War is Hell: Moral Injury and Constrained Moral Agency

“War is Hell,” an original chalk painting by Daniel Averso. Used with express permission of the artist.

Nothing ever prepares you for . . . seeing the destruction of an entire nation. Nothing ever prepares you for . . . the unmeasured killing of civilians, nothing ever prepares you for what that does to you as a human being. . . . Nothing is going to really prepare you for the level of destruction that you bring upon a nation and you bring upon yourself for being a part of it. And yet I have a conscience . . . which goes way beyond any law, it goes beyond any order that I can receive.1

Camilo Ernesto Mejía was sent to Iraq for the first time in 2003. As a Staff Sergeant in the Florida National Guard, he was responsible for leading a small platoon of soldiers during the occupation of Ar Ramadi, a city in central Iraq, 60 miles west of Baghdad. What Mejía witnessed and participated in as a soldier on the frontlines of combat left him with a deep sense of personal moral betrayal and violation–something he describes as the crossing of an interior “Rubicon.”2 War’s profound moral wounding is only now getting the attention it needs and this attention comes against a devastating backdrop: Today, some 20 soldiers will take their lives and in the last six years nearly 45,000 veterans and active-duty service-members have completed suicide–far exceeding the number of military personnel who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.3

A growing body of literature, emerging out of veterans’ own experiences, explores the wounds Mejía describes through the lens of “moral injury,” a term capturing the “dissolution” of a soldier’s moral identity, the destruction of a soldier’s “trust” in the world’s capacity for meaning, and the corresponding feelings of guilt, meaninglessness, shame, despair, and inner anguish following war-time deployment.4 Implicit in these descriptions is the idea that military personnel are first and foremost moral agents who have their own, interior sense of what is good or right or meaningful and how those things ought to be pursued. Moral injury is so profound because it violates soldiers’ deeply held beliefs and challenges the very notion that a soldier is in fact a moral person and someone whose sense of what is right or good corresponds to their reality. Imagine losing this sense. Imagine the profound destabilizing effects of living in a world that feels untrustworthy, feels in some way wholly indifferent, arbitrary, and fundamentally amoral.5

If we are to understand moral injury, and understand Mejía’s experience on the ground in Iraq, then we have to first understand the power of war itself and contend with the fact that “war is a force that gives us meaning” and a force constraining moral decision-making and moral agency.6

It may seem odd to talk about war as a moral constraint with regards to military service members, much like claiming that the practice of medicine is a moral constraint on the agency of nurses and doctors, or the classroom a moral constraint on the agency of educators. After all, like medicine and education, soldiering is a profession in that it involves systems of education, indoctrination, training, and credentialing. One of the explicit “professional” aims of military service is warfighting.7 Given that war is part of the profession, how can one complain that they are constrained by the very thing they have signed up to do? The problem with such an argument is that it is too simplistic a view of war’s realities and too simplistic an understanding of who becomes a soldier and fights America’s wars.

As moral questions surface in war contexts, continuing to practice war risks becoming more and more unconscionable.

As will be seen in Mejía’s story, war is terribly fraught with moral ambiguity and this ambiguity is especially poignant when a soldier’s belief in the principles underlying a war’s justification begins to crumble. As moral questions surface in war contexts, continuing to practice war risks becoming more and more unconscionable. And as regards the notion that warfighting is in some respects a choice or a hazard that military professionals accept, the data concerning the backgrounds of America’s soldiers—especially those deployed to overseas combat—belie easy assumptions about the “voluntariness” of military service.8.

As of this writing, war has been raging for the better part of a decade and a half, which is perhaps unsurprising given that the United States is a country born of war and remade in war’s image through centuries of conflict domestic and abroad. So crucial has war been to our sense of national identity and cohesion that it is perhaps not unrealistic to deem war one of the grand unifiers undergirding the plural society that we esteem. Too, in the way that war gathers us, trades in the language of sacrifice, and creates its own martyrs, war is often our country’s “central liturgical act.”9 War in the American context wields a kind of narrative power that establishes sacred myths about our nation’s history and purpose and these myths “poss[ess] our imaginations” and “everyday habits.”10 The consequence of all of this being that war functions as a moral constraint delimiting the kinds of speech acts that are and are not acceptable, setting the parameters for “adequate” patriotic expression, and obscuring the actual trauma and injury facing soldiers and veterans tasked with carrying out war’s demands.

Mejía’s story helps us see all of this with perfect clarity.

