Kelly Denton-Borhaug

'Thank you for your service': The intolerable price veterans pay to feed America's addiction to war

Kelly Denton-Borhaug: What an American Addiction to War Means to Veterans

I felt it then. I feel far more certain of it now. My dad, who died in 1983, was a member of what came to be known as the Greatest Generation, those who served in World War II. In fact, he volunteered the day after Pearl Harbor (though he was then old enough that he might not have been drafted) and ended up in the U.S. Army Air Corps — there was no separate Air Force in those days — with the First Air Commandos fighting the Japanese in Burma.

And here was the strange thing: though he had souvenirs of that war in his closet, including an old mess kit, a duffle bag filled with papers, his major’s hat, and various wartime badges, and as a boy I was fascinated, he would never really talk about his time at war. The only exceptions were those sudden outbursts of anger because my mother had shopped at a nearby grocery store whose owners, he claimed, had been war profiteers, or later because I had gone to a Japanese restaurant or bought a German car (a Volkswagen). Mind you, I thought I knew all there was to know about his war experience because he used to take me to the war movies of the 1950s where we both watched Americans ever triumphant, ever satisfied, ever glorious — and he never said a word about them, which seemed to validate everything I saw on screen.

Now, I suspect he had returned from that war with some version of post-traumatic stress disorder, some disturbance deep inside that came out in indirect but harsh ways in the tough years (for him) of the 1950s. But who talked about such things then? No one in my world, that’s for sure. And that was “the good war” (as Studs Terkel labeled it, quote marks included, in his famed oral history of World War II).

When it comes to America’s bad wars of the last century and this one, however, we know a good deal more about what they’ve done to this country’s “warriors,” as TomDispatch regular, religion scholar, and author of And Then Your Soul is Gone: Moral Injury and U.S. War-Culture Kelly Denton-Borhaug makes all too clear today. Yes, in these years, Americans were in a rush to “thank” those who fought our distant wars, while life here went on almost as if they weren’t happening. But now we know that the price paid for the disasters in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere was far, far too high (even if you ignore the costs borne by Afghans, Iraqis, and so many others). With that in mind, as Veterans Day comes around once more, take a moment with Denton-Borhaug to consider the price our vets have paid for the decision to fight the Global War on Terror across significant parts of this planet forever and a day. Tom

The Intolerable Price You Pay: A Civilian Addresses American Veterans on Veterans Day

[Denton-Borhaug will give a version of this talk virtually to Veterans for Peace Chapter 102 at a Reclaim Armistice Day meeting at the Milwaukee City Hall Rotunda this Veteran’s Day.]

Dear Veterans,

I’m a civilian who, like many Americans, has strong ties to the U.S. Armed Forces. I never considered enlisting, but my father, uncles, cousins, and nephews did. As a child I baked cookies to send with letters to my cousin Steven who was serving in Vietnam. My family tree includes soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. Some years before my father died, he shared with me his experience of being drafted during the Korean War and, while on leave, traveling to Hiroshima, Japan. There, just a few short years after an American atomic bomb had devastated that city as World War II ended, he was haunted by seeing the dark shadows of the dead cast onto concrete by the nuclear blast.

As Americans, all of us are, in some sense, linked to the violence of war. But most of us have very little understanding of what it means to be touched by war. Still, since the events of September 11, 2001, as a scholar of religion, I’ve been trying to understand what I’ve come to call “U.S. war-culture.” For it was in the months after those terrible attacks more than 20 years ago that I awoke to the depth of our culture of war and our society’s pervasive militarization. Eventually, I saw how important truths about our country were concealed when we made the violence of war into something sacred. And most important of all, while trying to come to grips with this dissonant reality, I started listening to you, the veterans of our recent wars, and simply couldn’t stop.

Dismantling the Lies About and Justifications for Our Wars

The only proper response to 9/11, our political leaders assured us then, was war and nothing but war — “a necessary sacrifice,” a phrase they endlessly repeated. In the years that followed, in speeches and public spectacles, one particular image surfaced again and again. The lives — and especially injuries and deaths — of American soldiers were incessantly linked to the injuries inflicted on Jesus of Nazareth, and to his death on the cross. President George W. Bush, for example, milked this imagery in 2008:

This weekend, families across America are coming together to celebrate Easter… During this special and holy time of year, millions of Americans pause to remember a sacrifice that transcended the grave and redeemed the world… On Easter we hold in our hearts those who will be spending this holiday far from home — our troops… I deeply appreciate the sacrifice that they and their families are making… On Easter, we especially remember those who have given their lives for the cause of freedom. These brave individuals have lived out the words of the Gospel, 'Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.' [John 15:13 ]

The abusive exploitation of religion to bless violence covered the reality of war’s hideous destructiveness with a sacred sheen. And this justification for what quickly became known as the Global War on Terror troubled me, leaving me with many questions. I wondered: Is it true that we demonstrate what we most value in life by dying for it?

What about living for what we value most?

Biblical stories about the suffering and death of the distinctly nonviolent Jesus of Nazareth were shamelessly manipulated in those years to sacralize our wars and the religious among us largely failed to question such bizarre connections. Eventually, I began to understand that war cultures are by their nature death cults. The depth of the militarization of this country and the harshness of its wars abroad were concealed by converting death into something sacred. Meanwhile, the deaths of Afghans, Iraqis, and so many others in such conflicts were generally ignored. Tragically, religion proved an all-too-useful resource for such moral exploitation.

We civilians deceive ourselves by insisting that we’re a peaceful nation desiring the well-being of all peoples. In reality, the United States has built an empire of military bases (more than 750 at last count) on every continent but Antarctica. Our political leaders annually approve a military budget that’s apocalyptically high (and may reach a trillion dollars a year before the end of this decade). We spend more on our military than the next nine nations combined to finance the violence of war.

Our political leaders and many citizens insist that having such a staggering infrastructure of war is the only way Americans will be secure, while claiming that we’re anything but a warring people. Analysts of war-culture know better. As peace and conflict studies scholar Marc Pilisuk puts it: “Wars are products of a social order that plans for them and then accepts this planning as natural.”

Learning War Is Like Ingesting Poison

I’ve personally witnessed the confusion and conflicted responses of many veterans to this mystifying distortion of reality. How painful and destabilizing it must be to return from your military deployment to a society that insists on crassly celebrating and glorifying war, while so many of you had no choice but to absorb the terrible knowledge of what an atrocity it is. “War damages all who wage it,” chaplain Michael Lapsley wrote. “The United States has been infected by endless war.” Veterans viscerally carry the violence of war in their bodies. It’s as if you became “sin-eaters” who had to swallow the evil of the conflicts the United States waged in these years and then live with their consequences inside you.

Worse yet, most Americans refuse to face our national reality. Instead, they twist such truths into something else entirely. They distance themselves from you by labeling you “heroes” and the “spine of the nation.” They call war’s work of death the epitome of citizenship. They don’t want to know how often and how deeply you were afraid; how conflicted you were about life-and-death decisions you had to make when no good choice was available. They don’t want to hear, as one veteran said recently in my presence, that too often your lives “were dealt with carelessly.”

They also don’t want to hear about the military training that shaped you to deal carelessly with the lives of others, both combatants and civilians. Those are inconvenient details that get in the way of a national adulation of war (in a draft-less country where 99% of all citizens remain civilians). After all, war fever means good business for the weapons makers of the military-industrial complex. As Pentagon expert William Hartung recently put it, “The Biden administration has continued to arm reckless, repressive regimes” globally, while its military support for Ukraine lacks any diplomatic strategy for ending that war, instead “enabling a long, grinding conflict that will both vastly increase the humanitarian suffering in Ukraine and risk escalation to direct U.S.-Russian confrontation.”

