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  • Writer's pictureMike E.

Trauma #3, The War, Part 4--Moral Injury and The Highway of Death

February 24, 1991. 4:30 am. FIRE MISSION! Jumping out of the sleeping bag, the time had come. After nearly a month of aerial bombardment, the ground phase of the Gulf War had finally come. How we had waited with apprehension. With anticipation. With fear. Excitement. Dread. It was time. Time to move. To shoot. To kill. For some, to be wounded, and for some, to die. Over the next few days, death was a constant companion. The smell was in the air, the sights were burned into our minds.

The ground phase would last for four days, ending with a cease fire on January 28, 1991. Over the course of those four days, according to "Gulf War Air Power Survey" by Thomas A. Keaney and Eliot A. Cohen, (a report commissioned by the U.S. Air Force; 1993-ISBN 0-16-041950-6), there were as many as 10,000 casualties in the ground war.

It is quite difficult to put into words the effect so much death and destruction can have on the psyche of a person. Of course, each person is different, but almost all combat soldiers will admit being affected in some way by the reality of the death and destruction witnessed and carried out by our forces.

As a Christian taught to believe in the sanctity of life, the effect was devastating to me. I could not reconcile what I was participating in with my dearly held beliefs in the value of all human life. I had studied a bit of the "Just War Doctrine," a belief among philosophers and Christian theologians that there can be moral and spiritual justifications for war (St. Augustine probably the best known proponent of Just War theory.)

None of that mattered. It was just a philosophical explanation of the morality of war. It was theory, conjecture, and belief. What we were experiencing was reality. While the war itself and its justifications fit pretty well the definition of a "just war," it simply didn't matter. Theories and conjecture aren't always effective when faced with moral complexities. Moral complexities like obliterating human bodies, removing the souls of husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, friends from the face of the earth. Removing them from all their loved ones forever.

And what about their souls? I believe now and I believed then in an eternal Creator, One who dearly loves every soul He creates. What was I participating in? My conscience exploded. I hid under my sleeping bag as we traveled in a convoy for days, stopping only to shoot and getting right back on the highway heading west. We would travel nearly 300 miles in those four days.

This moral conflict I was feeling has been identified by researchers as "moral injury." Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay coined the term “moral injury” and defined it as a “betrayal of what is right by someone who holds legitimate authority in a high stakes situation.” The definition of moral injury has since been expanded to include “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to acts that ultimately transgress one’s deeply held moral beliefs,” creating dissonance." It doesn't matter whether one had actually transgressed; one's belief in even the possibility of transgression was enough to break one's spirit.

Moral injury can be similar to PTSD, but it is fundamentally different. Whereas PTSD is a mental disorder caused by one's reaction to a traumatic event, moral injury is a belief that one has transgressed one's own moral law. It is maddening and it is deep. It involves grief, sadness, outrage, guilt, shame and much more. It is cataclysmic when coupled with PTSD.

Just before the cease fire, our convoy drove through an area that has been dubbed "The Highway of Death" by historians. The sights, smells and the unbridled death and destruction were overwhelming. Photojournalist Peter Turnley published photographs of mass burials at the scene. Turnley wrote:

"I flew from my home in Paris to Riyadh when the ground war began and arrived at the "mile of death" very early in the morning on the day the war stopped. Few other journalists were there when I arrived at this incredible scene, with carnage that was strewn all over. On this mile stretch were cars and trucks with wheels still turning and radios still playing. Bodies were scattered along the road. Many have asked how many people died during the war with Iraq, and the question has never been well answered. That first morning, I saw and photographed a U.S. military "graves detail" burying many bodies in large graves. I don't recall seeing many television images of these human consequences. Nor do I remember many photographs of these casualties being published."

The Highway of Death was it for me. The Needle and the Damage Done. Now 30 years later, I have not completely recovered. I have come to the conclusion that I will never recover. It will be with me on my deathbed.

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