Reflections on Military Violence

by Catriona Anderson

On Tuesday, October 31 at 5:00 pm, Professor Sa'ed Atshan introduced Dr. Zachary Moon, a military chaplain and professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary, to a Scheuer Room filled over capacity. Dr. Moon, who was raised in Berkeley, is a committed pacifist from a Quaker background. He has served in a VA hospital and as a uniformed chaplain on active duty with the Navy and the Marines. As a chaplain, Dr. Moon contributes a non-medicalized approach to healing from so-called "moral injury", a euphemism for the trauma incurred by the perpetrator of violence. And although he is supposedly endowed with the right to disagree with commanding officers over military policy, evidence that he uses his role to call out the military on its abuses was scant.

Dr. Moon began by detailing some of the ways in which trauma has been understood in the past. Some have viewed trauma as a result of one's shortcomings as a human being, whether in a context of toxic masculinity (a failure to be "tough" enough) or in a religious context (trauma is God's punishment for your sins). Trauma has also been medicalized, and is usually treated as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), even though not all trauma is PTSD. Dr. Moon's specialty is moral injury which, he says, can mimic the symptoms of PTSD but is not based on overwhelming, irrational fear. Instead, those who are affected by moral injury may display similar symptoms, such as outbursts of irrational rage, loss of sleep, and excessive preoccupation with the traumatic event. Moral trauma is different in that the symptoms are triggered by shame instead of fear.

Soldiers in the US military have been conditioned through severe training to a strict code of honor and ethics. They are also recruited at a young age and subject to multiple deployments, risk factors for suffering trauma. However, in combat the military code often ends up broken, which leads to moral injury. Soldiers who signed up to defend human rights find out that they are the ones inflicting violence. Some witness their comrades dying or being injured and wonder if there was anything they could have done to have saved their friend. Others may have killed another human being. Sufferers do not only feel guilty, they internalize shame in such a way that they believe they are a bad person because of their role in the event. Many sufferers feel “cut off from any possibility of forgiveness or goodness.” It’s Dr. Moon’s job to reestablish that connection.

Recovery, according to Dr. Moon, is "the courageous seeking to reorient, to reconstruct a meaningful world in which to live." Our “moral meaning structure,” made up of a person’s values, beliefs, behaviors, and meaningful relationships, is like a house. After a storm or earthquake, some houses will survive intact and others will suffer severe damage. Unfortunately, in a case where a person is perceived as responsible for violence, many people shut their windows and refuse to help. A “savior mentality” is equally unhelpful, as survivors have to be the “designer and architect” of repairs for them to be effective.

Instead, Dr. Moon found the most success in “dialoguing with people’s anger.” Many soldiers, suffering from the culture of toxic masculinity in the US military, had been taught “the only appropriate emotional vocabulary was flat affect or hostility.” By being present with these soldiers, he was able to dig deeper into emotions that the soldiers did not allow themselves to feel or express, such as shame, guilt and vulnerability.

However, as one veteran had told him, “moral trauma is… a chronic illness rather than an acute one,” and recovery is a lifelong commitment. Dr. Moon emphasized that the entire community had to play a role in recovery, including providing opportunities for restitution and atonement. That was about as close as he came to acknowledging the trauma suffered at the hands of the soldiers with whom he works. Another soldier had told him that “Many things make sense when you’re over there, but when you’re back it’s just like, ‘Why did I do that?’” Every day veterans deal with the whiplash of transitioning between a world where violence is required as part of your job and one in which violence is usually punished with a criminal conviction. This raises the question of when and whether US military violence is justified, although it was not a discussion that Dr. Moon chose to pursue. Indeed, there was very little in the talk about preventing trauma from occurring in the first place.

Dr. Moon didn’t talk about getting rid of toxic masculinity in the military, just helping individual soldiers deal with it. And although Dr. Moon said that “violence against women, black and LGBTQ people represents a breach in the moral fabric,” the role of such systemic injustices in the military, and how to end them, was barely acknowledged. My cousin served in the military, although she was not in a combat role, and chances are that along with 80% of women in the military, she was sexually harassed. Dr. Moon is not offering a solution that will fix a toxic culture which considers sexual violence an occupational hazard. Neither was there a mention of the exploitative recruiting practices at high schools in low-income areas, reservations, rural areas, and black neighborhoods. Too many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds buy into the military’s propaganda that enlisting is the ticket to a better life. Isn’t that why too many American teenagers end up in combat situations that they are unable to cope with, and need Dr. Moon’s help? Not to mention that you can’t talk about detraumatizing the perpetrators of violence while glossing over the trauma that victims endure. He did not even mention the impact of military combat on people from other countries, who don’t have access to the healthcare resources available to American veterans.

Maybe helping recruits “reorient” themselves after they get home is just a Band-Aid over a bullet hole. Maybe, as Victoria Lee-A-Yong recommended in her recent piece, the US needs to own up to its own toxic savior mentality and end the war.