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“Moral Injury” and the pre-emptive war without end

I was 10 years old when the Argentinians invaded the Falkland Islands. The most vivid memory I have is a huge banner that was hung across the street to welcome back a soldier, unquestionably a local hero for expelling the invaders. There was no doubt that to invade a country was “wrong” while to expel invaders was “right”. It would also be clear in the returning soldiers’ minds that if they had killed Argentinians it was justified on the grounds that it was the Argentinians who had carried out an armed invasion and so were undoubtedly the aggressors. It was perhaps still not easy to live with but there was a level of natural justice even a child could understand and societal approval was on their side.

By contrast, during the Vietnam War, western soldiers were the invading aggressors, fighting an ideological war to prevent the Vietnamese choosing communism, or to defend their mineral interests. They were not defending against an imminent threat to the United States and the American society was often unsupportive of the troops on their return.

It is one thing to talk theoretically of right versus wrong but another entirely to live with the consequences of being conscripted into an unpopular ideological war with a gun forced into your hand. One moment you are living a peaceful life with no obvious threat around you and the next you are being pushed out of a helicopter to kill the inhabitants of a country your military has invaded, naturally turning those inhabitants into opposition fighters. Though it is true that you would find yourself in a “kill or be killed” situation, your innate sense of justice will tell you that you are the aggressor and hence you have no natural right to kill the inhabitants who were no threat to you before you invaded. The commanding officer’s and politician’s description of them as enemy combatants cannot negate this obvious truth at a logical, moral or spiritual level for the individuals who pull the triggers.

When the soldiers returning from Vietnam started committing suicide in droves, the American Psychiatric Association created the term “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” as part of categorising the issues. A study in 1991 found combat-related guilt was the most significant explanatory factor for PTSD and suicide.[1]

Typical humans have a moral compass that should prevent them carrying out an injustice and a conscience which punishes (and educates) them if they do. A by-product of following legal regulations relating to war is that individuals are protected from the harmful effects of committing major injustices and having to then live with a wrecked conscience. Traditional western rules on attacking in self-defence or “pre-emptive war” sprung from an incident in the 19th century. ‘The Caroline test’ states attacking in self-defence was justified when the:

“necessity of self-defence was instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation […] the act, justified by the necessity of self-defence, must be limited by that necessity, and kept clearly within it.”[2]

For hundreds of years governments with aggressive intentions have been proven to, on occasion, create the illusion of a necessity for self-defence by “false flag operations”. In 1939, for example, Nazis staged an attack on a German radio station posing as Polish saboteurs, in order to claim the legal justification to invade Poland.

Britain and France did not know it was a staged attack at the time, nonetheless, two days later the German invasion of Poland was used as the legal and moral justification for Britain and France to declare war with Germany. No one believed Germany’s invasion of Poland met the legal criteria or was moral justification necessary for invading a country. With all the death and destruction that would inevitably follow, their justification was exceedingly weak. As weak, some might say, as the West’s justification for invading Afghanistan to arrest a small group of non-Afghan saboteurs.

Over the years the rules for initiating a pre-emptive war have been pulled ever further from a natural seeming justice, until under the Obama administration an “imminent” threat of attack was one that could be launched within 60 days.[3] Every human on the planet has the theoretical potential to launch some kind of attack against “the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces” with 2 months to prepare. It is unsurprising, then, that in 2013 alone the US Government added 464,100 people to a database of “known or suspected terrorists”, in many cases based on a single Facebook post or tweet. Intelligence Agencies simply have to declare one of these individuals to be 60 days or less away from launching an attack and the need for UN approval for a pre-emptive strike vanishes.

In 2014, Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama declared the whole world his rightful battlefield:

“We will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are…. This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”[4]

On this basis American drones continually rove the skies of the world carrying out extrajudicial assassinations at will; with the onus being on other countries—and their schools, hospitals, mosques and shopping centres—not to be so foolish as to “harbour” someone the USA declares a terrorist.