Such complexities involving alternatives to Washington’s war-making urges are, of course, not part of the national conversation on Veterans Day. Instead, we are promised that war and this country’s warriors will somehow redeem us as a nation. The unimaginable losses to families, communities, infrastructure, and culture in the lands where such conflicts have been fought in this century are invisible to most citizens, while typical Veterans Day commemorations recast you as messianic redemptive figures who “have paid the price for our freedom.”

But to convert war-making into something sacred means fashioning a deceitful myth. Violence is not a harmless tool. It’s not a coat that a person wears and takes off without consequences. Violence instead brutalizes human beings to their core; chains people to the forces of dehumanization; and, over time, eats away at you like acid dripping into your very soul. That same dehumanization also undermines democracy, something you would never know from the way the United States glorifies its wars as foundational to what it means to be an American.

Silencing and Commodifying Veterans

Meanwhile, citizens rush to “thank you for your service.” You’re allowed to board airplanes first and given discounts at the nation’s amusement parks. Veterans Day only exacerbates your sickening commodification, as all those big box stores, other corporations, and financial institutions use you to try to increase their profits (like the bank in my town last year with its newspaper ad: “Freedom isn’t Free: Veterans Paid Our Way. Thank you. Embassy Bank”).

These dynamics silence the truths you carry within you. I’ve heard you say that you often find it impossible to tell the rest of us, even family members, what really happened. You struggle with feelings of alienation from civilian culture, unable to express your anger or describe your struggles with deep-seated shame, guilt, resentment, and disgust.

Your military service often left you with debilitating physical and psychological injuries and even deeper “moral injuries.” Veteran and author Michael Yandell struggles to describe this ruinous self-disintegration, writing “I despaired of myself, and of the very world.” Borne out of the crushing suffering that is the world of war, some of you experienced moral pain that grew to an intolerable level. There was no longer any world left that you could trust or believe in, no values anywhere, anymore. And yet, you represent such a small percentage of the population — less than 1% of us join the military — while disproportionately shouldering such a painful legacy from the last 20 years of American war-making across significant parts of the planet.

More often than not, the invisible wounds of returning veterans are shrouded in silence. For some of you, unbearable pain led to disastrous consequences, including self-harm, loss of relationships, isolation, and self-destructive risk-taking. At least one in three female members of the armed forces has experienced sexual assault or harassment from fellow service members. More than 17 of you veterans take your own lives every day. And you live with all of this, while so much of the rest of the nation fails to muster the will to see you, hear you, or face honestly the American addiction to war.

The truths about war that you might tell us are generally rejected and invalidated, cementing you into a heavy block of silence. Military chaplain Sean Levine describes how the U.S. must “deny the trauma of its warriors lest that trauma radically redefine our understanding of war.” He continues, “Blind patriotism has done inestimable damage to the souls of thousands of our returning warriors.”

If we civilians paid attention to your honesty, we would find ourselves slammed headlong into a conflict with a national culture that glorifies war, conceals the political and material interests of the titans of weaponry and war production, and successfully distracts us from the depth of its destruction. We civilians are complicit and so lurch away from facing the inevitable revulsion, sorrow, mourning, and guilt that always accompany the reality of war.

An Alternative for Veterans Day

Honestly, the only way forward is for you to tell — and us to compassionately take in — the unadulterated stories of war. One Vietnam veteran vividly described what war did to him this way:

I went to war when I was a little over twenty — not a child, but not yet an adult. When I arrived at the Cleveland airport after my tour of duty in Vietnam, I just sat down paralyzed with befuddled emotions. I didn’t even call my parents to tell them I was home. I was afraid my family would expect to see the person I was, and not accept the person I had become; that they would not forgive me for what I had done and not done in Vietnam. How could they when I couldn’t forgive myself? Like some toxic virus morphing in a Petri dish, the war infected my moral DNA. I came home no longer thinking with the same mind, seeing with the same eyes, hearing with the same ears.

When you speak out and tell truths this way, you exemplify the epitome of citizenship, as well as courage, vulnerability, and a commitment to hope. Such revelations show that the light of your conscience wasn’t quashed by war. Thích Nhất Hạnh, the Buddhist international peace activist, pointed the way forward for veterans and the rest of us alike when he wrote:

Veterans are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation. If veterans can achieve awareness, transformation, understanding, and peace, they can share with the rest of society the realities of war.

The resulting trauma from war’s inevitable dehumanization is not yours alone. War-culture in this country leaves us with a residual collective trauma that weighs us all down and is only made worse by a national blindness to it.

As a civilian on Veterans Day, I hope to support the creation of spaces where your voices resoundingly are heard, and your faces seen. Together, we must determine how best to do the work of rehumanizing our world. Jack Saul, from the International Trauma Studies Program, reminds us that listening is “deeply humanizing” because it generates the healing power of empathy. Compassionate listening spaces “strengthen our connections to others and ourselves, and ultimately make society better.”

This Veterans Day I’m taking part in a “Community Healing Ceremony” through the Moral Injury Program in Philadelphia where I and other civilians will witness the strength of veterans offering testimony about the evil of war in their lives. Hearing your words will clarify my own understanding, vision, and resolve. Listening can be transformative, helping tear down the deceitful myths of war-culture, while building honesty and a willingness to see our world as it is.

Let me finish by thanking you, the veterans of our wars, for your truth-telling. Your contribution is invaluable in this embattled world of ours.

Is Moral Clarity Possible in Donald Trump’s America?

Kelly Denton-Borhaug, Living on a Planet of Lies

Ripley’s Believe It or Not has nothing on our moment and it hardly matters where you start! Take, for instance, our last president’s complaint about the U.S. military, according to a new book, The Divider: Trump in the White House, by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser. While in office, he was, it seems, embittered that “his” generals weren’t as loyal as Adolf Hitler’s had been. And not just them either. As he said to his chief of staff John Kelly (“preceding the question with an obscenity”), “Why can’t you be like the German generals?” Why indeed?

For the president who, according to the Washington Post, made 30,573 false or misleading claims while in the White House, reality has always been a branch of fiction. Whether you’re talking about elections (fraudulent!) or an unprecedented FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago estate (“They even broke into my safe!”), you can count on one thing: he’ll invariably stretch fact to the edge of fiction, if not far beyond. After all, our world turns out to be eternally up for grabs, a story ready to be made up on the spot.

And he’s anything but alone. From Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene to Arizona Senate nominee Blake Masters to Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, these days the Trumpublican party couldn’t be a wilder compendium of ever more bizarre and violent fiction. In fact (if you’ll excuse the use of that phrase), we increasingly live in a world where fiction is the new fact. And all too many people, not just Alex Jones, have long been glorying in that reality. (Remember as well that if you reject any of those fictions, as Liz Cheney has, you better have enough money to hire some full-time security for yourself.)

And don’t just blame Donald Trump either! As Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank pointed out recently, he didn’t create our present world. He was just “a brilliant opportunist; he saw the direction the Republican Party was taking and the appetites it was stoking. The onetime pro-choice advocate of universal health care reinvented himself to give Republicans what they wanted.”

