Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Religious Considerations and Self-Forgiveness in Treating Complex Trauma and Moral Injury in Present and Former Soldiers

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Religious Considerations and Self-Forgiveness in Treating Complex Trauma and Moral Injury in Present and Former Soldiers

Article excerpt

Being in the military, especially if deployed in combat or combat potential settings, can create opportunities for self-condemnation--occurring through moral injury or apart from and within the context of complex trauma. Moral injury is internal conflict due to doing or witnessing acts not in line with one's morals. Complex trauma involves a prolonged history of subjection to totalitarian control and involves danger, stress, and inability to escape from the situation. Combat can be interpreted as fitting these criteria. We first examine how military deployment might lead to self-condemnation due to moral failures by wrongdoing or when soldiers let down their peers and themselves. We examine soldiers who develop complex trauma and explore its contributions to self-condemnation. Religious issues are likely to be involved. Active wrongdoing, moral failure, and failures of church- and culture-created religious expectations contribute. Soldiers need the skill of self-forgiveness through secular and religiously tailored programs delivered via psychoeducational groups, workbook, or online.

The number of people who have served or will likely serve in the military is large (Cornum, Matthews, & Seligman, 2011). In Iraq and Afghanistan alone, over 1.64 million military personnel have served (Hoge et al., 2004; Smith, et al., 2008). When one considers the number of living veterans from other conflicts, this represents a substantial proportion of the population in the United States. Deployment affects spouses, children, and extended family members and friends (for a review, see Sheppard, Malatras, & Israel, 2010). There is an increased demand for clinical services from mental health professionals, and the demand is likely to increase.

One important problem among military personnel that psychotherapists will be required to deal with is self-condemnation. Self-condemnation is defined as criticism and condemnation of oneself (along with accompanying moral emotions from among guilt, shame, remorse, regret, self-blame, etc.) due to perceived (a) moral wrongdoing (including omission of doing one's duty or acting in accord with one's conscience), (b) failure at living up to one's standards (which is also considered a moral failure), or (c) failure to live up to one's expectations (which might not be considered a moral failure at all). Combat soldiers face many moral and ethical challenges (Drescher et al., 2011; Litz et al., 2009). They may violate their own deeply held moral beliefs, witness the unethical behaviors of others, or question the justness of their own countries involvement in war. As a result they suffer internal conflict between their morally questionable actions and internal beliefs. In addition, soldiers often witness great human suffering and cruelty that shatters their core beliefs about humanity and sometimes about God, both of which might result in doubts, questions, and conflicts about their faith. They may experience challenges to their conception of God and question the goodness or power of God. They may also lose the belief that humans are redeemable. They may deal with these moral, ethical, religious, and spiritual challenges during active duty, in periods of non-deployment or while deployed, or later as veterans (Fontana & Rosenheck, 2004). These experiences result in internal conflict, which is considered moral injury (Litz a al., 2009). Dealing inadequately with the results of these stressors can produce self-condemnation, which can impair physical health, mental health, relationships, and spiritual functioning (Fontana & Rosencheck, 2004; Witvliet, Phipps, Feldman, & Beckman, 2004). Dealing adequately or successfully coming to terms with moral injury results in moral repair (Drescher et al., 2011; Steenkamp et al., 2011).

The central argument in our article is this. Chronic and severe self-condemnation, often (but not always) arising from moral injury, is a substantial risk for military personnel. …

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