A meditation on how moral injuries heal
By Nancy Sherman Best Defense guest columnist Why are soldiers vulnerable to moral injury? It’s because, after a war, each soldier puts him or herself on trial — serving as judge and jury in a rigorous cross examination of what happened. Tom Fiebrandt, a former Georgetown student of mine, served in Iraq between July 2001 ...
By Nancy Sherman
Best Defense guest columnist
Why are soldiers vulnerable to moral injury? It’s because, after a war, each soldier puts him or herself on trial — serving as judge and jury in a rigorous cross examination of what happened. Tom Fiebrandt, a former Georgetown student of mine, served in Iraq between July 2001 and December 2005. At 21, he was a young sergeant and a team leader of a group of intelligence analysts attached to an Army cavalry squadron of 410 men in Tal Afar. He was the guy who knew how tall buildings were on different streets, where snipers could lurk, where you did and didn’t want to be. As he put it, with modesty but candor, his superiors “had confidence in his competence.”
About three months before his deployment was up, he was ordered to take a few days of “R and R” in Qatar before returning to the States for a longer two-week leave. En route, he learned that his unit was about to run a cordon and search operation in the southeast corner of Tal Afar. What Fiebrandt didn’t know was that as part of the preparation, one of the platoons, headed by his close friend Lieutenant William Edens, was going to scout out a potential egress route at the backside of the city. It was in the preparatory drive-by that IED’s struck Edens’s vehicle, killing him and two others.
Fiebrandt learned about the incident while poolside in Qatar: “What bothered me was that it was in an area that I knew very well. It was in a part of the city that you really had to see in order to visualize. And I had this lurking suspicion that my soldiers, who had never actually, personally been there, didn’t really have a grasp of all the information that I felt I did. In some way, I almost felt responsible for not being there to provide them with the information that may have potentially resulted in a different outcome. So it is rough. It is a difficult thing for me to process. . . . So here I was sitting by a pool, and I hear this. It was — I don’t even know how to describe it. It was — devastating.”
That guilt hounded him for years. And, too, the shame of falling short of what a good intel guy is supposed to be able to do and prevent. But one day, as we were talking in my office, he reported an epiphany that had come to him while he was on leave stateside, deciding whether or not to re-up and thinking about time away from downrange.
“Well, God, I thought to myself, if I am not back in Iraq for a two-week period and things go to hell in a hand basket . . . what’s it going to be like when I get back after even a longer leave? I am going to have real gaps in my knowledge now … It was then that I realized that I couldn’t be the person that was there all the time. I could only be in one spot at a time. I was never going to be the one-stop intel analyst for the whole Army. Maybe my role was actually very small.”
Looking on from the outside, we might say, “Well, of course.” To think otherwise is grandiose. And yet soldiers often hold themselves to high standards — a kind of all-powerful omniscience, as in this case — a constant vigil on the battlefield, without gaps, breaks, and breaches. Like many soldiers I have spoken to, Fiebrandt doesn’t easily volunteer the word guilt. His words are fault and responsibility. But, it is clear that he is talking about unremitting self-blame.
And yet he was able to find healing. And he did so precisely by working through that guilt. He grappled with it hard, and figured out just where the limits of his moral agency lie. And with that moral clarity came a recovery of his own sense of goodness: Was he like the homeowner who never quite got around to putting a fence around the backyard pool and then one day discovers a child has wandered into the pool and drowned? Or was he more like the cop who might have had helpful information but was legitimately off-duty at the moment and nowhere near the scene of danger? In the end, he thought he was more like the cop than the homeowner. Accepting that required accepting his limits and the bad luck of being up against them. It required self-empathy.
Nancy Sherman is author of Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers, from which this is adapted. A distinguished University Professor at Georgetown and Guggenheim Fellow (2013-2014), she served as the Inaugural Distinguished Chair in Ethics at the United States Naval Academy. As a philosopher with research training in psychoanalysis, she lectures worldwide on moral injury, the emotions, resilience, and military ethics.