Monday, September 16, 2019

How We are Suffering Moral Injury from Failed Leadership

A version published in the Concord Monitor, 9/26/19

My rendition in Photoshop of "The 2000 Yard Stare"

Clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, working at a VA outpatient clinic in Boston, first coined the term “moral injury” to make sense of the narratives he was told by returning Vietnam veterans. He viewed moral injury as different from PTSD, which primarily deals with the traumatic aspects of combat.

Moral Injury, to him, is neither a disorder or an illness, but an injury, manifesting itself as either moral guilt the individual feels about what he has done, or moral injury resulting from failed leadership. 

Since then, the validity of the notion of moral injury has come to be accepted as a risk to veterans of all wars, but especially our newer ones, from Vietnam until today. In this essay, I would like to enlarge the scope of this conversation to include not just the effects of the betrayal of failed leadership on individuals – but to how it now affects our society at large.

Jonathan Shay is highly respected by the military and a recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant.”  From the beginning, he was able to think outside the box. He saw that the moral injuries he was observing were not unique to the Vietnam war but a phenomenon that has been with us since the dawn of human history. 

In particular, he found a striking parallel between his patients’ war experiences and that of the warriors portrayed in The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem, fighting in the 10-year-long Trojan War,  in the 8th century BC.

 Shay quotes Homer scholar, Johannes Haubold, to buttress his claim that Greeks from that era would have interpreted the damage to their soldiers in the Iliad as moral injury resulting from a betrayal of leadership: When the commanders in the war – “the shepherd of the people” –fail to act honorably and ethically, it is said that the leaders have “destroyed the people.”⁠2

So it was, especially for soldiers in the Vietnam war. What mattered most was not honorable behavior, but achieving the highest enemy body count by any means possible, including instituting “free-fire zones” and extensive carpet bombing (3.5 times more tonnage of bombs were dropped on Vietnam than were used in all of WW II).  Our leaders lied to us and our country about progress in the war: “seeing light at the end of the tunnel” when there was none. Further down the chain of command, inexperienced and overwhelmed junior officers often condoned atrocity with the tacit support of the high command.

Shay observed how moral injuries suffered by returning Vietnam vets turned their inner world upside down, destroying their innate sense of what is right and wrong. It opened up a hole in the center of their being. eroding their ambitions, ideals, and social trust: “When social trust is destroyed, it is replaced by the settled expectancy of harm, exploitation, and humiliation from others.“

As it was for us as returning veterans, so it now is to our whole country with the election of Trump. World affairs columnist, Frita Ghitis, recounts the symptoms we all recognize:

“One of the common features of the Trump era is exhaustion with the acrimony that has engulfed America. How many times have we heard people plead that they need a break -- from the shocking news, from the unceasing attacks, from the bitterness that has ended friendships, sparked social media ruthlessness and toxicity, and generally produced a permanent state of medium-grade national anxiety.”⁠3

Everyone recognizes the symptoms but, up to now, no one has been able to name it for what it is, not even me who knows first-hand of its ravages: Betrayal by failed leadership is causing us moral injury.

  If we go back to the 8th century BC, the Greeks would understand the nature of our moral injury because our leader, rather than being good shepherd working to unite us, has purposely divided us, one against another, since day one of his reign.  By failing to act honorably, he is “destroying the people."

The unsettled queasiness in our stomachs comes from our leader’s frontal assault on our social trust,  leaving us rudderless with only” the settled expectancy of harm, exploitation, and humiliation from others.”


2 Ibid.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Was it a dream or a premonition?

A version of this essay published in the Concord Monitor, 9/12/19
Huge snapping turtle crossing Jenness Pond Rd 10/20/16.
Why was she out and about in the fall?
Perhaps she was confused by the abnormally hot fall,
Only a dream or a premonition?

I had a dream the other night I can’t shake:

 I am driving through a desolate land, over a maze of logging trails, trying to find the location of my new job, when suddenly a giant snapping turtle, almost as wide as my truck, steps into the path and refuses to move.

Finally, in desperation, not wanting to be late, I winch her into the back of my  truck and drive on. After several more wrong turns, I arrive at my job site: a nondescript building in the middle of nowhere, divided into a maze of warrens, where humorless bureaucrats, intent on saving the environment, crunch numbers and pore over charts. 

I enter the reception area, a sterile room with no windows, only a sliding glass door looking out on a green meadow. No one looks up to greet me or the turtle, whom I brought in with me. The turtle shuffles over to gaze longingly out the door. I start to open it to set her free but remember that turtles are very rooted to their home territory and probably couldn’t survive in a strange, new world.

Realizing what is at stake, I decide to return her to her home. As I nervously pace back and forth, trying to remember the way back, the turtle loses her patience and starts charging after me, snapping at my heels with her gaping, guillotine mouth.

I  awake in a cold sweat. 

I interpret this dream as an urgent message from earth  – speaking as Turtle –  warning us she will tolerate no more abuse.  Half measures  or experts thinking they can accomplish a technical fix just won’t cut it any more. 

Our only hope is a spiritual awakening to restore Earth to our center of our lives, the place from which all good things flow. Either we start treating her with the respect she deserves for being the very foundation of everything we are, or she will bite back – hard!

This interpretation may seem pretty far out, but bear with me while I present evidence for my case. In the end, you can make your own verdict: Either my dream is a premonition of the future from a power far greater than ourselves, or the ravings of a demented old man.

My first witness is Carl Jung: His method of dream interpretation is based on the theory that our unconscious mind is organized by certain common archetypes we all share.

 One archetype common to our collective unconscious is the turtle. That is why turtles and tortoises are major elements, central to mythologies around the world. They represent the subterranean ground of our unconscious which supports all  higher levels of life.  Examples abound:

An Iroquois creation myth tells how primordial water birds bring up bits of dirt and place it on the back of a giant tortoise, floating on the surface of the sea; over time, the earth grows and expands with the tortoise continuing to be the supporting force at its center. 

In Hindu mythology, the world is said to rest on the back of a giant turtle, the underworld embodiment of the diety, Vishnu, the creator and preserver.

My second witness is science:

In the 1970s, James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis theorized that the earth, of which we are a tiny component, is a living, breathing organism; they named her Gaia.  Scientists have been able to find empirical evidence to support the Gaia Hypothesis: 

Way back In 2001, the European Geophysical Union of scientists issued the following statement: “The Earth System (Gaia) behaves as a single, self-regulating system with physical, chemical, biological and human components.”⁠1

My third witness is Joanna Macy, a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. Through her research, she confirms that we are all one,  part of a living Earth. 

She goes further to assert that, because we are an integral part of a living organism, we can’t help but feel despair about the harm we are causing our earth body. 

Most of us repress this despair, but it is the root cause of much of society’s rampant depression and anxiety. As the Earth is tortured ever more, Her pain appears more and more in our dreams. 

This concludes my evidence to justify my dream interpretation.  If you are still with me, here’s what Macy says we must do.

If we are going to confront climate change, we must first break through our denial. Words are empty and abstract. What is needed is artists to create  images of our ecological grief to facilitate processing our feelings and to create a strategy to fight back to save the Earth:

To acknowledge our pain for the world and tap its energy, we need symbols and images for its expression. Images, more than arguments, tap the springs of consciousness, the creative powers by which we make meaning of experience.⁠2

Without a doubt,, we are in desperate need of contemporary, sacred images to move us in profound ways, like turtle mythology affected earlier cultures.

2 1 “World as Love, World as Self” by Joanna Macy, page 24