Helping Veterans Heal
Camillo Mac Bica
This past Veterans Day, I attended what was billed as a "Community Healing Ceremony“ a service of reconciliation for veterans and nonveterans” choreographed and led by members of the clergy intended primarily to help veterans heal by relieving them “of the moral burden many too often carry in isolation.” The ceremony included a number of symbolic though somewhat banal “therapeutic” gestures to include hand washing, candle lighting, and ritualized movements integrated with civilian declarations of support such as “we’ve got your back,” and “you are not alone.” The highlight of the ceremony was five morally injured veterans, three of whom were clearly seriously impaired and vulnerable, testifying and professing their transgressions—bearing “witness to the human cost of war and military service”—as they struggled to relate their gut-wrenching experiences in war to a non-judgmental audience of sympathetic civilians (nonveterans). The expected, or better hoped-for benefit, as best as I can ascertain, from this interaction was twofold. First, the tortured sharing of their experiences would provide veterans a catharsis, a means and opportunity to unburden themselves, fortify their resilience, and better enable them to live with the guilt, shame, and alienation symptomatic of what I have termed elsewhere as “Combat Related Moral Injury” (CRMI). Morally injured veterans, according to the event organizers, “are responsible moral agents who are morally laden with an unfair burden that will only be relieved when that burden is more equitably distributed among all who own some portion of responsibility for the harmful consequences of warfare.” Further, the civilians, by compassionately listening, would, I guess, be provided the opportunity to do just that, share the veterans’ burden by recognizing and accepting responsibility and culpability for supporting and/or ignoring wars fought in their names.
As a Professor of Philosophy with a specialty in ethics particularly as it applies to war, a former United States Marine Corps Officer, and veteran of the American war in Vietnam, I have been engaged for almost 50 years in educating about the realities of war and exposing the mythology of honor and nobility perpetrated upon our young men and women by our war culture and I fear supported and/or ignored by an unaware and apathetic public. I have spent many of these years studying, much by introspection from personal experiences, and explaining how moral transgression causes casualties, long before many in the religious and clinical communities recognized the validity of morality’s relevance to veteran readjustment difficulties.
In my opinion, such ceremonies, though perhaps well-intentioned, are misguided, demonstrate a naivete, and a total lack of understanding and appreciation for the severity and complexity of the psychological, emotional, and moral injuries of war. Veterans speaking, writing, and making art about their experiences in war may under very specific circumstances, be therapeutic and informative. Presenting their stories publicly, however, is not, for every veteran, an appropriate spectator event. Allowing an audience of strangers access to the deepest, darkest recesses of their minds, may be harmful, perhaps even life-threatening and should be restricted only to those further along the healing journey and then only in a very safe environment of others who shared the experience and have earned the veterans’ trust, none of which was the case at this event.
There is, in my view, a voyeurism in this ceremony. While I understand the importance of veteran-civilian dialogue, and of the latter realizing and accepting responsibility and culpability in a democracy for the wars we fight, acquiring that awareness and understanding is better suited for a civics class and ought not to depend upon the further exploitation of veterans. Putting the pain and suffering of highly vulnerable and profoundly injured veterans on display for public scrutiny is reckless, insensitive, and certainly not curative. In fact, it is re-traumatizing. Nor does "compassionate listening" placate the demons. From personal experience, I am sure that it will take hours, at least, for these veterans to recover from this experience. I only hope they will not be further grievously harmed.
Many veterans who take the risk of sharing their experiences in such venues choosing to revisit the battlefields of their minds, do so for the benefit of others and because they feel an obligation to do penance for the sacrilege of war. Their hope is to educate and enlighten civilians, those who supported or were indifferent to war, so that future wars may become an alternative of last resort and other young men and women may be spared suffering a similar fate.
Rhetoric aside, how exactly do such ceremonies provoke a more equitable “redistribution of the burden of responsibility for the harmful consequences of warfare?” What would such a “redistribution” entail? What penance will we require of those who did not serve, but yet supported or ignored the war? Since the past cannot be undone and the dead are not made to live again, how do any such gestures help veterans heal—cleanse them of their moral transgressions?
Veteran healing does not depend upon civilian understanding, or sympathy, certainly not their forgiveness. Nor will it be benefitted by simplistic gestures of candle lighting and hand washing, or the professing of their transgressions to complicit though now allegedly remorseful and compassionate listeners. Oh, if it were only so simple. Healing is a difficult and complex process of introspection, moral education, and behavior reevaluation. Healing requires that veterans examine their military experience, their actions in war, that they come to understand how they were manipulated by their government, morally desensitized, instilled with warrior values, conditioned to kill immediately and without question, and how the battlefield reinforced these values and behaviors. Healing entails finding a place in their being for what they did and who they became. A task that must be worked out among the veterans themselves, perhaps with knowledgeable therapists pointing the way, keeping the dialogue/interaction on track.
In summary, to well-intentioned civilians many of whom may have followed the advice of George W. Bush in the initial days of the Afghanistan/Iraq wars to just go shopping, I would ask that you pay attention, learn from history, and accept your responsibility and culpability for all the victims of war, whether they be American veterans or those deemed the enemy. To Clergy members, who have come to believe their religious beliefs have rendered them experts on matters of the “soul” and thereby best qualified to diagnose and treat veterans suffering from moral injury, I would ask that you keep your hubris in check, be available should veterans seek spiritual comfort, but understand that frequently religion becomes a casualty of war and the best help that you can render is just to stand aside and do no harm.