Review: Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers (2015)

This book review appeared in the American Book Review, volume 36, issue 5:

I read Nancy Sherman’s book Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers (2015) as a veteran of the US-led occupation of Iraq and as a board-member of the Islah Reparations Project. The intuitive answer to my own moral injury was to bring reparations to the people I helped hurt, and that has been my life for the past decade. For that reason, Nancy Sherman’s notion of “moral repair”— “repair” being the root word in “reparations”—was immediately attractive to me.

Lieutenant General (Dr.) James M. Dubik notes in the foreword that one of this book’s most important contributions is an expansion of our understanding of the jus post bellum beyond discussions of ending war justly. Drawing on her background in ancient philosophy, particularly the stoics, and her training in psychoanalysis, Sherman describes for us with impressive clarity the emotional worlds of veterans and all the what-ifs and should-haves that anguish them. She then makes a persuasive case for extending our notion of post war responsibility from being the task of government to the duty of individual citizens, assigning them an essential role in the healing process of our veterans.

Sherman advances two main arguments in this book: That civilians have a responsibility to veterans, a responsibility that is grounded in their causal contribution to starting and facilitating war—through voting, paying taxes, participating in public debate, and lobbying—and, hence, to sending our armed service members into harms way. And that moral injury is a poorly understood, under treated condition that veterans suffer from upon returning home. The conclusion is that civilians have a responsibility to engage with veterans upon their return, because veterans need a sympathetic and dependable community to return to. Sherman sees her book as a convocation, as “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.”

She believes that two main obstacles are preventing the sort of communion between civilians and veterans that she advocates. The first is the “gaping disconnect between those who wear the uniform and those who don’t.” And the second is shallow gratitude, which is expressed most clearly in the ritualistic “Thank you for your service.” The “military-civilian gap” refers to what active duty service members and veterans perceive as the relative normality of civilian life during wartime, and the lack of understanding amongst the general population of what veterans have experienced abroad. However, there are several scholars who argue for the opposite, that civilian life is being increasingly militarized. One such argument comes from Nick Turse in his The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives (2008). But Sherman takes it on assumption that there is in fact a military-civilian gap without arguing for it or addressing the arguments against it.

This very common assumption is not totally unrelated to another conventional wisdom—that Vietnam veterans were spat on, maltreated, and repudiated by their fellow citizens upon their return from war. Sherman devotes 32 pages to analyzing the common refrain “Thank you for your service,” which she argues is a “national reaction to a past negative reaction” when “[r]esistance to [the Vietnam] war turned into antipathy toward its warriors.” Again, Sherman does not engage with the works that question this assumption. For example, Jerry Lembcke fails to find evidence that a significant number of Vietnam veterans were maltreated by protestors in his The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (2000). Instead, he reminds us that veterans were a large, and very welcomed, constituent of the anti-war movement.

These two assumptions, taken together, ground a common perception of veterans as a special interest group deserving of special care and special benefits. Perhaps it is this cultural assumption about veterans that motivates Sherman’s assertion that civilians’ post war responsibilities are limited to veterans, though, again, she gives no argument for why this is the case. If civilians are morally responsible for the harm that results from war due to their causal contributions to starting and facilitating wars, why aren’t civilians morally responsible to all parties that are harmed by war, including the civilians of other nations involved in the conflict? Particularly in the case of the recent US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, which caused hundreds of thousands of excess Iraqi deaths, displaced millions, internally and externally, and caused an environmental and public health catastrophe with some of the highest rates of birth defects and cancers the world has ever seen; why are we not morally responsible for what has been done to Iraqis?

Sherman analyzes “Thank you for your service” as performative expression of gratitude, which she argues is a “token acceptance of . . . shared responsibility and accountability for sending fellow citizens to war, independent of specific causal contributions to war activity or to its support” (39). Correspondingly, she points out the resentment that so many veterans feel towards the ease with which civilians relieve themselves of responsibility by uttering such platitudes. Resentment, after all, is a reactive attitude that “[holds] someone to account” (46). However, there is no acknowledgement of the widespread resentment that Iraqis feel towards Americans and other citizens of Coalition nations. Furthermore, by leaving the vocabulary of our traditional war culture unchallenged, the infelicitous use of the word “service”—and its corresponding semantic frame of a beneficiary, a benevolent act, and a recipient—goes unexamined. By preserving the notion that the war was a service to Americans, a service consciously and willingly performed by our veterans, it obscures any understanding that the war was a wrong done to others and that we might be responsible for the harm that our war caused them.

There are good reasons why Sherman might have wanted to avoid such a discussion. She explains that her lack of focus on the injustices of the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq was simply because it was not the focus of the veterans she interviewed. Their moral injury was most often the result of what they perceived to be their failures to protect their fellow soldiers, and in some cases, individual Iraqis and Afghans too. Most of the veterans that she interviewed did not feel burdened by the ethical question of whether the wars they participated in were just or unjust.

That has been my experience too. I’ve met few veterans who were raised with the internationalist perspective that I was, and even fewer who feel, as I do, that the relationship between occupier and occupied is an inherently immoral one. If Sherman were to advocate that we should feel morally responsible for the justness or unjustness of the war itself, as I am willing to do, she would run the risk of burdening veterans with new moral dilemmas that hadn’t previously occurred to them.

She might further have made a deliberate choice to avoid topics that are interpreted in our culture as bing radical—such as responsibility for civilian deaths or war crimes, topics that might just be interpreted as ethical issues in other parts of the world—in order to avoid alienating her audience. Instead, by limiting her focus to the invisible wounds that veterans carry, wounds that cannot be healed by prescribing them more medication, and the ways in which the civilian community is essential to their process of moral repair, this book stands to do a great service to veterans by building the sympathetic community that they need. However, such an approach does not fully address all of the post war responsibilities of civilians.

Afterwar is an important challenge to our national war culture. Sherman provides us with a matrix of concepts—such as “affective access” and “self-forgiveness”—that act as a set of tools for a national discussion about moral injury and how best to care for our veterans. This valuable contribution provides a starting point from which we can begin to have a discussion about the jus post bellum that is not limited to the actions of nation states, but rather addresses the ways in which we as citizens can live ethically in globally connected world. It is a step towards a deeper understanding of the ways in which we as individuals are connected to global events, such as war, and the responsibilities we have towards one another, and the ways in which we can begin to repair what has been broken.

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