Choosing War

Choosing War

By reframing war in terms of “moral injury,” philosopher Nancy Sherman dodges the question of who is responsible for its horrors in the first place.

A memorial for U.S. soldiers killed in the Iraq war, North Church, Boston (Dixie Lawrence / Flickr)

Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers
by Nancy Sherman
Oxford University Press, 2015, 256 pp.

The Price They Paid: Enduring Wounds of War
by Michael Putzel
Trysail Publishing, 2015, 364 pp.


By the time the English Civil War had ended, after nine years of fighting across England, Scotland, and Ireland, historians estimate that 868,000 people had been killed out of a total population of around 7.5 million. The intensity of the war’s violence, which included Cromwell’s genocidal campaign in Ireland, made the English Civil War more than five times as deadly, per capita, as the American one two centuries later.

Across the Channel in Paris, Thomas Hobbes watched the war end with grim relief. He had fled England in 1640, and reports of the war’s devastation spurred him to deepen his reflections on sovereignty and power. In 1651, he published Leviathan, almost instantly recognized as a major work of political philosophy. One of the most influential ideas in the book was his new story of the “state of nature”: whereas the Bible described humanity’s exile from an innocent Eden, Hobbes told a tale of humanity’s escape from a constant, anarchic war for resources, where “the life of man [was] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

With this story, Hobbes drew together the ideas “nature,” anarchy, “war,” and “primitive man.” In doing so, he implicitly justified any amount of violence committed by a sovereign power, since a sovereign is by definition working against violence and for civilization. War, for Hobbes, was not a social activity that groups of people undertook against each other for political ends, but rather was defined by its very distinction from social life.

This was a powerful idea, especially if you happened to be a white European during the age of colonial expansion. It still often determines how we think and talk about war today. It shapes the stories we tell about going to war and coming home. It provides the conceptual basis for universalist claims underlying the “War on Terror.” Viewed through the Hobbesian frame, a war waged by one group of people against another is transformed, as if by magic, into a metaphysical struggle against our own primitive nature.

Hobbes doesn’t come up much in Georgetown University philosopher Nancy Sherman’s book Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers, but his definition of war as nature implicitly informs everything she says. Like Hobbes, Sherman would have her readers forget that war is a thing humans do to each other. Like Hobbes, Sherman would like to believe that war is something that exists outside civilization.

Sherman is primarily a moral philosopher, with a background in Kant and Aristotle, and her research focuses on military ethics, the “battlefield mind of the soldier,” and “the moral weight of war.” According to Sherman, Afterwar is “a manifesto for how to engage in moral repair, one on one, with individual service members and veterans so that we can begin to build a new kind of integrated community.” This call raises as many questions as it answers, one of the most important of which is about the relationship between American soldiers and this unidentified “we” building an “integrated community.”

Sherman’s best chapter, “Don’t Just Tell Me ‘Thank You,’” explores precisely this question. It begins with a familiar scene: a civilian tells a veteran “Thank you for your service.” The veteran says, “No problem” or “You’re welcome.” After an awkward pause, the conversation resumes, nobody very satisfied with the exchange, the civilian vaguely guilty, the veteran resentful. Sherman carefully unpacks the complexities at work within this interaction, explaining how the actors involved are performing ritualistic observances of social norms, and committing themselves to shared values, even if from different perspectives and with radically different senses of investment and sacrifice. For a civilian to say “Thank you for your service” is for them to say “Thank you for doing what I did not, or would not, do for our community.”

This explains civilian guilt. But why are soldiers so resentful? Sherman argues that soldiers might feel resentful if they think that civilian “gratitude is merely instrumental, for the sake of getting them to renew their service,” or if they feel more alienated than recognized—if they feel, that is, that civilians don’t really understand what they’re being thankful for. Veterans might feel resentful as well because they may be guilty, angry, or confused about their deeds. They might feel resentful because they suspect the ritual is just that and no more, an insincere formality. The issue, as Sherman frames it, is one of veterans holding citizens accountable.

Sherman’s analysis here is nuanced and illuminating, but it fails to adequately address two significant problems. The first is the issue of Sherman’s “we.” Her book relies throughout on an implicit identification between American citizens and government policy, as if what soldiers did in Iraq or Afghanistan was an expression of national political will. This easy correlation between the desires of American citizens and the decisions made by the United States government simply cannot be made, especially when it comes to military action, and it is disingenuous to imply that soldiers are acting on behalf of “the American people.” No doubt there are many who would like to believe they are, but Sherman needs a better account of how beliefs about national unity match reality, and what a disjunction between the two might mean. In this light, a veteran might well be resentful of what they see as a citizen’s false claim to agency, or their naïveté in confusing polyglot America with the United States government.

