Meanwhile, we keep ignoring the elephant in the room: the immorality of war, and the “moral injury” that we are inflicting on the men and women sent to off to fight. In a Washington Post opinion piece, Marine Capt. Timothy Kudo discusses honestly, hauntingly, the moral conflict that our soldiers suffer when we teach them killing is wrong, but send them off to kill. After telling of how his patrol mowed down two teens on a motorcycle in Afghanistan, mistakenly thinking they were armed, he writes:
It’s been more than two years since we killed those people on the motorcycle, and I think about them every day. Sometimes it’s when I’m reading the news or watching a movie, but most often it’s when I’m taking a shower or walking down my street in Brooklyn.
They are not the only deaths I carry with me. I also remember the first time a Marine several miles away asked me over the radio whether his unit could kill someone burying a bomb. The decision fell on me alone. I said yes. Those decisions became commonplace over my deployment. Even more frightening than the idea of what we were doing was how easy it became for me. I never shot someone, but I ordered bomb strikes and directed other people to shoot.
Many veterans are unable to reconcile such actions in war with the biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” When they come home from an environment where killing is not only accepted but is a metric of success, the transition to one where killing is wrong can be incomprehensible.
This incongruity can have devastating effects. After more than 10 years of war, the military lost more active-duty members last year to suicide than to enemy fire. More worrisome, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that one in five Americans who commit suicide is a veteran, despite the fact that veterans make up just 13 percent of the population.
While I don’t know why individual veterans resort to suicide, I can say that the ethical damage of war may be worse than the physical injuries we sustain. To properly wage war, you have to recalibrate your moral compass. Once you return from the battlefield, it is difficult or impossible to repair it.
I didn’t return from Afghanistan as the same person. My personality is the same, or at least close enough, but I’m no longer the “good” person I once thought I was. There’s nothing that can change that; it’s impossible to forget what happened, and the only people who can forgive me are dead.
I will never know whether my actions in Afghanistan were right or wrong. On good days, I believe they were necessary. But instead, I want to believe that killing, even in war, is wrong.
Veterans are the only ones who can explain the ethical impact of war. For me, this means being open and honest about the deaths I caused and how they have changed me.
As William Falk writes in The Week:
About 228,800 Iraq and Afghanistan vets have been officially diagosed with PTSD and another 100,000 are estimated to have the disorder. Only rarely do these invisibly wounded soldiers act violently; most wrestle privately with their demons, drink, rage at family members, unravel. “Moral injury,” clinicians are now calling the root of their anguish: a haunting feeling of shame and guilt for witnessing, and participating in, so much death and horror. When calculating whether the next war is worth it, let's not forget what we've learned of war's consequences, including what it does to the casualties who come home.
Can anything, really, be worth that?