Many men do monstrous things. And some men are very nearly monsters, capable of killing without compunction or remorse. In the everyday civilian world, we generally seek to lock them up. In war, they have a chance to fully flower. And if they serve in militaries that fight serial conflicts where the laws of war are considered mere suggestions, they can be all that they can be.
I investigated such a man once. He fought his way across Asia in the Chinese civil war, the suppression of the Huk rebellion in the Philippines, and the Korean and Vietnam wars. He spent 10 troubled years in the Marines before joining the Army and then was hailed as a super soldier, even as allegations of murder swirled around him.
In March 1968, a member of Sergeant Roy Bumgarner Jr.'s scout team went to military authorities to report multiple murders of Vietnamese civilians. "I've got nothing against Sgt. Bumgarner except this mad urge to kill," Private Arthur Williams told an investigating lieutenant colonel. "I don't want him to get in trouble, but I can't know of what is happening and say nothing. More people will be killed." The Army did nothing.
One morning in early 1969, Bumgarner detained an unarmed Vietnamese irrigation worker and two teenage boys tending ducklings. Marching them to a secluded spot, he and one of his men opened fire. A military court convicted him of manslaughter, but he served no prison time, remained in Vietnam, and reenlisted approximately six months later. He became one of the last U.S. infantrymen to serve in that war.
By the late 1960s, Bumgarner was said to have a personal body count of more than 1,500. Sometimes, his six-man "wildcat" team logged more kills than the rest of his 500-man battalion. I often wondered how many of those dead were enemies and how many just teenage duck herders and middle-aged farmers. Bumgarner died before I had a chance to ask him. His court-martial transcripts, though, don't give the impression of a man carrying a heavy psychological burden or regretting anything he had done.
Some men do, however, kill while in government service and pay a psychological price. We now call that "moral injury" and understand (as Homer did in writing about Achilles in the Iliad) that victimizers can also be victims. Today, TomDispatch regular Arnold Isaacs, who covered the Vietnam War for the Baltimore Sun, takes us in a striking fashion to the frontlines of the battle to overcome -- or at least mitigate -- the toll on the consciences of the men and women fighting America's twenty-first-century wars: a "Moral Injury Symposium."
If "perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations" can cause profound psychological damage to soldiers, imagine what Phan Thi Dan, the widow of that irrigation worker, went through when she saw her husband lying on the ground with his head blown off. She stood frozen for a moment, then fainted. On coming to, she tried to attack an American on the scene but was restrained. "When I get flashbacks, that fit of fury still arises in me," she told me nearly four decades later. No doubt, many Afghans, Iraqis, Somalis, Syrians, Yemenis, and Libyans have had similar experiences at the hands of soldiers. One day, maybe we'll convene a symposium for them and their psychological injuries, too. Nick Turse
Moral Injury and America's Endless Conflicts
A Legacy of a New Kind of War
By Arnold R. Isaacs
When an announcement of a "Moral Injury Symposium" turned up in my email, I was a bit startled to see that it came from the U.S. Special Operations Command. That was a surprise because many military professionals have strongly resisted the term "moral injury" and rejected the suggestion that soldiers fighting America's wars could experience moral conflict or feel morally damaged by their service.
Moral injury is not a recognized psychiatric diagnosis. It's not on the Veterans Administration's list of service-related disabilities. Yet in the decade since the concept began to take root among mental health specialists and others concerned with the emotional lives of active-duty soldiers and military veterans, it has come to be fairly widely regarded as "the signature wound of today's wars," as the editors of War and Moral Injury: A Reader, a remarkable anthology of contemporary and past writings on the subject, have noted.
For those not familiar with the tag, moral injury is related to but not the same as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which is a recognized clinical condition. Both involve some of the same symptoms, including depression, insomnia, nightmares, and self-medication via alcohol or drugs, but they arise from different circumstances. PTSD symptoms are a psychological reaction to an experience of life-threatening physical danger or harm. Moral injury is the lasting mental and emotional result of an assault on the conscience -- a memory, as one early formulation put it, of "perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations."
The idea remains controversial in the military world, but the wars that Americans have fought since 2001 -- involving a very different experience of war fighting from that of past generations -- have made it increasingly difficult for military culture to cling to its old manhood and warrior myths. Many in that military have had to recognize the invisible wounds of moral conflict that soldiers have brought home with them from those battlefields.
That shift was evident at the moral injury symposium, held in early August in a Washington, D.C., hotel. The feelings and experiences I heard about there were not necessarily representative of the climate in the wider military community. The special operations forces, which put on the event, have their own distinctive character, culture, and experiences, and a disproportionate number of the 130 or so attendees were mental-health specialists or chaplains, the two groups that have been most open and attuned to the very idea of moral injury. (A military chaplain in the Special Operations Command, in fact, first had the idea for the symposium.)
Still, the symposium emerged from the same history the rest of the military has lived through: 18 years of uninterrupted violence, of war without end in distant lands, that has killed or wounded some 60,000 Americans and a far greater number of foreign civilians, while displacing millions more and helping drive the worldwide refugee population to successive record-setting levels. Against that backdrop, those two days in Washington proved gripping and thought provoking in their own right. What follows are some of the thoughts they provoked in my mind as I listened or when I later reflected on what I heard.
Something Said, Something Unsaid
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