In 1915, six months after the outbreak of World War I, Sigmund Freud offered this less than prescient comment:


When the fierce struggle of this war will have reached a decision every victorious warrior will joyfully and without delay return home to his wife and children, undisturbed by thoughts of the enemy he has killed either at close quarters or with weapons operating at a distance.


What would assure so untroubled a homecoming for veterans of the Great War, as Freud saw it, was the happy fact that they, like all “civilized” men, had lost their “ethical delicacy of feeling.” Savage men, he explained, lived in fear of the men they murdered — of their lingering vengeful spirits, that is—whereas modern men knew better than to allow the past to haunt them. To their credit and to their agony, however, Freud underestimated the consciences of the men and women who returned from the trenches and the killing fields of the Great War and of every war since. What they saw and suffered and especially what they did in war came home with them and darkened the remainder of their days.

The truth that escaped Freud and from which veterans are unable to escape is that the awful work of war, the cleavage of humanity into enemy camps, and the slaughter that follows diminish, distort, and darken us. “It should make you shake and sweat,” writes Sergeant Brian Turner, a former infantry team leader in Iraq and the most notable poet yet to emerge from that war, “nightmare you, strand you in a desert of irrevocable desolation… it should break your heart to kill.” And it does. “What happens when our boys kill?” writes former Marine Captain and Iraq veteran Tyler Boudreau. “No matter how well we desensitize them, no matter how just the cause, the violence they inflict in battle will seep into their souls and cause pain. Even in self-defense, killing hurts the killer, too.” In war, contrary to the sanguine illusions of Freud, the killed go dark in death, and the killers go dark in life.

This is what we have come to call “moral injury,” the violation, by oneself or another, of a personally embedded moral code or value resulting in deep injury to the psyche or soul. It is what used to be called sin. The haunting question here is: “How can there be moral injury in a just war?”  The traditional and mostly unquestioned answer is that there can’t be. The idea that dutiful service to one’s country in a just war can be simply “wrong,” putting at risk one’s humanity and very soul, is blasphemous and unthinkable to nearly everyone except those who have experienced it to be the case. It is an idea that many or most veterans are unwilling to express, for they know the anger and resentment they will provoke with their words. Timothy Kudo, a Marine captain who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, learned this when he published a piece in the Washington Post in January 2013, entitled “I killed people in Afghanistan. Was I right or wrong?” To many the question was indeed blasphemous and his answer to it proved still worse: “Killing is always wrong, but in war it is necessary.”

The idea that dutiful service to one’s country in a just war can be simply “wrong,” putting at risk one’s humanity and very soul, is blasphemous and unthinkable to nearly everyone except those who have experienced it to be the case. 

This simple statement — killing is always wrong — calls radically into question — none too soon in my view — a theory and doctrine firmly in place within Western ethical and theological orthodoxy for the past 1500 years. I have in mind here what we know as the just war doctrine. The deceptive and destructive core of the Christian just war doctrine can be stated very simply. It is the claim that wars, or at least some wars, and all the killing and destruction they entail, are—in addition to being necessary—good and right, even virtuous and meritorious, pleasing in the sight of God. This calls for a new species or category of homicide: “killing” that is radically distinct from “murder,” a distinction that hadn’t previously existed in Christian ethics. “Murder” violates the will of God and darkens the soul of the murderer, but the other, “new” kind of killing doesn’t. The difference lies not in the level of violence, death, suffering, and destruction involved but in the “intention” of the killer. If the intention is to do the will of God, which the tradition identifies as the will of the Church and its ordained spokesmen or else the will of a legitimate secular sovereign authority, and if all that is done is done with “love,” or at least not in hate, then there can be no moral injury because there has been no moral infraction, no sin. If the intention is pure, all is well in heaven and so on earth.

The origin of this foundational claim lay not in the New Testament, nor in early Christian theology and practice, but rather in a practical necessity and political convenience. Once the Christian Church found itself in a position of power, which is to say that once the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire, the exercise of lethal force and the waging of war, that is, killing, became its ecclesiastical responsibility. In fact, service in the army, the imperial legions, was confined to baptized Christians. How, then, could the Christian Church say that military service was sinful? How could it maintain and deploy an army of Christians whose very service put their souls at peril? A pacifist Church was one thing, but a pacifist Christian empire was something very different, and untenable. Augustine, and his mentor Ambrose, both of whom had once aspired to a secular career in the imperial service, came up with the solution, a new theory of war and killing that would not only permit but endorse killing for “God and Country,” as it were. It was from the beginning a doctrine of convenience—conceived, promulgated, and perpetuated by men who themselves, as clerics, men of God, would personally eschew service in the military and the conduct of war. They and their successors in the tradition would readily raise a hand to bless the troops but never themselves lift a hand to wield a sword or carry a rifle. There would be no blood on their hands. War and killing, now blessed, soon became not the lesser of two evils but a positive good.


