I recently finished reading the book What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars, by Pulitzer-prize-winning war journalist David Wood (Little, Brown, 2016). When my husband brought it home from the library my interest was piqued because I hoped it might give me insight into why the abusive situations I’ve known about involved what seemed like a disproportionately high percentage of abusers who were military veterans.

Well, that particular insight didn’t happen. What happened instead was an understanding of the term “moral injury,” which I hadn’t heard before, as well as a growing awareness and understanding of the fact that what David Wood chronicles clinicians as having observed and labelled in ground troops has also appeared in the lives of people I know personally who suffered abuse and betrayal at the hands of people who should have cared for them.

A new descriptive term

soldier covering his faceHere’s the definition for “moral injury” the doctors arrived at after years of recognizing problems that couldn’t truly be categorized as PTSD: 

the lasting psychological biological, spiritual, and social impact of perpetuating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations (p 250, boldface mine).  

Another term I might use is “inflicted shame.”

David Wood gives war-time examples such as a soldier shooting a child or a soldier watching a buddy get blown up that he thinks he could have or should have saved. Experiences like these don’t simply cause PTSD; in fact, he argues, the effect goes far deeper. To draw the contrast with PTSD, p 18 tells us,

PTSD has little to do with sin. It is a psychological wound caused by something done to you. Someone with PTSD is a victim. A moral injury is a self-accusation, promoted by something you did or something you failed to do, as well as something done to you. 

And now I want to repeat that definition, but adding a bit to it in order to apply it to the realm of domestic and sexual abuse:

A moral injury is a self-accusation, promoted by something you believe you did or something you believe you failed to do. . . .

Especially when one is a child or one has been deeply indoctrinated, the moral injury can be every bit as profound when there has been a perceived wrong that may not be a genuine wrong.

Say for example, that a husband has broken the dog’s legs because, he tells his deeply-indoctrinated wife, “you always want to keep your precious floors so clean, and he was walking in here with dirty feet. You know how you get when your floors get dirty.” She is tangled in confusion, believes she is at fault, and takes on herself the blame, at least some of it, for her crippled dog. This is beyond PTSD. It is a moral injury.

Or say after raping his young daughter, a father shows her the word “whore” in the dictionary so she can receive the full weight of the meaning of the word when he snarls it to her every time he rapes her thereafter. As an adult, PTSD describes the fear she feels when she hears footsteps coming down the hall. But believing she is a whore goes far deeper, into the deepest places of her identity. It is a moral injury.girl covering her face

The examples can continue almost endlessly as abusers seem to have an endless array of weapons of emotional abuse to make their victims feel responsible for their own crimes.

And abusers have also forced their victims to participate in actual crimes, even brutal ones, in order to slash a moral injury on the soul of the victim.

To increase and even cement the most gangrenous soul wound possible, the wicked abuser may claim to be committing the heinous cruelty in the name of the true God of heaven.

And the enablers—they get a full chapter each in both Unholy Charade and Tear Down This Wall of Silence—they execute moral injuries of their own. When I’ve discussed this concept with people in the past, I’ve talked about the blaming and shaming, betrayal, false guilt, identity issues, grief, and more, but David Wood’s book wraps them all up into this all-encompassing carefully-chosen term.








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