The Moral Fog of War

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With Veterans Day/Remembrance Day just around the corner, this post by Vietnam veteran Syl Gerritsma highlights moral injury which can be as disabling as physical injury. Gerritsma delivered this lecture at Redeemer College on February 2, 2012, and has given permission for it to appear here.

Some of you here tonight I know; many I don’t. In either case, I know I am among friends. So I dare to share with you some things which will make you uncomfortable and me vulnerable. 

Many of you share with me the deep confidence that the Lord’s goodness and mercy accompany us all the days of our lives whether we luxuriate in green pastures beside still waters or tremble through valleys with more than just shadows of death. We rejoice in goodness and mercy at the same time as we face evil candidly.

My title "The Moral Fog of War" plays on the name of a documentary about Robert Strange McNamara, U.S. Secretary of Defense for about 7 years immediately before my time in the U.S. Army.

Fog. We don’t like it. Give us clarity. What and who are right. What and who are wrong. That simplicity will elude us tonight, beginning with this story.

During my first week in Viet Nam, we had a training class on rules of engagement. These rules review the Geneva Convention and tell you when, where and how you may engage—fight against—the enemy. You fight soldiers; don’t harm women, children, civilians and friendly people. Sounds like simple common sense. We all knew that from previous training. This was review. The class was taught by an experienced sergeant who did the proper and correct job expected of him. 

Then, time for questions.

Up stands a boy who looks hardly old enough to have finished high school. His question indicates he is a little older. He was in Viet Nam before, he says, serving on a LRRP team. Now L-R-R-P, lurp, is the acronym for long range reconnaissance patrol. That’s a few tough, highly trained guys sent into enemy territory, lightly armed, sometimes for days, to get information about the enemy—to spy. Being lightly armed, they can’t afford to be discovered. In enemy territory that means likely death.

So, in a baffled, naive, almost hurt boyish voice, he asks his question: “Do you really mean that now if we are discovered in the jungle by a woman and a couple of kids, we can’t kill them anymore?” 

Now that is not just an interesting story. The meanings and implications of it just don’t quit. You could start by asking how you would feel if the woman and children killed were your mother and sisters. Or, if they were not killed, how would you feel if one of the dead LRRP members was your brother or father or son. And on a bigger than personal level, we were told that we were in Viet Nam to “win the hearts and minds of the people.” That’s what counter-insurgency is mainly about. As an aside, think about what a spiritually evangelistic concept that is: “winning hearts and minds.” Anyway, if you were in the community of the dead mother and children, would their deaths, just because they were innocently there, win your heart and mind?

But the story doesn’t end there. The instructor has to answer the question. He is a very experienced, well-trained soldier. Does the question shock him? No. Apparently he has heard variations of it frequently. Perhaps he has lived it. He’s ready for it. As robotically as he would swing his rifle toward enemy fire, he presses the rewind button and repeats what he has mouthed before, and what the questioner has heard repeatedly before: “The rules say,…” He didn’t even have to wink or continue with …”but…” The answer was clear, and it wasn’t in the words. Nobody could say that he didn’t teach the rules. And everybody knew he didn’t.

But that still isn’t the end of the story. There were about 50 people there. The instructor was there. I was there. Every one of us knew the rules. By the rules it looked like this boy was a real, live, war criminal. Every one of us should have reported that. Was I, were we all, complicit in the cover up of a possible war crime? How could this happen? Is this simply a conspiracy of lawlessness? And this is not just a rare incident. You have all read in the news many variants of this story from My Lai in Viet Nam to Abu Ghraib and Haditha in Iraq and Canadian Captain Robert Semrau. How can these things happen?

Let’s start by asking, “What is war anyway?” The invitation to speak on this prodded me to think about that in ways I haven’t in the first 40 years since my war experience. To get the issues before us, I will say some of this with brutal starkness, simplification and hyperbole. We can discuss nuance later.

First, the standard definition of war. Something like this:

It is an instrument of statecraft. In just war theory, that distinguishes it from private violence, even private violence on a large scale like that of drug cartels or terrorist organizations. That line gets fuzzy in cases like insurrection, terrorism and civil war, but the pure idea is that war is between states, not between individuals or non-governmental groups. It is also subject to rules of warfare like Geneva Conventions and just war theory.

