My Turn: Trump and American moral injury

For the Monitor
Published: 9/26/2019 7:00:22 AM

Clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, working at a VA outpatient clinic in Boston, first coined the term “moral injury” to make sense of the narratives he was told by returning Vietnam veterans. He viewed moral injury as different from PTSD, which primarily deals with the traumatic aspects of combat.

Moral injury, to him, is neither a disorder nor an illness, but an injury, manifesting itself as either moral guilt the individual feels about what he has done, or moral injury resulting from betrayal by failed leadership.

Since then, the validity of the notion of moral injury has come to be accepted as a risk to veterans of all wars.

I would like to enlarge the scope of this conversation to include not just the effects of the betrayal of failed leadership on individuals – but to how it now affects our society at large.

Shay is highly respected by the military and a recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant.” From the beginning, he was able to think outside the box. He saw that the moral injuries he was observing were not unique to the Vietnam War but a phenomenon that has been with us since the dawn of human history.

In particular, he found a striking parallel between his patients’ war experiences and that of the warriors portrayed in The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem, fighting in the 10-year-long Trojan War in the 8th century B.C.

Shay quotes Homer scholar Johannes Haubold to buttress his claim that Greeks from that era would have interpreted the damage to their soldiers in The Iliad as moral injury resulting from a betrayal of leadership: When the commanders in the war – “the shepherd of the people” – fail to act honorably and ethically, it is said that the leaders have “destroyed the people.”

So it was, especially for soldiers in the Vietnam War. What mattered most was not honorable behavior but achieving the highest enemy body count by any means possible, including instituting “free-fire zones” and extensive carpet bombing (3½ times more tonnage of bombs were dropped on Vietnam than were used in all of World War II).

Our leaders lied to us and our country about progress in the war – “seeing light at the end of the tunnel” when there was none. Further down the chain of command, inexperienced and overwhelmed junior officers often condoned atrocity with the tacit support of the high command.

Shay observed how moral injuries suffered by returning Vietnam vets turned their inner world upside down, destroying their innate sense of what is right and wrong. It opened up a hole in the center of their being, eroding their ambitions, ideals and social trust: “When social trust is destroyed, it is replaced by the settled expectancy of harm, exploitation and humiliation from others.”

As it was for us as returning veterans, so it now is to our whole country with the election of Donald Trump. World affairs columnist Frita Ghitis recounts the symptoms we all recognize: “One of the common features of the Trump era is exhaustion with the acrimony that has engulfed America. How many times have we heard people plead that they need a break – from the shocking news, from the unceasing attacks, from the bitterness that has ended friendships, sparked social media ruthlessness and toxicity, and generally produced a permanent state of medium-grade national anxiety.”

Everyone recognizes the symptoms but, up to now, no one has been able to name it for what it is, not even me, who knows first-hand of its ravages: Betrayal by failed leadership is causing us moral injury.

If we go back to the 8th century B.C., the Greeks would understand the nature of our moral injury because our leader, rather than being good shepherd working to unite us, has purposely divided us, one against another, since day one of his reign. By failing to act honorably, he is “destroying the people.”

The unsettled queasiness in our stomachs comes from our leader’s frontal assault on our social trust, leaving us rudderless with only “the settled expectancy of harm, exploitation and humiliation from others.”

(Jean Stimmell is a semi-retired psychotherapist living with the two women in his life, Russet the artist and Coco the Plott hound, in Northwood. He blogs at


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