Conflicted at the Core

By Michael Yandell 20PhD


Jason Raish

It’s April 2004 and I’m in Baghdad, anxiously waiting by our truck as my team leader takes a closer look at some ordnance our robot has deemed relatively safe. As I watch him, some kids approach me. They ask me for candy, as kids here often do. I don’t have any candy, but we have some water bottles in the truck, and they’re still cool from being in the freezer. 

I think: I’ll do a good thing and give these impoverished kids some water. So I get the water out of the truck and move to hand a couple of bottles to the kid in front. The boy, who’s probably about eight, refuses—after all, what he asked for was candy. Something sparks inside of me. Here I am, risking life and limb, with my team leader downrange checking out an explosive, and this kid won’t take something I’m offering out of the goodness of my heart. 

I rip the cap off the liter bottle in my hand, dump some of it out on the ground, and throw it at him. An old man, most likely his grandfather, rushes up, grabs the boy, and pulls him away. The old man looks at me, not with anger, hate, or even sadness. His eyes are full of fear. He’s afraid of me. 

In that moment, I don’t recognize that look, because I don’t recognize myself. How can he be afraid of me? I’m one of the good guys, after all. 

I first encountered the term “moral injury” during my studies at Brite Divinity School. According to authors Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini, moral injury “comes from having transgressed one’s basic moral identity and violated core moral beliefs. . . . Moral injury destroys meaning and forsakes noble causes. It sinks warriors into states of silent, solitary suffering, where bonds of intimacy and care seem impossible.” 

Moral injury is now receiving attention across disciplines and in clinical discourse. The concept was introduced by clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, who works with veterans who have experienced trauma during and after war. Moral injury is distinct from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), though the two may often overlap or arise from the same experience. 

Though it’s impossible to say where moral injury resides—whether in the mind, body, or spirit—I believe that moral injury has much to do with the question of “who.” Describing who I am requires remembering the stories that have shaped me. Of course, there was more to my war experience than throwing a bottle at a young boy. There were better things, and there were worse things. 

Moral injury results from exactly this kind of irreversible schism between one’s perceived moral self and one’s actions. A person is morally injured when she comes to recognize herself—when she has witnessed herself failing to live by her own moral convictions, especially in profoundly demanding circumstances. For veterans, this circumstance is war, however directly or indirectly it is experienced. 

Before the war, I thought of myself as good, as someone capable of choosing goodness. I recognize now that I am not good, and that I have never been good in the way I once used to imagine. Yet to think that I can heal from such recognition, or that my moral injury is somehow reversible, is a false pathway to hope. Rather than returning to some glorified past, I must come to terms with who I am and then must look toward becoming something new. 

Veterans must continue to try to articulate the void of moral injury. Their neighbors must continue to try to see it, to hear it, and to come to terms with it. There must be people and institutions capable of bearing that responsibility in order to open pathways of hope. 

Michael Yandell is an Iraq war veteran and an ordained minister pursuing a PhD in religious studies in the Graduate Division of Religion. This essay originally appeared in Plough magazine and has been edited and published with permission; to see the complete version, please click here.

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