psychological trauma remain unexplored, and reporting that they suffered from “moral injury” is not an option.
Why does America’s military ignore the existence of moral injury and all that it portends for how our soldiers must fight and train to fight? The obvious rationale is that “moral injury” is not officially recognized in the mental health manual.
It stands to reason that, until we understand root causes and implement a plan to mitigate these causes, we will not meaningfully reduce or prevent such negative behavioral outcomes from psychological injury as suicide. The military’s “suicide prevention program” is largely reactive and interventionist in character, not preventive: it does not aim to prevent service members from having suicidal thoughts in the first place. The one effort that does aim to prevent suicidal ideation is the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program. This program tries to make soldiers impervious to the adverse psychological effects of stressful events—or, if not impervious, at least empower them to leverage positive thinking and the support of others to limit these ill effects.
This program, however, raises the troubling possibility of a remedy that may be worse than the ailment it seeks to prevent. In an age in which moral tragedies like Abu Ghraib constitute strategic defeats, do we really want service members to always feel untroubled by the effects of conscience? Do we really want to ensure that they can always maintain a relentlessly positive, up-beat attitude, no matter what they do or see? Of course we do not. It is ironic that, of all the potential contributors to suicide, the cause that military leaders most ignore may be the most preventable if paid attention to. There is an element of choice in many cases of moral injury. When people choose to do something they perceive to be right—or they witness others around them doing things they believe to be right—they may avoid incurring moral injury altogether. If Alyssa Peterson, for example, had not been shamed with a reprimand when she refused to continue to torture, she might not have felt tortured to the point of taking her own life.
Conversely, there is nothing in mental health literature that suggests that PTSD as currently defined is preventable. Soldiers engaged in modern warfare endure terrible explosions and other sources of extreme physical trauma. Our nation can also do little more than it does to prevent TBI since the U.S. military is the best equipped in the world and goes to great expense to remain so. Why does America’s military ignore the existence of moral injury and all that it portends for how our soldiers must fight and train to fight? The obvious rationale is that “moral injury” is not officially recognized in the mental health manual.
But that response does not explain why “moral injury” is generally accepted within the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs but the term is practically taboo within the military. It does not explain why our military fails to “hedge its bets” and at least explore the possibility that moral injury is causing adverse psychological effects among service members. The evidence is certainly great enough to warrant this approach. How difficult would it be, for example, to add questions to military mental health surveys that attempt to meaningfully collect data on what may be truly bothering troubled service members? The real reason why U.S. military leaders do not talk about moral injury when they talk about war lies in military culture. Within the ranks, the faith in American Exceptionalism is strong. This faith includes the idea that American service members are exceptional, not because of what we do but because of who we are. Accepting that we service members may sometimes do things that seriously trouble us runs directly against the powerful currents of this faith. As one Navy chaplain put it: “Marines don’t like to say, ‘I’m being injured by doing the very thing I’m being trained to do’.”
It is thus no wonder that, instead of focusing on better educating service members so that they will make choices that they can long live with, the primary institutional response to the issue of psychological injury has been to try to create resilient, relentlessly optimistic automatons.
Ibegan researching moral injury in earnest almost a year ago. This research has proven for me to be a difficult, perilous passage at sea. The stories I’ve read of veterans whose identities were broken or lost in the storm-tossed waters of war have troubled and threatened to capsize the ship that is my own soul. I may not have seen as much violence as many of them experienced. But I have endured enough. My own seas have been rocky enough to make it easy for me to feel their many griefs and guilts. Harder than empathizing with broken warriors has been bringing myself, in these turbulent waters, to make landings on the dream-shrouded shores of suppressed memories. Better it would be, I have often felt, to keep such memories at a distance, as if they were islands with submerged, dangerous reefs safely viewed only from afar.