“We [the U.S. military] hurt people, and not just physically…We destroyed them emotionally.”11

As mentioned, Mejía participated in the first wave of America’s invasion of Iraq and experienced firsthand the shock and awe of war’s potency and devastation. Shortly after his arrival, though, he was victim to war’s constraining power in a different form as a participant in torture. The scene is rather straightforward. Mejía, stationed at Al-Asad airbase, “witnessed prisoners being blindfolded with black hoods, their hands tied behind them while their genitalia were ‘inspected’ for no reason” and at other times he saw prisoners subjected to “mock executions” with “soldier[s] simulat[ing] the sound[s] of bombings with a gun or sledgehammer.”12

U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Torture Report

Eventually, perhaps inevitably, Mejía was directed by a commanding officer to lead the torture of a military detainee–an order he attempted to refuse, though not entirely. Rather than physically lead the torture, Mejía instead used his rank to “watch, rather than conduct, the abuse.” 13 In further reflecting on his complicity in torture, even if on the sidelines, Mejía relates that he felt “afraid to speak out” against the abuse, knowing, as he did, that the orders came “from way up the chain of command,” and in the end he experienced a “deep sense of betrayal.”14

Though implicated in the torture of military prisoners, Mejía’s attempts at a kind of moral agency–his intentional decision to in some small way carve out a space interiorly for moral conscience and moral objection to take hold–reveals the extent to which the demands and norms of war can constrain what actions are possible and the soldier’s moral decision-making. In the scene of torture Mejía describes at least two constraints that are operative:

1) The seeming necessity of violence in the context of war and

2) the hierarchical command structure of the military, which operates with particular force in a combat theater.

War, fundamentally, is about violence deployed en masse to achieve an end determined by state actors. People—soldiers, specifically—become the instruments of violence sacrificed for the war cause.15 When the justification for war is imbued with something as potent as combating global terror and when war is executed against the backdrop of a devastating attack on a country’s soil—e.g., 9/11—one can imagine just how necessary and righteous war might feel. But in this very sense of righteousness lies one of war’s most significant dangers: The righteousness of the cause justifying all manner of brutality in the cause’s service. 16 Enter torture.

Torture in any context, but perhaps especially in war-time, thrives on necessity, namely the necessity of getting this information, in this moment, for this given purpose. Arguably, torture’s exigencies take on near-mythic quality as they are backed by the war cause–with respect to the occupation of Iraq, nothing less than the eradication of global terror–and the sense that the lives and the needs of the nation stand in the balance. But Mejía details something different and more sinister than torture as traditionally understood. What Mejía describes comes close to torture as sport. Stripping inmates nude for needless inspections and staging mock executions are abuses of power for power’s sake and for the sheer enjoyment of violently controlling and dominating human bodies. War so warps human consciousness that the unconscionable (torture) becomes normal, routine, recreational. Torture goes hand in hand with the “seductiveness of [war’s] violence” and offers “god-like empowerment over other human lives,” too powerful, it seems, to refuse. 17 The seduction of domination and the power war enacts on human bodies forms war’s inner logic which rationalizes and justifies violence in pursuit of war’s end(s). Alternatively, torture also reveals the psychic, even spiritual, constraints of war which can override human reason and desensitize soldiers and interrogators through their contact with death and the “grotesque”—a desensitization so complete that the line between humanity and inhumanity risks complete erasure.18 To invert the psalmist: here, violence and necessity have met, war and torture have kissed each other.

Torture goes hand in hand with the “seductiveness of [war’s] violence” and offers “god-like empowerment over other human lives” too powerful, it seems, to refuse.

While it is true that war, as manifest in the scene of torture Mejía describes, sanctions the brutalization of human beings, that sanctioning does not just occur spontaneously—it happens through the very specific mechanism of military command. This is the second constraint.

As a professional agent of war—a soldier—Mejía is subject not just to the demands of the war cause or the constraints of war’s corrosive psychological effects, but to the hierarchical authority of the United States Army. In other words, Mejía has not accidentally stumbled into torture, he has been commanded into it. The impact of military command authority should not be overlooked because this command is backed by the power to detain, prosecute, and imprison.19 Imagine then Mejía’s double-bind: on one hand the narcotic of war and the power that comes with controlling others’ lives, and on the other hand, the juridical power of the military to enforce Mejía’s compliance with military orders (compliance, that is, with the very violence and abuse that war has normalized and encouraged). Mejía chooses one small measure of non-compliance but it cannot keep him from being wounded, deeply, morally, by his environment. Mejía is betrayed by his failure to uphold his moral code in overseeing torture and he is betrayed by the military leadership ordering his complicity in moral violation. The frustration of Mejía’s moral agency as a soldier commanded to torture becomes the seedbed for moral injury.

This internal conflict over war’s demands and the Army’s command authority put Mejía on a collision course with the U.S. military, one that eventually resulted in his arrest, trial, imprisonment, and demotion.

