In the high-stakes world of conflict, our security professionals stand as guardians of our safety, protecting society from threats both seen and unseen. They often face morally complex scenarios, where decisions made in the name of protection may cause unintended harm or clash with their personal beliefs. While physical wounds are tangible, the wounds of moral injury are clandestine, leaving lasting impressions on the psyche of those who bear the burden of tough decisions.
In the United States, last year’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan spurred a new rash of moral injury diagnoses among service members, compelling the Veterans Affairs Office to initiate a nationwide survey on the topic. The term “moral injury” was popularized in the mid-1990s by Dr. Jonathan Shay, a staff psychiatrist at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and refers to the psychological distress that arises when an individual witnesses or participates in events that violate their conscience. This phenomenon affects not only soldiers, but also police officers, first responders, and other members of the security community who may find themselves trapped between the demands of duty and their internal sense of right and wrong.
When you commit your life to protecting others, what happens when you accidentally cause harm? When a single action strikes at the core of your identity as the “good guy,” how do you assimilate this failing?
A very recent and tragic example of this in the Israeli military is the event that just occurred in Gaza when Israeli soldiers accidentally killed three hostages. This was an unimaginable blow for the hostages’ families. This was also a terrible blow to the soldiers involved in the event—soldiers who were risking their lives to save their fellow countrymen held hostage by Hamas. As reported by the IDF, the soldiers are currently receiving psychological care. In the aftermath of this event, these soldiers are likely to struggle with a profound internal dissonance, torn between the person they were before the event and the person they perceive themselves to be after.
While post-traumatic stress has been a well-known disorder among the security community for decades now, moral injury has been less-studied and is less publicized. Nevertheless, it can lead to long-term psychological distress that is highly disruptive to an individual’s life. In order to treat this elusive malady, we must understand the constitution of the people who suffer from it.
The first thing that’s critical to consider is that for the majority of people who join the security field, it’s more than a job—it’s a calling. It becomes part of who you are. So, if you fail on the job, you’re a failure. Or, in the landscape of moral injury, if you engaged in a morally ambiguous action that conflicts with your values, you might question if you’re a good person after all. This may lead to a belief that if you’re not good, then you must be bad (i.e., irredeemable).
Second, for many folks who work in high-intensity roles, it’s an all-or-nothing game. You either succeed in a mission or you fail. Admittedly, security professionals must be committed to excellence, considering the responsibility. Yet, regardless of the very real stakes, I would argue that there is an underlying psychological problem here that demands further investigation and may be the key to effectively treating moral injury.
At the core of this struggle with moral injury lies the ambiguity of defining what truly constitutes a good or bad person. But the problem with this assumption is that in reality, the vast majority of people are not “all good” or “all bad”. The world of conflict zones especially is full of twists, causing many to stumble. Ironically, the people who fight against this reality are the ones who suffer the most and are more likely to self-destruct. So, instead of asking what makes a person “good” or “bad,” we should be asking what drives someone to view their self-worth in these stark terms in the first place?
Searching for a response to this struggle, I recently came across a commentary by renowned scholar and social critic Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz that sheds remarkable insights on this issue, quoted below:
There are people in this world whose deviation from all things holy come not as a result of their association with heathens or bandits, but as a result of their association with wise men. Their fall is a result of their attempt to set impossible standards. The evil inclination presents a type of world whose requirements cannot be met; in such a world, an inner crisis is inevitable.
The evil inclination confronts every individual with an insidious false dilemma: Are you righteous or are you wicked? Are you a decent person or not?
According to the evil inclination, every person must choose a side—he must be one or the other, and if he is neither, there is no place for him in this world.
(Source: “Talks on the Parsha,” Koren Publishers, 2015)
According to Rabbi Steinsaltz, the evil inclination presents a type of world whose requirements cannot be met, resulting in an inner crisis: If I’m not perfectly good, then that must mean I’m bad. If I’m tainted by a single sin, then I must be completely tainted. Or as Steinsaltz puts it, “The Angel of Death espouses the philosophy of perfection because there is no reality in which absolute perfection can be realized, leading a person to frustration and despair.”
The person who cares about behaving in a moral manner suffers the most when they think they have desecrated those morals. For the soldiers returning from Gaza after accidentally taking the lives of the hostages they were supposed to save, they must resist the temptation to condemn themselves. They must take responsibility for their actions, while resisting the “evil inclination’s” lure of viewing oneself in black and white terms.
Let this be a lesson for the members of our security community: When taking a journey rife with surprises and deviations, we must endure the stumbling along the way. We must commit to running through fire to defeat the devil, while committing with equal fervor to healing the burns we’ve received once the battle is over. After fighting evil, we can’t allow ourselves to give into the evil of despair.
Addressing moral injury within the security domain necessitates not just acknowledging the individuals who struggle but implementing strategies to mitigate its impact. Cultivating a culture that encourages open dialogue, ethical preparedness training, and robust support systems are essential starting points. Creating spaces for reflection, where individuals can process their experiences without fear of judgment, is also crucial in fostering resilience and healing. It will certainly be important for the American soldiers still processing the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and for the Israeli soldiers returning from Gaza.
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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense sector. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, CIA officers, law enforcement, psychologists, filmmakers, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.
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