It’s tempting to say that the most important thing about US Marine veteran Christian Ellis is that he had an opera written about him. Few people can make that claim.
Unfortunately, his story is far too complex and troubling to be reduced to any one factoid. Ellis is openly gay, did three tours of Iraq, fought both battles of Fallujah, and came home wracked with grief and guilt, sitting with his back to walls in restaurants scanning for hostiles and avenues of egress.
The arc of his transformation from Marine to civilian to artist does more than operatically highlight the horrors of war. It also challenges much of the basic narrative that we’ve come to accept about the mental suffering of combat veterans, over half a million of whom have been diagnosed with PTSD in the United States alone following their return from Iraq, Afghanistan and other theatres of war since 9/11. At the same time, his story also deeply implicates the society on behalf of whom this suffering is endured, a civilian world that is increasingly insulated from war’s true cost.
“Christian?” I lean into the window of the black Grand Am, scuffed and worn, conspicuous in valet parking at the glam Beverly Hilton where it’s Jag after Bentley after Porsche.
“Yeah man,” he says. “Get in.”
A musical voice which I recognize from our phone conversations. They called him “Pretty Boy” in the Corps not because he was gay, but knowing he was and not caring, protecting their own. The nickname also contrasted nicely with the professional Ellis: machine gunner in a Combined Anti-Armor (CAAT) platoon on react duty in Fallujah, arguably the most dangerous city in the world at the time of his deployments.
Ellis still plays the badass. Ripped physique in a sleeveless black t-shirt, tribal tattoos and a ball cap with a frayed brim pulled so low I can hardly see his eyes. We drive to Tavern restaurant across the freeway in toney Brentwood. Ellis orders a burger, Jack and Coke. He scopes out the room of guys in linen suits. “I see how they look at me,” he says, nodding slowly. “Nobody here imagines I can sing opera.”
He sang beautifully in the shower, his adoptive mother remembers though the demons were dark and plentiful. Born to a drug-addicted prostitute in Philadelphia, Ellis cycled through 13 foster homes before Michelle Ellis took him home from an orphanage when he was eight. The Ellises cared for Christian until he left home at 19, a meth-dabbling rebel with a then-secret taste for men, enrolled at Liberty University where no quantity of Jerry Falwell sermons were going to change what was going on inside.
It was his mother’s suggestion that he enlist. Ellis figured if he was going to serve he might as well do the hardest service imaginable. So he got screamed at like every other Marine boot. But he also became fused to that bigger thing, The Corps. “When we suffered together, we got tighter.” Which is the inner truth of service, right there. Belonging derived from a shared and holy pain. You don’t join the Marine Corps, you convert. And Ellis was transformed: “Marines don’t run away from explosions, we run directly towards them. We enjoy going into danger.”
He became a “Professional” in 2003. Second battalion, First Marines, Pendleton, California. Six months later he was standing on the choking white desert of Kuwait, the engine of military industry churning around him. They were outside of the city of Fallujah in a week. Ellis recalls the first bullet passing his ear. And from that moment onward his head was “on the swivel”, vigilance levels permanently raised. Danger taught the body, and it was a good thing, too, if you planned on living.
On March 31, 2004 four Blackwater contractors were ambushed, killed, burned and dismembered, their bodies hung from “Brooklyn Bridge” just south of 2/1’s position. Ellis’s CAAT platoon responded to the call, but by the time they were rolling, the four men were dead and on television.
Ellis remembers rage on seeing the jeering crowds. “I remember thinking: there’s the enemy, and they will die.”
Of course, revenge is never as cathartic as rage encourages us to anticipate. Just before the first invasion of Fallujah, Ellis’s unit was ambushed. They took casualties and called in the F-18s. They set up a perimeter and road blocks. It didn’t take 30 minutes for a car to appear, coming on through the razor wire, ignoring the hand gestures, the orders to stop shouted in Arabic. When the car entered the kill zone Sgt. Ellis did what he was required to do. He emptied an M16 clip through the windshield.
“We did the dead check,” he says, voice faint. “And what I saw when I looked into the car destroyed my life, fucked up my world.”
A father and a mother. Two little boys, five or six years old.