In this context, let TomDispatch regular Kelly Denton-Borhaug, author of And Then Your Soul is Gone: Moral Injury and U.S. War-Culture, explore how lies and disinformation triumphed in our all-American world and what to make of it. Tom

Is Moral Clarity Possible in Donald Trump’s America? On Truth-telling, Confession, and First-Class Lies

Recent episodes of purposeful and accidental truth-telling brought to my mind the latest verbal lapse by George W. Bush, the president who hustled this country into war in Afghanistan and Iraq after the 9/11 attacks. He clearly hadn’t planned to make a public confession about his own warmongering in Iraq when he gave a speech in Texas this spring. Still, asked to decry Russian president Vladimir Putin’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine, Bush inadvertently and all too truthfully placed his own presidential war-making in exactly the same boat. The words spilled out of his mouth as he described “the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified invasion of Iraq — I mean of Ukraine.”

Initially, he seemed shocked that he had blurted that out and tried to back off his slip by shrugging and muttering, “Iraq, too,” as if it were a joke. Some in his audience even laughed. But his initial attempt to sideline his comment only deepened the hole he was in. Then he tried another ploy. He suggested that his slip could be forgiven or excused because of his age, 75, and that his invasion and the destruction of Iraq could now be forgiven because of his cognitive decline. All in all, it was a first-class mess.

An Earlier Pathetic Attempt at Comedy

I remember another of Bush’s attempted jokes that got an immediate laugh from his audience, but soon fell seriously flat. It was in 2004. The Iraq War was underway and the president was at the yearly dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association, a black-tie event attended by both journalists and politicians.

After various comedy sketches, then-President Bush rose to present a short meant-to-be humorous slideshow featuring himself supposedly looking for the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Remember that, in the lead-up to war there, Americans were hammered with fearful and deceptive political messaging, emphasizing that only an invasion could stop that country’s ruler, Saddam Hussein, from having WMD. (None were ever found, of course.) At that dinner, Bush showed photos of himself supposedly searching for those devastating weapons in the Oval Office beneath a cushion on the couch and under the desk. “No weapons under there! Maybe they’re here!” said the smiling president repeatedly in a sing-song voice, as if engaged in a child’s game. Horrifyingly enough, many in that audience of journalists did indeed laugh.

I was offended then, just as I was by Bush’s recent slip and his sorry attempts to minimize and excuse his responsibility for the blood on his hands, the massive death toll from his invasion, and so much additional destruction and suffering. According to The Costs of War project, more than 207,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in that nightmare, while the number who died from the indirect violence of that war was far higher, given the damage done to the Iraqi health care system and the rest of that devastated country’s infrastructure. More than 20 years later, people are still dying needlessly. And I also mourn the more than 7,000 U.S. servicemembers who died in the post-9/11 war zones Bush created, as well as the many more who were wounded.

I can’t help but wonder if George Bush doesn’t feel at least a little of this himself. Otherwise, why would he have made such a slip? Or maybe it wasn’t a slip at all, but an inadvertent confession.

That his telling gaffe about Iraq and Ukraine received so little attention certainly reveals something about our media’s ongoing uneasiness with Bush’s wars and perhaps the conflicted feelings of our citizenry as well when it comes to what they did (and didn’t do) during the Iraq War. How many who were initially enthusiastic about the Afghan and Iraq wars would now, like their former president, admit we were wrong? How many people who supported those conflicts have taken what happened to heart and are thinking more deeply about an American propensity for war and the war culture that goes with it? Like George W. Bush, too few, I’m afraid.

Worshipping Lies

This past July 24th, the New York Times featured “I was wrong” op-ed pieces by a number of its columnists. The editors defined “being wrong” as “incorrect predictions and bad advice,” as well as “being off the mark.” Of course, one of the definitions of the Greek word for “sin” (amartia) in the New Testament is “missing the mark.” Fascinating.

I would have taken the editors’ definitions further though. Saying “I was wrong” means more than “rethinking our positions on all kinds of issues,” as the Times suggested. Often, the problem isn’t simply that people lack the best, most up-to-date information or data. Only by digging into ethics and social psychology will we better understand why people deceive not just others but even themselves with lies, slippery rationalizations, or comedic attempts at distraction to cover up deeper dynamics that have to do with privilege and power, or what religious traditions sometimes call “worshipping false idols.”

Moral psychologist Albert Bandera has explored some of the diverse mechanisms people rely on to morally disengage and excuse inhumane conduct. They shift their rhetoric and thinking to redefine and even rename what they are doing, “sanitizing” language (and their acts) in the process. In this way, they often shift responsibility onto someone else, minimize any damaging consequences for themselves, and dehumanize the victims of the violence they’ve let loose.

But there are other examples of moral disengagement that are even harder to understand. In such cases, people make decisions and act in ways that even undercut their own self-interest and values. For me, one of the saddest recent examples is Stephen Ayres, a witness at the House select committee’s January 6th hearings this summer. He had been part of the Trumpist mob that stormed the Capitol. A family man who, until then, owned a house and had a job with a cabinet company, Ayres came across in those hearings as a lost soul who couldn’t fully comprehend how he had willingly injured himself and his family by idolizing Donald Trump and his election lies.

His arrest for participating in the insurrection resulted in the loss of almost everything he had. With his wife sitting behind him, he testified about having to sell his house, losing his job, and struggling to come to terms with his actions. “I wish I had done my own research,” he said, trying to explain how he could have been so easily deceived by Trumpist lies regarding the 2020 presidential election.

Clearly, the social media bubble he slipped into that captivated and compelled him to head for Washington had given his life new meaning and an otherwise missing sense of excitement. He hadn’t planned to enter the Capitol building that day but was swept away by the moment. “Basically, we were just following what [Trump] said,” Ayres testified. In handing over his critical thinking to right-wing social media and a president intent on hanging onto power at any cost, he unwittingly also handed over his capacity for moral deliberation and, in the end, his very life.

Liz Cheney’s Struggle for Moral Clarity

In recent weeks, Liz Cheney, vice-chairperson of the January 6th committee, was questioned about a past moral choice of hers by Leslie Stahl in a 60 Minutes interview — specifically, how years ago she threw her lesbian sister and family under the bus for political purposes. It was a time when Cheney was struggling to get elected in conservative Wyoming. That meant coming out as anti-LGBTQ. Now, she says, “I was wrong” to have condemned her sister then.

Listening to her, I wanted to hear more about such moral grappling and how, in these years, her convictions had or hadn’t changed when it came to people, religion, family, political life, power, and the role her father played as George W. Bush’s vice president in those godforsaken wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unfortunately, Stahl didn’t push her further.

I disagree with Liz Cheney on almost every policy position she’s taken in these years. Nonetheless, I find myself grateful for her rejection of Donald Trump’s mad election claims and her determined, even steely, leadership of the January 6th committee hearings. Cheney eventually discovered her moral bearings on her sister’s sexual orientation and family life. Now, I wonder if that past moral struggle influenced her decision to throw political expediency to the wind regarding her own House seat in a Wyoming primary that she might lose on August 16th. After all, by resisting the Trumpian tide, she’s become one of the few Republicans willing to do some serious truth-telling.

Today, Cheney finds herself in another league from most of her party’s leaders and power players. In the state where I live, Pennsylvania, Republicans are coalescing behind the candidacy of Doug Mastriano for governor. Candidate Mastriano not only wants to arm school employees, but according to my local newspaper, he even organized buses for January 6th, now “rubs shoulders with QAnon conspiracy theorists,” and until recently had an active social media account at Gab, a site well-known for its white supremacist and anti-semitic rhetoric.

