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A Soldier’s Duty and Moral Injury

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.”

Combination handout pictures released on December 17, 2004, (upper left) U.S. Marine Platoon Gunnery Sergeant Ryan P. Shane, from the 1st Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment pulls a fatally wounded comrade to safety while under fire during a military operation in Fallujah. (upper right) Shane and another member of 1/8 pulled their fatally wounded comrade under fire. (lower left) Shane (left) is hit by insurgent fire and (lower right) lies wounded. (Photo by Cpl. Joel A. Chaverri/Reuters/USMC via The Atlantic)

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.

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28 Comments

  1. Cliff Davis says

    Great article. I was a U.S. Army infantryman in Iraq. My first child was born while I was in country. I got there six days after she was born for R&R. Leaving my wife holding that baby, only to go back to a place where I’d already lost several friends, was the hardest thing I’d ever done. But sitting at the airport in Dallas, I felt as alone as I think is humanly possible. I was the only soldier there. People were going on vacations and business trips, just going on about there everyday lives. I remember feeling so conflicted. On one hand, as I saw it, I was fighting to preserve exactly this – the carefree life of the little girl holding her daddy’s hand as they walked by me. On the other hand, I have to admit to some jealousy and anger that everyone was so oblivious to what I was going through. I was totally disconnected from society, while in the very presence of it.

    Later, when I was a journalist, I wrote about it. Ostensibly, it was a hypothetical situation. In reality, it was my own: http://www.staugustine.com/article/20141110/NEWS/311109978

  2. Nick Ender says

    This article just made me realize I have all those “moral injury” symptoms except I was never in combat, just the victim of a messy divorce.

  3. ““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. ”

    So he butchered a family and he is being thanked for it. And he is the one suffering and to be cared for. Ah! The civilised ones.

    • Prince of Slugs says

      Seems you might be on the wrong site friend! The Intercept would probably be more your speed.

    • OleK says

      Way to ignore the context leading into it and impugn maliciousness.

      Please spare us your sanctimonious omniscience.

      • @ OleK

        Give the thesaurus a rest, twerp. You don’t know what “impugn” means.

        How the fuck does this comment make any sense either:

        “Please spare us your sanctimonious omniscience.”

        What is the word “omniscience” doing here?

        How dare someone protest the beastly Iraq war? And not feel all that sorry for someone like this.

        • Michael O says

          There are arguments that can be raised against almost any war any country engages in. In a representative democracy, especially, fault for campaigns of choice can be laid to the civilian citizenry. But tearing a fresh hole in the bleeding soul of an ex-combat soldier truly is a special display of cowardice. So see, you too are “special,” Amin.

        • Daniel says

          #Amin, it’s confusing why you’re mad. Ellis is grappling with the guilt of doing what he did. The article is about how soldiers viscerally experience the moral dimension of war. At no point is it said (or even implied) that their actions were without a moral component, nor that their experience is the whole story. Heck, it didn’t even say it was the most important part of the sordid story of the Iraq war. But why would it not be helpful to understand every part better?

        • Jeremy H says

          You weren’t protesting the “beastly Iraq war” you were taking a cheap shot at a suffering veteran of said Iraq war. That you can’t discern the moral difference between deliberate butchery (which your comment implies) and the consequences of a split second combat zone decision reveals the limited capacities your working with. If he had not shot and it had turned out to be a suicide bomber that ended up killing members of his unit he would be in the same hell he is today – somehow I doubt you would give a f**k though.

    • Michael Layden says

      Amin, that is extraordinarily morally tone deaf. There is no suggestion anywhere in the article that this man is being “thanked” for killing a family. Rather, the text attempts to provide some insight into the abyss of guilt, self doubt and dismay that he has encountered when, in striving to do the right thing, he discovers that the outcome, in this instance, was appallingly wrong. He is, indeed, suffering, and to be cared for by all of us on whose behalf he has been acting,

    • EK says

      I was a 20 year old crew chief in an assault helicopter company in Vietnam in 1967-68. We flew the “slicks” that ferried ARVN and US troops into the landing zones. Over the year I was there we lost about 15% of our air crews to either enemy action or mechanical failure. Except for a couple of gunners, we were all volunteers and we cynically called ourselves LBJ’s hired guns.

