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War “exists in an outside moral universe”

An Iraq veteran explains moral injury

Former US Army infantryman Alex Horton has written eloquently on the subject of readjusting to life after war. He spoke to me about his experiences in battle and his struggle to justify the actions he committed in war against the moral compass that guides him in civilian life.

Experts refer to that struggle as "moral injury": the psychological pain that results from a transgression of deeply held moral beliefs. Sometimes that transgression is something the service member did, such as killing a civilian. Other times it is an omission — for instance, a failure to prevent the death of a fellow soldier in battle. Moral injury can also result from a betrayal by a commanding officer or other superior.

Horton's experience is a telling example of the many ways moral injuries can affect veterans. Horton is high-functioning by any definition, an accomplished writer and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, in addition to his primary career in communications at a nonprofit. He has not suffered the sort of debilitating psychological pain that is associated with pop culture portrayals of veterans with PTSD. Rather, he said, he experiences moral injury as a feeling of self-doubt and self-criticism that is "always humming in the background" — a sort of psychological tinnitus. I spoke with Horton twice, once in March and once in April. The interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Amanda Taub: What do you think people should understand about the reality of military service and moral injury?

Alex Horton: When you're in war, the moral universe you carry with you — the moral experience and baggage you brought into it — is suspended. You just don't bring it with you. It exists in an outside moral universe independent of our own.

Everything makes sense and has its own order, until you leave.

I remember the summer I left for the army. It was 2004. I was 18, about to turn 19, and I was working at a parking garage for a minor league baseball team. Someone came up and said, "This woman's having a heart attack." So I radioed my boss to get an ambulance to wait at the entrance to the garage, and I started moving these cars around, getting them away to clear this path. She came down in her car and was able to get out, and the ambulance was able to grab her and take her to the hospital. Luckily, nothing happened.

I was always a person to visit my grandparents and give them a call. I loved foreign films when I was in high school, and reading history, and not passing high school classes. I thought that's what it was all about.

And then I get to Iraq. And I’m going on raids. Throwing people down in their houses in the middle of the night because I don't know if they're good or bad and we don't know, at that point, if we even have the right house.

I remember clearly tracking mud and human waste through people's houses and getting it on their carpets and their rugs and their beds. And tearing their houses apart. And getting into firefights and probably shooting the wrong people. You can't go down and ask them, right?

I went from being proud that I helped this one woman to that.

Then you leave again. And what do you do with that? How are all those three people, before, during, and after war the same person? All three of them existed in different moral universes.

Amanda Taub: You’ve written before about an incident that happened in Diyala, Iraq, that has been a source of moral pain and struggle for you. What happened that day?

Alex Horton: Well, we arrived [in Diyala] on March 13, 2007. That spring and summer were the worst in Iraq in the entire war. Within about three hours of our first patrol we got hit, and a guy in our platoon was killed. The whole vehicle he was in, everyone was injured. Every single person was hurt in some way.

[10 days later, on March 24] it was our whole company out there, and one of the Strykers got hit [by an IED]. This is a 22-ton vehicle, and [the IED] put it up on its side like it was a toy.

Luckily, no one was killed. One guy lost a leg. One guy's leg was messed up pretty good. Everyone else was injured. They had concussions, traumatic brain injury.

The standard is that’s the start of an attack. It's not just a bomb goes off and that's it. We all got on rooftops and started shooting in every direction, not shooting at anything in particular, just shooting in a direction. It's called suppressing fire.

Then, after a while, there are people moving around. If there are machine guns and explosions, the human reaction is to go away from it. And this guy was coming toward it, and he was coming toward us. And not in an overtly threatening way. It's just that he was moving toward an American position, during a firefight, in one of the most dangerous cities on planet Earth at that time.

There were actually two of them. You never want to be the second guy, because the first guy gets away with it. The guy moved from left to right in my view. He crossed the street in a sprint, running diagonally. I saw that. I was looking, and then I saw the second guy, so I shot the second guy. I think I hit him twice, in his sternum and the side area. Then he went out of view. He fell down. I couldn't see him anymore. He was almost across the street, so he just propelled out of view.