Of course, there are many issues of huge concern surrounding this but one that is rarely mentioned outside of academic circles is the harm done to military personnel who take part in such pre-emptive wars and who press the button to kill in pre-emptive strikes. In a recent study by the US Veterans Association into Moral Injury (the crippling guilt which leads to PTSD and suicide) of veterans in the still on-going Iraq War, they found:

Three-quarters of individuals who killed were in the two most severe PTSD symptom classes, and those who killed had twice the odds of being in the most symptomatic PTSD class, compared to those who did not kill. Those who endorsed killing a non-combatant or killing in the context of anger or revenge were more likely to belong to the most symptomatic PTSD class, compared to those who did not kill

The report clarified that:

Although killing may be a precursor to moral injury, it is important to note that not all killing in war results in adverse outcomes for military personnel. As noted earlier, certain elements need to be present for moral injury to occur, including a perceived transgression that goes against individual or shared moral expectations.

For example, a military member who kills an enemy combatant in self-defence may perceive that the death was justified. If, however, a civilian was perceived to be armed and consequently killed, with military personnel later discovering that the individual was in fact unarmed, this may set the stage for the development of moral injury.[5]

It begs the question – what if the whole war is discovered to be illegal and unjustified? The whole destroyed country, in fact, found to be unarmed? But this is US Veterans Association research and although this issue is implicitly addressed in the research it is not spoken of in the discussion of results.

It is very telling that they measured just 2 factors: what the soldier did and if they perceived being betrayed. Betrayal by their leaders—military and otherwise—or by an ungrateful society.[6] Soldiers are continually reassured that they are fighting for a just cause so if they start to feel that it is unjust they will inevitably feel that they have been lied to. Measuring the feeling of betrayal by their superiors allows researchers to measure the soldiers’ perception of the killing being unjust, without encouraging the idea. The soldiers’ perception of betrayal by their society measures the soldiers’ perception of societal approval which will affect the soldiers’ confidence in their actions being just. The betrayal/injustice factor has come to be known as pivotal for moral injury since being studied in the post-Vietnam War era.[7]

Looking into the cause and effect of moral injury it becomes clear that unpopular pre-emptive wars, based primarily on theoretical threats and “dodgy dossier” level intelligence, are highly likely to cause permanent and often fatal mental injury to many of the military personnel who sign up to fight them. Anyone considering a military career in the 21st century should consider that this seems to be the only future of warfare. If no one can get within 60 days of launching an actual attack, every war will be theoretical and based on trusting the government and intelligence services, all of whom have done little to earn that trust in recent years. PTSD will be the norm, at least until robot technology can step in and save this perpetual pre-emptive war from ending.

Press-ganging the Muslims

With this in mind, and with the fact that every recent pre-emptive war and pre-emptive strike has been against Muslim targets, I find it incredible to see recent concerted efforts to encourage Muslims to join the military. If the justifications for recent military action seem weak to non-Muslims—the scepticism is certainly widespread and the PTSD quite clearly devastating—what do the people crafting those justifications imagine they look like to Muslims?

The western military lost much goodwill when US officials threatened to bomb Pakistan “back to the Stone Age” if they did not aid their coalition in invading Afghanistan, [8] an impoverished country with no military capability for attacking other nations or clear intention of doing so. According to one report, 149,000 people have died in war in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2001.[9] If non-Muslim soldiers with no connection to the area are struggling to live with that blood on their hands, what chance would young, majority Pakistani origin, British Muslims have to avoid potentially deadly moral injury? What kind of twisted optimist would ask us to join in with this? Unless it is an extreme Yakuza-style proof of loyalty they are after.

But this is not a case of divided loyalties as some nationalistically-minded people might claim. It is a case of dual loyalties which are not mutually exclusive and which only an ignorant person would claim to be unnatural or something that should not be accounted for. Researchers looking at the PTSD data for Vietnam veterans found:

“The racial similarity between [American] Hispanic and [enemy] Vietnamese soldiers, and the discrimination Hispanic soldiers faced from their own military, made it difficult for Hispanic soldiers to dehumanize their enemy.”[10]

Hispanic veterans were found to be 3 times more likely and Black veterans 2.5 times more likely to suffer PTSD than white veterans.[11] Considering this is a known phenomenon, one wonders if asking Muslims to take part in the current conflicts is a case of negligence, especially on the part of those Muslim organisations who have agreed to encourage us to do so.

Can war be a career?

Regardless of religion or background, military service has never been popular and, in this new age of overly entertained individualism, the last thing most people want is to be ordered to march around in formation and kill or be killed outside of a computer game. As a result of this, the military has to make a career in war seem appealing or, at the very least, not as unappealing as it would obviously be.

