In What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars (Little, Brown, 304 pp., $28, hardcover; $14.99, E book), David Wood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and war correspondent, thoughtfully and often startlingly shows that men and women who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were well-prepared for “the art of war,” but woefully ill-equipped to deal with what the psychiatrist Jonathan Shay calls “moral injury” in his 1995 book, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character.
“The U.S. involvement in Vietnam was a watershed in our understanding of war trauma,” Wood writes, “but because several of the indicators of PTSD—anxiety, depression, anger, isolation, insomnia, self-medication—are shared with moral injury, it took time for therapists and researchers to unbraid the two.”
Wood’s interviews with deployed troops strongly illustrate what he calls “the loss of a warrior’s moral guidepost.” Describing Marine Cpl. Sendio Martz whose patrol was hit by a command-detonated device in Afghanistan, for example, Wood notes that men in the patrol suffered mild traumatic brain injuries and assorted other injuries. “But the moral damage was worse than that,” he writes, because Martz and his men broke an unwritten rule by befriending an Afghan boy.
Martz reported that “the boy eventually would turn in villagers’ weapons, and would point out places where IED’s had been placed. Then one day the boy disappeared—and a few days later came the IED blast. Soon they found out it was the boy himself who set off the charge.”
The moral repercussions of the boy’s betrayal surfaced later. “Back home at Camp Lejeune,” Wood writes, “Sendio found himself replaying the IED blast detonated by the kid over and over in his mind.” Wood has conducted many interviews like this, revealing the distinction between PTSD and moral injury.
Another distinction Wood discovered while with the Marines in Afghanistan centers on chain of command. Wood reports that “higher ranks (referred to, usually not fondly, as “Higher”) make strategy, write doctrine, and devise tactics.” The lower ranks, which Wood calls “the blue-collar, working class of the military,” are “mostly young, mostly enlisted soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines who are the infantry grunts, the trigger pullers, the wrench turners, the watch standers, the tank drivers, the helicopter crewmen, the medics.”
The book includes statistics that may appear as dry as a Social Science textbook, yet behind every stat is a human element. Comparing this century’s conflicts with those of previous years, Wood writes: “These new wars also threw young troops into legal and moral swamps that GIs of past wars could hardly imagine.” Even “attempting to follow the rules could lead to sickening self-recrimination.
“Lieutenant Colonel Rob Campbell commanded a cavalry squadron in eastern Afghanistan. One night, Campbell said, overhead surveillance showed what looked like a team of insurgents planting IED’s beside a road. Certain that [the Rules of Engagement] and international law had been satisfied, the staff called in a strike, killing the civilians who were actually farmers planting seeds. ‘It was horrible, something I’ll have to live with,’ Campbell said.”
Wood cites one instance in which a soldier who happened to be an atheist incurred moral injury almost immediately after an action in which he killed an Iraqi insurgent. “The soldier was near the end of his deployment so killing was not new to him,” Wood writes. “What was new was the circumstance. ”
The soldier “found the dead man’s wallet and opened it. Inside, a weathered snapshot of a man posing with several women and children. The man in the picture now lay dead at his feet. So he felt guilty about that.”
Atheist or not, this soldier suffered a moral injury, one of many masterfully recorded in this book.
The author’s website is davidwoodjournalist.com