At a recent event at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., a senior naval aviator spoke candidly to me about what it felt like coming home from war. At Home Depot it meant a 10 percent discount on all items and a perfunctory “Thank you for your service” from the cashier. For this aviator, the exchange intensified the feeling that the moral weight of war was simply not shared by the nation or understood. It is at best a weak contract that the country has with the military, he said, disposed of with a few pro forma words and a few pennies off.
True, we may not be repeating the mistakes of the Vietnam era in how we view returning troops. At airports, like Atlanta’s, formal applause and handshakes await those who come up the escalators in their “cammies.” The scene is a reminder that as a nation we have learned to separate the warriors from the wars they fight. But public respect is not the same thing as private respect. And what soldiers crave is private respect: to be understood empathically, both for what they have gone through and for what they will carry home.
I have found that soldiers are willing to talk, if we who have never worn the uniform are ready to listen. Perhaps this is a lesson hard won for me, a daughter of a World War II veteran. My father died last December, just as I was putting the final touches on my book, The Untold War. As I was cleaning up his effects in the hospital room, I found his dog tags in his pants pocket. He had carried them for 65 years, though I never noticed, and he never showed them to me. He was of the generation of laconic warriors who believed they should not burden their families with what a solider saw or did.
Some soldiers of the current wars still share this sentiment. But I have found that most do not. The soldiers I have met want to tell their stories, not just to heal or fix what aches or is broken but to find moral clarity. They want to feel with moral insight and believe that bearing testimony is a way to do that.Moral Anguish
What we miss in being afraid to listen or talk about the emotions of soldiering is that psychological anguish in war is also moral anguish. Soldiers wrestle with what they see and do in uniform, even when their conflicts do not rise to the level of acute psychological trauma. And they feel guilt and shame even when they do no wrong by war’s best standards. Some are in anguish about having interrogated detainees not by torture, but in the “proper way,” by slowly and deliberately building intimacy only in order to exploit it. Others feel shame for going to war with a sense of revenge or for feeling this emotion well up when a sniper guns down their buddy and their own survival depends on the raw desire to “get back.” They worry that their triumph in coming home alive is at the expense of buddies who did not make it.
These feelings of guilt and shame are ubiquitous in war. They are not just responses to committing atrocities or war crimes. They are the feelings good soldiers bear, in part as testament to their moral humanity. And they are feelings critical to shaping soldiers’ future lives as civilians.
We tend to worry about war desensitizing warriors, about soldiers getting used to killing and accepting how cheap life can be. That may happen to some. But it was not the prevalent theme I heard in the 40 interviews I conducted with soldiers who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan (as well as Vietnam and World War II). They felt the tremendous weight of their actions and the consequences of those actions. Indeed, they often felt responsible even for what was far beyond their control. They were far more likely to say, “If only I hadn’t… ” or “If only I could have… ” than “It wasn’t my fault.” To hold themselves accountable in a way that extends beyond strict culpability was their way of imposing moral order on the hell of war. It was their way of reinserting a sense of moral accountability into the use of lethal force. And it was a way of acknowledging that they were inescapably agents of war’s carnage.Three Types of Guilt
In virtually all the interviews I conducted, guilt was the elephant in the room. It was a hard feeling for soldiers to articulate, but it filled their thoughts. It took three forms. The first I dubbed “accident guilt.” Some soldiers blamed themselves for mishaps with equipment that took the lives of their buddies or the lives of innocents, though there was no negligence or culpable ignorance for which they could be held morally or legally responsible.
In one wrenching case, the gun on a Bradley fighting vehicle misfired, blowing off most of the face of a private who was standing guard near the vehicle. The army officer in charge reconstructed the scene for me, narrating every detail, the way a person who has relived the scene over and over might do:
It was as if an ice cream scoop just scooped out his face.… He survived the initial blast, if you can believe it. We were in the medic tent with him. It was one of the most traumatic things I have ever seen in my entire life. To literally see someone’s face completely scooped out, to see just the very bottom part of his jaw working.… He couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, couldn’t scream.… I mean, he had no eyes, obviously. No face. I can only imagine the terror, the fear, the pain he was in. He obviously couldn’t breathe because he had no nose or mouth to take in air.… It was one of the few times in my life I’ve really cried—tears just streaming down my face because I’m watching 10 people work over this kid.… It was an unbelievable thing to see.… It is one of those images that will be in your head until you die.
He then turned to his feelings of responsibility:
I’m the one who placed the vehicles; I’m the one who set the security. [As with] most accidents, I’m not in jail right now.... I wasn’t egregiously responsible.... Any one of a dozen decisions made over the course of a two-month period and none of them really occurs to you at the time. Any one of those made differently may have saved his life. So I dealt with and still deal with the guilt of having cost him his life essentially.... There’s probably not a day that goes by that I don’t think about it, at least fleetingly.
