A wide-ranging study of the moral costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, costs that are certain to carry over into future conflicts—to say nothing of civilian life.
“The army trained you to fight. It did not train you for psychological shock.” So said a military veteran to Pulitzer Prize–winning Huffington Post correspondent Wood. The author examines a range of related problems, both abstract and concrete, wrought by wars waged against largely unseen, unknowable enemies—with the result that, too often, the foe becomes a preteen with a Kalashnikov. An overarching malady is “moral rot,” which one West Point military ethicist holds to be the logical result of cynicism and corruption at the top, manifested infamously by the Abu Ghraib prison case, less openly by such things as escalating rates of military suicide, mental illness, divorce, and other woes. While field soldiers were “struggling to apply their moral codes to the chaos of combat,” writes Wood, “those above them were blatantly violating the military’s own moral code of values, both to accomplish their mission and for their own career advancement.” Whether career soldiers or single-hitch enlistees, many warriors returning from the fight are afflicted by what is informally called “war trauma,” a cousin of but unlike the better-known PTSD—though it shares with PTSD the resistance of those in the hierarchy to admit such a thing exists in the first place. As Wood notes, Jonathan Shay, a clinical psychiatrist, prefers to call this category of illness “moral injury” rather than disorder, because it places the onus on the afflicted rather than on the agency of being called on to behave unjustly in war and must bear the burden. Killing, even justifiable, exacts a toll on the perpetrator as well as the victim; as one soldier told the author, meaningfully, “you know, I’m not a psychopath.”
The psychological and moral aspects of war and trauma are not well-understood, and Wood’s book is a welcome contribution to the field. A good complement to David Finkel’s Thank You for Your Service (2013).