Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Heroes & Monsters: War’s moral injury

Best Defense guest author Sebastian Bae addresses the moral injury today's soldiers face post-deployment.

In this hand out made avaiable y the US
In this hand out made avaiable y the US military, U.S. Marine Corps Pfc. Mathew J. Daniels from 1st Platoon, Alpha Company, 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Task Force Mechanized stands guard as fellow Marines conduct a meeting in the Salaheddin province of Iraq on May 20, 2008. Marines with the battalion are conducting missions to hunt down and rid the northern part of Iraq of insurgents. AFP PHOTO/ Rome M. Lazarus- HO -RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE- (Photo credit should read Rome M. Lazarus/AFP/Getty Images)

By Sebastian J. Bae

Marine co-chair, Best Defense Council of the Enlisted

By Sebastian J. Bae

Marine co-chair, Best Defense Council of the Enlisted

The Ramadi sun was relentless above the din of the bustling city streets. Our convoy struggled through the city’s congested streets. My eyes darted from one face to another, scared and nervous, scanning a city of strangers from my M240 machine gun turret. The afternoon’s patrol was quiet. Then suddenly, my eye caught an Iraqi child, maybe eleven or twelve, arching his arm to throw, an object in his hand. He reminded me of the Bible study students I use to teach. He throws; I hesitate – my finger trembling on the trigger, the barrel aimed at his chest…

A rock smacks against the Humvee. In seconds, the child is gone, our convoy rolling past without a shot fired.

I have relived this moment a thousand times, in my dreams and in every quiet moment. There are days I regret not pulling the trigger, then there are days I am forever grateful I never did. Yet everyday, I struggle to reconcile the man I was, a Bible study teacher, with the man I had become, a man who almost ventilated a child with a machine gun. A few weeks before, insurgents attacked another convoy with grenades, setting their vehicle aflame. The rock could have easily been a grenade. I could have killed my Marines. I undoubtedly endangered their lives. Yet, I was also spared the gruesome weight of a child’s death. Nevertheless, I find there is no comfort, no right answer.

Moral injury, the pain resulting from violating one’s moral foundation, has become the hallmark of today’s veterans. Unlike Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, moral injury does not stem from fear, but from struggling to reconcile a state of mind occurring in war, where moral clarity is impossible, and the morality society expects of us. To survive, we become someone we no longer recognize, accepting the inconceivable as the price of survival. So, guilt suffocates our voices, hiding stories we cannot share – society does not, or will not, understand.

Society is obsessed with the dichotomy of good versus evil. The obsession permeates our films, morality, and especially our wars. The recent generation of warfighters returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are portrayed as untouchable heroes or grotesque monsters. Chris Kyle. Abu Ghraib. Dakota Meyer. Collateral civilian causalities. Kyle Carpenter. The legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan is a complicated tale of heroism and tragedy. Yet, despite a decade of war, today’s veterans remain faceless, marginalized from society – either heroes or villains. “Thank you for your service” represents the banality of society’s understanding of the nation’s wars and the men and women who fought them.

“Have you ever killed anybody?” is often the first question anyone asks when inquiring about my time in Iraq. The answer is unimportant, compared to what the question reflects – society’s macabre obsession of war and the suffocating silence of veterans returning home. “How was Iraq?” and “Do you think the war was wrong?” become scathing personal indictments. Ostracized or afraid of society’s judgment, many veterans must navigate the moral ambiguity of war and its consequences alone.

Ultimately, there is neither rhyme nor reason to war. We, as warfighters, yearn to give a narrative to our story, to the war we fought, to make sense of the madness. However, unique to each veteran, the war’s narrative is more personal fiction than truth. We need a narrative to sleep at night like child longing for a bedtime story.

In the end, war does not transform men into heroes nor monsters, but amplifies the human condition – in all its ugliness, ambiguity, and beauty. The only truth of war is no one is left untouched.

Sebastian J. Bae served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a Sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. He is now pursuing his Masters at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, specializing in counterinsurgency and humanitarian interventions. He holds the Marine co-chair on Best Defense’s Council of Former Enlisted.

Rome M. Lazarus/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1