Ellis and his friends listened to Drowning Pool’s album Let the Bodies Hit the Floor. They listened to themselves laughing hysterically in a PsyOps recording intended to be played at eardrum-cracking volumes through speakers aimed at the enemy. His best friend stepped on a mine as Ellis looked on, realizing pieces of his friend’s brain were in his own mouth. Days later, 20 marines from Fox Company died when a vehicle borne IED was detonated next to their truck. Ellis breaks down remembering after hours of stoic retelling. “I remember dismembered bodies, heads, arms, legs…. Unimaginable,” he whispers, but we both know he can only wish that were so.
The rage was resealed in them, Ellis remembers. He re-upped to 3/1 (the “Thundering Third”) for the second invasion of Fallujah in November 2004. He had a fractured vertebra but refused to stay in the hospital. The marines punched into the city from the north, combat bulldozers levelling houses as they went. As many as 1,500 insurgents were killed, according to official estimates. Rules of engagement? Ellis says dryly: “unload and show clear,” a range command repurposed to mean fire every bullet you have.
Ellis put his final trio of bullets—the last he remembers, in any case—into the body of a nine-year-old boy who walked toward their checkpoint in Jolan with his hands held in front of him and his eyes serenely closed.
“Could you kill a child?” Ellis asks me. But I don’t have to answer. We both know that nobody was asking me to do such a thing when it was demanded of him.
The boy crossed into the kill zone, ignoring calls to stop. Child suicide bombers were a real thing. And the rules for protecting a checkpoint may have been brutal, but they were the rules.
“I had the best line of sight so I took the shot. I didn’t hesitate.” The dead check revealed the boy had nothing on him.
Billionaire philanthropist Charles Annenberg Weingarten heard Ellis’s story while the pair sat on the bank of an Idaho creek during a fly fishing retreat for PSTD diagnosed vets sponsored by his charitable foundation, Explore.org. Weingarten asked Ellis what he’d dreamed of doing as a kid. When Ellis said opera, Weingarten, who had no experience in any aspect of the music industry, immediately replied: well then let’s make one.
Ellis got his miracle opera, called Fallujah, even if he wouldn’t sing in it. Created by Canadian composer Tobin Stokes and Iraqi-American librettist Heather Raffo, the work was well received upon being staged by City Opera Vancouver in 2013. It was mounted again in 2016 by Long Beach Opera, close to Weintgarten’s home and Explore.org offices.
And if Ellis’ story were a movie, this is where it might end—with the curtain falling while Ellis rises to take his bow under the admiring gaze of friends and family. But real life isn’t like that. When we met in Los Angeles, he had no meaningful day-to-day work. He is isolated, living alone in Van Nuys. He had legal trouble after breaking the arm of a grocery store clerk who ran after Ellis to give him the change he’d left at the counter. He rarely goes out. He’s taking mirtazapine, an antidepressant that exhausts him, but at least allows him to get out of the house.
This sort of struggle has been observed for a long time among combat veterans. As far back as the American Civil War, doctors diagnosed what they called “soldier’s heart”: rapid pulse, elevated breathing and anxiety. Other labels came and went: shell shock, the 2,000 yard stare, battle fatigue, combat stress reaction, and gross stress reaction as it was labelled in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-I) 66 years ago. Only in 1980, following research involving Vietnam War veterans, did Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) become the preferred term.
A popular understanding of PTSD and its symptoms took a lot longer in coming. An early landmark was the 1982 movie First Blood, in which Sylvester Stallone’s Vietnam vet character John Rambo is depicted as a photogenically violent but also deeply troubled man. The action film was clichéd. But the anguished veteran as big screen hero was new. And Stallone is talking pure PTSD in those lines he screams after leveling the town of Hope, BC: “Nothing is over! Nothing! You don’t just turn it off!”
Those are clinically insightful lines. PTSD is the mental residue of danger-driven trauma. Combat puts your head on the swivel, and your neurons eventually rewire to speed up fight-or-flight responses. Dr. Jonathan Shay, a retired VA psychiatrist who’s become a renowned expert in this area, describes PTSD as a “battlefield adaptation”, necessary in theatre but problematic (as Rambo reminds us, however crudely) when it can’t be turned off later.
But four decades after PTSD was first cited in the DSM, evidence is mounting that this one acronym can’t explain all the cases to which it is applied, because many veterans don’t trace the onset of their problems—with jobs and relationships, with depression, even suicidal impulses—to traumatic experiences that stemmed from danger.
In a pioneering 2009 article, Dr. Shay coined the term “moral injury” to describe a condition deriving not from danger-driven trauma, but from “morally injurious events, such as perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” Such as, say, harming a child.