While stateside dealing with various issues related to his green card, Mejía was ordered back to Iraq to finish combat duty, confronting him with one of the most consequential decisions of his life: refuse a military order and desert his combat unit, rendering him absent-without-leave (AWOL) and subject to military court martial or return to war, which for him meant “brutaliz[ing] the people, rap[ing] the land, and possibly [dying]” in Iraq against the dictates of his conscience.20 Conscience won out and Mejía embarked on a different sort of war, an internal one, one in which he fought to “reclaim [his] humanity” and “spiritual freedom.” 21

I have not deserted the military. I have not been disloyal to the men and women of the military. I have not been disloyal to [the] country. I have only been loyal to my principles. And I think that gives me the right to decide not to be a part of something that I consider criminal.

Before turning himself in to military police and facing court martial for desertion, Mejía gave an interview to 60 Minutes and in it he voices how he understood himself as a moral agent facing war’s constraints. “I have not deserted the military,” Mejía says, “I have not been disloyal to the men and women of the military. I have not been disloyal to [the] country. I have only been loyal to my principles. And I think that gives me the right to decide not to be a part of something that I consider criminal.”22 Mejía’s comments come on the heels of the charges leveled by his commanding officer that Mejía’s desertion was cowardly and traitorous.

This language of disloyalty, cowardice, and betrayal is charged with meaning–the notion of disloyalty is an especially potent constraint within the logic of war. As already mentioned, war needs a cause and servants of that cause—loyal servants willing to take up arms and carry out war’s violent demands. In refusing further participation in the war effort Mejía opens himself to being branded disloyal to the “war on terror,” which is to say disloyal to the nation itself.23 As with the episode of torture, it’s not just the narrative or psychological power of war that Mejía is up against but the military itself. And in desertion, Mejía is subject to the full coercive and juridical power of military command and the military justice system.

A great irony stands at the heart of all of this.

Because war has set the terms for who or what is moral (namely those who support and carry out war), opposition to war, within war’s logic and psychological constraints, becomes immoral for it is nothing less than the betrayal of war’s demands and the nation’s purported needs. Mejía’s choice is constrained, then, to betraying country by betraying the war cause or betraying self in the service of war. By choosing to preserve his own moral identity and the salvaging of his moral conscience, Mejía is deemed an immoral agent who has prized his own needs and conscience above the needs and conscience of the country.24

The impossible choice here between two kinds of betrayals ought to be recognized as a form of moral constraint rooted in war’s logic and war’s reality. What’s more, though, is that Mejía’s choice was especially constrained given the threat of the military’s juridical power. Not only would Mejía be socially branded a “coward,” “traitor,” or “deserter” but legally so. War’s stigmas, backed by a jury’s conviction in a military court martial, would in some sense become legal determinations of Mejía’s character and identity should he refuse further military service. But refuse is precisely what Mejía did and in so doing he discovered a kind of liberation that a guilty conviction, loss of rank, and imprisonment could not stifle.

I was called a coward, I was called a traitor, I was accused of desertion. I was tried, I was convicted, I was sentenced, I was put in jail. And let me tell you, I’ve never felt freer in my life, you know. There’s no higher assertion of your freedom than to follow your conscience.

Reflecting on his imprisonment, Mejía offered this to directors Gary Weimberg and Catherine Ryan in their film, Soldiers of Conscience: “I was called a coward, I was called a traitor, I was accused of desertion. I was tried, I was convicted, I was sentenced, I was put in jail. And let me tell you, I’ve never felt freer in my life, you know. There’s no higher assertion of your freedom than to follow your conscience.”25

Poster depicting Army veteran Camilo Mejía
Original work by Melanie Cervantes, https://www.dignidadrebelde.com

Mejía’s words reveal that there is something powerful about exercising moral agency in the face of constraint and, yet his story also suggests equally, that there is something deeply injurious when moral agency is frustrated. His anguish over his complicity in war’s violence and destruction is palpable, so too is his relief as his conscience is unburdened of war’s demands, even as that unburdening comes at the cost of his freedom and military standing.

Returning, now, once more to torture and to the broader issues of war’s constraining power, Mejía’s attempt at non-compliance is an imperfect one and he cannot completely wash his hands of his complicity. As a leader in the chain-of-command and a bystander he is complicit even if the violence and humiliation were carried out by lower-ranking service members. And yet, Mejía’s choice was made in the midst of immense constraints: a military command order, the powerful psychic draw and narrative of war, and, perhaps, the justification of moral necessity. Failing to fully exercise his agency in the face of these constraints, agency that in his ideal world might have looked like immediate desertion, left him wounded by a sense of profound self-betrayal—that is, left him morally injured.

