When I was growing up in a family headed primarily by my mother, I knew something was terribly wrong, only I didn’t know what. The only thing my mother would ever say about my father’s absence was that he had become ill. She never elaborated beyond that. But one time I did overhear something about him being involved in The Battle of Anzio in WWII. Last month I overcame my longtime squeamy abhorrence of history and did some research on The Battle of Anzio. In doing so, I came to more deeply understand the roots and nature of my father’s specific illness: moral injury.
Here’s the key piece from Wikipedia that briefly describes the botched military strategy at The Battle of Anzio:
Due to faulty intelligence, when daylight arrived American Rangers were engaged and cut off. A brutal battle with elements of the Hermann Göring division followed. After several hours of fighting which saw the Ranger’s ammunition supplies run low, the Germans drove a group of US prisoners at bayonet point towards the US position, demanding surrender. Each time a German was shot, a prisoner was bayoneted. Rangers began surrendering individually or in small groups prompting other (Rangers), acting on their own authority, to shoot them. Of the 767 men in the 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions, (only) 6 returned to the Allied lines and 761 were killed or captured.
Even simply reading about this experience catches my breath and generates a tension in my stomach and a rigid tightness in my throat. At a minimum my father not only witnessed his friends being killed by German soldiers, but he was forced to witness his friends killing his friends.
Deep Soul Wounding
We are all carrying our parents’ trauma histories, as Victoria Costello traces and documents in her recent book, A Lethal Inheritance. But not all trauma results in moral injury. According to Jonathan Shay, a retired VA psychiatrist and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, moral injury is a deep soul wound that pierces a person’s identity, his or her sense of morality, and additionally disorganizes their relationship to society. Shay and six colleagues published an article in the December 2009 Clinical Psychological Review in which they define moral injury as a wound that can occur when people participate in, witness or fall victim to actions that transgress their most deeply held moral beliefs. While the severity of this kind of wound differs from person to person, moral injury can lead to deep despair. It can also turn your very best life option into: abandon your family.
Dr. Alice Hunt with the Soul Repair Project at the Chicago Theological Seminary elaborates further: Moral injury is an inner conflict based on a moral evaluation of having inflicted harm, a judgment grounded in a sense of personal agency. It results from a capacity for both empathy and self-reflection. Judgments pertain not only to active behavior, such as killing, but also to passive behavior, such as failing to prevent harm or witnessing a close friend being slain. Moral injury can also involve feeling betrayed by persons in authority. Even when an action may have saved someone’s life or felt right at the time, a person may come to feel remorse or guilt for having had to inflict harm that violates his or her inner values. Just having to view and handle human remains can sometimes cause moral injury. Jonathan Shay sums up the damage succinctly: “Moral injury corrodes the soul.”
My father clearly came back to civilian life with his soul corroded. With no formal education beyond elementary school, little skilled job training and a long history of physical and emotional abuse that happened long before the war – he was imprisoned and forced to work on a chain gang in Louisiana in the late 30s – he was set up early for stressors neither his soul nor his neurobiology were equipped to handle.
And even in his absence, I inherited significant aspects of that neurobiology and that soul corrosion. When I look in the mirror these days, it’s difficult not to see many physical reminders of my father. But more importantly, I appear to have “inherited” his acute awareness of the suffering that permeates the world. I see evidence of it everywhere I look: from a nation of people attempting to use food (and information as food) as medicine and generating unprecedented levels of obesity and severely damaging their health in the process, to the massive radioactive “water cloud” making its way across the Pacific in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster, killing untold amounts of sea life along way. Despite government assurances, it’s difficult not to imagine this and other inevitable unintended consequences as serious wounds humanity might ultimately fail to recover from. Some small sliver of soul recovery hopes and prays that I’m wrong. And so long as I’m able to pray and work in the service of relief from suffering, it seems the recovery struggle will continue. For even in his absence, I’ve managed to somehow grow the “persistence muscle” that research suggests fathers play a major role in strengthening.
Finally, here’s something my father didn’t consciously know that I do: human beings and their brains are unfathomably complex creations. And it is the nature of networks and matrices that all it takes is one crucial connection to set a Eureka-Aha Experience ablaze. And one single experience can completely change the course of personal history and correct the sometimes lethal ingenuity of my confusion. And thus I remain ever-hopeful.