Mastriano continues to spread Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, is a Christian nationalist, and believes in an abortion ban without exceptions, and the list goes on and on. Nonetheless, Republicans like Andy Reilly, a member of the state GOP national committee, rationalize their support for Mastriano by saying things like, “When you play team sports, you learn what being part of a team means… Our team voted for him in the primary.”

Lying to Others and Oneself

What enables such self-deception? According to journalist Mark Leibovich, author of Thank You for Your Servitude: Donald Trump’s Washington and the Price of Submission, what “made Trump possible” even after the January 6th insurrection was “rationalization followed by capitulation and then full surrender.” Reviewing Leibovich’s book, Geoffrey Kabaservice added this: “The routine was always numbingly the same, and so was the sad truth at the heart of it. They all knew better.” In other words, “knowing better” doesn’t assure anyone of doing the right thing. Instead, too many Americans were swayed by “greed, ambition, opportunism, fear, and fascination of Trump as a pure and feral rascal.”

Tim Miller, author of Why We Did It: Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell, adds “hubris, ambition, idiocy, desperation, and self-deception” to the mix of reasons why so many politicians do what they do. “How do people justify going along?” he asks. But he, too, played that game once upon a time. A Republican gay man with a husband, he rationalized helping the GOP pass anti-LGBTQ legislation by “compartmentalizing” his personal life from his professional one. As he now says, “Being around power, being addicted to power,” along with the insatiable compulsion to “be in the room where it happens,” is a recipe that leads people to act self-deceptively, while deceiving others.

It’s like placing scales over your own eyes and those of others, to blind as many people as possible, yourself included, to the immorality of your acts. And some lie even more to themselves, claiming that they can resist the worst tendencies of destructive power-mongering. They say, “We need to have good people in the room” to stop the worst from happening, even as they capitulate to power players and justify what should never be justified.

Many of us are waiting to hear an “I was wrong” from so many politicians (though I can’t imagine Donald Trump ever succumbing to honesty), including most of the Republican leadership. Just for starters, I’d like to hear “I was wrong” regarding Muslim bans, the demonization of immigrants, the refusal to seriously address gun violence, the denial of women’s human rights, the gerrymandering and weakening of voting rights, religious nativism, and sidling up to white supremacy, not to speak of the supposed “steal” of the 2020 election. But given the likelihood that people in power will lie to themselves and others, I’m not holding my breath.

Telling the Truth about U.S. Military Spending

What I’m also waiting for is an “I was wrong” from both Democratic and Republican politicians in Washington who, year after year, support ever more outlandish military budgets, despite so many other existential crises in our country and on the planet, despite the death-dealing costs of war to the servicemembers Americans claim to highly esteem, and despite the fact that our violence abroad simply hasn’t worked.

Remember that the United States spends more than half of its entire discretionary federal budget on militarization and war, a tally greater than the military budgets of the next nine highest-spending countries combined. Tragically, it doesn’t appear that this will change any time soon.

According to an analysis by the anti-corruption group Public Citizen , in 2022, the congressional armed services committees only added to the already gigantic military budget the Biden administration requested for 2023. The House added another $37.5 billion, while the Senate added $45 billion. Our leaders refuse to learn from the last decades of unremitting war. Instead, power and privilege continue to hold sway.

As the same report explained, after military-industrial-complex corporations donated $10 million to congressional armed services committee members, “the Department of Defense received a potential $45 billion spending increase.” This was in addition to the president’s $813 billion recommendation. The report concluded, “The defense contractors will have clinched a return on its $10 million investment of nearly 450,000%.”

It’s discouraging to see how deception and rationalization so regularly undermine truth and moral courage. It’s also sobering to witness individuals who willingly lie to themselves and, in doing so, subvert their own and others’ wellbeing. But I’m also encouraged by times when, as with Liz Cheney on that committee, some of us demonstrate what it means to dig deeply for moral clarity against the prevailing headwinds of moral disengagement, disinformation, power, and privilege.

The fact is that truth-telling and confession, while difficult, are good for the soul. I wish for more and hope it will be enough. God knows, all of us and this beleaguered planet truly need it.

'Malignant normality': Professor of religion explains how the US weaponized Christianity to sacralize war

Lately, random verses from the Bible have been popping into my mind unbidden, like St. Paul’s famous line from Galatians, “A person reaps what they sow.” The words sprang into my consciousness when I learned of the death of the 95-year-old Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, who helped encourage Martin Luther King to declare his opposition to the Vietnam War so long ago.

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.

For decades, I’ve been moved by Hanh’s witness and his writings, which shined such a light on the destructive consequences of our country’s militarism. As he said, “To prepare for war, to give millions of men and women the opportunity to practice killing day and night in their hearts, is to plant millions of seeds of violence, anger, frustration, and fear that will be passed on for generations to come.”

We reap what we sow. It seems so obvious, but in these endless years of U.S. war-making across the globe, this simple truth seems to have escaped most Americans.

Why? It’s not as if no one’s noticed that the U.S. has, in so many ways, become a more violent society. Many public intellectuals (progressives and conservatives, too) are wringing their hands regarding the dangerous uptick in social violence of all sorts in this country, including voluminous gun purchases, distrust and anger, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, rising deaths from avoidable causes like refusing to be vaccinated — and the list only goes on.

But a thinker like Thich Nhat Hanh stands out from the rest. His insights differed from the norm because he saw so clearly how the seeds of violence in war-culture sprout into a kind of invasive kudzu vine capable of spreading across every aspect of life, while crushing, asphyxiating, and killing so much along the way.

War-Culture as an Invasive, Destructive Vine

I wonder why the media haven’t more thoroughly investigated the psychology that enables our congressional representatives almost unanimously to approve outlandish, ever larger military budgets, no matter how poorly the U.S. military may be doing in the world. The violent infrastructure of this nation is like a noxious vine with destructive results for us all, but few connect this to other rising forms of violence in the U.S. For instance, our leaders couldn’t find it in their hearts to approve an extension of the child tax credit, even though it played a role in lifting 4.6 million children out of poverty. One study even showed how such cash stipends and tax credits, when provided to poor mothers with babies in the first year of life, resulted in changed brain activity in their children and improved cognitive development.

But West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin (along with all the Senate Republicans) refused to support continuing that program, while, like almost every one of those Republicans and most of his Democratic colleagues, he had no problem whatsoever approving an astronomical defense budget, even in the wake of the Afghan withdrawal. Parents, he insisted, should have to work to receive any assistance for their children, but the military doesn’t have to work for that $738 billion dollars to be approved. There’s no requirement for a financial accounting or any demand for evidence that the U.S. military solves “national security” problems of any sort.

And it’s not only Manchin. That budget passed in the Senate by a staggering vote of 88 to 10. (The dissenting lawmakers were Senators Cory Booker, Michael Braun, Kirsten Gillibrand, Mike Lee, Ed Markey, Jeff Merkley, Alex Padilla, Rand Paul, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren.)

While at least $6 trillion dollars were spent on this country’s post-9/11 wars, crucial issues like climate change and medical care for the elderly and the rest of us are treated with a bake-sale mentality by our lawmakers, with precious little questioning of that reality. Are our leaders afraid of the weapons-making titans of the military-industrial complex (of which they are increasingly a part)? Do they really believe that this is the way to build a more secure world? The 3.7 million children whose families just fell back into poverty as a result of the heartless erasure of the Child Tax Credit are only less safe as they fall asleep tonight. What about our nation’s responsibility to them?

