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Chaplain, Lt Col Joseph Friedman, CO ANG

Thirty years ago, I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington for the first time. Standing before those two stark walls of black stone, and skimming over the more than 58,000 names etched indelibly therein, I was profoundly moved. Mind you, I was 12 years old when the last Americans were helicoptered off the roof of the US embassy in Saigon. I did not know anyone who died in Vietnam; my emotions were not the result of any personal connection. Rather, I cried over the senselessness of the deaths, the futility of that particular war, the loss of so much human potential with absolutely nothing to show for it. Rather than seeing names of men and women who died proudly fighting for freedom, I saw names of men and women sacrificed by leaders—both civilian and military—who doubled down on their miscalculations and misinformation, unable or unwilling to admit their mistakes.  

In 2013, I was asked by my Wing Commander to brief our senior leadership on Moral Injury. I began by stating the need to clearly define three important terms—Morals, Ethics, and Values—which are often interchanged but are important to distinguish when discussing this topic. While reasonable people can argue with my definitions, I shared the ones which resonated with me.  

“Morals” refer to our inner compass, those things we know “in our gut” are right or wrong. They do not get there by accident or by evolution. We are taught morality, first by our parents, then by our teachers, and our observations of the world around us. We are exposed to messages of “morality” through movies, newscasts, the messaging of politicians, and more and more by social media. Consequently, our morals often change as we mature and process these often-disparate sources. In traditional Judaism, one’s morality should conform to the morality of the Torah. In Ethics of the Fathers (4:2), we read, “Do His will as though it were your will…” The Midrash Shmuel (written by Rabbi Shmuel Di Uzeda, a student of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria) explains this to mean your behavior must so comport to G-d’s teachings that it appears as if you chose to act that way of your own will. In other words, the Torah’s morality must become so organically part of your life that it should appear as if it originated with you.  

Ethics,” on the other hand, are a set of standards—either written or understood—agreed upon by a group of people to govern that group. Hence, we hear of “medical ethics” and “legal ethics,” to name just two. When the American Medical Association outlines certain moral standards for the field of medicine, they establish a code of ethics for doctors. Military Chaplain Confidentiality—the idea that military chaplains will not disclose anything said to them as an expression of conscience in their role as chaplains—is not a law; it is an ethic, a standard of behavior established by the Chaplain Corps and reconfirmed regularly by the Chiefs of Chaplains for each military branch, and consequently, codified in their respective military regulations. (On the other hand, Privileged Communication is a law. Military Rules of Evidence (MRE) 503 provides a person the privilege to refuse to disclose and to prevent another from disclosing a confidential communication made to a chaplain or chaplain’s assistant in court. It is an evidentiary rule, applying only in the context of a court-martial. However, the broader “confidentiality,” which chaplains have adopted themselves as an ethical code, apply in any context, even when not in court.) 

Finally, we come to “values.” There are times when one’s morals and ethics may come in conflict. The degree to which we process the conflict—value one over the other—reflects our values. For example, Dr. Goldstein works at a hospital in which the ethical code dictates the paramount value of “quality of life;” patients who are clinically brain dead must be removed from life support. Dr. Goldstein, however, is a traditionally-observant Jew, for whom his moral code dictates that life, in any form, is sacred and meaningful, and only in very specific cases is termination of life support warranted. In this conflict between personal morals and institutional ethics, the way in which the doctor chooses to proceed reflects his values: If he follows the hospital’s dictates it may reflect the value he puts on his employment and his ability to continue providing for his family. If he chooses not to follow the hospital’s dictates, it may reflect the value he puts to being true to his service of G-d above all else.  

With the exception of psychopaths, human beings believe that killing, in general, is morally wrong. Absent a greater moral value (most obviously saving one’s own life, or that of one’s family), killing is abhorrent to civilized people. What does that mean for a military service member? When a service member kills someone without believing in a greater moral value by which to justify it, a moral dissonance is created which, depending on the depth of their convictions, can be devastating. This is called Moral Injury (MI). In a 2009 article in Clinical Psychological Review, the authors define MI as, “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs.” 

Unlike Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which has been widely studied, there is a dearth of quantifiable research on MI. According to David Wood, senior military correspondent for HuffPost, the reason has much to do with the Department of Defense’s refusal to acknowledge it exists, as “it goes to the heart of military operations and the nature of war.” Wood points out that not only does the Pentagon not formally recognize Moral Injury, the Navy refuses to even use the term, referring instead to “inner conflict.” 

That having been said, anecdotally at least, that there appears to have been an increasing level of MI sufferers since World War II; most notably Vietnam Veterans, and to a slightly lesser degree, those who fought the last 20 years in Afghanistan and Iraq. I believe the answer is not complicated. In the lead-up to, and throughout, WWII, the US propaganda machine worked overtime. Japanese soldiers were portrayed as spectacle-wearing, buck-toothed rats, while German soldiers were seen peering menacingly from under their helmets, or just as giant jackboots destroying churches and other symbols of American morality. There were no political correctness filters; our enemies were evil incarnate and needed to be destroyed. With such relentless indoctrination, it is not hard to imagine there was little moral conflict for service members in killing the enemy. 

