James W.D. Stewart

James W.D. Stewart

Embrace "The Suck"


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If there's one thing we have learned from returning war veterans — especially, those of the last decade — it's that the emotional reality of the soldier at home's often at odds with that of the civilian public which they left behind.  And, while friends and families of returning service members may be experiencing gratefulness and/or relief, many of those they've welcomed home are likely struggling with other emotions.

High on that list of emotions, is guilt.  Soldiers often carry this burden home — survivor guilt being, perhaps, the kind most familiar to us.  In war, standing here rather than there can save your life, but cost a buddy his.  It's fucking luck, but you feel responsible though.  The guilt begins an endless loop of counterfactuals — thoughts that you could've and/or should've done otherwise — though, in fact, you did nothing wrong.  The feelings are, of course, not restricted to the battle-field.  But, given the magnitude of loss during war, they hang heavy there, and are pervasive.  And, they raise the question of just how irrational those feelings are…  If they aren't, of what is the basis of their reasonableness?

/blog/2017/04/27/the-moral-logic-of-survivor-guilt/

https://forces.army/blog/2017/04/27/the-moral-logic-of-survivor-guilt/

The Moral Logic of Survivor Guilt

Count Words — Reading Time
by James Stewart
Published: 
Updated:  N/A
Location:  Memorial Park, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada
 

 

If there's one thing we have learned from returning war veterans — especially, those of the last decade — it's that the emotional reality of the soldier at home's often at odds with that of the civilian public which they left behind.  And, while friends and families of returning service members may be experiencing gratefulness and/or relief, many of those they've welcomed home are likely struggling with other emotions.

High on that list of emotions, is guilt.  Soldiers often carry this burden home — survivor guilt being, perhaps, the kind most familiar to us.  In war, standing here rather than there can save your life, but cost a buddy his.  It's fucking luck, but you feel responsible though.  The guilt begins an endless loop of counterfactuals — thoughts that you could've and/or should've done otherwise — though, in fact, you did nothing wrong.  The feelings are, of course, not restricted to the battle-field.  But, given the magnitude of loss during war, they hang heavy there, and are pervasive.  And, they raise the question of just how irrational those feelings are…  If they aren't, of what is the basis of their reasonableness?

Captain Adrian Bonenberger, head of a unit in Afghanistan that James Dao and other journalists of The New York Times reported on in their series "A Year at War", pondered those questions as he thought about Specialist Jeremiah Pulaski.  Jeremiah was killed by police in the wake of a deadly bar fight — shortly, after he'd returned home.  Back in Afghanistan, Pulaski had saved Bonenberger's life — twice in a single day.  But, when Pulaski needed help, Bonenberger couldn't be there for him:

When he was in trouble, he was alone.  We were in trouble, he was there for us.  I know it's not rational or reasonable.  There's nothing logical about it.  But, I feel responsible.

But how unreasonable is that feeling?  Subjective guilt, associated with this sense of responsibility, is thought to be irrational because one feels guilty despite the fact that he knows he's done nothing wrong.  Objective and/or rational guilt, by contrast — guilt that's "fitting" to one's actions — accurately, tracks real wrong-doing and/or culpability…  Guilt's appropriate because one acted to, deliberately, harm someone and/or could have prevented harm and didn't.  Blameworthiness, here, depends upon the idea that a person could've done something other than what he did.  And, so he's held responsible and/or accountable, by himself and/or others.

But as Bonenberger's remarks make clear, we often take responsibility in a way that goes beyond what we can reasonably be held responsible for.  And, we feel the guilt that comes with that sense of responsibility.  Nietzsche, is the modern philosopher who well understood this phenomenon:

Das schlechte Gewissen.
 
Literally, "bad conscience" — his term for the consciousness of guilt, where one's done no wrong, doesn't grow in the soil where we'd most expect it.  He argued, such as in prisons, where there are actually "guilty" parties who should feel remorse for wrong-doing.  In "The Genealogy of Morals", he appeals to an earlier philosopher, Spinoza, for support:
The bite of conscience.
 
Spinoza writes in the "Ethics" has to do with an "offense" where "something has gone unexpectedly wrong".  As Niezsche adds, it's not really a case of "I ought not to have done that".

But, what then, is it a case of?  Part of the reasonableness of survivor guilt — and, in a sense, its "fittingness" — is that it tracks a moral significance that's broader than moral action.  Who I am, in terms of my character and relationships, and not just what I do, matters morally.  Of course, character's expressed in action, and when we don't "walk the walk", we're lacking…  But, it's also expressed in emotions and attitudes.  Aristotle, in his "Nicomachean Ethics", insists on the point:

Virtue is concerned with emotions and actions.
 
To have good character, is to "hit the mean" with respect to both.  Moreover, many of the feelings that express character aren't about what one has done and/or should've done, but rather, about what one cares deeply about.  Though Aristotle doesn't himself talk about guilt, it's the emotion that best expresses that conflict — the desire and/or obligation to help, frustrated by the inability, through no fault of one's own, to do so.  To not feel the guilt's to be numb to those pulls.  It's that vulnerability, those pulls, that Boneneberger feels when he says he wasn't there for Pulaski when he needed him.

