This is the fourth and last of a series of posts under the same title.
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For many years now—many years before ever reading Jane E. Brody’s article, and encountering there the use of the term “moral injury” at issue in what she reports—I have found myself on various occasions wondering about the very issues that arise in her article: issues pertaining to how those who committed wartime atrocities might best be helped to confront themselves and their own crimes, and how they might still be embraced in community. However, the context in terms of which I have always thought about those issues before I read Brody’s article was not the one that concerns her, which is that of U.S. military veterans who fought in our wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Instead, the context in terms of which I thought of those issues before reading her article was always that of the Holocaust itself. What I would find myself thinking about was not those U.S. perpetrators of atrocities, but rather those who helped perpetrate the murder of millions during the Holocaust, in death camps or killing fields or any of the other places where such murders were carried out. I would find myself wondering what one could and should say concerning them, and the suffering that, surely, many of them must have experienced by the memories of what they had done—suffering they must have continued to undergo even decades after they had committed the crimes they did commit. What would one say to the former SS camp-guard at Auschwitz, for example, who had bashed babies heads in, and led countless men, women, and children into the gas chambers, and who suffered from the overwhelming guilt the recollection of such deeds should haunt anyone who did them, and must have haunted at least some of the surviving perpetrators of the Holocaust itself?
The anger I felt when I read Jane E. Brody’s article about contemporary clinical approaches to the counseling of U.S. veterans of our wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq who suffer from the same sort of “moral injury” had its roots deep in the soil of all those earlier thoughts of my own pertaining to German veterans and the veterans of other nations that assisted Germany in perpetrating the Holocaust. My anger rose especially when I read the remarks attributed to Dr. Brett Litz, about the need to assure U.S. vets who suffered from such “moral injury” that “that they will not be judged and are deserving of forgiveness,” the need to tell them that “disclosing, sharing, [and] confessing” their crimes “is fundamental to repair” of their own injuries, and the need to encourage them “ to ‘engage in the world in a way that is repairing—for example, by helping children or writing letters’,” so that they can “find forgiveness within themselves or from others.” I could not help but wonder how receptive readers of those remarks in the Times article would be to them if they were addressed, not to U.S. veterans who perpetrated atrocities in Vietnam and after, but to German and other European nations’ veterans who perpetrated the Holocaust.
I wondered, and I found my anger rising.
As I have said before here, the issue is not to engage in some comparison of atrocities, trying to decide which atrocity was worse, which nation guilty of the most or worst crimes. We should have no patience for the disgusting business of drawing such comparisons, trying to establish the victor in the race of nations into moral depravity. That is not in the least the issue.
The issue is, rather, to abandon all such self-serving attempts to justify “our” own “exceptionalism,” whether that be the exceptionalism of Germany, home of the “master race,” or of the United States of America, “home of the brave and land of the free.” The issue is to forget ourselves and our own obsessive self-concern, that we might at last remember who we really are, and act accordingly.