The Korean Conflict occurred in the context of the “Red Scare,” when Americans were inundated with messaging regarding Communist designs on world domination. While there was no equivalent to the attack on Pearl Harbor, nor the dastardly evil of Hitlerism, the message of Freedom versus Tyranny was at least plausible. However, by the time we were enmeshed in the Vietnam War, few Americans truly believed the political fate of the Vietnamese had any relevance to Americans or their way of life. To make matters worse, the side the United States was supporting – the Republic of Vietnam, particularly under the leadership of Nguyễn Văn Thiệu – was horribly corrupt, and suppressive of democracy.  

Consequently, untold numbers of US troops were faced with the constant internal conflict of prosecuting a war with its concomitant acts standing in direct violation of their moral code, all the while without a higher morality with which to justify them. It is no surprise, therefore, the degree of MI suffered by Vietnam veterans appears to have been markedly higher than in any previous conflict.  

In the most recent conflict, a war which the United States waged for two decades, a staggering number of troops seem to be suffering from the same issue. In the Spring 2016 edition of the Justice Policy Journal, Professor William Brown of Western Oregon University, along with two colleagues, published an important study on Moral Injury. Among other questions, the Iraq/Afghanistan war veterans surveyed were asked to rate “your current primary feeling about the totality of your military service experiences following discharge/deployment(s).” Almost 40% of respondents said “shame,” close to 25% said “guilt,” 15% responded “confused,” and 11% said “frustrated.” Only 10% said “relieved/satisfied” (three percent said “other”). In other words, close to 80% percent of those polled were either morally troubled or morally confused.  

Sadly, I believe the reason is clear. The United States government never made a morally unimpeachable argument for our presence in either war zone. At the very beginning, immediately following the attack of September 11th, one could draw a line from the attack and Osama bin Laden to the Taliban. However, once the initial effort to support the Northern Coalition was completed, the US military went from hunting terrorists to nation building. For the average service member, providing for free elections seven thousand miles away from home to a people who may or may not have really wanted them in the first place is no moral justification for killing human beings. 

As for Iraq, once it became clear early on there were no weapons of mass destruction, the military presence was there to facilitate regime change. However, it just as quickly became abundantly clear that  the US had little idea how to do that in a country with at least three major sectarian groups who seemed unable to govern together. Once again, the average service member was forced to commit immoral acts with no moral justification other than to protect his or her battle buddy, who was just as confused as to why they were there.  

To add insult to Moral Injury, the result of the US expedition to Iraq is a country essentially under Iranian control. As for Afghanistan, the world watched in August how the twenty-year Western incursion in Afghanistan was completely erased in a matter of days, as the Taliban retook control of the entire country almost on the very anniversary of the 9/11 attack which precipitated the war in the first place. For countless service members who struggled to reconcile their actions with the reasons provided by their government, the withdrawal from Afghanistan must have felt like pouring salt on an open moral wound. For others, who were able to find moral justifications for their actions—perhaps pointing to improvements in human rights and education for women, free (albeit rigged) elections, and modernized infrastructure, to name a few—the withdrawal by the United States and takeover by the Taliban may have torn asunder the fragile framework keeping their moral equilibrium intact, leaving them with the same Moral Injuries suffered by so many of their brothers and sisters in the past. To quote a recent article in The Hill, “Service members are expected to trust that the orders from their civilian and military leaders are aligned with American values. The frantic withdrawal from Afghanistan and abandonment of vulnerable people leaves service members asking whether their sacrifices were in vain and if their actions are consistent with American values.”  

I don’t pretend to be an expert, nor do I have all the answers. However, what seems clear to me is if the United States is going to go to war, the government needs to do a much better job of selling the moral basis for such an adventure. The decision to take human lives must be so morally sound that anyone pulling the trigger knows exactly why. On July 14, 2014, three Arab terrorists burst forth from the Al Aqsa Mosque and killed two Israeli Border Policemen called Mishmar HaGevul (Magav for short). A member of my family was a Magav squad leader serving in East Jerusalem, and when he heard the shots, he led his platoon to the Temple Mount. They engaged in a firefight, and two of three terrorists were killed (the third was killed a few minutes later by a different squad). He did not lose a night’s sleep then or since. There was no moral ambiguity, hence there was no Moral Injury. He knew exactly why he did what he did, and why it was the moral thing to do. It is that level of moral clarity the US government owes to its service members if they are going to engage in battle. If such clarity is unable to be conveyed, that may be the greatest indication that a thorough reanalysis of the expedition is warranted.  

Sources used:

Litz, B. T., Stein, N., Delaney, E., Lebowitz, L., Nash, W. P., Silva, C., Maguen, S. (2009). Moral injury and moral repair in war veterans: A preliminary model and intervention strategy. Clinical Psychology Review 29 (2009) 695–706.

Wood, D. (2014, March 18). ‘I’m A Good Person and Yet I’ve Done Bad Things’: A Warrior’s Moral Dilemma. HuffPost. entry/moral-injury_n_4959285

Brown, W.B., Stanulis, R., McElroy, G. (2016). Moral Injury as a Collateral Damage Artifact of War in American Society: Serving in War to Serving Time in Jail and Prison. Justice Policy Journal (Spring, 2016), 1-41.

Xenakis, S. N., Hamilton, J. D. (2021, Aug 24). Afghanistan Withdrawal: Warfighters’ Déjà Vu. The Hill. security/569094-afghanistan-withdrawal-warfighters-deja-vu.


Originally printed in the Chanukah 2022 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.