Isn’t that a charmingly comforting, sterile definition of war? Fervently desired, but fanciful? You could be forgiven for likening it to professional sports. There is a bit of physical contact between players, but there are nice rules limiting that contact. Players wear pretty uniforms to distinguish the teams and to distinguish players from spectators. Certainly no spectators would ever be involved or hurt. And there are referees, governing bodies and appeals boards to deal with violators both in the stands and on the nice level playing field.

Let’s try a contrasting possible definition.

War is a wild all-out melee between two or more nations, guerilla groups or terrorist organizations, which may require nearly the total resources (i.e. not just military) of the involved group or nation (meaning that civilians as part of the military-industrial complex are also involved), and in which almost all rules except winning have failed or been abandoned.

But even that is a rather academic, sanitized definition. So let’s be blunt. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about war? It’s killing. It’s purposeful killing. It’s killing on a large scale.

We hear about killing in the news and see it portrayed so casually in media and games that we are easily desensitized to it. But did you ever think about how hard it is to kill? I mean real close-up killing in which you see the fear in the man’s eyes, you see the messy blood, you bludgeon, you plunge in the knife or bayonet, you hear him beg for his life for the sake of his children. A shudder of revulsion overwhelms most of us when we even think of it, because God did not create us to kill. Moses says in Gen. 9 that when we kill we are destroying the image of God. It is as if we are trying to destroy the closest thing we see to God. It’s like burning him in effigy. That doesn’t come naturally. We are not created to do that.

Yet the sad reality is that in this time between the fall and Christ’s return, some evil is so powerful and threatening that it has to be opposed by deadly force. So until Christ returns, we call on armies to make ordinary people into killers. That’s not easy to do. Let’s look at some of the evidence of that. 

A baffling discovery was made after battles during the US Civil War 150 years ago. The guns of the dead and wounded were collected from the battle fields to be used again. Remember that these were single shot muskets. After each shot powder and bullet had to be pushed in from the front of the barrel. Many of these guns were found loaded, but not fired. Some were loaded with numerous bullets. How could that be? They discovered that soldiers had pretended to fire and reload as ordered, but, of course, with the noise of battle no commander could hear which soldiers were not really firing. They also found that many other soldiers were purposely aiming to miss. All of this because they could not find it within themselves to kill. They actually found it easier to take a greater risk of being killed rather than to kill. Even as late as WW II studies showed that only about 15 to 20 percent of individual riflemen could bring themselves to fire at an exposed enemy soldier. (Killology, Dave Grossman) That is alarming for an army. If 85% of your soldiers really don’t want to kill, it’s hard to win a war. It’s worse than if 85% of librarians were illiterate. So armies had to fix that problem.

By the time I was in Viet Nam, the figures had reversed. About 90% could kill. That’s an astonishing change. You could call that behaviour modification, but it comes close to psychological DNA change. With a bit of exaggeration you could almost call it a devolutionary species change. You have modified the person, the self, at a very deep level into a creature God never intended that creature to be. How can that be done?

At one level, armies and nations tend to do that by demonizing the enemy. In Viet Nam we were fighting godless communism, perceived, with some justification, as a deep threat to Christianity and all the freedoms we enjoyed. Of course, nations and armies can also manufacture demons where there are none as Hitler did with Jews, gypsies and others. Real or imagined, totally evil creatures are easier to kill than people.

Similarly, armies tend to dehumanize the enemy. We were out to defeat gooks in black pajamas. It’s easier to kill a gook than a person—even an evil person. 

Perhaps demonization and dehumanization could be seen as two forms of hate. When I took bayonet training we were told to imagine we were stabbing the hated imaginary man back home in bed with our wife or girlfriend. My father fought against the Japanese in WW II. Sixty years later he still talked with bitter hatred about the Japs being a devious species and speaking with relish about asphyxiating and incinerating them with flame throwers in the caves to which they had retreated. It’s easier to kill what you hate. So armies find it convenient to inspire hate.

But let’s go a step deeper, getting back to definitions of war we earlier talked about. Is war really a game played by nice law-abiding gentlemen under clearly defined rules? It settles us comfortably and shields us partially from the horrors of war to tell ourselves that. Most casualties are then simply the cost of war. What we call atrocities can be simply dismissed as violations of the rules, unusual exceptions, a few bad apples in the barrel. We cringe at the possibility that war may simply BE atrocity. But I’m going to contend that beneath this public and accepted set of rules there is a powerfully functioning alternate set of rules more deeply indoctrinated than the official ones and that this set of rules explains a lot of what actually happens in the military. If that is true, then the story I told you is not so much a matter of 50 men complicit in a war crime as it is of 50 men working under alternative rules so deeply indoctrinated into them that they are mainly subconscious.