This year the Army claims to be offering a cross between a Zen retreat and a team-building weekend. “Feed your mind, body and soul” reads the tagline on a range of 30 second buddy movies in which groups of men behave in an utterly benign way while committing the most aggressive actions known to mankind.[1][2]

As though to say “Invading countries? Nah, it’s just banter with the lads.”

“Militarily occupying the ruins of a nation we destroyed? Nah, we’re just chillin’.”

Considering whether to join in fighting an opposition with deadly force is a life-altering and momentous decision. We should not be conned into thinking it is a lark or a bonding exercise. Post-Nuremburg trials, the rest of the world now agrees that killing on the basis of following orders is not legally sufficient. Further to this, each Muslim knows we are personally answerable to Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) and must consider if it would be pleasing to Him to kill someone who merely looks like they might be thinking of fighting us, or found themselves on a spurious kill list due to a tweet. Not merely for the sake of our sanity in this life we need to ask if accidentally striking a hospital or wedding party with a drone due to relying on intel that is known to be less than 100% accurate will be pleasing to Him. Before considering a military job that supports such attacks, from being an army chef to working for a private contractor making components for drones, we need to consider the end result we will be partly responsible for. Fortunately Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) gives guidance on war in the Qur’ān:

“Fight in the way of Allāh against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allāh loveth not aggressors.”[3]

“And if they incline to peace, then incline to it and trust in Allāh; surely He is the Hearing, the Knowing.”[4]

“So if they remove themselves from you and do not fight you and offer you peace, then Allāh has not made for you a cause [for fighting] against them.[5]

“Allāh does not forbid you respecting those who have not made war against you on account of (your) religion, and have not driven you forth from your homes, that you show them kindness and deal with them justly; surely Allāh loves the doers of justice.”[6]

“…take not life, which Allāh hath made sacred, except by way of justice and law…”[7]

“Nor take life – which Allāh has made sacred – except for just cause…”[8]

“…nor take the life which Allāh hath forbidden save in (course of) justice…”[9]

Submission to Allāh and adherence to His regulations prevent us fighting anyone from whom the threat to us is not apparent—in much the same way as used to be required by Western laws when it was more civilised. It protects us from the soul-crushing impact of committing what even those who claim to be atheists recognise is an enormous sin.

Our abstention does not necessarily mean we are siding with the chosen enemy of our government. It should be viewed as no different to other conscientious objectors. It is not a case of national disloyalty to refuse to participate in military actions widely considered unwise and illegal. When, as seems to be happening in most cases these days, Western militaries go to war on fudged legal lines and argue the legality later, it seems ever more the individual’s patriotic duty to consider for themselves what is the right thing for them and our country. If military personnel had followed what the public knew and said no to the politicians over their clearly dubious plans to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, 635 British people would not have been killed; over 10,000 physically injured or 59,000 suffering from PTSD; ISIS would not exist; the refugee crisis would not exist, and so on.

I have no doubts British Muslims would be among the first to put our shoulder to the wheel were there a threat to our country that actually resembled a threat. But, in the current climate, it does not seem wise to sign up for a military career where under current legislation doing so removes our ability to selectively, conscientiously object and legally commits us to following our politicians’ often dubious orders.

Source: www.islam21c.com

Notes:

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqQvpPmfbhg

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WeuFCHIvutI

[3] Al-Qur’ān, 2:190 (Pickthall)

[4] Al-Qur’ān, 8:61 (Shakir)

[5] Al-Qur’ān, 4:90, Sahih International

[6] Al-Qur’ān, 60:8 (Shakir)

[7] Al-Qur’ān, 6:151 (Yusuf Ali)

[8] Al-Qur’ān, 17:33 (Yusuf Ali)

[9] Al-Qur’ān, 25:68 (Pickthall)

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2018158

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caroline_test

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/obamas-drone-war-is-a-shameful-part-of-his-legacy/2016/05/05/a727eea8-12ea-11e6-8967-7ac733c56f12_story.html

[4] https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/10/statement-president-isil-1

[5] https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/co-occurring/moral_injury_at_war.asp

[6] http://militarymedicine.amsus.org/doi/full/10.7205/MILMED-D-13-00017

[7] Friedman MJ: Post-Vietnam syndrome: recognition and management. Psychosomatics 1981; 22: 931–42.