There has been no real choice for me in this matter, though. I must learn to live with painful memories. If I do not, I feel in my bones that I will someday find my ship caught up in strong currents of moral dissonance and broken upon hidden reefs that I had thought—had wished—were far away. Regardless of what happens, there is no doubt that moral dissonance has charted a different course for my life. A decade ago, no one who knew me would’ve guessed that I would be as passionate about ethics as I’ve become. I wouldn’t have guessed it either. Back then, I thought the subject stale and moribund, of interest only to pompous preachers and teachers, rather than a living, irrepressible expression of human biology.
Within the ranks, the faith in American Exceptionalism is strong. This faith includes the idea that American service members are exceptional, not because of what we do but because of who we are. Accepting that we service members may sometimes do things that seriously trouble us runs directly against the powerful currents of this faith.
I’ve learned that we ignore at our peril the powerful moral forces that enable us to see other humans as beings like ourselves who should be treated as we ourselves would like to be treated, that cause us to risk our very lives, to suffer great deprivation, to do what we believe is right for others. These forces are an important part of the reason our species dominates the planet. Indeed, without them, we would not be able to live in large, powerful groups and communities. America’s very existence would be impossible. I have argued in other essays that moral concerns usually determine long-term victory or defeat in war, and that this is especially the case in modern war. “War is a moral contest,” I have stated, and the last side to believe that it is right to continue to fight is the side that most often wins. Only wars in which an enemy population is exterminated or broken and scattered are decided by a different calculus.
Information technology, though, has made it increasingly difficult to apply that different math. For a mature democracy like the U.S., it is impossible to imagine applying this calculus to any enemy except in the gravest existential crisis. High-resolution images of torture and bombed cities do not play well on televisions, computers, and hand-held telecommunications devices in countries like ours. The importance of war’s moral aspects does not just find expression in how long a nation’s will to fight is maintained and in this will’s visible effects, such as who is declared the “winner,” how much property is destroyed, how many people are physically injured, or how many lives are lost. Another enduring outcome of that invisible, moral dimension is a war’s legacy of psychological injuries. Sadly, the human and material costs of these injuries are also what societies ignore most when deliberating whether to go to war.
In his book, Packing Inferno: The Unmaking of a Marine, former Marine captain Tyler Boudreau declares it obvious that moral concerns deeply impact the psyches of warriors, and he rails against the inability of societies to learn from their own art and literature. He argues that, until a nation’s citizens take responsibility for the deaths and injuries (to include psychological injuries) of the troops they send to war, troops will continue to be sent to war too easily. The public will also be inclined to view the psychological injuries of returning veterans as resulting from these veterans’ moral or mental deficiencies rather than their having been sent to fight unjust wars. The willful ignorance of Americans is not bliss, he essentially argues, when it perpetuates the private Hells of combat veterans.
A morally focused approach to war would represent a significant change of tack for America’s military, forcing us service members to align who we say we are, who we often believe we are, with who we actually are. When scholars characterize the “American Way of War,” few if any associate this way of war with a “preoccupation for justice.” Certainly, in my 22 years of Army service and deployments to three combat zones, I’ve never witnessed a staff debate the perceived justice of any proposed military action as part of a commander’s decision-making process. In fact, formally discussing any form of justice other than legal justice is taboo during combat or training operations. Unless a military lawyer says a course of action is (or can be construed as) illegal, the typical U.S. military leader believes they have a moral green light to conduct an operation. Woe to the staff officer who asks the question, “Which course of action would war-influencing communities perceive as the most just?” Or, to the soldier who states, “That is not a moral order. I will not do it.” At best, such words are cause for belly-holding laughter. At worst, they invoke disciplinary action.
America’s legalistic approach to war fails to adequately account for the powerful moral forces that determine the course of a conflict and the long-term psychological effects of this conflict on those caught up in it. If our nation and military continues to conflate the “legal” with the “moral,” things will only get worse. Technology is rapidly changing the way that wars are fought, far outstripping the ability of ponderous legislative processes to keep up with changes. Rapid technological change is thus generating a widening “morality gap” between common, nearly universal perceptions of what is right and wrong in war and the standards codified in the Law of Armed Conflict and U.S. law.