As an aside, I think quite a bit of the non-combat immorality often associated with soldiers (drugs, sex, profanity, alcohol, pillaging) is also partially explained by the unspoken definition of army as the camaraderie of those living by an intimately understood different set of rules. That would help to explain what my pastor told me before I left for basic training: a large percentage of Christian young men suspend their Christian morality and life-style during the 3 years they are in the army, and then revert back to it when they return.

I anticipate your skepticism on all of this: “Come on. Don’t try to tell us that 20 years of nurture can be upended by a few months of army training.” So in anticipation of our discussion (which, of course, will expose more nuance than my starkly one-sided analysis), let me give you just a few examples of how the alternative values begin to supplant or at least co-exist with traditional ones. I’ll do it in bullet form, if you’ll allow that pun.

Bullet: When I began basic training most of us were draftees—not volunteers. Within weeks they had us singing and marching to songs that glorified military camaraderie and disdained civilians. We were mainly unaware of the irony.

Bullet: Later I was in officer candidate school. Of all people in the army, the leaders surely need to know and obey the rules. Surely they would teach us not to flout them. So one rule was that we must be in bed from 10 PM to 5:30 AM. But every minute during the day was regimented. When could we polish boots, get equipment and clothes ready for inspection, do the academic study, and anything personal like reading and writing letters? If we were naïve enough to ask, or even worse, try to use the impossibility of the rules as an excuse for not accomplishing all that, the sarcastic response was, “Ask the good fairy to do it.” So we went for months getting 2-4 hours of sleep per night, doing our work by flashlight, ready to hop into bed at a moment’s notice if our lookout spotted an officer coming. 

Bullet: Part of the time during that same officer training we were systematically underfed. One solution was to arrange to smuggle in a large quantity of fast food. But that was strictly forbidden, extremely difficult to arrange, and punished severely if we were caught. But periodically we were coyly asked if we had had a pogey run yet. That created an additional dilemma. Lying meant immediate dismissal from the program. Now in case your non-military minds are still reeling, wondering what is the unspoken message underneath this and between the lines, it’s this: at least one successful pogey run is virtually a graduation requirement. If you 50 guys are too dumb to muster the collective ability to evade the rules by organizing a pogey run when you are starving, how could you ever lead men in battle? That is the micro message. The macro message is this: it’s all about mission. Little impediments like rules are no excuse for failing in your mission. That’s the real rule, part of that alternate set of game rules, the unspoken one: accomplish your mission; win. 

So in almost any situation you do the calculus. Which set of rules apply? The official ones or the real ones? They exist uneasily side-by-side. And if I go by the real ones, what is the likelihood of getting caught? What are the consequences if I get caught? And how do those consequences compare with the consequences of following the official rules? I know, of course, that if I get caught, the official rules apply. All of those considerations arise whether I am contemplating burning the village where the shots came from that killed my buddy, keeping a string of dead enemy ears on my belt, doing an energetic interrogation, or just arranging a pogey run. 

So far in considering how to make ordinary people into killers, we talked about demonization, and depersonalization at one level. And there are other psychological considerations at a little deeper level including (more now than 40 years ago when I was there), the preparatory desensitizing effects of media and game violence before one even enters the military. There is also the effect of technology like bombs, missiles and drones allowing easier remote killing. We won’t examine those now. Then at a still deeper and more sophisticated level, we looked at the ambivalence of the rules. But we need to return to that still deeper question of whether military training and war itself tend to mess with our very DNA.

Let’s start with psychologist and retired Lt. Col. David Grossman’s description of basic training in an article titled “Trained to Kill”. 

Brutalization and desensitization are what happen at boot camp. From the moment you step off the bus you are physically and verbally abused: countless pushups, endless hours at attention or running with heavy loads, while carefully trained professionals take turns screaming at you. Your head is shaved, you are herded together naked and dressed alike, losing all individuality. This brutalization is designed to break down your existing mores and norms, and to accept a new set of values that embrace destruction, violence, and death as a way of life. In the end, you are desensitized to violence and accept it as a normal and essential survival skill in your brutal new world.

Listen to those last two scary sentences again. “This brutalization is designed to break down your existing mores and norms and to accept a new set of values which embrace destruction, violence, and death as a way of life. In the end you are desensitized to violence and accept it as a normal and essential survival skill in your brutal new world.”