The second major problem Sherman downplays is that a veteran might feel “used” not just because the gratitude offered might be instrumental, but because they did some evil shit. Veterans might feel they don’t deserve to be thanked for what they did; they might see what they did not as a service, but as a crime. Sherman touches on this, but only very briefly and only in the most specious way. She brings in the example of Jean Améry, a Holocaust survivor who argued that his refusal to forgive his Nazi torturers had moral power. As Sherman quotes him, “Only I possessed, and still possess the moral truth of the blows that even today roar in my skull, and for that reason I am entitled to judge, not only more than the culprit but also more than society—which thinks only about its continued existence.” Sherman quotes Améry to “remind us of limiting cases for relieving moral resentment, where there can be no possibility of moral healing,” to illustrate the idea, that is, that some soldiers have been so deeply affected by moral injury that they cannot heal, but she doesn’t address the fact that if you map Améry’s situation onto the last fourteen years of war, Améry’s “moral truth” lines up not with American soldiers but with orange-suited, force-fed detainees at Guantanamo Bay and naked, tortured Iraqis in Abu Ghraib. Simply put, the victims tortured by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t American soldiers, but Iraqis and Afghans.

Sherman relies here and elsewhere on a conflation between Holocaust victims and American veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as if there were any moral equivalence at all between the targets of the final solution and the agents of the global war on terror. This thoroughly irresponsible equivalence illuminates the great moral vacuum at the heart of Sherman’s book, which is in the way she persistently turns the question of moral responsibility into a narrative of moral injury. Much of Afterwar is made up of stories from soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet all but one of those stories are about what those soldiers suffered, not what they did. This is an enormous failing.

Key to this failing is Sherman’s uncritical reliance on the idea of “moral injury.” She writes that the concept “refers to experiences of serious inner conflict arising from what one takes to be grievous moral transgressions that can overwhelm one’s sense of goodness and humanity,” but she never unpacks this definition. She never explains how inner ethical conflict leads to injury or what, precisely, is being “injured.” She never makes a case for why this language of victimization and injury ought to replace a language of responsibility, nor why “moral injury” might be more useful than the more conventional language of “guilt,” “shame,” and “betrayal” she uses elsewhere. Nor does Sherman ever make a clear distinction between “moral injury” and PTSD, or discuss why one way of talking about war might be better than the other. Rather, Sherman conflates moral injury with several other diagnostic terms, from survivor guilt to Traumatic Brain Injury, in ways that only muddle the discussion. Most disturbingly, Sherman’s phenomenon of “moral injury” produces a victim without a perpetrator: no agent is ever named who does the injuring, nobody is responsible, no one is at fault.

“Moral injury” turns out to be an empty sophism, more useful for David Brooks-style cant than for serious thought about war or morality. With it, you can imply some airy recognition that something went wrong with America’s most recent military adventure but still advertise your support for “the troops,” all while dodging the indelicate question of who exactly might be responsible for injuring whom.

Whatever one might say about the corrupt boondoggle of Afghanistan, the war in Iraq was an aggressive power grab executed with astonishing idiocy, enriching companies such as Halliburton, DynCorp, Bechtel, and ExxonMobil at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives and ongoing, almost incomprehensible human suffering. Anyone doing the moral philosophy of war needs to make sense of what it means to know you have committed evil, not as a victim of “moral injury” but as a perpetrator, and anyone talking about morality and the Iraq War needs to account for the gross irresponsibility, outright lies, and pointless waste of human life that characterized that conflict. What kind of “moral healing” is appropriate for Specialist Lynndie England, who tortured prisoners in Abu Ghraib, or Sergeant Frank Wuterich, whose Marines killed twenty-four civilians in Haditha? What about for Colonel Michael D. Steele, whose soldiers testified that he ordered them to “kill all military-age males” in their area, or General George Casey, who, as senior commander in Iraq from 2004 to 2007, oversaw the country’s descent into civil war? What kind of community expresses gratitude for such behavior? Who is the “we” that ought to “integrate” such vile acts? While Sherman claims academic expertise on the “battlefield mind of the soldier” and “the moral weight of war,” she doesn’t seem much interested in these questions. Nor does she spend much time on how the “battlefield mind of the soldier” reckons with killing and torturing innocents, or how “we” might carry the moral weight of an unjust, illegal, and aggressive war.

A moral philosopher writing about war without discussing agency and what it means to do evil, or how we might make sense of the discrepancy between claims to moral goodness and knowledge of moral evil, cannot call her work philosophy. To be fair, Sherman doesn’t. She says explicitly that Afterwar is a manifesto, a call to “build a new kind of integrated community.” The problem is that the community she seeks to build is one for whom war isn’t a moral or political choice, but a moral accident, an abstract force—something like an act of nature.

Another important thing Sherman leaves out is the fact of war’s tremendous appeal. “Even war has something sublime about it,” wrote Kant, arguing that it is “all the more sublime in proportion to the number of dangers” faced. The sublimity of war is captured in the epic battle scenes in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, in the lyricism of Ernst Jünger’s memoir Storm of Steel, and in the helicopter assault in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Throughout history, people have found war not only sublime but exhilarating, purifying, sexually charged, liberating, and ennobling. For many veterans, war was and will remain the most profound experience of their lives. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote, looking back on his service in the Civil War: “The generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire.”