And here’s another all-too-relevant question: Why don’t the rest of us step up to make it stop? Where has the anti-war movement and a movement against that military-industrial-congressional complex been all these years? So many of us are easily distracted, pay too little attention, and focus on our private business, while passing on the seeds of violence, anger, frustration, and fear to each new generation.

Worse yet, in our culture, the military budget is widely viewed as a social, even global good, though both Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King would have considered this a lie of the first order. The hum of the continuing violence embedded in and eternally reinforced by this country’s war-making structure is so constant that most of us don’t even notice or question it. The structural violence of a nation that puts more money into its military than the next 11 military spenders combined — yes, that’s right, combined — is intolerable, especially because it’s guaranteed to undermine both democracy and public health here and in the wider world. It shouldn’t surprise us that people outside the United States now see us as one of the “main threats to world peace.”

Malignant Normality: Serving the “Pentagod”

What makes such widespread obliviousness to, apathy about, and denial of our addiction to violence so invisible to so many of us? Here, I have to point to one of the moral touchstones in my own life: Jon Sobrino, a priest, writer, and activist who survived the massacre of eight other Jesuit priests and women domestic workers at the José Simeón Cañas Central American University on the outskirts of El Salvador’s capital in 1989. His housemates and colleagues were murdered in cold blood by the Salvadoran Army (backed at the time by Washington) because the priests were calling for social justice, ministering to people caught in war zones, and encouraging those who were too afraid to speak up. Sobrino himself escaped death only because he happened to be out of the country, lecturing, when the slaughter took place.

His spiritual starting point is one I try to adopt in every project I undertake. The first step, he insists, is always to demonstrate “honesty toward reality.” Now, Sobrino may be a theologian, but his approach applies to us all. We simply can’t assume honesty in this dishonest world. We must work for it. And Sobrino takes this further, because his own life experience taught him that being truly honest about our world is difficult indeed, given that violence and injustice are so often “concealed.”

This is where I find his insights so compelling. Being honest about our all-American reality is challenging indeed since the destructive seeds of violence slip so easily and comfortably under the surface of things. This not only makes it difficult to see them clearly, but also much harder to hold accountable those who mischaracterize such incipient, well-funded violence as good, not evil.

Social psychologist Robert Jay Lifton described this as “malignant normality,” the imposition of destructive or violent behavior on Americans as a built-in part of everyday life. Lifton studied the practices of Communist Chinese “thought reform” (once known here as “brainwashing”) and the work of doctors in the Nazi regime to try to understand how people turn away from reality and get caught up in worlds of dishonesty that sow the seeds of harm and destruction.

In this context, I continue to listen to the voices of military servicemembers and veterans who have opened themselves to the uncomfortable truths about how this country is now reaping what its war-culture has sown globally. They have experienced its lethal growth, destruction, and death all too personally. They know in a way the rest of us often don’t what it means to be acculturated to “malignant normality.” Take, for example, retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore who recently wrote a piece for TomDispatch about “the Pentagod” he so faithfully served for 20 years. Stationed in “a cathedral of military power,” a more or less literal “temple of doom” under tons of granite in Cheyenne mountain, Colorado, he ministered, he wrote, to the “jealous and wrathful god” of the nuclear-industrial complex.

Eventually, however, he lost his faith in the American god of war, who “always wanted more.” The bottomless craving of today’s Pentagod is behind more than just the soaring military budget. Remember that, among the latest insanities of that complex, are plans to “modernize” this country’s vast nuclear arsenal at a cost, over the next three decades, of nearly $2 trillion. That includes Northrup Grumman’s $264 billion “potential lifecycle” price tag on a new set of land-based nuclear missiles that will be siloed in heartland states like Wyoming and North Dakota. And we call this “good”?

Last December, I was privileged to hear veterans from the Moral Injury Program at Philadelphia’s Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center testify publicly at a “healing ceremony” about their own encounters with the god of war, the malignant normality of this country’s war-culture, and the seeds of violence it sowed so deeply and painfully in their own lives. One of them was Matthew Abbadusky, who shared a public letter he wrote explaining why he resigned his commission as an Army National Guard chaplain. Its telling first sentence was: “Honesty is the beginning of spiritual life.”

Like Astore, he was no longer willing to serve the U.S. god of war.“I cannot, in good conscience, lend religious and ethical support to a military institution that primarily benefits an economy of corporate, expansionist greed and inconspicuous lust for destruction,” he wrote. His experiences as an infantryman in the 10th Mountain Division, including a 15-month deployment to Iraq and later his work as a military chaplain stateside, “enabled me to arrive at this waypoint on my journey.”

He spoke with passion about “the lifelong visible and invisible wounds” borne by so many of his compatriots in the armed forces:

The morally confounding circumstances a soldier faces on the battlefield are a manifestation of political and corporate moral bankruptcy. The plight they face often places their lives into extreme danger and requires them to make unfathomable decisions, wreaking destruction without, and confusion and chaos within.

Digging Out

To dig ourselves out of the dishonesty, complacency, apathy, and lies of American war-culture, we’re going to need greater honesty about the way Christianity has been weaponized and manipulated to support our society’s malignant normality. It’s time, for instance, to call out the dishonesty of using certain verses from the New Testament to sacralize war.

For example, not just chaplains and religious leaders but military commanders, military families, and everyday citizens regularly valorize what soldiers do by referring to the Gospel of John: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

It is indeed a beautiful, evocative verse that holds so much meaning for so many people. But there’s a long history of dishonesty surrounding its use in the context of war-culture. Especially on occasions like Veterans Day or Memorial Day, you’ll hear this verse in political speeches, commercials, public-school programs, and ceremonies of all sorts. Exploiting citizens’ honest desire to care for veterans, the militarized use of such words hides the truth about how our soldiers have labored at the forefront of this murderous society.

In this way (and there are so many similar examples, religious and otherwise), war is covered with a sacred sheen, while its seeds of violence are normalized and slip ever further from our consciousness. But being honest requires that we face reality and the truth about the consequences of war. As scholar and activist Khury Petersen-Smith of the Institute for Policy Studies put it, “Military violence always requires dehumanization and the denial of rights — and this inevitably corrupts any notions of democracy.”

Despite the regular hijacking of that verse from John to soften and conceal the ugly violence of American-style war, those words are part of Jesus’s teaching about nonviolent service to others. In fact, biblical scholars agree that the historical Jesus rejected militarized violence. And don’t forget that, in the end, he was executed by the Roman imperial power structure.

It’s worth asking: Who exactly benefits from making the violence of war into something sacred? Do veterans? Countless times I’ve heard them testify that such super-valorization and sacralization of war silences any honesty about the reality they experienced. And that’s true not only of people who participated in the violence of the battlefield, but also those like Astore and Abbadusky who struggle to reckon with the roles they played in the structural violence of war-culture, sowing the seeds of destruction and bearing witness to the consequences.

And what do they need from the rest of us? At the very least, we, too, can strive for deeper honesty regarding this country of ours, which is visibly in trouble and still focused on future wars as the best way to address our fears about the threats that face us. We seem to be unable to think any differently, despite evidence that more war will only make matters worse for the world, as well as for the United States.

Maybe, if we stopped making war and militarism into a sacred enterprise, we’d be more successful in demanding that our political leaders cease their thoughtless approval, year after year, of destructive, ever more gigantic Pentagon budgets.