      Some nights we’d see the sky to the west of our small (two assault helicopter company) air base lit up and hear the long, low rumble of a B-52 arc light strike and know exactly where we were going in the morning. You had to see it to believe it. A long strip of rice paddy and wood land (with a village or two) a couple of miles long and a half mile wide reduced to mud and bomb craters. We thought nothing of the damage; our only concern was whether the landing zone was going to be “hot” (defended) or not.

      The only time I saw Mr. Chuck (in the Delta we called the Viet Cong Mr. Chuck) close up and on the ground was January 30-31, 1968. I pulled guard duty that night and was sitting in a guard tower 20 feet above the ground when the local VC battalion made a heroic effort to take our air base in Vinh Long. They made a neat job of destroying more than half of our Hueys with infiltrators and mortar fire and they over ran the bunkers on the west end of the air strip.

      My moment of “moral injury” came the following morning when a few of us were detailed to pick the bodies off the wire and we found two of our houseboys amongst the VC dead. We knew them personally and they knew us. A couple of days later, my gunner was killed and for the rest of my tour were were losing air crews regularly. We told ourselves that’s way it is in Army Aviation. The line from the film “Hamburger Hill” – “It don’t mean nothing, not a thing” – captures the attitude perfectly but I don’t remember using that exact formulation in 1968. What I do remember is that from February 1, 1968, onward I was against that war and all similar wars.

      I had the privilege of being in the last conscript army the US fielded for such wars and I really don’t recognize the people in our current professional army. To me they’re all what we used to call “lifers,” people who like that sort of stuff.

    • Eric Stratton III says

      Spoken like someone who has never been in a life or death position, in a war zone where his failure to act could have resulted in the deaths of dozens of your friends and teammates. Spoken like someone who has little to no concept of the war itself or much of any war I would imagine. Spoken like someone who will be eternally smug and comfortable in their self-righteous ignorance.

    • Grant Dewar says

      Did you actually read the article?

    • Mark says

      What’s the basis for your fathomable comment that “he butchered a family and now is being rewarded for it “? The man is unemployed, living at times in his car, and tried to commit suicide 4 times, by this account. That’s not a reward I want.

  4. markbul says

    “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.”

    Sounds like a classic case of over-diagnosis to me. It’s not like there’s a blood test, and if you answer yes, you might get better benefits. And it might be better to give the right answers even if you feel fine, just in case you may need to file a claim later. If PTSD is this common, we may as well call it ‘I’m not happy’ disease.

    What this certainly does do is feed the anti-military left. After the fallout of Viet Nam, the American left learned that it might not be a good idea to call every soldier a baby killer. Not because they don’t believe most American soldiers aren’t baby killers, but because it tends to backfire among the great unwashed of middle America. So now, we get endless public radio reports of the suffering inflicted on our poor soldiers by war. And of course, by poor care from the Pentagon when they come home. In the last decases, I have NEVER heard a public radio report on a veteran who was healthy, happy, and glad to have served. The American left loves its soldiers only when they tell the story that they want to hear. Fuck the rest of those racist bigots with guns.

    • brian jackson says

      A well written article. It exposes the chest-beating bravado of soldiery for what it is. One minute our ‘fearless’ marine is blowing hard about running directly towards the sound of explosions, the next minute he is shooting a child he suspects might be carrying a bomb.

    • The getting spit on thing was probably a myth. I wonder why “Quillette, a platform for free thought” attracts so many quasi-fascist reactionaries?

  5. B Weeks says

    Some things are beyond our own capacity for self forgiveness. Even if oir actioms are legal we know there is a kind of cosmic injustice about it. Even if it is manslaughter the people cannot be brought back to life.

