By Laura K. Kerr
A program called The Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas studies the moral injuries of combat. The Center’s members believe a moral injury happens to warriors when they must make decisions during combat that oppose their moral convictions. Their website shares the following description of the moral injuries of war:
“Moral injury is perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations. This may entail participating in or witnessing inhumane or cruel actions, failing to prevent the immoral acts of others, as well as engaging in subtle acts or experiencing reactions that, upon reflection, transgress a moral code.” [Brett Litz, et al. "Moral Injury and Moral Repair in War Veterans: A Preliminary Model and Intervention Strategy." Clinical Psychology Review 29, no. 8 (2009): 695-706.]
This definition of moral injury is similar to the idea of betrayal trauma, which is a likely outcome of early childhood abuse. Although young children may lack the cognitive capacity to reflect on how abuse affects their moral beliefs, they nevertheless can have a felt sense that abuse degrades their sense of self. Furthermore, the child must often dissociate feelings of betrayal when the person who betrayed their humanity is a caregiver they depend on for survival. Researchers Robyn L. Gobin and Jennifer J. Freyd give the following explanation of betrayal trauma:
Betrayal trauma theory posits that interpersonal violations such as childhood sexual or physical abuse perpetrated by individuals who victims care for, depend on, or trust will be processed and remembered differently than violations perpetrated by individuals with whom victims do not have such a close connection. A violation perpetrated by someone significant is characterized as a trauma high in betrayal and is remembered less than traumas low in betrayal …. Because the victim views the perpetrator as the key to his or her physical and psychological survival, he or she finds it advantageous to remain interpersonally and emotionally connected to the perpetrator…. Thus, the child may become “blind” to the betrayal and fail to identify the experience as abusive. Such betrayal blindness or unawareness of abuse has adaptive value in that it maintains the attachment between child and caregiver such that the child can continue trusting and depending on the caregiver (Freyd, 2003). [Gobin, Robyn L., & Freyd, Jennifer J. (2009). "Betrayal and Revictimization: Preliminary Findings."Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 1(3), 242-257. ]
I am concerned that when we fail to recognize the moral impact of war on veterans, they experience a double bind similar to children who must depend on those who abuse them. Furthermore, a significant number of veterans have histories of childhood abuse. They especially need opportunities to discuss the moral injuries of combat because of possible retraumatization and the reopening of those early life emotional wounds.
The Veterans Administration now provides the following list of PTSD symptoms, which highlights the moral aspects of trauma:
- Shame, guilt
- Anger about betrayal-based moral injuries
- Purposelessness or social instability caused by a breakdown in standards and values
- Withdrawal and self-condemnation
- Suicidal thoughts
- Alcohol or substance abuse problems
- Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder
- Nightmares about the traumatic event
- Physical sensations when reminded of the event, such as sweating and difficulty breathing
- Detachment from people
Source: U.S. Veterans Affairs Department
This list acknowledges the body’s response to trauma, which increasingly is the focus of treatment, yet it also addresses the moral impact that often leaves survivors searching for the meaning of their personal lives, if not life in general.
Traumatic events by their very nature overwhelm one’s sense of meaning and purpose, as well as cleave human experience according to that well-worn dichotomy between good and evil. When trauma is assumed synonymous with psychopathology, there is the inherent risk of losing the blessing in the wounding, which throughout the ages has been an opportunity to create meaning out of destitution, and with it, learn the contours of one’s character and the depths of one’s emotional bonds with others. As Viktor Frankl wrote,
“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”
To heal trauma, psyche and soma must recommence their natural flow–the sense that it is safe to feel into one’s body as well as rest in one’s soul. Both must be addressed.
Psychologist Peter Levine in his book Waking the Tiger shared the “trauma vortex” as a visual representation of how trauma takes us out of the natural flow of life. Using the analogy of how the banks of a stream guide its flow and direction, Levine wrote,
“trauma can be visualized as an external force rupturing the protective container (banks) of our experience. This breach then creates a turbulent vortex. With the rupture, an explosive rushing out of life-energy creates a trauma vortex. This whirlpool exists outside the banks of our life stream of normal experience. It is common for traumatized individuals either to get sucked into the trauma vortex [e.g.., feeling flooded] or to avoid the breach entirely by staying distanced from the region where the breach (trauma) occurred [e.g., dissociating].
Often when caught in the “trauma vortex” it’s difficult to see the experience as, well, traumatic. Instead, life just is chaotic, stuck in seemingly unending repetition of mistakes, misfortunes, self-doubt, and shame. And it is this felt sense of self, and of life, as never getting a break, and not making sense, that tends to make trauma often feel more like a moral injury, even if the body holds the memories of trauma.
When the above list of PTSD symptoms starts with “shame, guilt, anger about betrayal-based moral injuries,” clinical recognition becomes more in line with the felt sense of the impact of trauma, and this is crucial for both healing the body as well as the soul. I have found that the sooner these relational aspects of trauma are addressed, the sooner people can begin to feel safe in their own skin. And this is a very good thing; it is so much easier to connect with others when you are not overloaded with feelings of shame, guilt, or betrayal.
Safe, solid relationships are probably the best way to relax trauma defenses and stay out of the trauma vortex–if not also inoculate against possible future retraumatizations. Frankl shared the following reflection from when he was a prisoner of a concentration camp during World War II:
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth–that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: the salvation of man is through love and in love.
And love is the language of the soul.
Laura K. Kerr: Is a mental health scholar, blogger and trauma-focused psychotherapist. Her focus is on healing, with special attention to trauma, modernity, and mental health systems of care. Her website is Trauma’s Labyrinth