Maybe, if we began listening more deeply to veterans, our understanding of the true costs of the war-culture that’s engulfed us so disastrously through the first two decades of this century would deepen. And maybe our ability to resist complicity with the way it’s been endlessly sowing the seeds of violence, anger, frustration, and fear, generation after generation, would begin to grow.

The lesson we ignored from a disastrous drone strike during the Afghanistan withdrawal

As a religious studies professor, I know a parable when I see one. Consider the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the final events in this country's war in Afghanistan as just such a parable taken directly from the history of our moment.

The heart-wrenching last days of that war amounted to a cautionary tale about the nature of violence and the difficulty Americans have honestly facing their own version of it. As chaos descended on Kabul, and as the Biden administration's efforts to evacuate as many Afghans and Americans as possible were stretched to the limit, one more paroxysm of senseless violence took center stage.

A suicide bomber sent by the Islamic State group ISIS-K struck Kabul's airport, killing and maiming Afghans as well as American troops. The response? More violence as a Hellfire missile from an American drone supposedly took aim at a member of the terror group responsible. The U.S. military announced that its drone assassination had "prevented another suicide attack," but the missile actually killed 10 members of one family, seven of them children, and no terrorists at all. Later, the Pentagon admitted its "mistaken judgment" and called the killings "a horrible tragedy of war."

How to react? Most Americans seemed oblivious to what had happened. Such was the pattern of the last decades, as most of us ignored the staggering number of civilian casualties from our country's bombing and droning of Afghanistan. As for the rest of us, well, what else could you do but hold your head and cry?

In fact, those final events in Afghanistan crystallized an important truth about our post-9/11 history: the madness of making war the primary method for dealing with potential global conflict and what's still called "national security." Throughout these years, our leaders and citizens alike promoted delusional dreams of violence (and glory), while minimizing or denying the nature of that violence and its grim impact on everyone touched by it.

With respect to the parables of the New Testament gospels, Jesus of Nazareth is reported to have said, "Those who have ears, let them hear." In this case, however, Americans seem unable to listen.

Parables are compact, supposedly simple stories that, upon closer examination, illustrate profound spiritual and moral truths. But too few in this country have absorbed the truth about the misplaced violence that characterized our occupation of Afghanistan. Our culture remained both remarkably naïve and blindly arrogant when it came to widespread assumptions about our violent acts in the world that only surged thanks to the further militarization of this society and the wars we never stopped fighting.

The Costs of War in Well-Being, Money, and Morality

Over the last 20 years, according to a report from the National Priorities Project, the U.S. dedicated $21 trillion to an obsessive militarization of this country and to the post-9/11 wars that went with it. Nearly one million people died in the violence, while at least 38 million were displaced. Meanwhile, more than a million American veterans of those conflicts came home with "significant disabilities." Deployment abroad brought not just death but devastation to all-too-many military families. Female spouses too often bore the brunt of care for returning service members whose needs were unfathomably wrenching. The maltreatment of children in military families "far outpaced the rates among non-military families" after increasing deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq and children of deployed parents showed "high levels of sadness."

Many analysts have pointed to the culture of lies and self-deceit that characterized these years. American leaders, political and military, lost their own moral grounding and were dishonest with the citizenry they theoretically represented. But we citizens also share in that culpability. Andrew Bacevich recently asked why the American people didn't hold their leaders to a more stringent accounting of the wars of the last 20 years. Why were Americans so willing to go along with the unremitting violence of those conflicts year after year, despite failure after failure? What he called the "Indispensable Nation Syndrome" was, he suggested, at least partially to blame — a belief in American exceptionalism, in our unique power to know what's best for the world and grasp what the future holds in ways other nations and people couldn't.

In the post-9/11 period, such a conviction mixed lethally with a deepening commitment to violence as the indispensable way to preserve what was best about this country, while fending off imagined threats of every sort. Americans came to believe ever more deeply, ever more thoughtlessly, in violence as a tool that could be successfully used however this country's leaders saw fit.

The unending violence of our war culture became a kind of security blanket, money in the bank. Few protested the outlandish Pentagon budgets overwhelmingly approved by Congress each year, even as defeats in distant lands multiplied. Violence would protect us; it would save us. We couldn't stockpile enough of it, or the weapons that made it possible, or use it more liberally around the globe — and increasingly at home as well. Such a deep, if remarkably unexamined, belief in the efficacy of violence also served to legitimate our wars, even as it helped conceal their true beneficiaries, the corporate weapons producers, those titans of the military-congressional-industrial complex.

As it happens, however, violence isn't a simple tool or clothing you can simply take off and set aside once you've finished the job. Just listen to morally injured military service members to understand how deep and lasting violence turns out to be — and how much harder it is to control than people imagine. Once you've wrapped your country in its banner, there's no way to keep its barbs from piercing your own skin, its poison from dripping into your soul.

Canaries in the Coal Mine of War, American-Style

Listening intently to the voices of active-duty service members and veterans can cut through the American attachment to violence in these years, for they've experienced its costs and carried its burden in deeply personal ways. Think of them as the all-too-well-armed canaries in the coal mine of our post-9/11 wars, taking in and choking on the toxicity of the violence they were ordered to mete out in distant lands. Their moral injuries expose the fantasy of "using violence cleanly" as wishful thinking, a chimera.

Take Daniel Hale who, while serving in the Air Force, participated in America's drone-assassination program. Once out of the service, his moral compass eventually compelled him to leak classified information about drone warfare to a reporter and speak out against the drone brutality and inhumanity he had witnessed and helped perpetrate. (As the Intercept reported, during five months of one operation in Afghanistan, "nearly 90% of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.")

Convicted of violating the Espionage Act and given 45 months in prison, he wrote, in a letter to the judge who sentenced him, "Your Honor, the truest truism that I've come to understand about the nature of war is that war is trauma. I believe that any person either called upon or coerced to participate in war against their fellow man is promised to be exposed to some form of trauma. In that way, no soldier blessed to have returned home from war does so uninjured." Having agonized about "the undeniable cruelties" he perpetrated, though he attempted to "hold his conscience at bay," he eventually found that it all came "roaring back to life."

Or listen to the voice of former Army reservist and CIA analyst Matt Zeller. Having grown up in a family steeped in the American military tradition and only 19 years old on September 11, 2001, he felt "obligated" to do something for his country and signed up. "I bought into it," he would later say. "I really believed we could make a difference. And it turns out… you don't come back the same person. I wasn't prepared for any of that. And I don't think you really can be." Describing his post-service efforts to assist Afghans "endangered by their work with the United States" who were fleeing the country, he said, "I feel like this is atoning for all the shit that I did previously."

Such voices disrupt the dominant narrative of the post-9/11 era, the unshakeable belief of our military and political leaders (and perhaps even of most Americans) that committing violence globally for two decades in response to that one day of bloody attacks on this country would somehow pay off and, while underway, could be successfully contained, distanced, and controlled. There was a deep conviction that, through such violence, we could purchase the world we wanted (and not just the weapons the military-industrial complex wanted us to pay for). Such was the height of American naïveté.

The Inequality and Inhumanity of Violence

Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung has defined violence as an "avoidable assault [on] basic human needs and more generally [on] life." But how many Americans in these years ever seriously considered the possibility that the violence of war could be avoided? Instead, in response to that one day of terrible violence in our own land, perpetual conflict and perpetual violence became the American way of life in the world, and the consequences at home and abroad couldn't have been uglier.

