NINA COSDON, Editor-in-Chief —The cost of war is much more than monetary. However, Dr. Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon opened his talk last Wednesday by asking the audience how much they thought the United States has spent on the “War on Terror” with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq.
The estimated cost to U.S. taxpayers for these wars in the Middle Eastern is $6.4 trillion. This money was all borrowed, so it is expected to reach $8 trillion with interest. Through exploring the literal cost of war, Wiinikka-Lydon reaches the crux of his argument: one trillion of this was used to treat the physical and mental injuries of soldiers.
Wiinikka-Lydon came to campus last week to give a talk entitled “The Moral Laboratory of War.” Though the presentation took place on March 5, Wiinikka-Lydon, formerly a Denison visiting professor of religion, remained on campus for a few days to visit classrooms as well. He describes his research as focused around religion, conflict and peacebuilding.
The primary concern of “The Moral Laboratory of War” was to explore the hidden effects of war on veterans. With the acceptance of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), we now recognize that war can leave invisible scars as well. Wiinikka-Lydon classified PTSD as diagnosable from measurable reactions such as flashbacks, hyper-arousal or memory loss. However, experiencing or committing violence can have other, less obvious consequences.
Wiinikka-Lydon introduced his audience to the idea of moral injury. It is the feeling that one can no longer be a “good” person or aspire to do “good” things because of something they did or didn’t do in the face of violence.
The examples Wiinikka-Lydon provided mostly pertained to war veterans, some of whom described returning from war and feeling like they were bad people because they committed violence and enjoyed it.
Wiinikka-Lydon attributes some of this feeling to our societal rhetoric surrounding murder. We are taught our whole lives that it’s wrong to kill people, and rightfully so. Soldiers, however, are sometimes obligated to kill. At the same time, they know killing is supposed to be an objectively bad thing. Moral injury can occur as a soldier tries to discern which situations require one to abandon their values.
Unlike PTSD, a person suffering from moral injury will remember the exact incident that caused them to lose faith in themselves or others. PTSD can be triggered by specific, often stressful, situations but someone with moral injury is constantly plagued by feelings of guilt or regret.
The term “moral injury” was coined in the 90’s in response to studying soldiers who had served in combat. However, nonveterans who experienced physical or sexual violence may also develop moral injury.
“The Moral Laboratory of War” discussed the transformative consequences of violence. Wiinikka-Lydon chose to center his talk around the War on Terror because of its relevance and its scale. According to Wiinikka-Lydon, 21 million Afghan, Iraqi, Pakistani and Syrian people are living as war refugees and displaced persons.
This is especially striking in Syria. From a population of 18 million people, two-thirds or 12 million of them were forced to seek refuge or are currently displaced within their own country.
Wiinikka-Lydon chose to describe war as a moral laboratory because war is “an experiment in identity.” It is an experiment that’s never under control, and people’s moral selves are altered as a result.
Wiinikka-Lydon argued that moral injury can be seen in Homer’s “Odyssey,” and said that some veterans will even perform and discuss Greek tragedies as a way to cope with the violence they experienced or committed. Survivors of moral injury may also take up activism or go on a difficult hike or excursion to find meaning. As a religion scholar, Wiinikka-Lydon understands such trips to be a “pilgrimage.”
There is still no widely accepted treatment for moral injury, but recognizing it as legitimate is a good place to start.