An Important Book on Moral Injuries: ‘Afterwar’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
One view of the citizen-soldier relationship, from Ruben Bolling’s Tom the Dancing Bug (with permission)

In my “Tragedy of the American Military” article early this year and in many updates since then, I’ve referred to Ben Fountain’s great novella Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk as the emblematic work of fiction for our Chickenhawk age. As a reminder: a chickenhawk nation is one willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously — in particular, thinking seriously about the wars to which it will be committed, and about what will happen to the troops when they return (except for halftime ceremonies at football games, like the one Billy Lynn portrays).

Now here’s a nonfiction complement: a very powerful slim book called Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of our Soldiers, by a Georgetown University professor of philosophy and ethics named Nancy Sherman.

A week ago I attended and had a small part in a session at Georgetown in which veterans of our modern wars talked about something usually missing from our talk about “saluting the heroes” or “boots on the ground.” That something was the effect on the troops of the decisions they had to make in combat and the “moral injuries” they inevitably incurred in even the most successful and “glorious” wars.

For instance, in a terrible real-world case described at the Georgetown session: During the occupation of Iraq a young U.S. officer, commanding a roadblock checkpoint, sees a car barreling toward his soldiers at night. He gives all the established “slow down” and “turn back” warning signals. By this point in the occupation the Iraqis knew how the checkpoints worked and what the rules were. But as the car continues to bear down, the young officer finally orders his men to do what the rules of engagement called for: to riddle the car with machine-gun bullets before it could get close enough to set off a bomb — if that is what it contained. Only when they go to inspect the wreckage do the Americans learn that they have just killed an Iraqi couple, with their young daughters, who had been hustling to the hospital so that the pregnant mother could deliver another child. The soldiers were doing their job; the Iraqi family suffered more than a “moral injury”; but those soldiers would also never be the same. Two of them later killed themselves.

The literature of war has long dealt with impossible choices and moral injuries. Just in semi-modern history we have works from Cold Mountain to the The Red Badge of Courage about the U.S. Civil War; All Quiet on the Western Front from the German side and the great war poets from the British side, about the first World War, and the non-comic parts of Catch-22 about the second; now-largely-forgotten works like The Bridges at Toko-Ri and The Hunters about Korea; Matterhorn and others about Vietnam; and the dozen other titles that will come to mind.

The closest we’ve come for our modern wars would include The Hurt Locker, whose angle was that Jeremy Renner’s anti-IED specialist found meaning mainly in his recklessly dangerous work; or Homeland, whose angle is that Claire Danes’s CIA analyst has been driven crazy by the clues she missed; or maybe American Sniper, whose moral calculus involving Bradley Cooper’s sharpshooter I won’t try to untangle.

I am sure there are more, but for now my point is that Afterwar is a real step forward in assessing what America’s modern wars have done to — and also for — the one percent of America’s people who have fought them, and how the other 99% of the country should respond. For instance, it has an entire chapter on the tangles of that familiar phrase, “Thank you for  your service.” One veteran says to a civilian, “Don’t just tell me ‘thank you for your service.’ First say, ‘Please.’” Sherman explains why this means, “Don’t take for granted my service. Don’t be cavalier in a call to arms. Take greater responsibility for the wars that our country wages.”

If a video of last week’s session goes on line, I will mention it, because many of the veterans’ accounts were remarkable. For now I will strongly suggest that you get and read this book.

Update The video of the Georgetown session is now online.