The lonely soldier and the moral scars of war
Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan find little ethical defence in the 'just war'. Each of us struggles to make peace with our actions
Sunday 17 February 2013
In trying to understand the ongoing suicide epidemic among soldiers and veterans a third factor in addition to physical injuries and PTSD is now being discussed: the moral injuries they bring back.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs recently coined the terminology and is spot-on in its choice. During my officer training at Sandhurst in the UK, I was taught that fighting power – the ability to operate in war – could be broken down to three mutually dependent components: physical (the means to operate), conceptual (the ideas behind how to operate), and moral (the ability to get people to operate).
Soldiers leave theatres of war affected to different degrees in those three areas, each of which influences their ability to operate once home. The physical and conceptual are all too apparent: the soldier who had his testicles blown off or who wakes up screaming at night. Moral scars, though less noticeable, have a way of cutting deep, also. And they are not negated as easily as many suppose.
Convenient arguments justifying killing legitimate enemies in the line of duty don't hold up well for Iraq and Afghanistan. This was illustrated shortly after my arrival in Helmand province, when a soldier told me about his patrol getting ambushed.
During the ensuing firefight with the Taliban, he spotted a girl – he reckoned a four-year-old – on the roof of an Afghan compound, holding a mobile phone to her ear. He assessed she was a Taliban mortar fire controller, directing intense enemy fire onto his patrol's position; they were pinned down as a result. He radioed a jet and directed it to drop a bomb on the girl and the building.
"I did what I had to do," he told me.
Not such an easy one for armchair moralists to call. Countless soldiers return with such experiences on their consciences.
"I'm no longer the 'good' person I once thought I was," wrote Timothy Kudo, an ex-US marine corps captain, of life after an Afghanistan tour and ordering the deaths of others. He nails a dilemma most veterans face: the only people who can forgive us are dead.
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