Let me read you a few snippets from the US Army website a few years ago. Again in bullet form.

Bullet: ‘…inculcating the Warrior [note capitalization] ethos is into all soldiers of both the active and reserve components is one of the top priorities…” 

Bullet: “The Warrior ethos statement contained within the new Soldier’s Creed—I will always place the mission first [before the rules even?]. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade—is a key aspect of The Soldier focus area.”

Bullet: “This is about shifting the mindset of Soldiers from identifying what they do as a Soldier— ‘Í’m a cook, I’m an infantryman, I’m a postal clerk’ toward ‘I am a Warrior’ when people ask what they do for a living.”

Bullet: “American soldiers, possessed of a fierce warrior ethos and spirit, fight in close combat….” 

Bullet: “No soldier can survive …without … continuous immersion in the Army’s Warrior culture.”

Bullet: “This will require the deep and personal commitment of every member of the Army team—every leader, every Soldier, civilian, and every family member.”

Did you notice all the confessional religious language and allusions? Ethos, spirit, Creed, mission, immersion (as in baptism), commitment. And the change described is eerily parallel to Christian conversion. Recall Paul’s language in Eph. 4 and Col. 3 of taking off the old self (civilian) and putting on the new self (Warrior). Or recall 2 Cor. 5: “If anyone is in Christ, she is a new creation.” Parallel that with, “If anyone is in the Army, he is a new creation; the old (cook or postal clerk) is put away; the new (Warrior) is put on.”

All of this lends credence to the common adage that the Army breaks you down and rebuilds you into the kind of creature they need. Do they fully succeed? By God’s grace, no. Even the Army can’t totally erase the created way in which we reflect or image God. The extent of change also varies immensely from one person to the next.

But their efforts to recreate a person into a killer does immense damage at that very deep DNA level, the level of self. Training already does that; combat exacerbates it. Like the enemy they were trained to dehumanize, they too are partly dehumanized. That’s why soldiering is arguably the most self-sacrificial of callings. Not just because of the risk of physical death or injury but because it sacrifices the self at a very deep level. That’s why soldiers so often experience post-traumatic stress disorder with all of its devastating consequences. I don’t know how reliable the statistics are, but already years ago I read that about 90% of Viet Nam combat veterans were divorced, and that we lost more to suicide than to enemy action. I have heard that U.S. active duty soldiers today experience similar statistics- in a recent period about 562 combat deaths and 568 suicides—so far. Reliable figures indicate U.S. veteran suicides average 18 per month; sorry 18 a week; no, really 18 per DAY—20% of all suicides in the nation. That doesn’t include suicides of those on active duty. And it doesn’t include hundreds of unsuccessful suicide attempts each month. With exaggeration some have said that the combat dead are the fortunate casualties. They suffered for seconds, minutes or hours before death. The walking wounded suffer for life. Think of what his Rawanda experience did to our own General Romeo Delaire.

And it’s not just the training, the killing, the visions and recollections of killing that torture victims. It’s also that moral ambiguity that eats them for the rest of life; ambiguity like that of our first story; ambiguity they know no one will understand; ambiguity that questions whether the horrific things they have seen and done were really justifiable; and sometimes ambiguity that they are forced to keep inside knowing that sharing it might result in long and humiliating judgment and punishment under the official rules.

 All of this is depressing. But, speaking through Isaiah and Micah, God promises a future not just without war, but without even training for war. Now it would be easy to dismiss that as meaningless until Christ returns. And it is true that perfect fulfillment of that prophecy awaits His return. But in anticipation of that great day and in preparation for it, we are called right now to begin exchanging guns for garden tools and atomic bombs for medical isotopes. As God’s people, let’s work hard for justice and peace. Let’s work hard to prevent and end war. The Lord will finish the job when He returns, but he expects us now to begin to make into reality that prophecy:

They will beat their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hooks.
​Nation will not take up sword against nation,
Nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4)

Everyone will sit under their own vine
And under their own fig tree,
And no one will make them afraid,
For the Lord Almighty has spoken. (Micah 4:4)

For more information, Mental Health Ministries e-Spotlight has resources for ministry with veterans, including a video, PTSD: Healing and Hope.

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Another resource that's available on the topic of moral injury and "soul repair" is this webinar recording (which includes slides and a handout) called "Helping Veterans Suffering Moral Injury After War."