Breaking Bad's Moral Lesson to Civilians

When Walter White and those around him feel forced to do the "wrong" thing, many in the military and veteran community understand all too well the lingering effects.

I can almost make out his expression. If I wait a second longer, I'll know from the look on his face whether he's a threat or not. But it's a second I don't have. So I pull the trigger. And he falls the same way, every time I think about it.

Looking back, I suppose it's more likely than not he was just trying to get away from the shooting. But I'll never know.

This bothers me.

It's not a moment that defines me. I don't let it. But there's no doubt it shaped me. It taught me what I was capable of doing to other people.

Who understands this sort of thing? Does the public that sent me to Iraq get it? I'm not sure, but when I think about how to explain what it's like, I always go back to fiction.

There is a moment, early in the series of Breaking Bad, when loser chemist Walter White decides he doesn't possess the brutality to be a criminal. A drug dealer named Krazy-8 tries to kill Walter and his fellow meth-entrepreneur, Jesse Pinkman, and now Krazy-8 is locked in a basement after inhaling Walter's toxic chemicals. The deal is simple: Jesse must dispose of another body, and Walter with Krazy-8.

His written checklist of why to let Krazy-8 live is extensive (It's the moral thing to do); on the side labeled "kill him," there is only one item (He'll kill your entire family if you let him go). Walter searches for any reason not to kill him. He learns about his childhood and his interest in music. They share a memory of a cheesy jingle written for a furniture store Krazy-8 worked at as a kid. Exhausted at the prospect of murder, Walter sets to retrieve the key to free Krazy-8. "This line of work doesn't suit you," he tells Walter.

But as fans of Breaking Bad know by now, with the second half of the fifth and final season premiering Sunday night, there are no morally uncontaminated solutions in creator Vince Gilligan's world. Upstairs, Walter realizes Krazy-8 grabbed a shard of broken plate following Walter's wheezy collapse in the basement, which makes his decision very clear: He must preemptively murder his captive.

Walter, along with several of the Breaking Bad characters, exhibits a term many of us in the military and veterans community have come to understand as a moral injury, and the show profoundly explores the concept in a way previously unseen in film and television. Of course, virtually no troops or veterans have much in common with the criminals in the show, but the reaction to traumatic events is universal, be it in war or a fictional universe.

A moral injury is not a psychiatric diagnosis. Rather, it's an existential disintegration of how the world should or is expected to work.

To be clear, a moral injury is not a psychiatric diagnosis. Rather, it's an existential disintegration of how the world should or is expected to work—a compromise of the conscience when one is butted against an action (or inaction) that violates an internalized moral code. It's different from post-traumatic stress disorder, the symptoms of which occur as a result of traumatic events. When a soldier at a checkpoint shoots at a car that doesn't stop and kills innocents, or when Walter White allows Jesse's troublesome addict girlfriend to die of an overdose to win him back as a partner, longstanding moral beliefs are disrupted, and an injury on the conscience occurs.

As he chokes the life from Krazy-8 with a bike lock, Walter enters a distorted moral universe where killing and death become the currency of his trade. Yet Krazy-8's death haunts Walter throughout the series, evident when he delicately slices the crust of sandwiches he makes for himself just as Krazy-8 requested—a twisted homage. The episode is bookended by a flashback discussion of the soul. What are its scientific properties? Is it even real? Walter's brainy ex-flame Gretchen contends that it coexists with the body. As Walter and Jesse scoop the dissolved, goopy remains of Krazy-8 into a toilet, they are confronted with how the destruction of a soul affects their own.

"The soul?" Walter asks Gretchen in a more innocent time. "There's nothing but chemistry here."

Most Americans are exposed to war on celluloid and pixels, where war boils down to a clearly demarcated struggle between two forces. In many war films, combatants are easily parsed from civilians, and killing becomes a competent exercise of pulling the trigger. The act of killing has been demystified to the extent that the power of its moral decay is seldom seen, rarely felt, and never absorbed. The public appreciates its troops (shallowly, some argue), but it doesn't know them, and as a result, doesn't understand what happened over there—or why it matters years and decades later as war veterans unpack the choices they made.

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Alex Horton is a freelance writer on veterans and foreign affairs. His work has been published by The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Washingtonian magazine. He served as an Army infantryman for 15 months in Iraq.

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