The term is now used by a growing body of researchers, and it’s one that resonates with veterans I interview as well. Zachary Iscol was Ellis’s Executive Officer in 3/1 Weapons Company during the second invasion of Fallujah, a time during which an elderly man who merely had “bad eyes and bad brakes” drove at their barricade and was shot dead.
“Nobody signs up to be the person who takes the life of someone’s father at a checkpoint,” Iscol tells me. But it happened. And the result wasn’t hyper-vigilance. “Shame and guilt about the decisions made,” he says instead. “And grief. Traumatic amounts of grief.”
Dr. William Nash, who served as a psychiatrist with the Marines in Fallujah at the same time as Iscol and Ellis, tells me that marine after marine told him similar stories during his tour. Whether they’d done something or failed to do something, “the common feeling was that they failed to live up to their own ethos.”
If this is hell for suffering veterans – like Ellis, who twists in his chair recounting these events – it suggests a different hell for treatment professionals. Moral injury can be a more intractable problem than PTSD, which in some case can be treated with established therapies that help desensitize the victim to particular triggers: loud noises, open spaces, people approaching from behind. But the person who has breached their own moral code—as Ellis feels he has done in those checkpoint killings, as well as in failing to save his buddy who stepped on the mine – experiences what Shay describes as “betrayal” at the hands of those they have served, those who made such morally injurious incidents unavoidable. That sense of betrayal, in turn, destroys the capacity for trust.
“And that is a catastrophe,” Shay says. “The destruction of trust is like cancer of the soul because what replaces trust is not a vacuum but the expectation of harm, exploitation and humiliation from other people and institutions.”
Which takes us to the darkest part of the discussion. Ellis’s personal catastrophe involved four suicide attempts before he met Weingarten. While he survived, the VA estimates that since 9/11 22 veterans a day have killed themselves. Among active service members, Philip Carter at the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS) tells me, 3,600 troops have suicided over the same period, roughly the same number as have been lost to IEDs. Carter says that the military command structure takes this matter very seriously, as they well might because it seems structural, deriving from the transition from military to civilian settings that all veterans are asked to make.
In their 2011 research paper Losing the Battle: The Challenge of Military Suicide, CNAS researchers highlight this paradox, describing three protective factors that prevent people from suiciding in moments of despair: belonging, usefulness, and the fear of death. As Ellis’s own experience chillingly illustrates, military service amplifies the first two while silencing the third. Trained to run towards explosions, Ellis felt intense belonging and usefulness while in uniform. Weingarten’s opera Fallujah will have paid similar dividends.
But ordinary civilian life in the west is famously less affirming. And after the opera’s first performance, Ellis no longer had an active role. After 300 rejected job applications, Ellis hit a low point when he didn’t get a call back on a posting for a janitor and ended up living for a month in his car. Any sense of belonging and usefulness was lost. And with his fear of death long trained out of him, Ellis was stripped of protective layering just as despair came calling in the form of dreams and day-mares about a family of four, the body of an unarmed nine year old in the street of Jolan.
Where does PTSD end and moral injury begin? In Ellis’s case it’s hard to know because he likely suffers from both. But it seems highly notable to me as a civilian listener that Ellis barely mentions danger. He mentions getting shot at. He winces remembering the sound of an incoming RPG. But what he returns to again and again are those incidents when he was pushed into betraying his values.
“I believe it’s against human nature to kill,” Ellis told me in our very first conversation. But he also knows personally that trained soldiers in hostile environments will do what’s necessary to protect their comrades, even though on their return to civilian life the sense of moral dissonance will be severe. That idea is crucial in understanding how veterans suffer, but also the degree to which moral injury isn’t a military problem but a cultural one. The affected service member or veteran is suspended in the chasm between military and civilian values, and evidence suggests that chasm is widening as both combat and western cultures evolve.
Combat, simply put, is getting harder on people. In his 2004 book On Combat, Marine Lt Colonel Dave Grossman argues that the constancy and intensity of combat violence has radically increased over history. “Fighting all day and all night for months on end is a twentieth century phenomenon,” he notes, going on to estimate that after 60 days of continuous combat in a contemporary theater virtually all service members involved would suffer psychiatric injuries of some kind.
