Incredibly, by 1980, more Vietnam veterans had committed suicide than had died in Vietnam in combat. (Center for Suicide Research, Department of Veterans Affairs, Wadsworth Medical Center, Los Angeles, CA: Report No. 4 (January 1978) and subsequent releases. Cited by Gibson Winter, Liberating Creation (New York: Crossroad, 1981), p. 131.)
Far more than in Vietnam, there was no rear echelon in either Afghanistan or Iraq. Being in country meant being in harm’s way. Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan report more mental health issues, perhaps twice as many, as did veterans of previous wars. Will the suicide rate for these warriors with their hidden wounds be even higher than the rate for Vietnam vets?
Two possible causes for veterans’ suicides are receiving renewed attention. The first is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For women vets, sexual assault by a comrade in arms can cause or compound combat related PTSD.
The second cause is moral injury, the harm a warrior experiences from performing acts in war that society otherwise considers immoral. Killing is the most egregious of these acts. Some theorists believe that a healthy human has an innate resistance to killing another human.
One source of the increase in moral injury is likely the training that modern warriors receive to lower their resistance to killing, a resistance so strong that U.S. military funded research during WWII suggested that only 10% of soldiers when in combat actually shot their weapon at the enemy. The other soldiers aimed away from the enemy or did not shoot.
From Constantine until the late Middle Ages, the Church generally insisted upon returning warriors performing penance to cleanse the spirit before being welcome to again receive Holy Communion. Penance began with confession and then might include spiritual disciplines such as fasting, a pilgrimage, or lengthy prayer. The Church recognized that war, no matter how morally necessary, invariably left the warrior with moral injuries. Failing to take those injuries seriously resulted in a cheap grace (e.g., a welcome embrace, plaudits, and pretending everything is once again normal) that killed rather than offered healing and life.
With an all-volunteer force, the need to take moral injury seriously is even more important. These warriors volunteered to fight. Failing to take their moral injury seriously dishonors them and their selfless service.