Living with the Moral Burdens of War


BOB ABERNETHY: The last of the U.S. troops in Iraq came home last month, and we want to explore today how they are being received. Are they getting the help they need? How do they feel about the violence in the country they left behind? Meanwhile, what can be said about the incident in Afghanistan when four Marines defiled the bodies of Taliban fighters, and the picture of that went online around the world? Kim Lawton, managing editor of this program, joins me to talk with Nancy Sherman, a University Professor at Georgetown University in Washington. Her specialty is the ethics of war, including what she has called “moral wounding.” Her most recent book is The Untold War. Nancy, thank you for being with us.

NANCY SHERMAN (University Professor, Georgetown University): My pleasure.

ABERNETHY: When people see the pictures of the Marine incident, everybody says that’s terrible, reprehensible, no excuse for it. But, you know, here are guys who may have been on several tours, they’re tired, they see their friends, their buddies, blown up, killed, maimed. It would seem to me a fairly natural reaction to demonize the enemy, hate the enemy and want to do something despicable to express your feelings about this enemy.

SHERMAN: You’re right. The angry responses increased as the weapons have gotten dirtier and the enemies more invisible, and the rules of engagement have clamped down, and so there is a lot of frustration and, as you say, lots of deaths and maimings, and if you can’t exercise your frustration at the living you may do it toward the dead. That said, officers are furious that there was this kind of misconduct, this lack of professionalism, and a sense of not really having compassion for the respect due for the dead.

KIM LAWTON (Managing Editor, Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly): Nancy, we’ve seen in the news this past week, but over successive weeks, ongoing sectarian violence in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites, tensions in the government. How does all of this contribute to this notion you talk about, the moral wounding of those troops who served there?

SHERMAN: Well, I think troops have been on a roller coaster these ten years, especially in Iraq. They were exhilarated with the fall of Baghdad, frustrated with not finding WMDs, ambivalent about a mission, and reluctantly took on the role of being city builders, city planners, school builders, and the like. And now they see that whole project of stability and democratization unraveling, and they feel, I think, frustration. You know, some come home, their marriages have exploded, they’ve lost custody of the children. They come home carrying heavy, invisible wounds, of a sense of betrayal and PTSD. That’s hard. Was it worth it?

LAWTON: Was it worth it?

ABERNETHY: A sense of their having carried the whole burden and the whole rest of the country not having done so?

SHERMAN: That’s right. They are a volunteer force, but they’re still only, you know, one percent or fewer than the country, and that makes them a kind of isolated group.

ABERNETHY: But they are getting the medical care they need.

SHERMAN: Well, yes, they are getting medical care. It’s better than ever, but it’s massive, and we’re in the process of DOD budgetary constraints. We have to make sure that at primary care they get psychological screening, and that it carries through to the end of their days.

LAWTON: Is there an ethical obligation, a moral obligation we as a society have toward these troops?

SHERMAN: Absolutely, absolutely. They may come home with a sense of resentment because they carried so much. We have to reach out through community organizations, creation of jobs, and simply talking to the vet who comes home.

ABERNETHY: Is that hard to do?

SHERMAN: Yeah, but first thing to do, no judging and a lot of empathy, because it could have been your son or daughter, and it probably is your neighbor.

LAWTON: And is that happening? Do the troops feel that that is happening enough?

SHERMAN: More and more, but don’t be surprised if when you say, “Thank you for your service,” you get a mixed response.


SHERMAN: They want you to know it was harder than just your utterance of that remark.

ABERNETHY: Nancy Sherman of Georgetown University, many thanks.

SHERMAN: Thank you so much.

ABERNETHY: And Kim Lawton of this program. Thank you.