Moral Injury and Just War after Afghanistan

“The injury never heals,” writes Romeo D’Allaire, after sharing the darkness of recurring nightmares, mental torment and despair, always waiting for the light. Days are filled with feverish work in an attempt to find peace, 20 years after he experienced first-hand the genocide in Rwanda. Former General Romeo D’Allaire, commander of the UN troops in Rwanda at the time, continues to reflect on the painful truth that the lives of the Rwandan people were not considered valuable enough to give him the resources he requested to prevent the horrendous slaughter he then had to watch. He still questions if he could have done more then and what he can do now to prevent it from happening again.

With raw honesty about his internal struggles, D’Allaire helps readers understand what the term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) means. His “cri de coeur” is a plea for understanding of fellow veterans, rethinking how the military is trained and deployed in modern conflicts, and improving both treatment and community support for those who suffer as a result of our wars.

D’Allaire joins the voices asserting that PTSD is broader and deeper than a personal, psychological issue. “PTSD,” he says, “is also a moral injury that savages our minds, our souls.” Soldiers are trained to be pit bulls as they carry moral norms from their homes into deeply immoral situations that contradict or compromise their sense of good and evil. Suffering internally, they are often expected to return to normal life as if nothing happened. D’Allaire tells and retells his story to show why the whole community needs to be involved in soul repair for veterans and social repair for families and communities impacted by war, on all sides. This aspect of the morality of war also needs more attention by religious communities, especially those who support a just war paradigm.

D’Allaire is not alone. Among the Walking Wounded provides an inside look at the psychological and moral dilemnas of the Afghanistan war and the on-going impacts for many veterans, who still face stigma if they are honest about their internal struggles. Colonel Conrad tells his own story and that of several comrades. Reading them helps to understand why more Canadian military personnel involved in Afghanistan have died from suicides than from physical battle injuries. Better treatment for the many walking wounded among us right now requires stronger community care, including spiritual care.

Conrad also advocates for change in the Department of National Defense and Veteran’s Affairs to prevent and address PTSD. While his analysis may be of more interest to observors of military affairs, books like this one also inform citizens to do more than flag-waving and attending remembrance ceremonies. As the reality and full costs of the Afghanistan war are exposed, our public debates about Canadian engagement in future conflicts may be less naïve. The formation of groups such as Wounded Warriors Canada helps to give voice to veterans, reducing stigma. They remind us that behind the grand, heroic rhetoric about war are real people and their families who struggle with the painful impacts of fighting our wars. Highlighting this aspect of war also adds weight to the calls to invest more in preventing conflicts from becoming wars. The costs of conflict prevention are cheap compared to the true costs of war.

Response is still inadequate
While PTSD is not new, our response is still infantile. Adam Montgomery traces the history of how Canada has dealt with the mental health impacts of war. The evolution of the language itself is revealing. “Shell shock” in World War I became “battle fatigue” in World War II, and later PTSD. Montgomery traces how views of manliness, as well as the politics of war, affected diagnosis, treatment and stigma. At one time psychiatrists blamed coddling by mothers for soldiers who lacked the necessary masculinity to deal with war.  Some soldiers who were punished for desertion should have been treated for PTSD. Montgomery cites government documents which show that support was denied to force men to “get over it.” Those with outward symptoms were ostracized by leaders and peers, which contributed to high rates of drowning symptoms in alcoholism or other addictions. This added to the challenges of returning to regular family life.

Later, the moral ambiguity surrounding the Vietnam War added to the challenges faced by returning veterans, but it also opened up more space for empathy with those who experienced mental health issues, reflected in the shift to the psychological term PTSD. In Canada, peacekeeping missions, such as the ones in Rwanda, Somalia and Bosnia, highlighted the gap between high aspirations and the morally ambiguous situations that Canadian soldiers found on the ground. Over time, awareness that this is more than an individual psychological problem led to the use of the term “operational stress injury” (OSI), which points the finger at the operations more than the person. The response, however, is still primarily medical assistance for individual soldiers; spiritual care, community support, and systemic change in government policy need more attention.  

Books like these no longer allow Canadians to “whitewash” the impacts of war or respond to PTSD as only a medical problem for individual soldiers. They help to make the devastating moral and social impacts of war an essential part of our deliberations about “just war” and the choices we make to deal with both the causes and the after-effects of armed conflicts in the future.  


  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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