How veterans' moral injury has led to political engagement

by Sara De Jong

8 Jul 2024

Side by side positive and negative photographic portraits of Afghanistan veteran 'Marcus', blurred and layered so so the details of the subject's face cannot be discerned.o
Photographic portrait of Afghanistan veteran 'Marcus', part of the 'Armed with Words: Interpreting the War in Afghanistan (2001-2021)' exhibit at the British Academy Summer Showcase 2024. Photography and Design © Andy Barnham

On 24 August 2021, when global news media broadcasted the images of desperate Afghans trying to get onto evacuation flights, German soldier Marcus Grotian gave a speech at a national press conference. A long-standing advocate for the protection of locally employed Afghan staff, he had been a lone voice until the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan thrust him into the limelight as the expert on the plight of Afghans left behind. He stated solemnly: “I read often in these hours and days that many veterans are retraumatised. And I can tell you why. We are morally injured. […] We have not been injured by the actions of the Taliban, [but] we have been morally injured by our own government.” (English translation from German).

Marcus, who I had been following since 2017, was one of a handful of veteran advocates, who were vocal about their country’s failure to provide adequate protection to Afghans facing Taliban threats, because they had worked for Western militaries as interpreters, security guards, mechanics or drivers. I interviewed Marcus and other veteran advocates from the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, and Sweden for my research into the claims to rights by Afghan interpreters and the motivations of their allies. Each of these veteran advocates amplified the voices of Afghan interpreters, using methods such as political lobbying, media engagement, and legal challenges, while also providing direct support to local staff left in Afghanistan.

Moral injury and military ethos

Matt Zeller, a US veteran advocate, also used the term ‘moral injury’ to describe the sense of betrayal many veterans felt about leaving their former colleagues in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. “Moral injury concerns acts that violate one’s sense of morality and ethics”, as defined by Molendijk (2019). It is different from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a trauma response to a violation of one’s sense of safety. I interviewed Matt Zeller in 2017 in Washington DC about his motivation to set up the non-profit organisation No One Left Behind. The ethical commitment to ‘leave no one behind’ was one of the guiding principles that veterans felt was violated in the treatment of Afghans who had worked alongside them.

Other veteran advocates, who did not use the concept of ‘moral injury’, still described precisely the kind of violation of ethics that it entails. Retired Colonel Simon Diggins told me that while he was working as the UK Defence Attaché to Kabul, an interpreter was seriously injured, losing three limbs. Diggins was told by a civil servant that the interpreter could not be brought to the UK to receive medical treatment - as would have been done for an injured British soldier - because of the risk that he would claim asylum. As Simon put it when I interviewed him: “It jarred against what I thought was the ethos of my service. […] You look after your blokes.” British Afghanistan veteran, Peter Gordon-Finlayson, who with Diggins was one of the co-founders of the organisation Sulha Alliance, which supports Afghan interpreters who worked with the British Army, referenced the same principles. Interpreters, Peter explained, “were part of the tight knit team, and then we were set to leave them behind and say goodbye at the end. It was a bit like leaving one of your soldiers behind […]. It just feels so wrong.”

Moral injury and politics

When the UK Defence Select Committee published its report on the Afghanistan Withdrawal in 2023, it also documented the moral injury experienced by Afghanistan veterans. In response, the UK Ministry of Defence made a range of funding pledges to support veteran mental health services. In her book Combat Trauma, Nadia Abu El Haj critiques this type of individualised, clinical approach to moral injury, where psychological counselling forecloses more difficult collective questions about war and neo-imperial violence. She contrasts the current moment with the era of Vietnam veteran anti-war activists, who understood that “repairing the self and ending imperial harm went hand in hand” (Abu El Haj, 2002). Different from Vietnam, the Afghanistan veterans that I interviewed were almost all professional soldiers, who had invested much of their identity and beliefs in their service with the army and therefore also stood much to lose when these were challenged.

My research findings suggests that moral injury can provide fuel for political engagement with the aim to right wrongs. The efforts by the veteran advocates that I interviewed helped assuage their personal moral conflict, but also led them to uncover the structural injustices of migration policies and war economies. Matt Zeller recounted the moment he picked up his former interpreter from a US airport: “I learned at that moment that our country’s approach to resettling refugees is that we outsource the problem to an amalgamation of religious and secular non-profits and we hope for the best. And they are under resourced and over-burdened.” Retired Major General Charlie Herbert and UK advocate shared that “the way Afghanistan ended broke my belief in the utility of force. I’ve become exceedingly sceptical that we can achieve political results through the use of force.” These insights and reflections are testimony to Nadia Abu El Haj’s suggestion that “the opening that appears [in accounts of moral injury], be it ever so slight, is worth attending to” (2002).

Sara de Jong is a Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of York.

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