Coverage of ‘moral injury’ among U.S. vets masks disregard of civilian war suffering

Just before Christmas I heard a report on public radio concerning “moral injury” among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. That’s the psychic trauma caused by acting or witnessing acts that conflict with core values—brutalizing prisoners, for instance, or killing children.

A push is on to recognize moral injury as a distinct condition within Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and treat it with customized interventions.  The pain that the soldier in the report suffered, after he and his buddies wiped out an Iraqi family of five whose car inexplicably failed to slow for a checkpoint, needs a different label and more calibrated care than other post-combat miseries that afflict soldiers.

My reaction to this account was layered. I was heartened by the sensitivity and ingenuity mental health professionals were bringing to healing the thousands of U.S. military scarred by their service in these wars.

I was also impressed, once again, by how serious the news media’s coverage has been of today’s veterans. As early as 2007 conditions in the Army’s flagship Walter Reed Hospital prompted Pulitzer-winning coverage by The Washington Post. The problems of brain injury, suicide rates, prosthetics, unemployment, psychological impairment, and the adequacy of the Veterans Administration’s response, continue to get sustained, compassionate news treatment unlike any that Vietnam-era veterans ever saw.

That’s all for the good.

But there was also something disturbing about how this report on moral injury among our soldiers exemplified this country’s boundless capacity for self-absorption. It comes amid a gaping absence of media attention to the horrendous damage suffered by others in the same wars.

Suppose the operator of a U.S. drone—seated at a computer screen in Nevada and acting on bad intelligence—targets a wedding party in Afghanistan with a Hellfire missile that kills 50 celebrants. He later learns they had no military “value.”

Although the drone pilot was just doing his job, the indispensable finger on the trigger was still his, and because he has a conscience he’s stricken with remorse. He deserves compassion and help. He also deserves media attention.

But so do the people who were the most direct victims of this incident—the dead and mangled Afghanistanis, their families, the people caught up in the swells of sorrow and loss that were churned out of that horrific moment. But unlike the drone operator, they aren’t seen or heard from, except when their leaders protest to ours—complaints that our media frame as empty posturing.

Why do the media have so little place in their editorial imaginations for the pain of these wars when the people hurting aren’t ours? Why do they dwell on a bruised fist while ignoring the face it shattered?

While the coverage of veterans is a major improvement in the media’s approach from what it was in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, it has come alongside the virtual disappearance from coverage of civilian suffering.

During Vietnam, it was impossible to ignore the vast harm to noncombatants. We had seen the pictures—the GI setting fire to the hut’s thatched roof with his Zippo, the screaming little girl scorched by napalm, the women and children massacred at My Lai. These were that war’s signature images.

What are the iconic images of Iraq and Afghanistan? Perhaps the staged pulldown of the statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003, President Bush’s staged “mission accomplished” speech, the charred bodies of the U.S. contractors in Fallujah.

As for civilians? The most memorable pictures weren’t from the media at all, but from the 2007 gunsite footage of Baghdadis being killed by a U.S. helicopter gunship, the purloined Collateral Murder video. And Chelsea Manning, who leaked the video, got no press awards; he got 35 years for disclosing secrets.

And plenty of civilians have been maimed and killed. The Iraq Body Count project estimates between 119,000 and 132,000 violent deaths of noncombatants since the 2003 U.S. invasion (out of a total of 184,000 Iraqi deaths.) In Afghanistan, the United Nations mission there estimates just over 16,000 civilian deaths from 2007 through 2012.

The point is not that U.S. forces killed those people. They didn’t. An estimated four-fifths of Afghanistani civilians were the victims of anti-government violence, and the nearly 10,000 Iraqis killed last year died at the hands of their countrymen.

But those are wars that this country launched, and they’re continuing, largely unnoticed by the U.S. public, which has never been asked to look at the full range of destruction and heartbreak they have brought.

That obliviousness has consequence, as policymakers in Washington once again talk boldly of military strikes in Syria, in Libya, in Iran, secure in the belief that they won’t be answerable for the impact of such actions. They may even remain unaware of it, and if so, unlike those combat veterans, they’ll never even need to seek absolution for their own moral injury.

