Healing the Wounds of War: Moral Luck, Moral Uncertainty, and Moral Injury

There is this false sense that we all oughta heal...This should affect you.”
–Tim O’Brien [1]


Even a casual viewer of the recent Burns and Novack film, The Vietnam War, comes away an understanding of the central theme of moral injury and the difficulty of the moral impacts of war on the individuals who fought and the society that sent them. While Jonathan Shay coined the term moral injury in his seminal 1994 book Achilles in Vietnam, this issue has more recently become a prominent part of the public discourse. Concerns about post-traumatic stress or PTSD, moral injury, and the return of veterans from forever war in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as an increasing awareness of the so-called military/civilian culture gap. Tim O’Brien’s reading from The Things They Carried at the end of the film is especially evocative because of the public moment we find ourselves inhabiting.

Recent discussions on the topic come from a wide range of perspectives, expertise, and areas of concern. Philosopher Nancy Sherman has focused on this issue in multiple books on war and moral injury, arguing that various elements from the Stoic tradition might help soldiers understand and deal with moral injury.[2] Journalist David Wood took up the issue in his book What Have we Done? where he argues that the military is not doing enough to prepare soldiers for moral injury.[3] Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe tries to address the reasons why these phenomenon seems so acute now compared to other historical and social contexts and what solutions will help the crisis of community he sees.[4]

Missing from these discussions, however, is a certain precision about the various aspects of moral impact in war. Accordingly this piece addresses four ideas related to morality and ethics in warfare and makes some distinctions between them: 1) moral perfectionism; 2) moral luck; 3) moral uncertainty; and 4) moral injury. These are distinctions with a difference and will be critical in the quest to understand and ultimately better educate, train, and prepare both military members and civilians to engage the moral implications and impacts of war.

The Problem

In a recent lecture on moral injury, Jonathan Shay made an important distinction between moral luck and moral injury in war, as well as the difference between moral injury and PTSD.[5] His claim is that PTSD does not account for some of the responses we see in the aftermath of war. In particular, it fails to account for despair and rage responses, while moral injury does account for these. This reflects and builds on his earlier work Achilles In Vietnam where he notes, "...moral injury is an essential part of any combat trauma that leads to lifelong psychological injury.”[6]

Moral injury in his account must involve three elements: 1) a betrayal of what is right 2) by someone in a position of legitimate authority 3) on a high stakes issue. His paradigmatic example is the response of Achilles to the theft of his honor/war prize (in the form of Braseis) by Agamemnon in Homer’s epic The Iliad. Nancy Sherman also describes incidents in this vein, such as sexual assault or other betrayals by those in chain of command, but like others writing on this topic she also describes other kinds of incidents that seem to involve self-betrayal or guilt that do not meet this definition. Not everything that happens in war with moral content or implications is, in fact, moral injury.

Distinctions with a Difference

Larry Burrows | Time & Life Pictures | Getty Images

Larry Burrows | Time & Life Pictures | Getty Images

First, there is the problem of expectations and the temptation to moral perfectionism. Sherman and others have pointed out that one aim in military training and preparations for war is a kind of zero defects moral perfectionism. Sentiments such as 'no man left behind' and training with the goal that all of the members under one’s command will come home alive and whole are examples of this line of thinking. While there is some emphasis and acknowledgment of the difficult decisions one will have to make in war, what is missing is serious discussion of moral compromise and the real possibility that one may violate one’s own morals in war under the pressure of military necessity. Additionally, there are often competing moral claims and obligations in war, so one form of compromise may be upholding one value (protecting non-combatants) and the expense of another (loyalty to members of one’s unit.)

Second, there is the problem of moral luck, identified with the work of Martha Nussbaum and others, which argues whether we become moral and whether we are able to continue to be moral is in some measure due to luck and other forces outside our control.[7] If we have moral parents who educate us in the virtues, it is more likely we will be virtuous. There is moral luck in the kinds of temptations and challenges of a moral nature one will face and in the kinds of support one has in facing these. While the betrayal in moral injury is one kind of moral luck, there are many other kinds that do not fit the definition of moral injury.

One may do things in war, thinking it is right, fearing it is not, but never knowing whether it is or not.

Any literature or discussion of the experience of war makes clear that much of what happens seems to be a matter of both good and bad luck. There are situations that can be anticipated, and thus trained and prepared for, but there are also many situations with moral aspects that one may or may not find oneself in. Some situations may be new or of such a variant that one does not anticipate them or know how to respond. Even with those things that can be reasonably anticipated (e.g., facing a child soldier, sexual assault, being captured, failing to discriminate or target properly, equipment failing, colleagues being killed or injured), these may be experienced by some and not by others—depending upon your luck.

Screen shot from  Operation Homecoming . Click    here    to view video.

Screen shot from Operation Homecoming. Click here to view video.

An additional problem of moral uncertainty is a feature of war that does not get deep or sustained attention. One may do a thing in war, thinking it is right, fearing it is not, but never knowing whether it is or not. In the documentary Operation Homecoming, Iraq veterans and writers Sangjoon Han and Colby Buzzell both discuss being in combat situations where they were not sure whether they did the right thing or not.[8] Buzzell records the advice to compartmentalize what happened and deal with it later, while Han simply expresses the difficulty of never knowing whether it was the right thing or not. Part of the moral uncertainty is the limited information in war, while an additional factor is difficult decisions made quickly under mortal danger to oneself and one’s comrades.