[8] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2006/09/paki-s27.html

[9] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/06/03/149000-people-have-died-in-war-in-afghanistan-and-pakistan-since-2001-report-says/

[10] Ruef, Anna; Litz, Brett; Schlenger, William (2000). “Hispanic Ethnicity and Risk for Combat-Related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder”. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology. 6 (3): 235–251. doi:10.1037/1099-9809.6.3.235.

[11] Chandler, Jerome Greer, (Aug. 2015) “PTSD Is Bad for your Physical Health,” VFW magazine, pps: 30-32.

About Abdullah Thomson

Abdullah reverted to Islam from agnosticism 10 years ago. He works in allied health and as the secretary of his local mosque. He continues to try his best to understand the challenges of the dunya in the light of revelation and tries to bring his experience of previously being a British non-Muslim to his da'wah efforts.

6 comments

  1. Hello Abullah again. Responses to your interesting article seem to be a bit sparse. Perhaps Muslims have a simple answer to “just wars” and moral imperatives: If Islam is being spread wider, good. If Islamic countries are being hit by non-Muslims, bad. If Muslims or so-called Muslims are killing Muslims, keep out of our business.

    For example, to give just one example, criticism of Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds over many years (I can remember 50 years ago, when I first visited Turkey, the “wanted” posters of Kurdish political activists all over the place) is noticeable by its absence, just as Saddam Hussein’s gassing of them, and his responsibility for the deaths of one million Iranians, never mind of his own people, is not considered sufficient reason for the West to get rid of him.

    If you understand the historical direction of our country’s military policy over the last few centuries (not withstanding the weird creation of the evil British Empire), it is about one overriding thing, the prevention of any one European power gaining ascendancy over the others, which would threaten us.

    From the sinking of the Spanish Armada, through the Duke of Marlborough’s victory at the battle of Blenheim; the defeat of Napoleon on land and at sea; the Crimean war against Imperial Russia, fought in order to protect Turkey; the defeat of the Kaiser’s Prussian Empire; and the second world war against Hitler’s Nazi Germany, all of these wars TOOK THE FIGHT TO THE ENEMY, SO WE WOULD NOT HAVE TO FIGHT IT ON OUR OWN SOIL.
    I don’t know if you accept the need for wars as a part of the Human condition, that’s another subject.

    Of course with the advent of asymmetric war there will be attacks here, some times understandable (I don’t agree with the IRA bombing campaign here, but I understand it given the treatment of the Irish by the British. One of my ancestral lines came from Leitrim to the UK following the Irish Famine), but it is usually counter-productive and irrational, and doomed to failure, notwithstanding the death of innocents. These attacks will make the lot of Muslims in Britain harder, which is exactly what terrorism seeks to achieve. We shouldn’t make excuses for them.

    One thing is for sure, and that is that people who reject scientific evidence, verified by the entire international scientific community, about the origins or life through fossils and carbon-dating methods, and rather cling to ancient divisive doctrines, will never be able to fairly or objectively look at our long-term defence needs.

  2. Watch Zionists Bombing the British King David Hotel – https://youtu.be/4wGsMW_S1kk – The King David Hotel bombing was a terrorist attack carried out by the militant right-wing Zionist underground organization, the Irgun, on the British administrative headquarters for Palestine.

  3. The Vietnam war was to stop the spread of communism. In that ai

    The Vietnam war was fought to stop the spread of communism. It succeeded.

    The British declaration of war on Germany was to stop the spread of Nazism. It succeeded.

    The Iraq war was fought to get rid of Saddam Hussein and his WMDs. It succeeded.

    The war in Iraq and Syria now is to get rid of Isis control. It will succeed.

    The fight against the Shia regime in Syria is the latest chapter in an ongoing war between Shias and Sunnis almost since the birth of Islam, and will continue until Moslems get the message and attain democracy.

    • I agree with you for the most part. Unfortunately, Islam by its nature will never be able to experience “democracy”. Perhaps a form of “social democracy ” , but since Islam is actually just a political movement disguised as a religion this will never happen.

    • I agree with you for the most part. Unfortunately, Islam by its nature will never be able to experience “democracy”. Perhaps a form of “social democracy ” , but since Islam is actually just a political movement disguised as a religion this will never happen.

  4. In 1967 Israel knowingly attacked an unarmed US Naval ship (the USS Liberty) and killed 34 crew members and wounded 171. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjOH1XMAwZA&t=138s

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