Military Trauma, Ethics, and Conflict Transformation

“Trauma Healing: Preparing Churches to Receive Returning Military Personnel” was the focus of the JustPeace Gathering I attended on April 1-2 in Nashville, TN. JustPeace is the Mediation and Conflict Transformation movement within the United Methodist Church.

While JustPeace members seek to prevent the tragic failure of human reason, imagination, and compassion that is war, they also recognize that we must work to heal the terrible wounds of war – for combatants as well as civilians — if we are to move toward a more lasting just peace. Assisted by military chaplains, veterans, therapists and theologians, we struggled with the challenges of this task.

There are many components of this trauma – neurological, psychological, economic, and spiritual. Spiritual trauma involves the shattering of our systems of meaning. Central to our sense of meaning in the world is the ethical framework we use to guide our actions. Shattering our sense of ethics provokes a profound destruction of the goals, relationships, and boundaries that orient and guide our lives.

Warfare in its essence already breaches a fundamental principle of normal human life – You shall not kill.” In justifying this action we construct ethical rules for initiating war and conducting it. The academics call it “jus ad bellum” and “jus in bello.” The “jus in bello” is sometimes called “the warrior’s code.” It is what distinguishes warriors from murderers and thieves.

It seems to me that the enormous fallout of trauma among combatants reported to us arises in considerable part because the ethical framework for conducting war has been torn apart by the technology and conditions of contemporary warfare.

Those who actually fight have always known, with General Sherman, that “war is hell.” But whenever the technology of destruction outpaces the assumptions of our ethics of war, the carnage of combat becomes a hell of the soul as well. In our own time explosive power and computerized guidance systems, apart from nuclear devices, have vastly increased the destructiveness of “ordinary” war.

In addition, contemporary warfare has broken down the distinction between combatants and civilians that is enshrined in our ethical codes. The formerly justifiable destruction of persons and property in time of war is reduced to near random acts of murder and mayhem. While the justifiable intent to kill hovers in the air, grievously unintentional killing of mothers, children, and the elderly occurs within the soldier’s eye.

The report “I thought she had a suicide vest on under her burka. She wouldn’t stop when I shouted and fired in the air. I blasted her to bits. There was no bomb inside the burka…” continues to haunt me as it does, more terribly, that soldier. His warrior code to protect civilians has rebounded as an accusation of murder. His – and our – identity as moral beings is shattered. The moral compass of his life becomes an endless labyrinth of accusations.

According to psychotherapist Edward Tick approximately twice as many American veterans of the Vietnam War have committed suicide as those who died in combat (War and the Soul (2005), p. 165).

How do we receive those traumatized by these experiences? This is not only a question about military personnel. The tragic violence spills over into all our lives. In the past few weeks over 40 people have died in senseless mass shootings in this country. Their killers are deranged, we say. But why? And why are guns, indeed military weapons, flooding our country? Why do we seem to be addicted to violence? Are we all at war, living in the moral vacuum veterans have known and suffered silently? We face a failure of our ethical frame not only in some foreign land, but in every community in our country.

The boundary between warfare and policing is breaking down, and we need to look much more closely at how we can move from warfare among nations to policing among citizens of this precious globe. As we seek to move down that road, we need to heal the traumas that are seedbeds of the violence we suffer today.

Healing our traumas is not easy. There are and will be tragic failures as we lose yet another soldier, another family down the street. For those of us in movements like JustPeace, we need not only to keep promoting and cultivating non-violent relationships of mutuality in conflict transformation, but also to commit ourselves to the healing of the minds and hearts of people frozen in the tragic consequence of war. We are in them. They are in us. We walk this road together.

1 thought on “Military Trauma, Ethics, and Conflict Transformation”

  1. Thank you so much for your comments, Bill. I am here in Oklahoma City and I am told that most of the people who beg on our streets here holding a placard asking for money are veterans. What a tragedy! I am happy that the churches are serious about addressing this trauma of war.
    Having been flooded with news of senseless gunning down of people in the last 10 days, I am asking myself: When will we wake up from our slumber and work for strict gun control? How may we build a supportive community around us so that people are not driven to such extreme forms of violence and death? Those who are concerned about this have a lot of work to do. May hope and grace sustain us!

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