Best Defense

When the hardest thing is doing nothing: Moral injury caused by inaction in war

The counterinsurgency campaigns of Iraq and Afghanistan, in which the line between “non-lethal” and “lethal” missions blurred, create an absurdity where good intentions and ethics collide with the realities of war.



By Tessa Poppe
Best Defense guest columnist

The counterinsurgency campaigns of Iraq and Afghanistan, in which the line between “non-lethal” and “lethal” missions blurred, create an absurdity where good intentions and ethics collide with the realities of war.

One morning, I stood guard at the edge of our camp in Kunar, Province, Afghanistan. Scanning the area below my position, I noticed a boy about seven years old and a young man, maybe seventeen or eighteen, walking by a nearby house. My instincts told me something was wrong, so I raised my rifle to study them through my scope. I noticed the little boy had bare feet, I’ll never forget that. It was morning still, but the heat was rising, the humidity stuck to my skin. I watched the young man lead the boy to a set of steps outside the house. I couldn’t tell at first why or what was happening, my mind suspended in disbelief, but soon I realized the young man was raping the seven-year-old boy.

I dropped my rifle to my side, my heart racing — confused, disgusted, and torn. But suddenly, I raised it again, my index finger quivering on the trigger. I exhaled, focusing on the target like we were taught to do.

I don’t know how long I stood there, locked on his chest with my rifle, contemplating taking a young man’s life. I wanted to kill him. But I thought — What if they’re brothers? What will the blowback be? Will I go to prison? Those questions lingered for what seemed like hours. A sickening feeling rose from somewhere deep in my stomach, up into my throat and rested there. The knot would stay there for days, weeks, months, years.

I didn’t shoot the man, really a boy himself, but neither did I shout or scream. I did nothing.  

I managed to tell my squad leader and my best friend a few days after the incident. My leader told me I should have shot him, since it was rape of a child. My friend said that I did the right thing, that there was nothing I could have done. I went over it in my mind again and again and again. I imagined the soldiers I would have endangered by killing him, starting a cycle of retribution and political blowback. Yet, my thoughts always returned to the little boy I did not save.

The moment I dropped my rifle, my voice stifled, I lost sight of who I was. I was trained to shoot, to lead men and women, to inspire soldiers, to endure, but I could not endure this wound – a deep transgression against the woman I thought I was. This wound was my moral injury.

After Afghanistan, I couldn’t explain the gnawing on my spirit to anyone—what became an existential disorientation. The mortars or IEDs did not keep me up at night; it was something else that I couldn’t put into words. Others had encountered far worse and lost friends, but I couldn’t understand how my story fit inside the paradigm of war.

Lacking a distinct diagnosis like PTSD, moral injury is often lost in the narrative of PTSD and used interchangeably. A miner trapped in a collapsed mine may suffer from PTSD, driven by his fears of death and enclosed spaces. Yet unlike fear-driven PTSD, moral injury manifests as unabated guilt stemming from a fundamental betrayal of one’s self. In war, moral injury results from a perplexing dilemma, in which either action: killing or not killing results in a loss of humanity, a loss of self.

As soldiers, we were given a mission and rules to guide our actions. But what happens when the rules we must obey betray our own hearts? We are taught to shoot, move, and communicate from day one of boot camp. Action is ingrained in us. Yet, sometimes in war, a soldier can only bear witness, inflicting a deep and abiding wound.

Tessa Poppe served in the Army National Guard as a Military Police Officer for seven years, leaving as a Sergeant. She deployed to Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2010. She graduated Georgetown University with a Master’s Degree in Security Studies, focusing on human security and stability operations. She is currently a program specialist in overseas safety and security at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The views expressed are her own.

Constantin Mireanu/Flickr

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

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