Moral Injury

by Rachel Pieh Jones on February 15, 2019

I first learned the term “moral injury” in a Plough magazine article by Michael Yallend, Hope in the Void. He quoted authors Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini who say moral injury, “comes from having transgressed one’s basic moral identity and violated core moral beliefs…Moral injury destroys meaning and forsakes noble causes. It sinks warriors into states of silent, solitary suffering, where bonds of intimacy and care seem impossible.”

Foreign Policy magazine describes moral injury as “damage done to a ‘person’s conscience or moral compass by perpetrating, witnessing, or failing to prevent acts that transgress moral and ethical values or codes of conduct.”

Can you think of ways you have experienced this in your life abroad?

We know about female genital mutilation and cannot stop it. We turn away from the begging children. We participate in economic inequality. We are inappropriately respected or honored because of the color of our skin or our passport and we do little to stop it. We huddle behind locked doors and guarded, walled compounds when disorder breaks out in the streets. We pay the bribe to get our mail or our water turned on.

This is not how we imagined serving, helping, or changing the world. We are humanitarians, we are people motivated by faith and by a desire to serve and help. Some of us thought we could change the world, only to discover we are complicit in harm, subconsciously or not.

About his own memories of serving as a soldier in the Iraq war, Yallend wrote, “I know I am not who I thought I was. I am something different, something I never planned on being.”

Another way to think about moral injury is as a wound to the soul.

I am not heroic and I know this far better now, after 16 years abroad, than I ever would have learned had I stayed in the US. I am the opposite of heroic. Living here has stripped away all illusion of moral superiority or high character. I stand exposed.

All my high ideals and righteous ambitions lie in tatters at my feet while people around me go hungry and I can never feed them all. When injustice reigns and I don’t protest. When racism rules and I benefit.

And that’s just what I’m willing to publicly confess.

I know now, who I am. I am not who I thought I was or who I intended to be.

Oh how deeply runs the chasm between who I thought I was and who I now know myself to be.

Oh how much greater my knowledge of my need for a grace I cannot earn.

This is not about moving abroad and learning how selfish and greedy and impatient and proud you are. (I learned all that too) This is darker, deeper, and more damaging.

Moral injury is a heavy, serious topic that deserves much deeper exploration than a single blog post. I’ll provide some links below and encourage you to explore the idea on your own, to see how you may have been impacted, or not. And then I encourage you to find a place where you can be honest and courageously vulnerable so that you can find healing.

Does this resonate with you? How? And how can you move toward healing?

The Headington Institute

Hope in the Void, Plough Magazine

Foreign Policy The Warrior and Moral Injury

Psychology Today: Moral Injury

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