(Jenny Krashin/Broadside)

(Jenny Krashin/Broadside)

“War’s most cunning trick, was the war it seeded in me.” Kevin Sites explained to students last Tuesday. The author of In the Hot Zone and, most recently, The Things They Cannot Say, Sites has spent ten years of a twenty-year journalism career in warzones.

What inspired Sites to write his most recent book was the simple concept of storytelling that he said was a process of healing. But Sites’ discussion did not focus solely on his most recent publication. Instead, the conversation was guided towards the moral ambiguity surrounding journalism and, more specifically, journalism in warzones.

While not a soldier himself, Sites faced the same issues many soldiers face today. “Was I a bad person, or just that way in war?” he asked himself. What it all boiled down to was something called moral injury.

When the definition of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) did not fit his symptoms, Sites stated that “it wasn’t what I witnessed that was haunting me; it was the guilt over walking out.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) describes moral injury, in the context of war, as “a construct that describes extreme and unprecedented life experience including the harmful aftermath of exposure to such events.”

Meaning that, whether direct or indirect, witnessing or participating in acts that transgress, or go against, a person’s moral codes can result in “highly aversive and haunting states of inner conflict and turmoil.”

The studies for moral injury are relatively new and widely unknown, as opposed to PTSD. Sites described the feeling of moral injury as “carrying around guilt and self-hate” and “an enormous burden that was hard to shake off.” He experienced insomnia and reoccurring thoughts of events in which he had left a man who was later murdered.

What both Kevin Sites and the VA agree on is that talking about what transpired – in a non-clinical setting – is a beneficial treatment. Within simply talking about events, it is possible to find self-forgiveness, which is apart of the VA’s Impact of Killing in War (IOK) program. Sites also stated that moral injury is made up of two forms of guilt: killing and surviving.

The Department of Veterans Affairs lists events such as “Unintentional Errors” and “Transgressive Acts of Others” as causes of moral injury. And while the VA does note that PTSD and moral injury overlap, it states, “each has unique components that make them separable consequences of war and other traumatic contexts”. Their website also acknowledges that current treatment for PTSD may not be sufficient for those suffering from moral injury.

Kevin Sites’ discussion concluded with the idea that our definition of war should be re-worked to focus on the civil destruction and collateral damage as opposed to combat.

“Combatants,” he said, “become a part of collateral damage, too.” He also stated that every time a soldier pulls the trigger, they are killing a piece of their soul. It is woven into their job and in their memory. But what was most striking about his conclusion was the idea that we, as Americans, must be forgiven just as much as the soldiers must forgive themselves.

“Not only do we have to welcome these hundreds of thousands of troops back into peace time society, we have to take some of the responsibility for what they did. We sent them to war. It’s not necessarily themselves that have to be forgiven; we have to be forgiven as well.”

If the simple act of walking away can have such an effect on a journalist, one can only imagine the daily struggle thousands of veterans now face.