Collective Moral Injury

Moral injury: The damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress their own moral and ethical values or codes of conduct. (

Morals: A person’s standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do.

Morality: The degree to which something is right and good, the moral goodness or badness of something, a doctrine or system of moral conduct.

Moral compass: a person’s ability to judge what is right and wrong and act accordingly.

When I was processing the idea of moral injury I decided to look all of these terms up to help me conjure up what they actually mean to me.

Sitting on your patio in the afternoon, or quietly sewing, or in a meditation; think back to the last time you thought about your own moral values. Do you know what they are? Do you remember where they came from?

A Pew research survey in 2014 found that 70.8% Americans identify as Christian. Among military personnel roughly 68% identify as Christians, depending on the origin of the study. Somewhere in the make-up of the Christian moral code, even if it is in the subconscious mind, are the instructions “Thou shalt not kill.” Somewhere in the fabric of almost all religions and spiritual practices moral laws governing acceptable actions include a prohibition against killing. It makes sense. Deep in our DNA there is probably a strand whose sole purpose is to keep people from killing each other. When there were much fewer humans on the planet killing each other would have threatened our survival as a species.

But that was a long time ago.

Moral injury as an unofficial diagnosis for soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is becoming more common as soldiers fail to readjust to civilian life. Fear is considered by therapists to be the underpinning of PTSD. When available medications and treatments failed to prevent skyrocketing military and veteran suicide therapists began to look for other causes of failed relationships and marriages, joblessness, homelessness, alcohol and drug addiction. Therapists and spiritual leaders saw guilt and shame as well as profound sadness. Veterans came home feeling like the evil of war now lived inside of them causing “shadow on the soul” that they had to carefully guard and never expose.

Moral injury for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan should be assumed. The lines of enemy combatants are blurred by child soldiers and grandmothers hiding suicide vests under abayas. Civilians are so intermingled with battle lines that killing women and children is a constant painful fact. Almost every soldier has killed, witnessed killing and death, cared for the constant bloody stream of casualties, or prepared the remains of soldiers for return to their families for burial. As Tony Dokoupil put it in his Newsweek article from December 3, 2012 titled A New Theory of PTSD and Veterans: Moral Injury; wars survivors feel a profound guilt and shame when rather than “protect the weak, save their buddies and take the hill.” they bore witness to and participated in evil, human suffering and death.

Soldiers are caught in a moral no-man’s-land between what they believe is right and what they know they had to do.


Chris Hedges, author of War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, has been a combat journalist for decades. He acknowledges the concept of moral injury has existed under various names since Homer’s Odyssey. Hedges believes whole countries become the victims of moral injury when like the former Yugoslavia and Iraq the national moral compass is skewed by the constant kill or be killed conditions. When he witnessed a father kill an entire family in order to steal their car and get away with his family it left a dull pain rather than moral outrage.

“I could never kill someone.” This comment came from a colleague, totally unprovoked, in the lunchroom at work shortly after I got back from Afghanistan.

It’s been 155 years since anyone in America had war rage through their neighborhoods (except in places where desperate poverty and despair lead to our own home grown urban war). America lost interest in the wars Iraq and Afghanistan fairly quickly and despite a steady media diet of gruesome photos and dire soundbites morphed them into “the soldiers war” abdicating responsibility and forgetting that it really is a taxpayer’s war.

Dokoupil describes a morally injured society as suffering “alienation, purposelessness, and a sense of social instability.” Although he wasn’t referring to the U.S. in that statement decide for yourselves whether any of that applies.

Dokoupil describes veterans as feeling as though they have “a stain on their hearts” but then asks if this is the case “what does that mean for the people sending young men down-range? Where does the stain stop? Does it ever?”

I would add, will any amount of disconnect or apathy stop the stain? If you take a hard look at America’s moral compass, at a time when playing on fears and fomenting hate is factoring prominently and successfully in our presidential race, will you see it setting a true north or spinning unpredictably around as though it is sitting on a magnet.

When I came back from Iraq and saw the level of apathy I was angry. What was the point of everything the soldiers and civilians endured when my country doesn’t even care?

Now I see it as a byproduct of collective moral injury. The VA, on their website, gives a prescription for moral injury as “education, compassion and forgiveness.”

So I compassionately offer this blog for the purpose of education, to help America reengage, stop the stain from spreading and get the compass pointing back in the moral direction.


About Frances Wiedenhoeft

After a lifetime in nursing, anesthesia and the Army I now write, blog, attend school for journalism and massage, and watch my 3 grandchildren. I am a veteran of Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan and try to serve other vets such as myself, and to work for peace.
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