Two prominent examples of U.S. military actions that have tried to exploit this gap are the use of so-called “enhanced” interrogation techniques and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (or “drones”) for transnational strikes into loosely governed territories. Administration lawyers at different times have interpreted both actions as legally permissible. Yet, both actions have met with international outrage and have become rallying cries for anti-U.S. jihadists. Legally permissible or not, the perceived immorality of these actions has undermined U.S. stature and influence and has probably created more enemies for the U.S. than those measures could ever have eliminated.
The American military’s legalistic approach to morality is tragically ironic because it undermines what should be our nation’s greatest strength during military operations abroad—our nation’s strong tradition of respect for basic human rights. This tradition was established by the Declaration of Independence and codified in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. General George Washington set a modern precedent for how to treat prisoners with dignity and respect, a tradition American soldiers have adhered to more often than not. More than any other nation, America is responsible for the Law of Armed Conflict, publishing the foundation of this law as General Order 100 of the Union Army during the American Civil War.
That record stands in stark contrast to that of our nation’s jihadist foes today, who have no similar tradition of respect for essential human rights and little capacity for accommodating different cultures and faith groups. An example is Al Qaeda in Iraq, whose cultural violations of “what is right” in the minds of Sunnis in Al Anbar Province helped set the conditions for Sunni tribes to turn against them. These jihadists had very little choice but to do the things they did that enraged locals. They could not but treat local women as property, for example, because that is what their interpretation of the Koran required.
Of course, early in the occupation, the U.S. military likewise showed too little consideration for the moral perceptions of others. Adjustments were eventually made: only Iraqi troops could search mosques, only female soldiers could search female Iraqis, American soldiers knocked on doors first before breaking them down, Iraqi males were treated respectfully in front of their women, efforts were made to upgrade detention facilities, and so on. But by the time these adjustments were made, it was too late. Iraq was engulfed in the flames of a raging insurgency, and, at home, lesser flames of popular dissent burned. Adding fuel to both fires were such public, strategic, and moral defeats as the Abu Ghraib crimes. In conclusion, it lies not in the power of mental health professionals to reduce the impact of moral injury on service members. Our nation’s political and military leaders, via the decisions they make, have the only real power in this regard. If these leaders were to embrace war’s moral dimension (to include moral injury), much would be possible that has been impossible up to now.
Mental health professionals could actively collect data identifying the sources of moral distress in service members. The conscience of the individual soldier could grow and mature through ethics-related education and training programs rather than be smothered in blanket “resiliency” programs. Disobeying legal orders perceived to be immoral could be permitted in some circumstances. Dehumanizing our nation’s enemies could be discouraged, in part due to concerns about what happens to service members who later come to recognize enemies they harmed as fellow human beings. U.S. doctrine (to include its professional military ethic) could be rewritten to make perceptions of justice among war-influencing communities an important component of military decisions. And beyond the scope of military decisions, our nation could learn to concern itself as much with perceived justice as with short-term self-interest when it chooses when and how to wage war.
Will our nation and military learn to see the pursuit of perceived justice as absolutely essential to success in modern war? Will we come to see morally justifiable actions as the crucible on which the psychological cost of war to America’s warriors is lessened or redeemed? It is not at all obvious that these things will happen. Americans are human beings, creatures of passion, and war is the activity that displays this passion at its noblest and cruelest extremes. It stands to both reason and experience that our nation will not always choose only just wars to wage, and that America’s service members will not always perform just actions in combat. However, human beings are also governed by moral forces. The great cost of underestimating these moral forces in the information age is surely too great to go long unnoticed and inadequately addressed.
Our nation will not always be able to wage just wars justly, but we must try much harder to do so.
[This is the second of a two-part article. The first part is here.]
Lieutenant Colonel Douglas A. Pryer is an active-duty counterintelligence officer who has deployed to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. He is the author of the book, The Fight for the High Ground: The U.S. Army and Interrogation During Operation Iraqi Freedom, May 2003 April 2004. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
[Photograph: A painting by Arnold Frieberg of George Washington praying at Valley Forge.]