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What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars

By David Wood. Little, Brown and Company, 2016. 291 pages. $28/hardcover; $14.99/eBook.

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“War is Hell.” —General William Tecumseh Sherman, 1879

War has probably existed as long as humankind has existed. And contrary to what some believe, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and moral injury have existed as well. There are records of Roman soldiers after 30 years of service becoming homeless, unable to fit into their culture. The Napoleonic wars have stories of veterans coming home with voices in their heads, committing suicide, and abusing spouses.

David Wood, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has covered war for more than 35 years, has written a thoughtful book about the human cost of war from the soldier’s and the soldier’s family’s points of view. Wood is a compelling writer telling a grim tale about moral injury and its ripple effect in American society today thanks to the never-ending wars in the Middle East. But it is not a book for the fainthearted. He includes several graphic stories about war from men and women or their families who participated in the U.S. military. And a few from his own experience covering wars as a reporter.

His point of view, however, is not the usual “Rah, rah. They sacrificed so much. They are heroes.” In fact, he calls out that superficial patriotic support of members of the military for what it is: feel-good patriotism with no real support for the veterans and their families that still suffer from the actions the military takes in our names. In fact, although he’s no longer an active Friend, Wood’s Quaker upbringing peeks out from time to time in his writing—he comments early on about “paying for war” in a way that tips his hand. But it is primarily his journalism skills that shine through in this book, telling individual stories to illustrate various points.

To an extent, What Have We Done is a history of how moral injury became such a large part of the damage of war today. Wood discusses the history of changes in the training of members of the military so that they can kill without thought. And he talks about how that has resulted in an increase of moral injury. He follows the attempts of the military to “resolve” the problem as though, if they gave the right words to members of the military, the issues of PTSD and moral injury would go away or at least lessen to a manageable amount. But it is also a showcase of both the pain and heroism of members of the military and how those connect to each American:

Like it or not, fair or unfair, we are all connected by the wars.

Now what?

Let’s set aside the question of war itself. Like many others, I have considered the idea that killing and destruction are something we should never under any circumstances impose on others.… My earlier life as a Quaker and conscientious objector and my experience in war strongly tempt me in this direction. Yes, for a long time I found war captivating. But the man who writhed and bled and died in front of me long ago in a dusty village … reminds me it is not [thrilling and meaningful]. It is also true that in war I have seen individual acts of breathtaking generosity and quiet nobility. But from a larger perspective, it’s clear that good rarely comes out of war.

These are words that resonate with most Friends. We can see that we are connected to war and that good rarely comes out of war. But, “Now what?”

Wood does conclude the book with a solution. Not a solution for all mankind as so many books try to do, but a solution for this particular problem. The answer is very much the same as that of Friends and others working in this field: to listen.

Wood omits, however, a large part of that story: the work of Rita Nakashima Brock to bring the issues of moral injury to the faith community, which so often is the last refuge for those who are broken. In 2010 Brock led a “Truth Commission on Conscience in War” at Riverside Church in New York City, where I was honored to be one of many to speak about the harm of war to the people who fight them. She went on to write Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War in 2012 about the need for spiritual healing. She played a large role in the recognition of moral injury, but was never part of the military world and so was overlooked by many. She is the current senior vice president for moral injury programs at Volunteers of America. There are many who followed her lead to work with veterans in art, such as Tara Tappert at the Arts and the Military project at George Washington University and listening projects such as Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School in Texas, which trains ministers and others in how to listen to veterans to help them heal. Including this part of the story may well have cast a different light on the work of those of us who oppose war. We are people willing to help the warriors but not glorify the war.

Still, Wood gets it right: Don’t pretend to understand what the person has gone through. Admit that you will never completely understand but want to hear more. Don’t say you are sorry or glibly say, “Thank you for your service.” Don’t say it wasn’t worth it. Don’t judge. Just listen.

Listening was never for the faint of heart.

J.E. McNeil is a member of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) and, as an attorney, a longtime supporter of those who say no to war. She spent 11 years as the executive director of the Center on Conscience & War and longer as part of the GI Rights Hotline. She participated as a vetting attorney of military members testifying at the Winter Soldier event organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War in 2008.


Posted in: September 2017, September 2017 Books

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