Lastly, there is moral injury properly understood and restricted to Shay’s definition. These kinds of events involve more than bad moral luck, but involve the intentional actions of betrayal and violation of a shared moral universe by one who is tasked with the upholding of that universe, in virtue of the legitimate authority they hold over others. Shay observes, “The need for an intact moral world increases with every added coil of a soldier’s mortal dependency on others. The vulnerability of the soldier’s moral world has vastly increased in three millennia.” This is due to many factors including changes in technology, the professionalization of the military and the role of morality in the self image of those fighting.[9] This abuse of legitimate power is literally a destroyer of worlds, the moral world.

Dealing with War

While the military can and does educate and train for moral luck (at least to some degree), the problem of moral uncertainty and the damage that it can do deserves more attention. What else can be done that we are not doing? This is where moral imagination and education in arts and humanities, the development of empathy and cultivating mental and emotion innovation, are critical. Through these means one can look at how others in the past have handled these issues, but it can also develop an ability to creatively imagine how one might deal with them in ways they did not encounter or could not imagine. Knowledge and information are always in short supply in war; this has clear ethical implications at the institutional level and moral implications at the group and a personal level. That said, the military cannot and should not educate and train for moral perfection, since that view fails to take into account the reality of war and of human nature. Certainly, the military can and should educate and train for high levels of performance and moral virtue, but that is not the same thing as perfection.

...the military cannot and should not educate and train for moral perfection...

Since it involves power abuse and betrayal, the military cannot and should not educate and train for moral injury as Shay defines it. These things should not be set as expectations; they are deeply immoral and undermine any basis for unit cohesion and military professionalism. The solution to this piece of the puzzle involves better education, training, and accountability for civilian and military leaders alike. If there is anything that should be zero tolerance in the military and in society, it is moral injury. These actions must be avoided, and guarded against, not expected as the price of serving or as yet another hardship for which to prepare.

An American paratrooper sergeant shouts orders to his squad as they charge brush line while subject to sniper fire in Vietnam on June 1, 1965. Horst Faas | Associated Press

An American paratrooper sergeant shouts orders to his squad as they charge brush line while subject to sniper fire in Vietnam on June 1, 1965. Horst Faas | Associated Press

This discussion highlights another, deeper problem with the moral injury discussion: the way moral risk is being shifted away from civilian and military leadership (including the American public) and onto individual members of the military, especially with respect to moral uncertainty and moral injury. Moral luck does seem a reasonable thing to expect members of the military to educate and train for; it is reasonable for them to assume some risk for this aspect of war. It is not reasonable for them to assume the responsibility for moral injury and moral uncertainty, as these are things over which they cannot have any meaningful control or agency.

Since it involves power abuse and betrayal, the military cannot and should not educate and train for moral injury...If there is anything that should be zero tolerance in the military and in society, it is moral injury.

To advance the discussion, we ought to consider the following suggestions:

  1. Civilians have a moral obligation to listen to/read and engage with stories and experiences of war as their own—assuming some of the moral risk for war.

  2. We must make authentic spaces for listening, not just on patriotic holidays and not just in a voyeuristic way.

  3. We must protect and be the guardians of the lives and souls of our military against narrow politics and self-interest.

  4. There must be genuine and appropriate accountability (both legal and moral) for war crimes, suffering, and lack of discrimination that happens in war, and civilians ought to support this as part of their support for the military.

  5. We must cease to be passive in the engagement of the American experience of war, moving from consumers to owners. War is not something they (the troops, the government) do; it is something that we do, that is done in our name, and for which we bear direct moral responsibility.

While there seems to be a great deal of discussion of morality and the impact of war (during and after) on the moral world of those who fight, much of this discussion is imprecise and does not address the role of luck and the shifting of moral responsibility from the civilian decision makers (including citizens) to those in the military. Clarifying some key ideas is important to deal with moral injury and moral uncertainty, but so is taking seriously the responsibilities of moral risk that should be born by civilians. The five suggestions elucidated here are only a starting point to the discussion—there is much more to do and say.

Pauline Shanks Kaurin is a Featured Contributor on The Bridge. She holds a PhD in Philosophy from Temple University, Philadelphia and is a specialist in military ethics, just war theory, philosophy of law and applied ethics. She is Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA and teaches courses in military ethics, warfare, business ethics, social and political philosophy and history of philosophy.

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Header Image: A grief stricken American infantryman whose buddy has been killed in action is comforted by another soldier. In the background, a corpsman methodically fills out casualty tags. Haktong-Ni area, Korea, August 28, 1950 | SFC Al Chang, United States Army | Harry S. Truman Library & Museum.


[1] Operation Homecoming.

[2] For example see Nancy Sherman, The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds and Souls of Our Soldiers. (New York, W.W. Norton, 2010), p. 89 ff.

[3] David Wood, What Have We Done? The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars. (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2016), p. 58-9.

[4] Sebastian Junger, Tribe: In Homecoming and Belonging. (New York: Twelve, 2016)

[5] Jonathan Shay, “Moral Injury in War.”

[6] Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Moral Character. (New York: Scribner, 1994), p. 20.

[7] Shay, p. 30-31. See also Martha Nussbaum, “Political Animals: Luck, Love and Dignity.” Metaphilosophy vol 29, No. 4 (October 1998), p. 273-287.

[8] Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience. Public Broadcasting System, 2007.

[9] Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Moral Character. (New York: Scribner, 1994), p. 15.