I recently heard a report on public radio concerning “moral injury” among Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans. That’s the psychic trauma caused by acting or witnessing acts that conflict with core values — brutalizing prisoners, for instance, or killing children.
A push is on to recognize moral injury as a distinct condition within post-traumatic stress disorder and to treat it with customized interventions. The pain the soldier in the report suffered — after he and his buddies wiped out an Iraqi family of five whose car inexplicably failed to slow for a checkpoint — needs a different label and more calibrated care than other post-combat miseries that afflict soldiers.
My reaction to this account was layered. I was heartened by the sensitivity and ingenuity mental health professionals were bringing to healing the thousands of U.S. military members scarred by their service in these wars.
I was also impressed, once again, by how serious the news media’s coverage has been of today’s veterans. The problems of brain injury, suicide rates, prosthetics, unemployment, psychological impairment and the adequacy of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ response continue to get sustained, compassionate news treatment unlike any that Vietnam-era veterans ever saw.
That’s all for the good.
But this report on moral injury among our soldiers also exemplified this country’s boundless capacity for self-absorption. It comes amid a gaping absence of media attention to the horrendous damage suffered by others in the same wars.
Suppose the operator of a U.S. drone — seated at a computer screen in Nevada and acting on bad intelligence — targets a wedding party in Afghanistan with a Hellfire missile that kills 50 celebrants. He later learns they had no military “value.”
Although the drone pilot was just doing his job, the indispensable finger on the trigger was still his, and because he has a conscience he’s stricken with remorse. He deserves compassion and help — and media attention.
As do the most direct victims of this incident — the dead and mangled Afghans, their families, the people caught up in the swells of sorrow and loss that were churned out of that horrific moment. Unlike the drone operator, they aren’t seen or heard from, except when their leaders protest to ours — complaints that our media frame as empty posturing.
Why do the media have so little place in their editorial imaginations for the pain of these wars when the people hurting aren’t ours? Why do they dwell on a bruised fist while ignoring the face it shattered?
While the coverage of veterans is a major improvement in the media’s approach from what it was in the late ’60s and the ’70s, it has come alongside the virtual disappearance from coverage of civilian suffering.
During Vietnam, it was impossible to ignore the vast harm to noncombatants. We saw that war’s signature images — the GI setting fire to the hut’s thatched roof with his Zippo, the screaming girl scorched by napalm, the women and the children massacred at My Lai.
What are the comparable images of Iraq and Afghanistan? Perhaps the staged pulldown of the statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003, President Bush’s staged “mission accomplished” speech, the charred bodies of the U.S. contractors in Fallujah.
As for civilians? The most memorable pictures weren’t from the media at all, but from the 2007 gunsite footage of Baghdadis being killed by a U.S. helicopter gunship, the purloined “Collateral Murder” video. And Chelsea Manning, who leaked the video, got no press awards; the soldier formerly known as Bradley Manning got 35 years for disclosing secrets.
And plenty of civilians have been maimed and killed. The Iraq Body Count project estimates between 119,000 and 132,000 violent deaths of noncombatants since the 2003 U.S. invasion (out of a total of 184,000 Iraqi deaths.) In Afghanistan, the U.N. mission there estimates just over 16,000 civilian deaths from 2007 through 2012.
The point is not that U.S. forces killed those people. They didn’t. About four-fifths of Afghan civilians were victims of anti-government violence, and the 10,000 Iraqis killed last year died at the hands of their countrymen.
But those are wars that this country launched. And they’re continuing, largely unnoticed by the U.S. public, which has never been asked to look at the full range of destruction and heartbreak they have brought.
That obliviousness has consequence, as policymakers in Washington once again talk boldly of military strikes in Syria, in Libya, in Iran, secure in the belief that they won’t be answerable for the impact of such actions. They may even remain unaware of it, and unlike those combat veterans, will never need to seek absolution for their own moral injury.
Edward Wasserman is dean of the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism. He wrote this column for the Miami Herald.