Wounding Warriors: Their Own Wounds That Time Can’t Heal (3)

This is the third of a series of posts under the same title.

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The anger I felt when I first read Jane E. Brody’s article “War Wounds That Time Can’t Heal” was actually not directed toward those U. S. veterans of our wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq who were the subjects of the article. My anger was not at all at those U.S. veterans themselves who suffer from having to live with their knowledge of having once perpetrated atrocities. I was not—and am not—angry at them.

What I feel for such vets themselves is not anger at all. It is actually compassion. From my own experience, I can identify with them and their suffering.

I have never killed any children, either intentionally—whether under orders or not—or by accident. Nor have I ever stood by and watched while others did such killing. But I certainly have done things of which I am far from proud, and I have suffered at the knowledge of my deeds. What is more, I will even disclose, share, and confess that I can understand how it is possible to do even such things as such vets themselves once did.

Perhaps there are some who cannot understand that, but I must say that I can. I realize the capacity for doing such things lies within me, and could be triggered under certain conditions that I hope and pray will never materialize around me. It certainly gives me no pride to acknowledge such capacities in myself, but I am under no illusion that I am free from all possibility of committing such crimes.

I will even go so far as to confess that I would truly like to see those who do suffer from the fact that they actually did commit such crimes come to be healed of their suffering.

Yet I must also confess that, were those who had committed such offenses, and who did so suffer from the knowledge of it, to come to me for some reason to seek counsel and advice, one thing I would not do is tell them what Brody reports Dr. Brett Litz as saying. That is, I would not tell such vets that they are “not to be judged and are deserving of forgiveness.”

I would share with them what I have already shared above, which is that I understand how one could commit such deeds as they committed, which I can even imagine I might also have committed myself under similar circumstances, and that I have compassion for them in their suffering. I’d even tell them that I hoped they would be able to find healing for that suffering.

But then I would go on and tell them that they would not find forgiveness and healing just, “for example, by helping children or writing letters,” as Dr. Litz recommends, by Brody’s account. I’d tell them that, to be sure, helping children today, and also writing letters to the very long-dead children they had killed, expressing their own horror at what they had done to those children, were certainly to be recommended. I would add, however, that in my judgment no amount of such behavior would ever of itself make the perpetrators of such deeds “deserving of forgiveness,” most especially deserving of it from those from whom they most needed to receive it, which is precisely from those now dead, the very one’s they once killed, who are, of course, for that very reason no longer able to offer it.

Above all, I would encourage them to explore ways of accepting that what they did was beyond all possibility of forgiveness, that it was literally unforgiveable. I would counsel them that precisely for that reason, all endeavors to find ways to expiate their guilt were really no more than avoidance strategies on their part. They are such avoidance strategies at best, I would tell them.

I would probably avoid telling them what they are at worst, since that probably wouldn’t help anybody at all, perpetrators or victims or anybody else. That’s because, in my view, what such endeavors at self-expiation are at worst is no more than self-glorifying, grandstanding ways of calling attention to oneself, and thereby compounding one’s already inexpiable guilt.

In either case, best or worst, such behaviors do not succeed in expiating such guilt. They do not atone for it. What I would counsel sufferers of such inexpiable “moral guilt,” in the highly unlikely chance that any were to come to me, is precisely that they abandon any illusion they may have that good deeds they do now will earn them forgiveness. They should certainly do such good deeds, since they are indeed good; but doing them now does not compensate for what they did then, nor will it ever so compensate.

To use an image that gave me the title for my own book The Open Wound, on what my subtitle calls “trauma, identity, and community,” I would counsel them to learn to live with their guilt as with an always still open wound, instead of compulsively repeating futile attempts to close it—attempts that actually always make things worse, not better. I would assure them that I would not reject them, turn my back on them, cast them out of community with me, because of what they did, since I knew I had the capacity to do the same things myself. However, I would persist in telling them that that did not mean that I “forgave” them for what they had done, since it simply was not in my power to grant them such forgiveness. I would tell them that, in my own judgment, my ongoing willingness to accept them into full communion with me, as it were, would in no way bring it about that they were somehow thereby washed clean of their guilt. I would urge them to accept that such forgiveness was something altogether beyond anyone’s power, since what they did was unforgiveable.

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To be continued.