‘War wounds of the spirit’: Guilt, grief, PTSD, and moral injury. Remembering and interpreting wartime experiences.
Paper presented at Heritage of the Air Conference, 16 November 2019 https://www.aicomos.com/
Image courtesy of James Kightly, www.VintageAeroWriter.com
My PhD research focuses on the 351 Australian airmen prisoners of Stalag Luft III, a Luftwaffe camp noted for the so-called Great Escape. I analyse how the airmen reacted to and managed wartime confinement, and its post-war consequences. In particular, I consider the emotions of captivity. Today, I’ll discuss some of the moral challenges of service and captivity faced by my cohort, and the affective responses they provoked.
For many of my cohort, moral troubling did not occur during the war. It arose after some years—often in late life—as the former airmen remembered and interpreted their wartime experiences. Reflection provoked a range of emotions, including guilt, grief, shame, anger, and disgust. Some of the men allayed their moral troubles. Some could not. Their consciences were in turmoil. Their ‘war wounds of the spirit’ generated great distress. Some suffered moral injury.
There is currently no consensus about the meaning of ‘moral injury’. Definitions vary depending on researchers’ professional interests, study parameters, and their cohorts’ experiences. What I have discovered as I navigate my way through them is that, rather than pin down what moral injury is, many describe what moral injury is about. My study of moral injury is a work in progress so I’m not too worried at the moment about lack of definitional clarity. But one thing my cohort has shown me is that moral injury is the endpoint of extreme, distressful, unresolved moral troubling, rather than the unease encountered while considering the rightness or wrongness of an event, action, or sight witnessed. I have also discovered that moral injury—and PTSD for that matter—is not something that everyone develops—even those sharing the same experience.
Most of my cohort’s morally troubled were from Bomber Command. A significant proportion of pilots blamed themselves for the deaths or capture of crew members. Captains and aircrew alike were conscience stricken because they had survived their last operation whereas other crew members had not. More than a few were disturbed by their operational duty, particularly their part in the area bombing campaign. A handful wrestled with existential aspects of their wartime service, namely, whether the war in which they had fought and lost friends had been worthwhile.
Captivity presented its own moral challenges. Some of my cohort were troubled by their inability to prosecute the war; reluctance to escape; transgression of prisoner-endorsed camp rules; or because they had been medically repatriated. Some felt survivor guilt relating to the Great Escape. Others anguished over sights they had witnessed in captivity, particularly those incarcerated in Buchenwald Concentration Camp who were disturbed by the ‘terribly emaciated corpses being fed into the ovens’.
Guilt and grief were my cohort’s predominant moral emotions. In many cases, those feelings emanated from the strong fraternal bonds shared by Bomber Command aircrew. Today, I will highlight my cohort’s two main expressions of fraternal remorse: captain’s guilt and survivor guilt.
The bomber pilot’s fraternal ties were underpinned by the captain’s responsibility for crew safety and his perceived obligation to remain in a stricken aircraft until all had parachuted out or to maximise the survival chances of the wounded who could not bale. Recognising that they might die—and many did—was the ultimate expression of the captain’s fraternal love and sense of duty. When crew died or were wounded, bomber pilots often blamed themselves. They assumed culpability for their crew members’ deaths. In their eyes, they had failed in their obligation to crew safety.
Despite a mortally damaged aircraft, Alan McCormack agonised a life-time over his decision to give the order to bale out which resulted in the death of one crew member and the other five taken prisoner. After crawling from their crashed aircraft, Reg Giddey and his crew ran from the blaze. About half a mile distant, Giddey took a head count and ‘realised the two gunners were still there’. ‘[T]hat’s something I’ve always—always had on my conscience that I didn’t go back and try to help them out.’
Many captains and crew members grappled with survivor guilt, such as Errol Green who would yell and cry as he relived his experience of abandoning his plummeting aircraft. The former pilot feared his crew had died in the crash and ‘deeply’ mourned them until his own death, fifty-five years later. Navigator Les Harvey ‘felt helpless and guilty’ that it was not due to any merit on his part that he had survived. Air gunner Frank Falkenmire could not shake the memory of his dead crew members and continued to ask, ‘why not me’.
Those who contributed to, or participated in, the Great Escape, also experienced a degree of survivor guilt. Paul Royle did not have ‘a clue’ as to why he wasn’t chosen in the post-Escape reprisals. He and his escape partner ‘were together’ when they were recaptured ‘and behaved in the same manner’. ‘There’s no reason why one should live and not the other’, he recalled. Geoff Cornish claimed he did not regret giving up his place to ‘one of the fifty they executed’. But guilt niggled: ‘there are a few ghosts in there still’, he admitted, as he told of how he ‘squibbed [the] job of going back and meeting his [friend’s] parents’ to condole. ‘What do I say to them? I’m glad I took the decision I did and didn’t get shot and your son did?’
