A new way of comprehending the emotional aftermath of war

By AR | 25 Nov 15

Moral Injury: Unseen Wounds in an Age of Barbarism | Edited by Tom Frame | NewSouth Books

Concern for the non-physical wellbeing of soldiers has overwhelmingly revolved around sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), ever since the condition was brought into the public consciousness with the return of Vietnam War veterans. Faced with scenes of violence and horror almost daily, it was easy to imagine how one can return from war with such a debilitating condition.

Yet, with a very small proportion of returned soldiers receiving this diagnosis, PTSD and related mental health conditions alone cannot explain the altered mental state and sense of terror, grief and remorse that many soldiers experience upon returning home from war.

Moral Injury: Unseen Wounds in an Age of Barbarism, a new Australian anthology edited by Professor Tom Frame, challenges the status of PTSD as the dominant model for understanding the mental torment from which many returned soldiers suffer.

The anthology explores the emerging concept of moral injury, which describes altered emotional states of anguish, despair, guilt, shame and disillusionment that soldiers often suffer on being exposed to human suffering or extreme ethical dilemmas.

It may arise after witnessing or inflicting violence upon others, holding a real or perceived responsibility for a hazardous mistake, or even a prolonged exposure to those lacking humanity or moral integrity.

To them, it is absurd to label such a natural emotional response to violence and horror as pathological. Indeed, it is deeply human.

The reader is presented with perspectives in disciplines ranging from psychology to philosophy, spanning across ex-combatants to defence force priests. What emerges is not a neat and fully coherent idea of moral injury, but a series of sketches that demonstrates how the concept needs further attention and study.

For example, while the psychological perspectives tend to place moral injury in the realm of mental health disorders and hence something that can be treated and healed, the ethical and religious positions hesitate to call moral injury a mental health condition.

To them, it is absurd to label such a natural emotional response to violence and horror as pathological. Indeed, it is deeply human.

The collection of essays also emphasises the extent to which moral injuries are exacerbated by the post-Cold War modes of combat, as evidenced in Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as military interventions in Somalia and Timor Leste.

This style of military engagement contains less clearly defined enemies, with insurgent groups rather than entire nations the focus; more emphasis on humanitarian goals such as peace-building and with it a greater sense of ethical responsibility; and an increased dependence on often tenuous alliances with rebel groups and local police forces, which can easily be betrayed.

All of these factors, the authors argue, heighten the risk of feeling tortured by your wartime decisions or haunted by the suffering you weren’t able to end.

More than anything however, this collection demonstrates that we need to develop a greater understanding of moral injury in both the public and academic domain, so that we are better able to care for the soldiers who we, as a nation, choose to expose to scenes of mind-altering suffering.

Moral Injury: Unseen Wounds in an Age of Barbarism is now available from NewSouth Books.

Athena Rogers has a degree in International Studies from RMIT University and works for an international development organisation in Melbourne.