Moral Injury and the End of the Forever War By Sam Ryder
“I want to say this very strongly: I have been fighting for 17 years. I am willing to throw it all away to say to my senior leaders: ‘I demand accountability.’”(1) The next day, senior Marine Corps leaders relieved for cause Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Scheller, the clairvoyant commanding officer of the Advanced Infantry Training Battalion at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. LtCol Scheller made those comments in a video he posted to social media on Thursday, 27 August 2021, following the terrorist attacks against Afghans fleeing the Taliban and the U.S. service members attempting to evacuate them safely at the Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA).
On Sunday, 29 August 2021, LtCol Scheller posted a second video. In this video, he announced his plans to resign his commission, denied wanting any benefits from the Department of Defense or Department of Veterans Affairs, told his wife he loved her, and capped it by stating, “[f]ollow me and we will bring the whole fucking system down.”(2)
The tenuous situation on the ground at HKIA, as a microcosm of the entire Global War* on Terror (GWOT), had all the conditions necessary to cause significant harm to US personnel. Aside from the obvious physical harm resulting from the terrorist attacks, the episode proves a harbinger of serious moral and psychological harm, as GWOT veterans watched the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan unfold.
The Last U.S. Forces Depart Afghanistan
When one considers psychological harm in the context of military operations and war, the infamous letters P.T.S.D. come to mind. Media and entertainment institutions have long propagated tropes about PTSD that continue today. The gist: All veterans are virtuous heroes scarred by their just (but necessary) killing of Bad People(™) on behalf of the United States. Veterans must be thanked for their service and given 10% discounts at Applebee’s each Veterans Day.
While these institutions overstated the prevalence of PTSD, the ingredients for moral and psychological injury persist. Whereas PTSD develops as a reaction to the real or perceived risk of death or serious injury, the cause of moral injury proves more ill-defined and more malignant.(3)
Jonathan Shay, a clinical psychiatrist, introduced the term moral injury to address recurring challenges he encountered while working with veterans of the Vietnam War. Shay’s conception of moral injury includes three distinct parts:
1) There has been a betrayal of what’s right,
2) By someone who holds legitimate authority,
3) In a high-stakes, life-or-death situation.
As Shay writes, “[w]hen all three are present, moral injury is present and the body codes it in much the same way it codes a physical attack.”(4) Shay’s definition includes a key distinction from other clinicians who have since addressed moral injury in veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; namely, the betrayer of “what’s right” is not necessarily the individual suffering the injury. Leadership malpractice and the actions or inactions of an individual’s leaders are as much a cause of moral injury as any action or inaction perpetrated by the self.
As Shay notes,
When a leader betrays “what’s right,” he or she demotivates vast swaths of troops and detaches whole units from loyalty to the chain of command. Stated positively, troops do want to know that what they are doing has a constructive purpose, that their direct leaders know their stuff and know their people. Sacrifice falls most heavily on their people.(5)
During the course of the GWOT, countless veterans sought treatment from clinicians for symptoms of moral injury.(6) Many of these veterans shared their stories with reporters. Clinicians and reporters describe a common theme that captures the struggle of many from this generation of service members: Was it worth it?(7) On 18 August 2021, the Commandant and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps addressed this question in a letter to the Corps on the brink of the fall of Kabul. A few days later, suicide bombers and gunmen from The Islamic State - Khorasan Province carried out their attacks. In addition to murdering nearly two hundred Afghan civilians, the attacks killed 13 US service members, including 11 Marines, 1 Navy corpsman, and 1 Soldier, and caused physical injuries to 18 others. Its moral toll? Incalculable.
But why such a high moral toll? Why should these terror attacks exact a higher moral toll than the 2011 shootdown of Extortion 17, a U.S. CH-47D Chinook helicopter that carried 38 elite U.S. special operators and seven Afghan commandos, all of whom died?(8) Or the 2008 Battle of Wanat, which saw 9 U.S. soldiers die and 27 others suffer wounds?(9) Or 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines' 2010-2011 deployment to Sangin, which ended with 25 dead Marines and another 200 wounded?(10) After all, U.S. service members have persisted in their mission after mass casualty events in the past. The attacks at HKIA, though, occupy a unique space in the psyche of the veteran of the GWOT: They form a book-end to a long, injurious, and morally ambiguous conflict. Were their deaths in vain? If leaders at all levels, both past and present, do not betray what is right, their deaths do not have to be.
Stuart Scheller is clear:
I want senior leaders to accept accountability. I think them accepting accountability would do more for service members with PTSD, struggling with purpose, than any other transparent piece of paper or message. And I haven’t received that.(11)
But what I’ll say is, from my position, potentially all those people did die in vain if we don’t have senior leaders that own up and raise their hand and say, ‘We did not do this well in the end.’ Without that, we just keep repeating the same mistakes.(12)
Shay emphasizes three lines of effort in preventing psychological and moral injury: cohesion, leadership, and training.(13) He describes all three in detail, but places particular emphasis on the most neglected of the three: “expert, ethical, and properly supported leadership,” of which “truth-telling” is the most important outcome. Leaders must make it safe to tell the truth by habitually practicing truth-telling. “A lack of truthfulness is like a steady blood-loss from everyone in a military organization.”(14) When leaders fail to tell the truth and do not hold themselves accountable for their actions and inactions, the entire organization suffers.
