You’re not supposed to talk about it. It’s the underside of war that stays hidden deep inside. The unspeakable part of duty. The things you had to do to survive, the things you saw others do, the transgressions against humanity. No one wants to talk about guilt or shame. (Also called “moral injury”.) But the fact is guilt and shame are real feelings that real veterans have and have had in every conflict.
These feelings eat away at you. They may overwhelm you. They corrode your sense of value as a human being. They trap you in a place between that moment and now. There is no medicine or drug for guilt or shame. Nor are there answers solely in religion – where issues of a sovereign God and the injustices of war contradict. When your conscience convicts you of having participated in something that goes against your moral code, its voice won’t leave you alone until you address it. Which is why we need to break the silence.
Guilt and shame are not signs of weakness, but normal responses of a heart that cares.
The Military is Honorable; War is Dirty
Chaplain Chris Antal in Afghanistan blogged: “War is toxic… not only for the soldier who fights the war, but also for the society who authorizes the war-making in a foreign land and then is all too often separated (geographically, intellectually, and emotionally) from the death, injury and contamination that are the tragic consequences of war.” War hurts the human soul. What we fail to realize is that when troops come home from war, they come home as human beings first, veterans second. It’s your human heart that suffers moral injury.
If there wasn’t something fundamentally good and loving about your heart, you wouldn’t feel guilty.
The public is trained to “be proud of our troops.” Rightly so. Few civilians realize, though, just what it costs a person who goes to war in their place. Associating pride with war gives the public a safe place to keep feeling good about war and blind to the true cost of it. It keeps veterans from being able to admit how it really feels to endure war’s carnage. You can and should be proud of your service. But you are not alone if you are left with conflicting feelings of guilt and shame.
Guilt Over What You Did
In survival mode, you do what you have to do. You kill people. You not only kill, you also cause intense physical and emotional suffering. In war zones where the enemy looks like the civilian population, you’re not always certain who you’re killing. Innocent? Guilty? There is a public perception of war that believes you only kill the “bad guys” and that the line of who the bad guys are is always clear. Let’s face it, the public doesn’t want to look at the reality of what actually happens in war. No one wants to hear the truth, no one wants their conscience burdened, so you end up coming home and carrying it alone. We don’t even see graphic news images anymore. War has been sanitized to keep it off the minds of the public majority. Out of sight, out of mind.
But it’s not out of sight or mind for you.
Guilt Over What You Witnessed
The public thinks of war in terms of good guys versus bad guys. Cut and dried. Clear lines. They do not have a perception of what it is to be in combat where not only are you fighting an enemy, but the enemy is fighting the civilian population, too. You are in fact a witness to a war within your war. And as a witness, you see a hell of a lot of trauma. Trauma you didn’t have the power or opportunity to prevent. You may also witness actions of fellow comrades that violate your sense of what’s right and humane. Orders get handed down that may not match up to the reality of what’s going on. Alternative courses of action may not be considered or heard. You may feel guilty over what you saw others do and for being associated with the situation.
Guilt Over What You Didn’t Do
You’re trained to protect and help others. When you aren’t able to do so, it weighs on you. Not being able to have prevented suffering or save people creates intense remorse. Ruminating on alternative actions you could’ve taken deepens it. Looking back and seeing now what you could’ve done, but didn’t do then, is excruciating.
Guilt Over What You Missed
When you’re deployed, you miss out on the stuff that matters in relationships. Facebook and Skype don’t cut it. If your loved ones go through a rough time when you’re gone, you feel guilty about not being there. Some events you can’t get back. Depending on how supportive your loved ones are, they may blame you for your absence or having to have gone through things alone.
So What Can Veterans Do About Guilt & Shame?
1.) Reframe what happened. That doesn’t mean you can change what happened or lie to yourself. What it does mean is you step back from what you feel and look at it from other perspectives. What if there’s something you don’t know about what happened? What if the exact situation had happened to/by a loved one? How would you think about it/them? (Would you have more compassion than you have toward yourself?) If your moral code is based on a religion, what would it be like if you saw things from the perspective of another belief system? What if you didn’t have as much power in the situation as you think you had? What if there is a greater Consciousness at work and the decision of when someone dies is made by that soul before they come to earth? What if a soul who has suffered physical or emotional pain will be blessed by it later in a way they could not have been if the pain had not occurred? What if someday you are going to look back and see that you are beautiful and loved, despite it all?
2.) Express yourself. It seems too hard to talk about it. Too risky. God knows what other people will think if they know. (If you find someone you trust who can listen to you without judgement and with acceptance, I encourage you to confide in them. Not just because of the release, but to allow them to carry it with you. War belongs to all of us. It’s a burden we should all be carrying with you.) Talking isn’t the only way to express emotion and story though. Music, writing, drawing, painting, clay work, building something — these are all ways to express emotions. Sometimes they’re more effective than relaying your story out loud. Sometimes pain is too personal to share with another person. Sometimes you first need to express it to yourself in a way that only you understand. The point is that if you keep it inside, it only grows stronger. Let it out and you’ll start to breathe again.
3.) Take action. Generally, guilt isn’t the best motivation to do good. But when you’re dealing with guilt over life and death issues, using your life to bless others can be healing. Put your pain to work. You have insights into situations and conditions that others don’t. Find a way to start giving back, to give life, to build up. You don’t have to be whole and healed to begin. In fact, your brokenness may be just what is needed to identify with others’ pain. And you may find your path to healing by allowing others to be blessed by you.
For a brief time, you tore down and destroyed in war. You now have the rest of your life to be a force that gives life.
Don’t let the toxicity of war be victorious over you. Feelings are based on thoughts.
Thoughts can be changed. They are not permanent.
You have an incredible power within you to heal.
You have incredible power to be a healing force in this world.
Don’t let a culture of silence around guilt and shame keep you from moving forward.