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General News    H4'ed 12/3/19

Tomgram: Arnold Isaacs, Another Kind of War Wound

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I didn't frame it this way when I was at the symposium, but this question later came to mind: Has the U.S. military as an institution, not just its individual service members, morally injured itself over the last 18 years?

This is a military force that never stops declaring it's the best and strongest in the world, but has not successfully concluded a significant war for nearly 30 years or maybe longer. (The first Gulf War of 1990-1991 looked like a great win at the time, but appears like anything but an unequivocally positive accomplishment in retrospect.) It may sound farfetched, but is it unreasonable to wonder if that dissonance, that wide gap between goals and actual accomplishments, might leave a collective sense of sorrow, grief, regret, shame, and alienation? That's the list of feelings that Glenn Orris, a Navy chaplain, displayed on a chart in his symposium presentation and specified as the ones that keep morally injured service members awake at night.

I'm posing this as a question, not offering it as an answer. Certainly, at various moments during the symposium, I had a sense not just of individual but of collective trauma. As an outsider in that world, I can't and won't venture to evaluate the emotional state of the military as a whole. Still, the question doesn't seem ridiculous.

A New Idea of What Moral Injury Really Is

The final event of the second day -- an unusual closer for a professional or academic conference -- was a reading of Sophocles' play Ajax, as rewritten by Bryan Doerries. After the reading, Doerries, artistic director for Theater of War, the company that put on the performance, moderated a discussion with a panel of four recent veterans and members of the audience.

Essentially, he attempted to draw out the panelists and the audience on what the play was trying to say and how that 2,500-year-old story of a warrior's depression, madness, and suicide might connect to their own experience. Listening to various responses, I found myself thinking that perhaps the main purpose of his, if not Sophocles's, version was to make the audience think about what war is. What it really is, not the heroic myth humans have made of it from ancient times on. And then I thought, maybe that's what we'd been talking about for the previous two days. Maybe that's what moral injury is: realizing the true nature of war.

Along with that thought came another, one that first occured to me nearly 45 years ago when, as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, I personally witnessed the disastrous end of the Vietnam War. I've believed ever since that covering war from the losing side gave me a truer knowledge of its nature than I'd have gotten from that or any other war's winning side. Maybe I should say darker, not truer, since I suppose the winners' war is real, too. But whichever word you choose, my experience, I felt, gave me a more unobstructed view of war. I could see it more clearly for what it was precisely because there was no good result to balance against the death and loss and terror and despair. There was no excuse to explain away the human disaster I'd seen and written about for several years, no way to tell myself that the war was necessary or had served any purpose.

That bit of personal history makes me think it's not accidental that our present consciousness of moral injury has come out of wars we didn't win. They haven't been lost in the same clear-cut way that the war in Vietnam was. They haven't (yet) ended in the kind of catastrophically decisive final act I witnessed there in the spring of 1975 in the weeks that led to Saigon's surrender. But these recent wars haven't accomplished their goals either, or given our soldiers a worthwhile reason for what they've gone through, which is surely a key piece of the moral injury story.

I was a civilian journalist, not a soldier. I went to Vietnam to report, not to fight. I didn't come home with any trauma symptoms. But I have all the feelings that Chaplain Orris listed as identifying markers for moral injury: sorrow, grief, regret, shame, and alienation. Those emotions come from what I learned about war, not from anything I did, and that makes me believe it may not be wrong to think that what we call moral injury might not be just one person's response to particularly troubling events, but a symptom of something larger, of seeing war individually and collectively for what it truly is.

A Last Thought

In closing, I will turn back to the editors of War and Moral Injury. In their introduction, Douglas Pryer, a retired army intelligence officer and Afghanistan and Iraq veteran, and Robert Emmett Meagher, a classicist and professor of humanities at Hampshire College, pointed to an aspect of war that is missing in their anthology, the symposium, and in American culture more broadly:

"We must acknowledge a great gap in this text as in nearly every other on the subject of America's wars and veterans: the deaths and wounds, physical and spiritual, inflicted on the 'others,' our enemies, especially our 'civilian enemies.'"

Pryer and Meagher are right. Such an acknowledgement is almost entirely absent from the national discourse about our wars and their legacy. But without it, no moral wound, whether an individual's or a society's, can truly be healed.

Arnold R. Isaacs, a journalist and TomDispatch regular based in Maryland, covered the final years of the Vietnam War for the Baltimore Sun . He is the author of Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia, Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy, and an online report, From Troubled Lands: Listening to Pakistani and Afghan Americans in post-9/11 America. His website is

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2019 Arnold Isaacs

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