Acute or Chronic: Moral Dilemmas in War


Recently I was writing a book review on a new book or moral injury and, as is my practice while writing, I posted the following quote for discussion,

“They learn to kill, but nothing here or in their formal training prepares them for the acute moral dilemmas they will face in war.” (David Woods, What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars. p. 55)

As usual,  an energetic and at times, heated discussion ensued. There were lots of diverse views and interesting questions representing concerns ranging from masculinity, mindfulness, whether ethics and ethical reflection has any place in war and sharing of a variety of war experiences. It was all fascinating, but one question caught me up short, “…acute or chronic moral dilemmas?”  This is an incredibly smart question and I think gets to a critical piece of the moral injury discussion that does not get enough attention and warrants further sustained discussion and reflection. (Hint!)

Most of the moral injury discourse and research focuses around the idea of an acute injury or trauma that is experienced in the process of warfare: the solider kills a child soldier, non-combatants are collateral damage and/or killed accidentally, there is a betrayal in the chain of command, one is sexually assaulted by a comrade, one of your own people is killed in action or seriously injured.  It all of these cases there is guilt, a sense of responsibility and that the action or event is at odds with one’s own morals or the moral code of the community. One does something that ‘isn’t right’ even if it was ordered or necessary in the larger context of the ROE and strategy of the war.

As a teacher and scholar of military ethics, I tend to focus on cases or examples of these kinds of acute moral problems (My Lai, targeting child soldiers etc) that I think my cadets will encounter in warfare and therefore, need to ‘rehearse’ (see the Stoics for more on this concept)  or think through the ethical implications of before hand. For my civilian students, these acute dilemmas push in important ways against our moral intuitions and ethical theories and are critical to thinking through the ethical justification for war and how it ought to be conducted. This is the paradigm of military ethics (and I would argue philosophical ethics more generally) and also informs education and training, as well as our thinking about things like moral injury.

I do not wish to downplay the importance of these kinds of events, cases and their impacts on individuals, especially those to whom they happen and are impacted by them. But I do wonder if there is a piece that we are missing: the chronic and ongoing moral dilemmas that happen day in and day out, and which may have cumulative impacts in the same way that chronic pain does.  Taken alone, none of these dilemmas alone would cause an injury or trauma in the moment but over time, might they take a toll as serious, if not more so, than acute moral dilemmas?

Think about the cycle of mostly boredom, with moments of sheer terror – those moments not being predictable nor scheduled. Being keyed up to go into action, to potentially kill and try to avoid being killed, but that action not materializing. The constant tension of not knowing for certain who is friend or foe, who is a threat and who can be trusted. Wanting to help, contribute and see progress, only to see whatever gains erased either soon after or on your next tour through.The cycle of injury, deprivation, illness, heat and cold while few civilians at home seem to have any knowledge or interest in what is happening?  The bureaucracy and rules that may seem at odds with the strategic ends and aims of the war or with the tactical reality on the ground.

All of these things have moral implications for the individual and the military community; what is the cumulative impact of these sustained and chronic moral dilemmas? How do we educate and train, how do we ‘rehearse’ for the kinds of moral injury that result from these on-going dilemmas?  Does the paradigm of moral injury even fit these kinds of dilemmas? Of do need another concept like ‘moral erosion’ ‘moral exhaustion’? And how do you deal with that before, during and after warfare?

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