“There are no private wrongs in the application of power in a military organization. Everyone is watching the trustworthiness of those who wield power. [...] When I speak of preventing psychological and moral injury in military service, the ‘moral injury’ part has mainly to do with how power is used in high stakes situations. The effect on service members is immediate and devastating. [...] If the stakes have been life and death, and the betrayal bad enough, the service member enters civilian life as a veteran whose capacity for social trust has been destroyed.”(15)
Were their deaths in vain? Leaders at all levels have a moral obligation to ensure those sacrifices did mean something and prevent the moral toll from rising any further.
*Part of the issue here is the abdication of responsibility by leadership in the legislative branch to exercise their Constitutionally-granted war powers and actually declare a war. Instead, servicemembers fight across the globe on the tenuous legal justification granted by the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, but I digress.
1. Scheller, S. To the American Leadership. (2021, August 26). https://www.linkedin.com/posts/stuart-scheller-589062139_to-the-american-leadership-very-respectfully-activity-6836822158526705664-H5Bd.
2. Scheller, S. Untitled. (2021, August 29). https://www.linkedin.com/posts/stuart-scheller-589062139_activity-6837780100155506688-293m/.
3. Shay, J. (2014). Moral Injury. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 31(2), 185. https://doi.org/https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/a0036090.
4. Shay, J. (2011). Casualties. Daedalus, 140(3), 183. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1162/DAED_a_00107.
5. Shay, J. (2011).
6. Wood, D. (2014, March). The Moral Injury Project [News]. Huffington Post. https://projects.huffingtonpost.com/projects/moral-injury.
7. (Wood, 2014).
8. Darack, E. (2015, March). The Final Flight of Extortion 17. Air & Space Magazine. https://www.airspacemag.com/military-aviation/final-flight-extortion-17-180953947/.
9. The Staff of the US Army Combat Studies Institute. (2010). Wanat: Combat Action in Afghanistan, 2008. Combat Studies Institute Press. https://www.armyupress.army.mil/portals/7/combat-studies-institute/csi-books/wanat.pdf.
10. Richie, E. (2019, July 3). Marines who went to ‘hell and back’ nearly 10 years ago in Afghanistan rely on camaraderie, community to heal. Orange County Register. https://www.ocregister.com/2019/07/03/marines-who-went-to-hell-and-back-nearly-10-years-ago-in-afghanistan-rely-on-camaraderie-community-to-heal/.
11. (Scheller, Untitled, 2021).
12. (Scheller, To The American Leadership, 2021).
13. Shay, J. (2002). Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. Scribner, 208-230; Shay, J. (2003, October 15). Achilles and Odysseus Today: What Homer Can Tell Us About Military Leadership. University of New Hampshire Professor John C. Rouman Classical Lecture Series, University of New Hampshire.
14. (Shay, 2003).
15. (Shay, 2003).
Berger, D., & Black, T. (2021, August 18). Letter to Marines on Afghanistan from CMC Berger, SMMC Black. https://news.usni.org/2021/08/18/letter-to-marines-on-afghanistan-from-cmc-berger-smmc-black.
Darack, E. (2015, March). The Final Flight of Extortion 17. Air & Space Magazine. https://www.airspacemag.com/military-aviation/final-flight-extortion-17-180953947/.
Richie, E. (2019, July 3). Marines who went to ‘hell and back’ nearly 10 years ago in Afghanistan rely on camaraderie, community to heal. Orange County Register. https://www.ocregister.com/2019/07/03/marines-who-went-to-hell-and-back-nearly-10-years-ago-in-afghanistan-rely-on-camaraderie-community-to-heal/.
Scheller, S. To the American Leadership. (2021, August 26). https://www.linkedin.com/posts/stuart-scheller-589062139_to-the-american-leadership-very-respectfully-activity-6836822158526705664-H5Bd.
Scheller, S. Untitled. (2021, August 29). https://www.linkedin.com/posts/stuart-scheller-589062139_activity-6837780100155506688-293m/.
Shay, J. (2002). Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. Scribner.
Shay, J. (2003, October 15). Achilles and Odysseus Today: What Homer Can Tell Us About Military Leadership. University of New Hampshire Professor John C. Rouman Classical Lecture Series, University of New Hampshire. https://www.helleniccomserve.com/shayachillesnodysseus.html.
Shay, J. (2011). Casualties. Daedalus, 140(3), 179–188. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1162/DAED_a_00107.
Shay, J. (2014). Moral Injury. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 31(2), 182–191. https://doi.org/https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/a0036090.
The Staff of the US Army Combat Studies Institute. (2010). Wanat: Combat Action in Afghanistan, 2008. Combat Studies Institute Press. https://www.armyupress.army.mil/portals/7/combat-studies-institute/csi-books/wanat.pdf.
Wood, D. (2014, March). The Moral Injury Project [News]. Huffington Post. https://projects.huffingtonpost.com/projects/moral-injury.