On 11 November, millions of people in the UK and beyond remember the service and sacrifice of our Armed Forces on what is known as Remembrance Day.
To mark this day, we caught up with researcher and war veteran, Revd Dr Brian Powers to find out more about his research on moral injury – something which is common amongst war veterans.
Moral injury is where someone experiences sustained negative moral emotions such as guilt, shame, contempt and anger, which result from that person being put in a situation where they’ve had to violate their own personal moral code. They’ve done something they feel is not right.
This was first observed in members of the Armed Forces and veterans, but we’ve also seen it in healthcare professionals during the Covid-19 pandemic, in police officers, vets and others.
Moral injury often involves a particular sense of self-condemnation and the loss of faith or trust in religious, moral and societal institutions.
It can occur alongside Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but it is distinctly different. In PTSD, our body or mind reacts to traumatic stress whereas in moral injury, it involves a deep moral troubling feeling about our individual and collective actions, inactions and core values.
I’m a veteran of the US Air Force and served with army units in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although I have experienced moral injury myself, it was a profoundly less acute form than many others. When I left the Air Force, I went to seminary and graduate school in theology, attempting to reconcile my own experiences of wartime violence – including the suicide of several friends and brothers in arms - with my faith.
I discovered a profound expression in the language of theology that, for me, could hold together both the injustice and agony of a broken world as well as point the way towards authentic hope.
Moral injury is incredibly damaging to our sense of self, our ability to form healthy relationships and to perceive ourselves as “good people.”
We know from multiple studies that strong and totalising self-condemnation is linked to suicide and suicide ideation. Several studies even suggest that in military veterans who suffer both PTSD and moral injury, the severity of moral injury is the greatest predictor of suicide.
So, the better we can understand moral injury and explore potential pathways to healing, the better care we can offer to those who suffer from it, and the better we can understand where we may need to have national and societal conversations about our cultural values and how they contribute to moral injury.
If we can all have a better understanding of the emotions people with moral injury are dealing with, we can offer them safe spaces to express those feelings. This can be a life-saving relief valve for someone and open up potential avenues for recovery.
Awareness of the moral traumas of war can also collapse the distance between the rather simplistic moral language used in the political discourse around conflict and the actual lived experience of veterans. This will hopefully create a more supportive environment in which military members return from conflict without being judged but appreciated and supported by a community willing to help bear their burdens.
For clergy, chaplains, clinicians and others who care for those experiencing moral injury, a greater understanding could lead to better resources to draw from, leading to better long-term care and more positive outcomes for the morally injured.
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