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Moral Injury: Healing

    Moral Injury: Healing” is the final part of a threepart series by the Huffington Post, a compilation of narratives examining the prevalence of moral injuries in post-9/11 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Part Three focuses on the ability of servicemembers to process their morally injurious experiences and achieve a degree of internal peace with their actions overseas. Fundamental to this process of recovery is the need to emphasize to veterans that, while they may have committed or witnessed actions that were irreconcilable with their notions of morality, such events need not permanently define their destiny. Though the specific strategies for counseling and psychological recovery vary, all of them are centered not on absolving servicemembers of responsibility or teaching them merely to forget injurious experiences but, instead, on deliberately confronting the root cause of their moral trauma. In the case of one Marine veteran of Afghanistan, still haunted by the expression of shame and rage on the face of an Afghan boy as his platoon rifled through the family’s belongings, recovery from moral injury took the form of a writing activity in which he drafted a written apology to the child. The process, he explained, “wasn’t about me forgiving myself, more about accepting who I am now.” 

    Visualising Peace with the help of Narrative Trees

    Photograph of a tree with a complex web of interwoven roots that join together and ascend upwards towards the trunk.
    A complex narrative tree with interwoven roots that ascend through and strengthen the central ‘framing’ trunk.

    My research as part of the Visualising Peace project introduced me to the idea of conceptualizing peace through image of narrative trees. Here, the landscape of peace narratives is made up of a series of ‘trees’: the roots are a consistent mix of facts, stories, and parables that form the underlying foundation of a group or individual’s attitudes and views; the trunk is the central framing that grows out of the roots and serves as the lens through which individuals view themselves, one another, and the world around them; finally, the branches are the actions and emotions stemming from this central framing which, though resilient, are liable to change as they grow. Traditionally, this notion of narrative trees has been employed as a means of understanding how simplified narratives, defined by lack of sophistication and awareness for the complexity behind the challenges a group faces, have functioned as drivers of polarization and inter-group hostility. However, I believe that the image of the narrative tree is also of value when examining internal moral conflicts stemming from moral injury. 

    The anguish felt as a result of moral injuries stems from an individual’s framing of themselves in relation to the personal values transgressed. Feelings of shame are common, with one study finding that the prevailing self-conception of individuals suffering from moral injuries was that of a “monster”, marked by the ever-present question of “If I’m capable of this, what else am I capable of?” Treatments for moral injury, however, seek to challenge this simplified framing of events. The process of achieving internal peace in the aftermath of these psychological, moral, and spiritual wounds relies not on crafting a parallel narrative tree which absolves individuals of responsibility, but on weakening the narrative trunk of self-hatred that has evolved and continually reinforced itself. Psychotherapist Michael Castellana, a facilitator in a San Diego moral injury recovery group, expressed it best when he explained: 

    “As terrible as some of this stuff is – and sometimes what we hear makes your toes curl – what I see in these people is incredible goodness. Their efforts to punish themselves is just further evidence of their goodness.” 

    Michael Castellana cited in David Wood, “Moral Injury: Healing”, 2014

    Ultimately, moral injury is not something one simply ‘gets better from’; however, aiding servicemembers in identifying the inherent goodness within them is the first step in allowing them to put the shattering of mind and soul back together into a coherent narrative of internal peace. In this sense, the process of attaining internal peace in the aftermath of moral injury offers a powerful, individual-level microcosm of large-scale peacebuilding efforts following conflict. Just as individuals healing from moral injury cannot hope to create a parallel narrative tree that seeks to absolve or center full responsibility for moral transgressions on them, communities and societies must look beyond the temptation to establish a simplified and, oftentimes, idealistic visualization of peace that ignores the complexities inherent in any instance of conflict. Aiding those with moral injuries thus goes beyond a simple duty of care and reflects a deeper understanding of peace on an individual and societal level: as a process of healing centered not on cleansing or obfuscating the harm of the past but on learning to accept and repurpose it as a force for good.  

    What Do You Think?

    • How helpful do you find the analogy of the ‘narrative tree’ for thinking about the relationship between personal identity, behaviours and healing – or new growth?
    • Does the analogy of the ‘narrative tree’ get you thinking differently about the relationship between narratives and peace or peacebuilding? 
    • What relationship do you see between ‘goodness’ and ‘inner peace’? 
    • Could the strategies employed in internal, moral peacebuilding, such as the letter-writing activity mentioned above, be effectively employed in efforts at inter/intra-group reconciliation following conflict? 

    If you enjoyed this item in our museum…

    You might also like Combat Story #28, ‘Padre Steve’s Christmas Journey for Healing‘, ‘Story #1913‘, Journey for Forgiveness and other items with the tag ‘Inner Peace‘.

    Mathias Katsuya, April 2022

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