Inner Conflict

Invented in a theological lab, just war and virtuous killing, as soon as they were tested in the field, proved useful for some and devastating to others. The “others” were the combatants, the killers and their victims. The shocking truth was that the “side effects” of just war on these lay, un-ordained “others” were of little concern. Not even civilian casualties, however massive, were finally allowed to question its efficacy. Church and State were not about to condemn war, any more than they are today, not at least their wars; so war had to be good. Or rather, “our” wars had to be good, and those who serve in them do no wrong, ever, so long as they serve the cause and follow orders. As the great scholar-monk Erasmus pointed out centuries ago, every war is just, from the perspective of those waging it, and every killer is a hero, to the side they are on. That is the wall our veterans still run up against today. They are expected to deny their own pain, ignore what war has taught them, and take up their civil status as heroes.

Ex-Marine Lieutenant Karl Marlantes poignantly relates how, when he raised his right hand in 1964, swore an oath to obey the Commander in Chief, and signed up with the Marine Corps, he in his own words “believed that a president of the United States would never give men an order that would cause any moral conflict.”His service in Vietnam, where he won the Navy Cross, two Navy Commendation Medals, two Purple Hearts, and ten Air Medals, was marked with distinction. It also, by his own account, left him haunted. “The Marine Corps taught me to kill but it didn’t teach me how to deal with killing.” Several decades and several wars later it seems the Marine Corps may not be doing significantly better in confronting this issue. In 2011, at the Navy and Marine Corps’ annual conference on combat and operational stress control, moral injury was a principle focus of scrutiny and debate. One Marine commander on the panel, as reported in Stars and Stripes, objected to the very concept of moral injury, saying that “As a Marine, I’m insulted.” The implication that Marine training and honorable military service entail immoral behavior and thus lead to moral injury was more than this Marine and the Marine Corps more widely could accept. And so the Marine Corps has said it prefers to speak of “inner conflict” rather than accept any implication of immorality in the work of war, which is after all what Marines train for and excel at.

If they fear that they have lost their souls or their humanity or both it is not because they have committed war crimes but because they have become convinced of the essential criminality of war. Surely there cannot be guilt and shame in having done their duty, served their country, at such a great risk and cost to themselves. 

Where we might ask does this leave our veterans, many of whom — haunted by what they have witnessed and done in war — live in what some have described as an impenetrable darkness? If they fear that they have lost their souls or their humanity or both it is not because they have committed war crimes but because they have become convinced of the essential criminality of war. This is a conviction, however, that their “grateful nation” does not readily accept. Surely there cannot be guilt and shame in having done their duty, served their country, at such a great risk and cost to themselves. What haunts them must be “in their heads,” or more precisely in their brains, and there are on offer perfectly good drugs to deal with that.

From the beginning of the just war tradition, the powers-that-be needed their wars and so they enlisted their heroes to wage them. Nothing about that has changed, including the confusion and resentment of the returning warrior at the reception he or she comes home to.  It “baffle(s) him,” writes Kevin Powers, an Iraq war veteran and author of the acclaimed novel The Yellow Birds, “because he immediately remembers what he has actually done, the acts of violence for which he’s being thanked, and it just doesn’t make sense. And he doesn’t get to hide from the fact that he must account for what he’s done.” The truth is that just war theory has never made sense to those with blood on their hands, nor to those whose blood it was. But to our great shame that fact has not been given much weight or mattered much, and has been largely ignored. After all, veterans represent less than one percent of the population.

The fact is that just war doctrine lies at the root of our inability to comprehend moral injury and to make sense of our military “heroes” marching off to take their own lives. Why can’t our veterans see themselves as we see them — luminous in their service and lucky to have the rest of their lives ahead of them? Why can’t they leave the war behind? The truth, of course, is that warriors bring their war home with them, not like a tan acquired on holiday but like a secret they wish they hadn’t been told. It is a secret the rest of us need to learn, even if we’d rather not, and a part of that secret is that, in the words of Captain Kudo, “Killing is always wrong.” I, for one, am grateful to him for summoning the courage to remind us all of this most inconvenient truth.


Robert Emmet Meagher, Professor of Humanities at Hampshire College, is author of Herakles Gone Mad: Rethinking Heroism in an Age of Endless War, and (forthcoming in Fall 2014) Killing From the Inside Out: Moral Injury and Just War ( 



  1. Eric Smith 19 June, 2014 at 16:12 Reply

    Thank you for your article and its many insights, but in my opinion you’ve made two errors. First, you generalized moral injury to include all mental issues associated with combat. Actually moral injury occurs when an individual is exposed to something wrong (decisions or actions) that violate moral or legal codes (e.g. a wrong is committed and not accounted for). This description is not intended to include all of war being a gross error; rather specific circumstances and events. Second, your discussion makes a general assumption that war is bad, but what about the alternative to war which is doing nothing when bad conditions exist. Aren’t individuals psychologically scarred when they must endure a bad peace? Isn’t it appropriate to fight back when one is injured, oppressed or wronged?
    While I appreciate your thoughts in this article, I believe that you’ve used moral injury to as a cover for your message on pacifism.

  2. david ackerman 26 August, 2014 at 16:49 Reply

    thanks for writing about this.
    but isn’t neccesary just another word for expediency?
    and aren’t those that give the orders truly evil?
    think thoreau, gandhi, jesus
    i pity those that go blindly into service only to return psychologically destroyed
    like my uncle who add to kill unharmed japanese men in the south pacific.
    following orders then becomes the only honorable way to deal with the moral inconsistincies of their actions.
    what a shame

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