Discover the five things I’ve learned about naming and understanding moral injury and about surviving its personal consequence.
I’m an author, an analyst, and — currently — a Professor of Practice of Human Rights at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. But first, and always, I am a reporter. I write long-format narratives, mainly about war and the politics of conflict.
My focus is on war crimes; global terrorism; refugee issues and sexual violence during war time. My goal is to document evidence on the ground that can later be cited in war crimes tribunals. I work alone; often undercover and in closed and difficult countries. And as a result, I’ve seen first-hand the profound trauma common to every war zone. Too often, I have also witnessed the devastating psychological consequences of conflict that continue to live on for members of local populations, for active soldiers, and for journalists like me.
In August 2020, Harper’s Magazine published my essay, “On Moral Injury,” in which I sought to give name to a single, shared scar common to all war zone participants — a scar that Dr. Anthony Feinstein, with whom I’ve worked closely, describes it as: “an affront to your moral compass based on your own behavior and the things you have failed to do.”
Moral injury is a branch of trauma that affects individuals forced to witness an event that goes against their moral core: A soldier, for example, who during war time is forced to witness torture; a a mother who sees her children bullied; journalists who witness terrible atrocities and must face choices between their obligation to help and their duty to observe, and who many remain haunted by their decisions for years afterward. In a collective sense, moral injury can similarly impact groups of people — citizens, for example, whose political values differ drastically from their country’s leaders and who feel deeply offended by lying, cheating or injustice in their political life.
In this ninety-minute class, I will look more closely at moral injury, and focus on what I’ve seen when individuals — and communities — believe they have significantly failed to live up to their own ethical standards. I’ll illustrate the psychological damage inflicted by this ethical dilemma with stories from my own career as a frontline journalist. I’ll address the responsibilities that journalists have toward their subjects, and that news organizations should their similarly have to their reporters. I will also explore some extended dimensions of moral injury, including for example, the moral injuries that the COVID-19 pandemic will likely inflict on us all in the months and years ahead.
Living through 2020 tested many of our core values — about what is fair and what is just, about illness as a metaphor. It also exposed the weakness of the health care system and the underlying structural injustice in America — who is rich, who is poor, who gets good care and who does not. How do we live with ourselves about witnessing such cataclysmic shifts in society, and our own collective trauma as a society? How can racism, sexism and injustice be so prevalent in a country that has so much to offer and is so evolved?
With the start of a new year, the beginning of a new U.S. government, and — we all hope — the beginning of the end of COVID-19 now in sight, it feels like the time to think through these issues, and to further develop together the concept of moral injury and its personal consequences.
I hope you’ll join me.