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7 responses to “Coverage of ‘moral injury’ among U.S. vets masks disregard of civilian war suffering

  1. Excellent commentary in yesterday’s MH – as usual. “American lives are NOT more important than other people’s lives”
    (Bob Avakian, from BAsics 5 #7).
    I came of age during the American War (in Viet Nam) – and have lived ever since in some state of US war-making. That cased me to look into things more deeply and not just accept “received wisdom” at face value.
    Keep up the good work.
    Eric

  2. Tom Caldwell, Esq

    I agree completely; well stated. Tom from Miami

  3. Thank you, Mr. Wasserman for making this point so forcefully. I rarely write to columnists, but had to express my appreciation for your shedding light on such an obvious oversight of the media. Why in the world are we not more concerned for the victims, particularly civilians and children? All we hear about are our own casualties, not the ones we inflict, even mistakenly. The arrogance this indicates is astonishing. Thank you and please continue to pursue this topic. I can only imagine what would happen if Al Quaeda mistakenly took out a US school next to a military target— World War III ??

  4. Claudette Berry

    Thank you for your wonderful OpEd in the Sacramento Bee on the suffering civilians have experienced as a result of America’s unnecessary invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. I have had the same thoughts many times, but you described the problem much more eloquently than I ever could. I don’t think politicians can use the excuse of obliviousness. Prior to the Iraq War, when millions demonstrated all over the world against the invasion, there were estimates of the number of civilian casualties and displaced families which would occur. Yet this suffering was ignored by our politicians. I think Hell holds a special place for George W. and Cheney. Thank God, John McCain was not elected President. He would have us invade us invade almost every country in the Middle East.

  5. I was delighted to see your OpEd in yesterday’s Sacramento Bee. You have really pointed out the suffering of innocents: civilians, women, children, the elderly, all of whom, by and large, want nothing more than to live their lives in peace.
    The other innocents, which were not mentioned in your column, are the relatives in this country of the civilians we are bombing and killing overseas. We must not forget that our next door neighbors may be the brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins of the very people our military is attacking. How must they feel, isolated here, not knowing what is happening to their family members in battle zones overseas, while their adopted country kills and maims their relatives?

  6. I agree with all the above comments. I read your article in the Sacramento Bee and wanted to thank you for a morally reasoned presentation..

  7. Mike,

    Here’s the text of your letter to me. I’m not surprised my website wasn’t included in the Trib’s republication of the column. The papers are quirky about what they run and what they omit.

    Thanks again. Here’s the text:

    I read your article in the Opinion Exchange of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. I feel you are right about the U.S. public has been oblivious to the full range of destruction the wars in Afghanistan and Irag has had on these counties especially the civilians.

    I served in Vietnam in 1971-72. During my time there I saw literally thousands of South Vietnamese with horrific war injuries. Many had lost arms, legs, hands, ears, eyes and other terrible injuries due to the war. I was in the Saigon area with a large population. Those with wounds were patched up and went back in the general population.

    Many were former combatants but there were many civilians also.

    When the Iraq war started I began doing programs about the war showing the destruction to the countries infrastructure and civilian population. I thought most Americans ignored the really consequences of the war .

    Violent homicids increased dramatically, as an example. I am not referring to deaths in combat but the war caused a vacuum and people were not as safe when going about their daily living.

    The war also destroyed much of the healthcare, educational systems. It made it harder for the Iraqis to get food, water, electricity and other basic needs. It created about 2 million or more refugees from the fighting

    In your article you mentioned the Iraqi Body Count estimates.
    I think that May be low. The Lancet Journal had estimates of around 600,000 to 700,000.

    This does not include the 1 million or more injured that were non-combatants.

    I did many programs about the impact on the civilian population in Iraq, about 1/3 were children. I got hate mail, one was from a marine. I had served in the marines in Vietnam.

    Most Americans I feel pay little attention to what goes on in Iraq and Afghanistan. The war in Iraqi I have seen estimates of the cost at 3-5 trillion dollars alone. A war where there were as many private contractors as troops. Many no-bid on contracts for large Amercian corporations. Wars were taxes were cut and the wars not paid for.

    It has affected not only the civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan but it affected many Americans because it had an tremendous affect on our economy. This affects most Americans and lowered our quality of life.

    The U.S public has been oblivious to the full range of destruction the wars have brought not only to the countries of Iraq and Afghanistan but to the full range of impact back home in the U.S. of these wars.

    Great article!

    Mike

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