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Living With Killing: Lifting the Weight of Moral Injury

by David P. Ervin

In “What’s It Like to Kill Someone?” Travis Switalski delved into the depths of an important question. He answered it adeptly, employing the kind of candidness that makes that conversation enlightening and worthwhile. It’s a dialogue that we are afraid to have with ourselves, much less with the vast majority of the society in which we live. It is a necessary one. And, of course, like any provocative piece of writing, he also raised another important question.

What’s it like to live with killing in war?

We live with it by going through a crucible of sorts, navigating our way through some dark psychological terrain. As Switalski wrote, calculated indoctrination and reflexes enable us to cross the threshold initially. Then the abstract justifies it for a time. For in doing this deed we have followed the rules of war. We have preserved the safety of our fellow soldiers. We’ve fulfilled our duty. Overall, we’ve participated in an act of violence that’s morally sanctioned by the state, something done to advance an endeavor intended to liberate others and protect our country. For a while, those metrics apply – long enough, at least, drive on and finish the mission.

But after a while those aren’t the means by which we measure ourselves and our conduct. We don’t look to them in the middle of the night to comfort ourselves.

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In order to kill we tapped into something in ourselves that is frightening and grotesque. When the context of training, duty, and politics is stripped away, we feel we’ve perpetrated something that is terribly wrong. We deprived people of something far more precious than any number of abstract ideals. We deprived them of their life. We know that despite the goal of providing people with freedom we showered them with violence, misery, and bloodshed. It’s enough to shatter our beliefs about the world and our place in it, and it does. Killing can create a phenomenon known as ‘moral injury.’ It’s defined as the psychological impact of transgressing core human values and beliefs.

That is the part we don’t live with. Dealing with a moral injury fosters a plethora of damaging behaviors and beliefs. Overall, we consciously stop believing we deserve life, especially any semblance of a good one. It can be a major catalyst of suicide. Even if not taken to that extreme, it impacts us in more subtle ways. We sabotage relationships and isolate ourselves from the world because we feel our souls are somehow poisoned. We have a peculiar tendency to believe that anything good that happens in our life is a mistake that requires correction. We think any good fortune is an anomaly because the world is an inherently malevolent place. You could say that it darkens our horizons.

But it doesn’t have to.

Someone once told me that, “You should be the best man you can be because that is the most real way that you can provide justice in an unjust world.” Those words have resonated deeply, and I think of them often. There is more truth in that statement than there is in the belief that we don’t deserve to see the brighter side of life. And there is, in fact, a way to cement that more positive mindset.

The real atonement for perpetrating and witnessing such horrors is to transcend them. They can – and probably should – define us for the rest of our lives, but how we shape that definition is up to us. We can regain our belief in the goodness in ourselves and in others by being a good person and serving selflessly. There is a multitude of ways to do so. We can be helpful to our neighbors, generous with our time, and magnanimous in our daily conduct. We can volunteer in the community or simply be a comfort to someone going through rough times. By engaging in the type of altruism that makes the world a better place we can see that it is not all so dark. We can carve out a small place in it that we know is good.

By guiding others to a brighter place we’ve helped create, maybe one day we’ll find ourselves in it. Of course, even if we don’t, we’ll know that in our time we’ve given the world something more than misery and bloodshed. Above all, we’ll know that there’s something good in ourselves to give.