Who bothered to consider other avenues of response in the wake of 9/11? The U.S. invaded Afghanistan five weeks after that day, while the Bush administration was already preparing the way for a future invasion of Iraq (a country which had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11). I'll never forget the confusion, shock, and fear in the early weeks after those attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The world was grieving with us, but the dominant urge for violent revenge took shape with breathtaking speed, so quickly that it all seemed the natural course of events. Such is the nature of violence. Once it's built into the structures of human society and government planning, it all too often takes precedence over any other possible course of action whenever conflict or danger arises. "There's no other choice," people say and critical thinking shuts down.

We in the United States have yet to truly face the personal as well as national costs of the violence that was so instantly woven into the fabric of our response to 9/11. Within a few days, for instance, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was already talking about a global war on terror targeting 60 countries! Most Americans blithely believed that we could strike in such a fashion without being truly affected ourselves. People generally failed to consider how such a recourse to endless violence would conflict, morally speaking, with the nation's own deepest values.

But philosophers know that such violence almost invariably turns out to be grounded in inequality and so sharply conflicts with this country's most basic values, especially the idea that human beings are equal. To act violently against the other, people must believe that the object of violence is somehow less worthy, of less value than themselves. In these years, they had to believe that the endless targets of American violence, like those seven dead children in Kabul, not to speak of the future lives and psychic well-being of the soldiers who were sent to deliver it, didn't truly matter. They were all "expendable."

No wonder military training always includes a process of being schooled in dehumanizing others. Otherwise, most people just won't commit violence in that fashion. The sharp assault on their own values, their own humanity, is too great.

The commemorations of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 spotlighted the limits of the world that two decades of such wars have embedded in our national soul. With rare exceptions, there was a disparity when it came to grief. Countless reports mourned the victims and first responders who died here that day, but few were the ones who extended remembrance and grief to the hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions who have died in our wars in distant lands ever since. Where was the grief for them? Where was the sense of regret or introspection about what 20 years of unmitigated violence has wrought around the world and what it has undoubtedly changed in the moral character of this country itself?

For, believe me, all of us have been impacted morally by our government's insistent attachment to violence. It's helped destabilize our own core humanity, its toxicity penetrating all too deeply into the soul of the nation.

Recently, I was asked whether I agreed or disagreed with the statement, "I can be trained to kill and participate in killing and still be a good person."

As a theologian, an American, and a human being, I find myself filled with dread when I attempt to sort this out. One thing I do know, though. I may be a civilian, but along with the members of the U.S. military, I can't escape sharing complicity in the killing that's gone on in my nation's name, in that war on terror that became a war of terror. I remain part of the group that committed those crimes over so many seemingly endless years and that truth weighs ever more heavily on my conscience.

Copyright 2021 Kelly Denton-Borhaug

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Kelly Denton-Borhaug, a TomDispatch regular, has long been investigating how religion and violence collide in American war-culture. She teaches in the global religions department at Moravian University. She is the author of two books, U.S. War-Culture, Sacrifice and Salvation and, more recently, And Then Your Soul is Gone: Moral Injury and U.S. War-Culture.

Moral injury and the forever wars: What Americans don't want to hear

This summer, it seemed as if we Americans couldn't wait to return to our traditional July 4th festivities. Haven't we all been looking for something to celebrate? The church chimes in my community rang out battle hymns for about a week. The utility poles in my neighborhood were covered with "Hometown Hero" banners hanging proudly, sporting the smiling faces of uniformed local veterans from our wars. Fireworks went off for days, sparklers and cherry bombs and full-scale light shows filling the night sky.

But all the flag-waving, the homespun parades, the picnics and military bands, the flowery speeches and self-congratulatory messages can't dispel a reality, a truth that's right under our noses: all is not well with our military brothers and sisters. The starkest indicator of that is the rising number of them who are taking their own lives. A new report by Brown University's Costs of War Project calculates that, in the post-9/11 era so far, four times as many veterans and active-duty military have committed suicide as died in war operations.

While July 4th remembrances across the country focused on the symbols and institutions of war and militarization, most of the celebrants seemed far less interested in hearing from current and former military personnel. After all, less than 1% of Americans have been burdened with waging Washington's wars in these years, even as we taxpayers have funded an ever-more enormous military infrastructure.

As for me, though, I've been seeking out as many of those voices as I could for a long, long time. And here's what I've learned: the truths so many of them tell sharply conflict with the remarkably light-hearted and unthinking celebrations of war we experienced this July and so many Julys before it. I keep wondering why so few of us are focusing on one urgent question: Why are so many of our military brothers and sisters taking their own lives?

The Moral Injuries of War

The term moral injury is now used in military and healthcare settings to identify a deep existential pain destroying the lives of too many active-duty personnel and vets. In these years of forever wars, when the moral consciences of such individuals collided with the brutally harsh realities of militarization and killing, the result has been a sharp, sometimes death-dealing dissonance. Think of moral injury as an invisible wound of war. It represents at least part of the explanation for that high suicide rate. And it's implicated in more than just those damning suicides: an additional 500,000 troops in the post-9/11 era have been diagnosed with debilitating, not fully understood symptoms that make their lives remarkably unlivable.

I first heard the term moral injury about 10 years ago at a conference at Riverside Church in New York City, where Jonathan Shay, the renowned military psychologist, spoke about it. For decades he had provided psychological care for veterans of the Vietnam War who were struggling with unremitting resentment, guilt, and shame in their post-deployment lives. They just couldn't get on with those very lives after their military experiences. They had, it seemed, lost trust in themselves and anyone else.

Still, Shay found that none of the typical mental-health diagnoses seemed to fit their symptoms. This wasn't post-traumatic stress disorder — a hyper-vigilance, anxiety, and set of fears arising from traumatic experience. No, what came to be known as moral injury seemed to result from a sense that the very center of one's being had been assaulted. If war's intent is to inflict physical injury and destruction, and if the trauma of war afflicts people's emotional and psychic well-being, moral injury describes an invisible wound that burns away at a person's very soul. The Iraq War veteran and writer Kevin Powers describes it as "acid seeping down into your soul, and then your soul is gone."

A central feature of moral injury is a sense of having betrayed one's own deepest moral commitments, as well as of being betrayed morally by others. People who are suffering from moral injury feel there's nothing left in their world to trust, including themselves. For them, any notion of "a shared moral covenant" has been shattered. But how does anyone live in a world without moral guideposts, even flawed ones? The world of modern war, it seems, not only destroys the foundations of life for its targets and victims, but also for its perpetrators.

Difficult Truths from Those on the Front Lines of Our Wars

For civilians like me, there's no way to understand moral injury without listening to those afflicted with it. I've been doing so to try to make sense of our culture of war for years now. As a religious studies scholar, I've been especially concerned about the ways in which so many of us give American-style war a sacred quality. Think, for instance, about the meme that circulates during national holidays like the recent July 4th, or Veterans Day, or Memorial Day: "Remember that only two forces ever agreed to die for you: Jesus Christ and the American soldier. One died for your freedom, the other for your soul; pass it on!"

How, I wonder, do such messages further shame and silence those already struggling with moral injury whose experiences have led them to see war as anything but sacred?

It's been years since I first heard Andy, a veteran of the Iraq War, testify in the most personal way about moral injury at a Philadelphia church. He's part of a family with a long military history. His father and grandfather both served in this country's wars before, at 17, he enlisted in the Air Force in 1999. He came to work in military intelligence and would eventually be deployed to Iraq.