    So it may be that we punish ourselves to try and atone. But it doesn’t help or bring peace. The Christian story of Jesus a morally perfect man bearing all the suffering we deserve for our crimes on his cross is worth examining. It is our cross too. He could bear all the punishment for all the sin of the world, yours and mine (past present and future) and say “paid in full.”

    And even in our brokenness, acceptance of this i trust can bring us hope, forgiveness. New life. And since our punishment has been paid we can stop trying to punish ourselves. The things we correct can be done out of love rather than desperation. This too was a warrior who did his duty with honour. Jesus warrior without a sword except for his words which brought order out of chaos at the beginning of time.

  6. William Ames says

    Question: Could the disconnect Mr Taylor sees between the military and civilian outlooks be
    because of the question of exactly who Mr. Eliss was serving? How did the American people benefit from the battles of Fallujah, or the whole Iraq war? How did they benefit from Vietnam?

  7. NickG says

    It’s an FA18, not an F18 and

    >He emptied an M16 clip through the windshield<
    M16s are magazine fed, clips are obsolete – used in WW2 era M1 Garands and old British Lee Enfilelds and No 4s.

  8. Eric Stratton III says

    A couple of points.
    1.) You should never use Grossman as a person to cite. Most of his data comes from SLA Marshal and SLAM was found to be a total fraud with his writings on men in combat. Just google him. There are a dozen other gaping critiques with Grossman, not the least of which is SLAM or his obsession that games cause violence, but he should mostly be put aside and not taken too seriously.

    2.) I have to disagree with the idea that it is against human nature to kill. It is perfectly within human nature to kill and there is not a lot of evidence that it is not as much a part of our DNA as empathy, love and other things that bond us to our group.

    3.) Where the moral injury comes from I think is that in this country we are told killing is never ok and that in fact it is ok and necessary at times to kill. Ellis made a mistake, but he acted well within his ROEs and one has to ask oneself what if that car had been a VBIED? What then? 10-20 Marines dead on top of the driver? War is not perfect and what should be done is to make troops understand that killing is ok in circumstances and should in fact be celebrated at times for the lives it may save. On top of that, make folks understand that in the end, if they do everything they can to prevent civilian deaths then if they happen the blame is not to be placed directly on their shoulders. I know, easier said than done to change a nations social mores, but we should look at it.

    • Cliff Davis says

      Completely agree. Killing has been a part of the human condition since the beginning. I’m glad I never had to fire on a car that ended up having children in it, but he made the right decision. Things like that happen in war. I believe it is much as B Weeks said above. If we acted on orders, and to save the lives of others, it is not our cross to bear. Someone already did that for us.

      • Eric Stratton III says

        Could not agree more with your last sentence. Ellis was not there to kill anyone who was just trying to survive and meant no harm, but the settings in war do not allow us to always make clear, black and white decisions. Things like that do happen in war and the more we prep people for that in training and after an incident the better off we will all be.

  9. terran says

    Only recognizing the sacrifice of Jesus, The Son of God, can heal moral injury. He volunteered to take the punishment you think/know you deserve. You can stop punishing yourself. The debt has been paid. That’s what makes all the difference.

  10. Mazzakim says

    As a combat veteran officially diagnosed with PTSD, I’m not sure you can separate it from moral injury. The way a VA psychologist explained it to me, the incident rates of PTSD (combat fatigue, the shakes, whatever it was called back then) were less in WWII because those who served were better convinced of the righteousness of their cause than any of us who served in any subsequent American conflict..

    I don’t care if anyone thinks those of us with PTSD are faking it, and while I’m sure there is whatever percentage who are, in my opinion catching fraud is less important than helping those truly in need. My former fiance’s grandfather came back from WWII and spent the next fifty years of his life basically just sitting his living room, never once speaking about his experiences, to the detriment of his family. It’s more important that people suffering feel safe in coming forward to seek help.

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