Many of the morally troubled were psychologically disturbed. Two were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Others perhaps would also have been, if they had not died before the disorder was recognised or the diagnostic criteria broadened. PTSD is a condition arising from an adverse life event which can be diagnosed. Trauma, such as serious injury or exposure to death, is central to that diagnosis. Moral injury, however, does not necessarily arise from fear or trauma. It is more closely associated with shame and guilt. Nor is moral injury a medical or psychological condition. It is an existential state which can affect emotions, wellbeing, behaviour, social interaction, and spirituality. Despite being different states, moral injury and PTSD often exist concurrently. Moreover, guilt, moral injury, and suicide are believed to be linked. At least four of the seven from my cohort who considered, attempted, committed, or possibly committed suicide were also burdened by guilt, grief and moral pain.
Two of my cohort’s former captains endured lifetimes of guilt, grief, and unalleviated psychological distress. Their testimony suggests that they also suffered moral injury. ‘The aircraft broke in two with the starboard wing torn off’, one man wrote four years before his death. He had been trapped by a blade of the port engine airscrew. ‘I could not help … I could hardly move. I heard my wireless operator and observer die and the rear gunner was in great pain, but I couldn’t do a thing to help.’ Another man wrote in 1950, that ‘every six months or so, I wake up in the middle of the night re-living the experience of being shot down, at which time four members of my crew were killed.’ Thirty years later he attested that, ‘For years [I] woke up screaming about our shooting down. [The] [t]hought of loss of crew still distressful’. Two years later he elaborated, ‘Four of my crew were lost, whilst I, the Pilot/Captain escaped with my life. I get most upset and irate with people who think this has not affected me. How could it not affect me? I have lived with it for nearly 38 years. I don’t even know how I got out of my aircraft except that someone put me out and didn’t live for me to thank him’.
These, and other bomber captains were not responsible for their crew members’ deaths. Survivors had nothing to feel guilty about. None of those airmen were culpable. Their guilt and anguish were not appropriate. Yet, many were assaulted by it. And their grief was unassuaged.
Moral injury is not necessarily a permanent state. Moral repair—a return to moral health—can be achieved. Meaning-making, atonement, and finding value in moral challenges were some of the ways the morally troubled effected healing. ‘Life holds potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones’, wrote Viktor Frankl, who found meaning in his experiences in a concentration camp. It’s a natural human response to seek meaning—to make sense of what has happened. Indeed, ‘the need for meaning is essential’ for moral repair.
Some of the morally troubled found meaning by keeping faith with the dead. They visited grave and crash sites to honour their dead comrades and acknowledge the fraternal love shared by their intimate ‘brotherhoods of the air’. Standing at his friends’ gravesides, Jack Morschel thanked ‘Alan, Reg, Jim and Alex, together with far too many others’ who paid ‘the supreme sacrifice for the benefit of us all’. In doing so, Morschel gave noble meaning to their deaths and placed them in an acceptable moral context.
Many felt the need to atone for their guilt. Some through active goodness. It was their path to self-forgiveness, even where—in reality—they had done nothing wrong. One of those who bore extreme moral anxiety was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for service to community. Some visited the families of dead crew members. Charles Lark, who felt guilty for leaving his friends behind when he was medically repatriated, met with families to assure them of his former comrades’ wellbeing, and lobbied for entitlements and assistance for ex-prisoners of war. After retiring from a long career of military service, another man took on a pastoral role in his church. He also cared for ill family members. When asked if, through that life of service, there was any sense of atonement, he responded: ‘I realise that was my motivation to a very large extent. It was a way of cleansing myself of the sense of disgust that I had … Yes, it was a way of compensation’.
Some found value in their experiences and grew from them. After a lifetime of reflection, Alec Arnel, one of the handful of morally troubled fighter pilots, deemed his ethical struggle to have been worthwhile. ‘I had been tested’.‘Yes. [I had] doubts about my capacity to do things. But I came away with a confidence that I might not have had otherwise’ and an ability ‘to cope with life’. Ultimately, he told me, ‘I think I dealt with the traumas of war in a way that made me a stronger person’.
Moral injury did not always give way to moral repair. Most of the injured continued to experience extreme moral pain, psychological distress, and unabated grief. But the majority of my cohort’s morally troubled did not suffer moral injury. They allayed their moral concerns. They achieved moral repair. In forgiving inappropriate guilt, in overcoming their ‘war wounds of the spirit’, those former airmen demonstrated resiliency and an ability to actively manage the moral legacy of service and captivity.