But all was most definitely not well with Andy when, after 11 years in the Air Force, he returned to civilian life. He found himself struggling in his relationships, unable to function, a mess, and eventually suicidal. He bounced from one mental healthcare provider to the next for eight years without experiencing the slightest sense of relief. On the verge of ending his life, he was referred to a new "Moral Injury Group" led by chaplain Chris Antal and psychologist Peter Yeomans at the Crescenz VA Hospital in Philadelphia. At that moment, Andy decided this would be his last effort before calling it quits and ending his life. Frankly, given what I now know, I'm amazed that he was willing to take that one last chance after so many years of suffering, struggle, and pain to so little purpose.

The professionals who lead that particular group are remarkably blunt about what they call "the work avoidance" of most citizens — the way that the majority of us fail to take any responsibility for the consequences of the endless wars we've been fighting in this century. People, they've told me, regularly deflect responsibility by adopting any of three approaches to veterans: by valorizing them (think of the simplistic "thank you for your service/sacrifice" or the implicit message of those "hometown heroes" banners); by pathologizing them (seeing vets as mentally ill and irreparably broken); or by demonizing them (think of the Vietnam-era "baby-killers" moniker). Each of these approaches essentially represses what those veterans could actually tell us about their experiences and our wars.

So, the leaders of the Crescenz VA Moral Injury Group developed an unorthodox approach. They assured Andy that he had an important story to tell, one the nation needed to hear so that civilians could finally "bear the brunt of the burden" of sending him to war. Eight years after leaving the military and a few weeks into that program, he finally revealed for the first time to those caregivers and vets, the event at the root of his own loss of soul. While deployed in Iraq, he had participated in calling in an airstrike that ended up killing 36 Iraqi men, women, and children.

I'll never forget watching Andy testify about that very moment in the Philadelphia church on Veterans Day before an audience that had expressly indicated its willingness to listen. With palpable anguish, he told how, after the airstrike, his orders were to enter the bombed structure. He was supposed to sift through the bodies to find the supposed target of the strike. Instead, he came upon the lifeless bodies of, as he called them, "proud Iraqis," including a little girl with a singed Minnie Mouse doll. Those sights and the smell of death were, he told us, "etched on the back of his eyelids forever." This was the "shame" he carried with him always, an "unholy perpetration," as he described it.

The day of that attack, he said, he felt his soul leave his body. Over years of listening to veterans' stories, I realize that I've heard similar descriptions again and again. It may seem extreme to speak about one's very soul being eviscerated, but it shouldn't be treated as an exaggeration. After all, how can we even imagine what the deaths of so many men, women, and children may have meant for the Iraqi families and communities whose loved ones perished that day?

Andy's story clarifies a reality Americans badly need to grasp: the destruction of war goes far beyond its intended targets. In the end, its violence is impossible to control. It doesn't stay in those distant lands where this country has been fighting for so many fruitless years. Andy is the proof of that. His "loss of soul" almost had the direst of consequences, as his own suicidal impulses began to take over. Of that moment and his seemingly eternal imprisonment in the hell of war, he said: "I relive this alone, the steel cylinder heavy with the .38, knowing that to drive one into my own face will free me from this prison, these sights and smells."

Taking Moral Injury Seriously Goes Against the Grain of American War Culture

Valorizing, pathologizing, and demonizing vets are all ways of refusing to listen to the actual experiences of those who carry out our wars. And for them, returning home often just adds to their difficulties, since so much of what they might say goes against the grain of national culture.

We're generally brought up to see ourselves as a nation whose military gets the job done, despite the "forever wars" of the last nearly 20 years. Through national rituals, holidays, and institutions, hot embers of intense pride are regularly stoked, highlighting our military as the fiercest and strongest in the world. Many of us identify what it means to be a citizen with belonging to the most feared and powerful armed forces on the planet. As a result, people easily believe that, when the U.S. goes to war, what we're doing is, almost by definition, moral.

But those who dare to pay attention to the morally injured will find them offering inconvenient and uncomfortable truths that sharply conflict with exactly those assumptions. Recently, I listened to another group of military veterans and combat correspondents who gathered their courage to tell their stories publicly in a unique fashion for The Moral Injuries of War project. Here are just three small examples:

* "The military just teaches you don't ask questions, and if you figure it out, it really isn't your business anyway. That part, that probably is the biggest thing, having to do things you wonder about, but you can't ask a question."

* "The cynical part of me wants the public to understand that it's your fault; we are all complicit in all of this horror. I don't need other people to experience my pain, I need other people to understand that they are complicit in my pain."

* "People want to say thank you for your service, wave a flag, but you're left with these experiences that leave you feeling deeply shameful. I burned through any relationship in my life with anybody who loved me. I have this feeling in my gut that something really bad is going to happen. God's shoe was going to fall on me, I can't breathe."

I remember how struck I was at the Veterans Day gathering in that Philadelphia church where I first heard Andy speak, because it was so unlike most such celebrations and commemorations. Instead of laying wreaths or planting crosses in the ground; instead of speeches extolling vets as "the spine of the nation" and praising them for their "ultimate sacrifice," we did something different. We listened to them tell us about the soul-destroying nature of what actually happened to them during their military service (and what's happened to them ever since). And in addition to civilians like me, other vets were in those church pews listening, too.

After the testimonies, the VA chaplain leading the ceremony asked us all to come to the front of the church. There, he directed the vets to form a circle facing outwards. Then, he asked the civilians to form a circle around them and face them directly. What happened next challenged and moved me. The chaplain suggested we simply stand in silence for a minute, looking into each other's eyes. You can't imagine how slowly that minute passed. More than a few of us had tears running down our cheeks. It was as if we were all holding a painful, sharp, unforgiving reality — but doing it together.

Moral injury is a flashpoint that reveals important truths about our wars and the war-culture that goes with it. If focused on, instead of ignored, it raises uncomfortable questions. In the United States, military service often is described as the epitome of citizenship. Leaders and everyday folks alike claim to value veterans as our most highly esteemed citizens.

I wonder, though, if this isn't just another way of avoiding a real acknowledgment of the disaster of this country's twenty-first-century wars. Closing our ears to the veterans who have been on their front lines means ignoring the truths of those wars as well.

If this nation truly esteemed them, wouldn't we do more to avoid placing them in just the kind of circumstances Andy faced? Wouldn't our leaders work harder to find other ways of dealing with whatever dangers we confront? Wouldn't everyday citizens raise more questions about the pervasive "innocent" celebrations of violence on national holidays that only sacralize war-culture as a crucial aspect of what it means to be an American citizen?

For Andy, that Moral Injury Group at the Crescenz VA was the place where his "screaming soul" could be heard. Instead of being "imprisoned by guilt," he described how he began to feel "empowered" by it to tell the truth about our wars to the rest of us. He hopes that the nation will somehow learn to "bear its brunt of the burden" of those wars and the all-American war-culture that accompanies them in a way that truly matters — a new version of reality that would start with finally listening.

Copyright 2021 Kelly Denton-Borhaug

Checking security forces by The U.S. Army is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Flickr

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Kelly Denton-Borhaug has long been investigating how religion and violence collide in American war-culture. She teaches in the global religions department at Moravian University. She is the author of two books, U.S. War-Culture, Sacrifice and Salvation and, more recently, And Then Your Soul is Gone: Moral Injury and U.S. War-Culture.

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