Worsening the situation is what Nash refers to as the “dimensionality” of contemporary combat, whereby the hand of friendship must be extended to apparent civilians despite the fact that they sometimes appear indistuguishable from insurgents. Ellis remembers General James Mattis instructing them before the first invasion of Fallujah: “Suspect everyone is a terrorist but don’t treat them like one.” Compare that to Abbot Amalric’s pep talk before the 1209 Sack of Bezier, at the beginning of the Albigensian Crusade: “Kill them all, God will know his own.” While Gen. Mattis’ command is of course more humane, it’s also difficult to execute on a confused battlefield where civilians inevitably die.
But society is the other half of this troublesome recipe for moral injury. If combat is now more likely to psychiatrically injure, society has become less and less able to synchronize with military values and reabsorb veterans on their return from that combat. Note that the Abbot Amalric’s directive only now seems perverse. But nobody under his command would have been able to express misgivings because the loosening of social hierarchies and power structures such that individual moral outrage might have been ignited lay hundreds of years in the future.
To be curious, to question, and to disagree are modern civilian capacities. Immediate and willing obedience remains the requirement of military service. Between them grows a gap and its relative recency is a defining feature of it.
The larger sociological backdrop is also a factor in creating moral injury. “The social context has evolved greatly,” Philip Carter tells me, speaking of what he calls the civilian-military divide. Fewer than 1% of the US population will ever serve. But the bigger part is mindset: “There’s now little connective tissue remaining between those who serve and the society they serve.”
The ultimate evidence of that loss of connective tissue, Carter says, is a simplified discourse that has emerged in the national conversation about military service. “That dichotomy paints all troops as victims or all troops as heroes,” he says. “Neither is true and both are harmful in different ways.”
It’s a statement that cuts to the heart in the conflict of values that has grown over time between the armed services and the society they serve. Troops dislike the word hero and they hate the word victim. These are quintessentially civilian concepts, dependent on a politics of individual recognition and individual rights, and are incongruent with the indispensable military values of duty and sacrifice —which today are largely seen as anachronisms. To be a good service member means embracing a self-conception that has duty and sacrifice at its core, while the society you serve no longer recognises these as vital moral virtues. That is the wide and disorienting space in which the potential for moral injury is radically magnified. It’s also the paradox to which every stress-injured veteran returns.
The remedy isn’t obvious to anyone I speak to. But healing is almost always characterized as a process that must involve both service members and civilians. That one percent who serve do so on behalf of the ninety-nine who don’t, however insulated, estranged and distracted the ninety-nine may have become. “The miasma, the moral stain of war used to be something that the whole population felt the responsibility for cleansing,” Nash says. “It isn’t like that here, nor anywhere else in the West as far as I know.”
“Every society known to anthropology and history had rituals for returning soldiers,” Shay says, noting these always involved civilians. “In my view we all need to clean ourselves up after war.”
Perhaps Fallujah can contribute to such catharsis for Ellis. He wept at the staged workshop in Vancouver “not only because of how it sounded, but because these were characters I knew, singing back to me.”
But only for as long as it took the stunned applause in the theater to fade and for the cameras to stop rolling. After that, service and society continued their silent drift ever further out of mutual reach, Ellis in the chasm between and falling fast.
I returned home after speaking with Ellis, thinking about the paradox that his service and his opera jointly illustrate. I wondered if the publication of my article, slated to run in a US magazine originally, might serve a dialogue about these ideas, about rebuilding connective tissue, about civilians coming to see their own moral stain, their own deep involvement in both the suffering of veterans and in what those veterans had been asked to do in combat such that their suffering was brought about.
I returned home and wrote the story. And it was edited and re-edited. And only then did I get to the heart of what Christian Ellis had taught me.
The US magazine spiked the piece. A regular contributor had his own piece about veterans spiked at a different magazine and they were running his. They could only run so many stories on veterans, I was told. That stung after year’s work. But nothing like when the piece was turned down everywhere else I pitched it. And always for the same reason. Great story. Sounds like an amazing guy. But there’s just too much coverage of veterans out there. The whole PTSD story is played.
In other words, my piece about moral injury could have run long ago had it not encountered precisely the blank stare, the civilian refusal of complicity or involvement that gives rise to the devastating injury in the first place. And that is the burning dark heart of the story of Christian Ellis.
Thank you sincerely, Christian. And thank you for your service.
Timothy Taylor is ex-navy, ex-banker, now novelist, journalist and professor. His latest book is the critically acclaimed novel The Rule of Stephens. A more complete version of this story including more detail about the opera Fallujah can be found here. Please note that Taylor and Quillette have not independently verified all details relating to Ellis’s deployment and injuries.