Some of the men and women who go to war find not only sublimity but vocation. For professional soldiers especially, war is the summit of their life’s work. Peace for such warriors is a dull prison. Some of the assorted disorders that plague veterans after war are doubtlessly attributable to feelings of frustration and diminishment. The contrast between the thrilling power one wielded in war and the petty constraints imposed by civilian life is a familiar theme in veterans’ writing.

Michael Putzel’s hybrid work of journalism, history, and biography, The Price They Paid: Enduring the Wounds of War, illustrates this theme by focusing on the story of Major James Newman, a career soldier whose sublime moment as an air cavalry commander came during the darkest years of the Vietnam War. According to the accounts and recollections Putzel weaves together, Newman was a bold, charismatic, fiercely competent leader, twice nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor. Yet as soon as Newman came home, his career imploded and his life swerved out of control. Newman assaulted his wife, illegally married the wife of a fellow officer, and then tried to hire a cab driver to kill his new wife’s husband (she was still married) and burn down his own home.

Newman had earned stellar evaluations in Vietnam, had been promoted on his return, had been awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, and was being groomed and recommended for a career path that gave him a “good shot at eventually earning a general officer’s star, perhaps even two.” After the grand jury indictment charging him with two counts of conspiracy and one of bigamy, though, his military career was over. Less than eighteen months after coming home from Vietnam, where he had commanded dozens of men flying millions of dollars’ worth of military equipment, leading them through coordinated aerial and ground combat with the highest imaginable stakes, James Newman left the military, got divorced, and a few years later went to work as Buick dealer. He sold cars for the rest of his life.

Putzel makes a great mystery out of Newman’s self-destruction, but it’s not so hard to understand. Newman himself identifies the problem: “‘I couldn’t go kill somebody every day,’ he lamented years later. ‘I didn’t have a mission of no kind.’” When Newman boarded the plane in Vietnam to come back to the United States, he was leaving behind his status, his command, his community, the work that had made his life meaningful, and the intensity that had made his life sublime. He came home to guilt, boredom, and constraint. Is it any wonder he started lighting fires?

The Price They Paid offers insight into what it means for a professional soldier to go to war. What it helps us see best is that war isn’t a state of nature or a moral accident but a job, even a way of life. As with Sherman’s book, though, and as in Hobbes’s naturalization of war, Putzel leaves aside the broader questions of war as a political or social activity, especially the war in Vietnam. So long as we refuse to look at the wider political questions of war, though, we will only be able to see it as disconnected stories of isolated individuals suffering in a state of nature. As long as we refuse to see war as an action for which people and institutions are responsible, we will continue to mistake imperial soldiers like Major James Newman for war’s unfortunate victims.


Over the past two years, police killings of unarmed black men have become prominent in national discussion. The problem is not a few bad apples, but a system of institutionalized racist violence and the people who serve it. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his recent book Between the World and Me: “There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy.”

Coates was writing about Ferguson, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Staten Island, but he could have been writing about Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, it is puzzling to me that we have talked so little about the connection between a decade of reckless American military aggression abroad and the police brutality we see at home today. While commentators have expressed alarm at the militarization of police equipment across the United States, fewer have been willing to discuss the militarization of American culture. But during the 1960s, the Vietnam War was often connected to police violence at home, and the struggle for civil rights was allied to the struggle to end the war. Today we seem reluctant to connect the war on terror with the war on black lives, but how many videos do we need of police snipers, police tanks, police drones, and police violence before we recognize chickens that have come home to roost?

Imagine that if instead of having a conversation—insufficient as it has been—about systematic racism, we were having a conversation about the moral and psychological stress American police suffer in the course of patrolling their communities. Imagine that instead of talking about how Black Lives Matter, we were talking about police health care, police pensions, and police suicide rates. Imagine that instead of hearing about how Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Samuel DuBose, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Dante Parker, Tamir Rice, Tony Robinson, and Walter Scott were killed, we never learned their names, and instead were treated to stories about Ray Tensing’s post-traumatic stress, Darren Wilson’s marital problems, and Daniel Pantaleo’s moral injury. Imagine that instead of trying, however inadequately, to address America’s long history of racial violence, we were spending our time trying to educate civilians in their obligation to “bridge the police-civilian divide.”

You don’t have to imagine: that’s the very conversation we’ve been having these last fourteen years about war. And as long as we continue having the same conversation, talking as if war were a fact of nature and not a political choice, we’re going to stay locked in the same wartime mentality. As long as our government keeps showing the world that Iraqi lives don’t matter, Afghan lives don’t matter, Muslim lives don’t matter, and Arab lives don’t matter, our police will keep drawing the same conclusion about black lives. Until we reckon with the things we’ve done, we will find no peace, because we will not have owned up to the fact that war is not “nature” but a choice, a choice we keep making again and again.

Roy Scranton is the author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (City Lights, 2015) and co-editor of Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (Da Capo Press, 2013). He is a postdoctoral research fellow at Rice University.