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Helping Veterans on the Road to Healing

Posted by Dr. Jeremy Stirm on May 25, 2017 at 9:30 AM

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At the risk of oversimplifying, Christians have at their disposal at least three ethical views concerning the use of force, namely, pacifism, Christian realism, and the just war tradition.  To be sure each of these views has various shades.  There are pacifists with just war sympathies, just warriors with realist tendencies, etc.  The issues surrounding the ethical use of force, or if the use of force is even ethical at all, are both highly nuanced and very important.  The debates between the various proponents of these views in academia have become rather complex and, at times, nasty.  One simply needs to do a search for articles on the just war tradition or the ethical use of force in such periodicals as First Things to see that the literature is voluminous and, in places, garish.  I think some of this boorish behavior needs to change and the energy required to sustain it needs refocusing.

I do not fault individuals for being passionate about their positions concerning the use of force.  I rather encourage it.  To be blunt, we are talking about the taking of human life after all, not an inconsequential debate, to say the least.  To be sure, there is value in pacifists attempting to keep Christian realists and just warriors honest and that pacifists be made to explain their position on various levels.  However, there does seem to be a bit of an impasse in the discussions.

In just war terms, there is disagreement on virtually every front concerning jus ad bellum considerations, those ethical questions utilized in debating whether the use of force is justified in a particular instance.  Pacifism responds with a resounding “no” in every instance, while the just warrior and Christian realist, may respond with, “yes, no, or maybe.”  In the abstract, pacifism likewise offers a resounding “no” to the jus in bello questions as well.  While, in actuality, pacifists can offer ethical instruction here, they remain opposed to the use of force at any level.

So much energy is spent at the ad bellum level of debates.  Again, while there certainly needs to be debates over the use of force, a refocusing of some of that energy to the post bellum environment has the potential to yield much good and healing along the way.  Why is the post bellum arena so crucially important?  Our sons and daughters return to us then.

While not every service member that has experienced combat automatically endures deep-seated psychological wounds, the United States, however, has been at war for nearly two decades, and the numbers are sobering.  As of March 31, 2015 there have been 907,176 reserve component activations. [1]  One will note that this number does not include active duty service members. 

What this number represents is hundreds of thousands of citizens who left their place in civilian society, their jobs, schools, churches, families, and made a hasty transition to a combat zone.  Not only that, once the activation has ended, they are then asked to put away the accouterments of war and return once again to a peaceful, civilian existence.  All of this activity normally occurs within the cycle of nine to twelve months. 

Additionally, between 2002 and January 10, 2014 the Congressional Research Service reported 118,829 incident cases of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom)/OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom)/OND (Operation New Dawn) deployed service members.  The number of incidents during the same time period among service members who had not previously deployed was 30,846.[2] 

I do not mean to sound alarmist, nor am I arguing that every service member that deploys endures the rigors of combat or has a difficult time readjusting to peace on the home front.  It does seem clear, however, there are many service members in need of healing, and not all of the wounds are physical.  If a nation is going to send its sons and daughters off to fight its wars, that same nation bears the responsibility to care for these warriors, especially after the smoke has cleared and the shooting has stopped.

Additionally, some service members are enduring moral injuries.  They are committing actions, witnessing actions, or unable to stop actions they believe violate their deepest held moral convictions.  While PTSD is primarily a fear response, moral injury is more associated with feelings of guilt.  Those suffering from moral injury experience deep shame or guilt and sometimes both for what they have done or failed to stop. 

Forgiveness and healing are the order of the day, and I believe these to be cornerstones of the church’s existence.  I am not saying that the debates over whether the use of force is ethical or not are unimportant; they most certainly are important, but so too are the thousands of morally wounded service members in our midst. 

Regardless of one’s particular stance concerning ethics and the use of force, all people, especially Christians, can provide a safe haven for veterans to share their hurt and begin the journey of healing.  Disagreements may remain at the ad bellum stage, but moral injury among our service members who seek to make their way and live among us occasions the space for agreement and cooperation in the post bellum environment.

[1] Department of Defense report on Reserve Component activations for Operation Noble Eagle and Operation Enduring Freedom, https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/Mobilization-Weekly-Report-150331.pdf  “Reserve Component” includes: Army National Guard, U.S. Army Reserve, U.S. Navy Reserve, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Air National Guard, U.S. Air Force Reserve, and U.S. Coast Guard Reserve.

[2] Hannah Fischer, A Guide to U.S. Military Casualty Statistics: Operation New Dawn, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom, CRS Report for Congress (Congressional Research Service, February 19, 2014), 2. 

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