Moral Injury

On October 25, 2012,  seventeen people were arrested for nonviolently blocking the entrances to Hancock Air Force Base, outside of Syracuse, NY, during the morning rush hour.  Hancock is one of several sites throughout the United States from which killer drones- unpiloted aircraft armed with hellfire missiles- are deployed by remote control to regions in other nations (notably Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen), to destroy targeted residences, buildings and vehicles in which our designated enemies are apparently thought to be located.  How such determinations are made by our government, and with what accuracy, authority or consideration for the innocent, are at this point matters of secrecy and significant public debate.

What is increasingly undeniable is that killer drones are leaving a trail of slaughter and mayhem that has placed the rural citizens of these countries in a perpetual  state of terror and mental anguish.  In Pakistan alone, as many as 849 civilians, including children and infants, are estimated to have been killed by drone strikes since 2004, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism  (See a comprehensive report here:  Eyewitness testimony indicates that the recovery of bodies after drone strikes is often problematic because it becomes difficult to tell which body parts belong to which victims.  Equally disturbing are reports that typical drone strikes involve a practice the military calls “double-tapping”, in which a target is hit once, and then the drone returns  to attack it again a short time later, after the first responders and family members have arrived and are frantically trying to help the wounded.  Evidently in the unhinged reality of  war without end, anyone who would seek to bind up the wounds or bury the corpses of those on our “hit list”, is by definition a terrorist too.

Some time ago, in a World History course back in college, I learned that the invention of the crossbow and catapult caused a significant moral crisis among ancient peoples, because the development of those weapons marked the first time in human history that people could kill others without looking upon them, from a distance, without a personal encounter or direct experience of the harm inflicted.  This was considered to be, at least initially, an affront to the human conscience and an ominous escalation in the scope and brutality of war.

Today, suicide is the leading cause of death among active members of the U.S. Army, and researchers are struggling to understand what is causing such widespread desperation among soldiers.  One conclusion psychologists are coming to is that the common diagnosis of post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), brought on by the intense fear experienced in combat and the mental images one takes home from war, does not fully explain what is increasingly tormenting U.S. soldiers.  It is not fear that they mostly talk about, therapists say; it is guilt.  Guilt over killing (regardless of whether it is considered justified or not), or failing to prevent killing, is causing in many soldiers what military psychologists have termed “moral injury”*.   In reality, this is hardly a new concept- the idea that killing debilitates the soul of the killer- but it is not exactly something to which the leaders of the military have been eager to give consideration or assent.  Yet the logic here is plain: Like everyone else, soldiers come with a moral compass that is set to “Thou shalt not kill”, but unlike the rest of us they are obligated to change that setting in order to do their job… and of course, then change it back immediately when they return to their homes and families.  And this is apparently proving to be more than many can sanely manage, given the abomination that is modern warfare.

Tragically though not surprisingly, the strategies being developed to deal with moral injury do not give any consideration to addressing its cause, namely, the wars, their criminality and the ever-increasing level of indiscriminate savagery involved in their prosecution.  The objective is to maintain a functional army through adjusted therapies and medication regimens. They simply want to teach soldiers how to effectively get over it.

Meanwhile, in the United States today we have hundreds of military personnel who leave their homes and loved ones every morning, commute to work at Hancock and a dozen or more other bases throughout the country, take their places behind computers and inflict unimaginable carnage halfway around the world, then return home in time for dinner.  Perhaps never before has warmaking (if it even can properly be called that) demanded such sociopathic behavior.  “The drone operator sees the attack in real time from thousands of miles away but has intimacy with the fighting that no pilot has ever had before,” said Brian Terrell, our Catholic Worker friend from Missouri who is now serving a six-month jail sentence for resisting drone warfare at Whiteman Air Force Base. “No pilot before has dropped a bomb and seen body parts fly. Now that is happening… When Gandhi was talking about the cycle of violence, I think he was talking about something just as provable as the laws of physics.”**

Equally alarming, there seems to be little in the way of oversight or limitation being placed on the scope of drone warfare, let alone any monitoring of its possible effects on those tasked  with perpetrating it.  Set these realities alongside the untold suffering of the killer drones’ victims, and the hatred being inflamed in their survivors, and it is not hard to see how this nation is continuing to reap the whirlwind by its addiction to killing.

In Syracuse, the seventeen of us were charged with trespass and disorderly conduct.  I remained in jail for six days before being released on a promise to appear at trial in January.  Incredibly, Judge Donald Benack of Onondoga County also issued an order of protection on behalf of the commander of Hancock Air Base, Lt. Col. Earl A. Evans, an order which prescribes felony charges against any of us who would venture within a thousand feet of his person, home or workplace.  Most commonly used to protect victims of domestic violence, an order of protection against nonviolent citizens, in defense of a military commander with the most high-tech killing machines ever invented at his disposal, seemed excessive to the point of mocking the law.

Then again, perhaps the judge was just trying to protect the lieutenant colonel from moral injury…

-Mark Colville, Amistad Catholic Worker, New Haven, CT

*( See “A New Theory Of PTSD And Veterans: Moral Injury, by Tony Dokoupil, at

** Brian was interviewed by Nathan Johnson for the Yankton Press and Dakotan: (

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