Coping with killing: Northampton panel to discuss ‘moral injury’ suffered by military veterans

Last modified: Wednesday, April 23, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — How can an intelligent, healthy adult override the natural resistance to taking another human life and live with the trauma of doing exactly that?

Apparently, many can’t, and that failure to reconcile those opposing moral codes among American military personnel is the topic of a free panel discussion, “Moral Injury: War’s Deepest Wound and Darkest Contradiction,” Thursday at 7 p.m. at Forbes Library.

Robert Meagher, professor of humanities at Hampshire College, is one of the scheduled panelists. He said moral injury is as old as combat itself, but has only recently begun to be addressed.

“The reality of moral injury is that it isn’t anything new,” he said, though the term has only entered the lexicon in the last 20 years or so.

It was coined by psychiatrist and author Jonathan Shay in his book “Achilles in Vietnam,” which addressed the issue of returning veterans trying to cope with the violence they experienced during combat.

“Taking life during war isn’t a new human experience,” Meagher said.

Meagher said more attention is being paid toward moral injury in reaction to the “near epidemic” rise in suicide rates among both returning veterans and active-duty combat troops.

Meagher said 22 veterans end their lives every day, and active duty personnel do so at a rate of about one every 17 hours, or 33 per month.

In order for any psychological disorder to be recognized, symptoms have to manifest themselves, Meagher said, and symptoms of moral injury like self-destructive behavior — up to and including suicide, narcotics abuse and sabotaging relationships — are becoming more common among service members who have killed in the line of duty.

Some theories about why a jump in the number of military suicides is happening now have been proffered, but none seem to hold up, he said. There doesn’t seem to be a corresponding rise in the level and types of violence in recent wars compared to conflicts past that would explain the rise in moral injury and suicide.

In fact, Meagher said, based on reports released after the end of the Vietnam War, morally reprehensible acts and incidents of extreme violence and killing, including the deaths of 2 to 3 million Vietnamese civilians, were much more prevalent during Vietnam than in Afghanistan.

But even drone pilots, who operate in air-conditioned cubicles, removed from the direct conflict on the front lines, aren’t immune from the effects of ending human life, Meagher said, even if they are doing it from miles away via an electronic interface.

Panelist Susan Leary, director of the Veterans Education Project — one of the event’s co-sponsors — said making warfare more reliant on machines and remote control doesn’t lessen the impact on soldiers.

“It’s impossible to completely remove the human element,” she said.

Meagher’s theory of why more acute cases of moral injury and higher suicide rates have increased over the years is due to how service members are prepared going into combat.

He said studies conducted after WWII showed that, even when facing a direct attack from the enemy, about 75 percent of soldiers avoided firing at them, reluctant to take a life, even when threatened.

Since then, Meagher said, the military has taken steps to “desensitize” combatants to the point where killing is a near-automatic response, done without hesitation or reflection on the moral implications.

Meagher said the new emphasis on desensitizing combat troops has raised the “fire rate” toward the enemy from 25 during WWII to almost 100 percent in Afghanistan.

“We’ve become too good at killing,” he said. “There’s no shock involved.”

What the military has not become good at, he said, is helping veterans reconcile their natural reluctance to kill against the knowledge they’ve killed.

Leary said military chaplains — usually the first counseling service members will seek — are also unprepared to help combatants deal with their lethal actions.

Meagher said many veterans describe themselves as “haunted” upon their return from combat and many deal with shame they feel by engaging in self-destructive behavior.

While veterans are trained to kill effectively, Leary said, they are woefully unprepared for how to deal with the mental impact of taking another human life.

“They can’t desensitize themselves to the fact they’ve taken a life,” Meagher said.

Meagher and Leary will be joined on the panel by Capt. Timothy Kudo, a Marine combat veteran of the Afghan and Iraq wars who has written about moral injury for The Washington Post; the Rev. David Whitely, a chaplain at the Leeds VA Medical Center; and the Rev. James Munroe, a Vietnam veteran and dean of Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral in Springfield.

In addition to the Veterans Education Project, the event is also co-sponsored by Central Hampshire Veterans Services, the Northampton Human Rights Commission, First Churches, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Haydenville Congregational Church Peace and Justice Committee, Leverett Congregational Church, Hampshire College Spiritual Life, the Western Massachusetts chapter of the American Friends Service Committee and the Leverett Peace Center.

Bob Dunn can be reached at


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