A Moral Burden on U.S. Soldiers

A fighter pilot would never cut the throat of an innocent woman or child. However, the same pilot drops bombs into enemy territory to kill enemy personnel, knowing he may also kill innocent civilians. The luxury of a large distance between the bullet or a bomb used to kill suspected enemies in Iraq is a luxury many of our soldiers do not have.

The Iraq War is morally troublesome and many of our soldiers are suffering the consequences. Our soldiers are smart and educated. They watch the news and navigate the internet. Most of them are confronted with the lack of moral reasoning for this continued war with the high casualties to the Iraqis.

Invisible Wounds of War, a recent report by the RAND Corporation, sounds alarms for our military and all of our citizens to heed the effects on our soldiers when they are off waging a war. Unfortunately, with the presidential primaries at full steam, the report received scant media coverage.

The report indicates that a third of all military servicemen deployed, mainly in Iraq, suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), major depression, or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) during deployment. About 5% individuals suffer from all three. In stark figures, of the 1.64 million service members deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, about 300,000 individuals suffer from PTSD or major depression and that 320,000 individuals suffered TBI during deployment.

These are staggering numbers to fathom when the impact on our country’s future is considered. We are morally obligated to provide mental health services to each of these suffering service members for decades. This will be compounded by the known problems besieging the Veterans Administration in providing mental health services to veterans. This high rate of mental illness among our veterans, added to over 30,000 physically disabled in Iraq and Afghanistan, creates a picture of the vast network of support to be needed in order to provide appropriate care and support to our soldiers and their families.

Media reports indicate that the military is conducting research to use drugs that will purportedly prevent PTSDs or eliminate the disorder. If these reports are true, there are serious concerns as to what kind of a future soldier is in the making. Do we really want soldiers without a conscience? Instead of the bionic 21st century soldier we imagined in the twentieth century, instead we may have soldiers drug-induced into humans with no conscience.

Jared Diamond, a physiologist turned anthropologist, wrote in a recent article in The New Yorker about his conversation with New Guinea Highland residents regarding war and peace. The tribes described to him how they learn to hate their neighbors and how to fight them. Diamond makes the observation that modern nation-states use the same set of behaviors of people of early social structures to demonize those they are fighting. The main character in Diamond’s narrative learns that behaving like an animal to resolve conflicts causes a lot of pain and suffering to both sides. The character in Diamond’s narrative grows to appreciate peaceful coexistence with his neighbors. Now, he lives in peace with his neighbors. But our nation is a long ways away from learning this lesson.

The moral conscience of a society is the result of the collective consciences of its individual members. An individual’s morality is learned through the teachings of religion, parents’ admonitions of right and wrong, and the traditions and expectations of older members of the society. Most of this learning occurs while we are growing up. A dilemma occurs when we ask our children to fight a war that’s not consistent with morality learned previously.

The moral dilemma and the fear of death in war are the main reasons why so many veterans suffer from mental illness. But now we are thinking of inoculating future soldiers from natural pain and suffering when involved in an immoral war. We should be compassionate to the soldiers fighting for our country, but medicating morality away is no panacea.

Adil E. Shamoo, a Foreign Policy In Focus senior analyst, is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He writes on ethics and public policy.