Mejía’s moral wound perhaps explains the clarity with which he made the decision to abandon his post and face the consequences of a military tribunal. For him, it seems, the pain of further frustrated agency—through acquiescing to the demand that he re-enter combat duty—would be so immense that he would rather risk public disgrace and military imprisonment. Indeed, Mejía was imprisoned but far from prison being yet another constraint on his exercise of moral agency in wartime, it was the consummation of his agency. It is worth quoting Mejía again as he describes this period of life: “I was tried, I was convicted, I was sentenced, I was put in jail. And let me tell you, I’ve never felt freer in my life.

Mejía’s journey is but one example of the moral lives of America’s soldiers and the true costs of the pursuit of war—not in dollars and cents—but at the level of the human spirit. What Mejía describes is the constant threat of losing his humanness and of experiencing self-annihilation. Mejía is not alone, and not just because other soldiers have similar stories—they do and these need to be told. No, Mejía is not alone because war is not a force that only exists in some far-off battlefield; war’s corrosive and alluring power are not confined to the frontlines of combat. War normalizes and sanctions violence wherever it exists and wherever it is celebrated, at home or abroad. Mejía’s story offers a lesson: rejecting war is costly in the highest, and yet still possible. Mejía’s choice awaits any and all who would risk the work of naming and resisting war’s power and war’s reality.

Picture of Camilo Mejía from the cover of Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía.

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  1. Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini, Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2012), 33-34.
  2. Camilo Mejía, as quoted in Brock and Lettini, Soul Repair, 88.
  3. Carol Giacomo, “Suicide Has Been Deadlier Than Combat for the Military,” New York Times, Nov. 1, 2019.
  4. Joseph McDonald, ed., “Introduction,” Exploring Moral Injury in Sacred Texts (London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017), 1, 15.
  5. For more on moral injury, see the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School.
  6. Chris Hedges, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2002).
  7. Army Doctrine Publication 1-01 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Army, 2019). General Mark A. Milley states that at the “heart of [Army] doctrine is the professional Soldier” who is responsible for, among other things, “mounting sustained large-scale ground combat operations.”
  8. Brock and Lettini, Soul Repair, 2. Brock and Lettini note that according to a 2007 study, nearly “three-fourths of U.S. troops in Iraq were from towns where per capita income fell below the national average” and “over half were from communities where poverty levels were above the national average.” Too, with respect to the Army specifically, new recruits “come primarily from lower- to middle-class communities,” which suggests in part that economic mobility and other employment opportunities in one’s community affect the rates of military enlistment.
  9. Stanley Hauerwas, War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 4.
  10. Ibid., 47.
  11. “‘It Was Torture’: An Abu Ghraib Interrogator Acknowledges ‘Horrible Mistakes,” interview by Terry Gross, NPR, April 4, 2016, https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/04/04/472964974/it-was-torture-an-abu-ghraib-interrogator-acknowledges-horrible-mistakes
  12. Brock and Lettini, Soul Repair, 47.
  13. Ibid., 34 (emphasis added).
  14. Ibid., 34-35.
  15. Hauerwas, War and the American Difference, 56.
  16. Hedges, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, 150.
  17. Ibid., 89
  18. Ibid.
  19. See, e.g., Army Regulation 600-20: Army Command Policy (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Army, 2014), 23-24. Army regulations require soldiers to “strictly obey and promptly execute the legal orders of their lawful seniors” and endow commanding officers with “broad disciplinary powers in furtherance of their command responsibilities,” to include the referral of a subordinate for military and/or criminal investigation.
  20. Brock and Lettini, Soul Repair, 63.
  21. Camilo Mejía, Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía (Chicago, IL: Haymarker Books, 2008), 203, quoted in Brock and Lettini, Soul Repair, 63.
  22. “The Price of Desertion: A Follow-up Report On a Sergeant Who Went AWOL,” interview by Dan Rather, 60 Minutes, July 11, 2004, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-price-of-desertion/.
  23. Rather, 60 Minutes. Rather notes that “Mejía’s commanding officer and fellow National Guardsmen” claim Mejía “went AWOL because he’s a coward.”
  24. It’s worth noting here that while the language of moral agency has been used throughout this piece, a definition of that agency has been assumed. Based on Mejía’s narrative and war context, we might venture a definition of moral agency as something like an intentional decision to act for the sake of exercising and/or preserving one’s moral conscience.
  25. Soldiers of Conscience, directed by Gary Weimberg and Catherine Ryan (Luna Productions, 2008), https://www.amazon.com/gp/video/detail/B01K6PXN4I/ref=atv_dl_rdr.

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