What this soldier carries is the awful weight of self-indictment and the need to make moral repair in order to be allowed back into a community in which he feels he has jeopardized his standing.
Others I spoke to experienced “luck guilt,” a generalized form of “survivor guilt.” Marines I interviewed in Annapolis, shortly after their return from Baghdad, anguished about their undeserved luck at being in the scenic setting of the Naval Academy, far away from their brothers and sisters still at war. Soldiers I met with at Walter Reed Hospital, themselves severely wounded, felt guilty for not suffering more, or as visibly, with limb loss or facial disfigurement. They felt that their relative good luck was a betrayal of those who were injured more severely.
In their own eyes, these soldiers felt that they had failed to take care of their buddies. They had broken a bond of solidarity and, even worse, failed to honor the duty of fidelity that enabled them to fight in the first place. One marine in Annapolis said he was ready to go back to Afghanistan and that he was preparing his new wife for that reality: “You’ve got to prepare yourself for this after sitting here in Annapolis for three years, after wonderful air conditioning in Annapolis, while my brothers and sisters have been out on their second and third tours.”
The most troubling kind of guilt I heard about had to do with accidental or unintended killing of innocents—what I call “collateral damage guilt.” One marine colonel who commanded a battalion just south of Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom II told me how emotionally devastated his marines became when Iraqi children were injured or killed after cars ran the trigger lines at vehicle checkpoints. If the injuries or deaths were of adult men whom they suspected were suicide bombers or women who might be concealing explosives under their burkas, his marines would “generally fluff it off and justify it to themselves, rightly or wrongly.” But when children were involved, “there was a dramatic psychological difference.” In the case of a badly hurt child, “they would go out of their way to try calling in medevac aircraft to get the kid out to the hospital,” sometimes putting themselves and one another at risk. They could not shake what they had done or justify the killing to themselves.Rules of Engagement
It is worth thinking about this in terms of the troops currently in Afghanistan. They are under far more restrictive rules of engagement than the marines in Iraq were. The U.S. commanding general in Afghanistan, Stanley A. McChrystal, has made it clear that in Afghanistan the preponderance of risk is to be on the troops, not on civilians. That is not just one commander’s rule; it is a cornerstone of just war theory. Soldiers are trained and armed to take risks. Their job is to protect those who are not so trained. It is not enough for harm to civilians to be unintended, even if foreseen. Avishai Margalit and Michael Walzer have reformulated the point made some 30 years ago by Walzer in his book Just and Unjust Wars—then in the context of Vietnam, and restated now in the context of Israel’s war in Gaza: Soldiers must “intend not to kill civilians, and that active intention can be made manifest only through the risks the soldiers themselves accept in order to reduce the risks to civilians.”
Still, it is not easy to accept restrictions on firepower when insurgents exploit them by fighting without uniforms and shielding themselves in civilian populations. As some U.S. soldiers have complained, the new rules require them to fight “with one arm tied behind our backs.” It is even harder to accept the restrictions when American lives are risked to win the hearts and minds of a population whose army may not itself be sharing adequately in the fight.
But the rules are also in place to protect the hearts and minds of our own troops. U.S. marines and soldiers in Afghanistan are fighters, but also serve as police and community organizers, charged with building moral and civic order “in a box.” To fail to do that—or at least to seem to fail—in the face of a helpless child, only a few years younger than the boy warriors themselves or, for more senior troops, a child who could be their own, is morally devastating. The image of that child’s face haunts a soldier for a lifetime. And he may feel unrelenting guilt, however irrationally.
We often think of irrational guilt as needing to be relieved; it is a pathology to be fixed. But for many soldiers guilt has a redemptive side. It can be inseparable from empathy for those who have been harmed and from a sense of responsibility and duty—the desire to make reparations—even when the harm was unintentional.
Still, the temptation to forget and numb the moral anguish of war always presses. One of my interviewees, a former Army interrogator, spoke movingly to the point. This is an interrogator who never tortured or used “enhanced” interrogation techniques. Yet once home, looking on through his civilian eyes, even that was hard to accept morally. He offered a striking analogy for what it felt like to be the interrogator he once was: “I don’t very often go to Latin Mass. But when I do, there’s a sense of mystery, a kind of solemnity. It is more than that. It’s the Gregorian chants and all that. You walk into that world, and then out. It’s like being in a different universe.” Going in and out of a war zone was like that, he said, “War takes place in a different time and space.” In essence, this soldier was talking about dissociation and the solace it can bring. But compartmentalization is ultimately not a viable or lasting option for him: “I know I am the same person who was doing those things. And that’s what tears at your soul.”
As civilians, especially on this Memorial Day, we, too, need to learn that moral insulation from war’s moral burdens is not an option.
View selections from "Soldiers of Conscience,"  a new Emmy-nominated documentary exploring the dilemma of killing in war.