In many of the interviews that I've conducted with other soldiers, over the years, feelings of guilt and responsibility tangle with feelings of having betrayed fellow soldiers.  At stake's the duty to those soldiers, the imperative to hold intact the bond that enables them to fight for — and with — each other in the kind of "sacred band" that the ancients memorialized and that the Marine motto "semper fidelis" captures so well.  But it's not just duty at work — it's love.

Service members, especially those of higher ranks, routinely talk about unit members as "my soldiers", "my sailors".  They're family members, their own children of sorts, who've been entrusted to them.  To fall short of unconditional care's experienced as a kind of perfidy — a failure to be faithful.  Survivor guilt piles on the unconscious thought that luck's part of a zero-sum game…  To have good luck is to deprive another of it.  The anguish of guilt, its sheer pain, is a way of sharing some of the ill fate.  It's a form of empathic distress.

Many philosophers have looked to other terms to define the feeling.  What they've come up with is "agent-regret" — a term coined by the British philosopher, Bernard Williams, but used by many others.  The classic scenario isn't so much one of good luck — as in survivor guilt — but, rather, of bad luck…  Typically, having to do with accidents, where again, there's little or no culpability for the harms caused.  In these cases, people may be causally responsible for harm — they bring about the harm through their agency — but, they aren't morally responsible for what happened.

But to my ear, agent-regret is simply tone-deaf to how subjective the guilt feels.  Despite the insertion of "agent", it sounds as passive and flat as "regretting that the weather's bad".  Or, more tellingly, as removed from empathic distress as the message sent to the next of kin…  After an official knock on the door:

The Minister of Defense, regrets to inform you, that…

Indeed, the other soldiers that I've spoken with, involved in friendly-fire accidents that took their comrades' lives, didn't feel regret for what happened — rather, deep, raw, and unabashed guilt.  And, the guilt persisted long after they were formally investigated, and ultimately exonerated.  In one wrenching case of April 2003 in Iraq, the gun on a Bradley fighting vehicle mis-fired — blowing off most of the face of Private Joseph Mayek who happened to be standing guard near the vehicle.  The accident was, ultimately, traced to a faulty replacement battery that the commander-in-charge had authorized.  When the Bradley's ignition was turned on, the replacement battery in the turret — a Marine battery, rather than an Army one — failed to shut-off current to the gun.  Mayek, who was 20-years of age, died.

The Army officer-in-charge — then Captain — John Prior, reconstructed the ghastly scene, and the failed attempts in the medic tent to save Mayek's life, for me.  He then turned to his feelings of responsibility:

I'm the one who placed the vehicles.  I'm the one who set the security.  As with most accidents, I'm not in jail right now.  Clearly, I wasn't egregiously responsible.  But, it is a comedy of errors.  Any one of a dozen decisions made over the course of a two-month period and none of them really occurs to you at the time.  Any one of those made differently may have saved his life.  So, I dealt with and still deal with the guilt of having cost him his life essentially…  There's probably not a day that doesn't go by that I don't think about it, at least fleetingly.

What Prior feels are feelings of guilt, and not simply, regret that things didn't work-out differently.  He feels the awful weight of self-indictment, the empathy with the victim and survivors, and the need to make moral repair.  If he didn't feel that, we'd more than likely think less of him as a commander.

In his case, moral repair came through an empathic and painful connection with Mayek's mother.  After the fratricide, Prior and his 1st sergeant wrote a letter to Mayek's mother.  And, for some time after, she replied with care packages to the company and with letters.  "Oh, it was terrible", said Prior.  "The letters weren't just very matter of fact — here's what we did today — it was more like a mother writing to her son".  Prior had become the son who was no longer.  "It was her way of dealing with the grief", said Prior.  "And, so I had a responsibility to try to give back".

In all this, we may say guilt — subjective guilt — has a redemptive side.  It's a way that soldiers impose moral order on the chaos and awful randomness of war's violence.  It's a way of humanizing war for themselves, for their buddies, and for civilians too.

But, if that's all that's involved, it sounds too moralistic.  It makes guilt appropriate and/or fitting because it's good for society.  It's the way that we all can deal with war.  Perhaps, instead, we want to say that it's fitting because it's evolutionarily adaptive in the way that fear is.  But, again, this doesn't do justice to the phenomenon.  The guilt that soldiers feel isn't just morally expedient and/or species-adaptive.  It's fitting because it gets right certain moral and/or evaluative features of a soldier's world — that good soldiers depend on each other, come to love each other, and have duties to care and bring each other safely home.  Philosophers, at least, since the time of Kant, have called these "imperfect duties"…  Even, in the best circumstances, we can't perfectly fulfill them.  And, so, what duties to others need to make room for, even in a soldier's life of service and sacrifice, are duties to self, of self-forgiveness, and of self-empathy.  These are a part of full moral repair.

 
Categories:  Health, Medical  
Tags:  MyCAF, Opinionated, Self, The Suck

 
Syndicated to:

 
References:

  1. After Combat, the Unexpected Perils of Coming Home
    by James Dao Published: 
    Referenced: 
  2. A Year at War
    by The New York Times Referenced: 

 

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Creative Commons Licence :: BY-NC-SA James W.D. Stewart by James Stewart is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.  Based on a work at https://github.com/jwds1978/jwds1978.github.io.