At the time, I was like, "All right, whatever that was, it's neutralized." I didn't know if he died. I don't know anything beyond that I hit him.

In this moment, the next five minutes or the next day, the next few hours, it's good that that happened. Then a year passes, or three or four years pass. What did I do to that guy? What does that mean? When you move on, that's when things start to become unpacked.

You think back to that day, the morning of March 24, 2007. Was he a bad guy? Was he good? Was he just running to his family maybe? Who knows. But the paradox is I can measure my guilt more than his now.

Amanda Taub: What does measuring your guilt feel like?

Alex Horton: It's tough.

You are making [that decision] in a ... I wouldn't call it a vacuum, but you're making it in a way that the morals and the right and wrong and the things that make you a good person or a bad person or just a person are out of the equation.

Then you come back, and those things are reapplied. So how do I look at this? How am I someone who gives to nonprofits and goes to church and helps out people in need, but also that guy who shot somebody I was not even sure was a bad guy? And probably not?

Amanda Taub: Why do you now believe he wasn’t a bad guy?

Alex Horton: Because at that time, in that place, in Diyala province, in 2007, four years after the invasion, the dumb insurgents were dead or captured. It would be strange for a person in that situation to be an insurgent, to make a decision like that without a weapon. When you Monday-morning quarterback it, it doesn't make any sense for someone who has ill intent to move like that.

But in the moment, you can't parse that out. You don't have the value of perspective.

Amanda Taub: What has the process of coming to terms with that felt like?

Alex Horton: It's so knotted up with everything else that's going on.

I got home. About three months after I was out of the Army, I was learning to be home, and to be a student — to be a good student, which I never was, so that was a learning experience — to have a job, to do normal stuff. All those things happen at the same time.

And then there's this other thing. This question of this moral essence knocking on the door saying, "Why did you do this? Why did you do that? Couldn't you have done this better? Couldn't you have done that better?"

It just is always humming in the background. I think there's a certain clarity you have in the moment that is gone after a while. Context is removed. You just remember the essence of it. You can remember feelings, but you can't remember instinct. Instinct is not something you can reattach anything to. You just respond to it.

That's what becomes difficult, because that was probably the most important part. And you can't replicate it. You can't replicate it here in Washington, DC, the instinct to shoot or not shoot.

Amanda Taub: And in war, the same moral rules don’t translate well?

Alex Horton: I can't go back and ask or interview people. Maybe that guy is, like, a doctor now. Maybe I turned him into an insurgent if he lived. Or maybe he's dead and he had a bunch of kids at home. Who knows? Maybe he was going to cure cancer, you know?

That's what I think about sometimes. What did that guy end up doing? Maybe I killed the only pediatrician in that city. But maybe he was an insurgent. Who knows?

The only thing I do know is I made that decision, and ultimately at some level I didn't have to. And that's going to be there. That's just going to hang.

Amanda Taub: What do you mean that on some level you didn't have to?

Alex Horton: That's the hard part. Re-litigating yourself. Re-litigating your decision.

At that moment there was an [Army] vehicle that was turned over on its side. This was exactly 10 days after we got to that part of Iraq where a guy in my platoon was killed. The environment was absolutely unforgiving. Every day it was something.

We were shooting hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of rounds and grenades down this road without knowing what's on the other side. That's an essential military strategy. That overrides, "Oh wait, what if there's a school over there? An orphanage? What if there's an old lady down there?" Who knows? We have no idea.

But our morals say American soldiers’ lives are what we’re after here. That’s the most important thing. And that makes sense in the mission, but it doesn’t make sense now, where I’m sitting.

I understand the military necessity, but the moral necessity is an entirely different question.

That’s what’s tough.

Amanda Taub: You were trying to protect an injured soldier. Did you experience that as a moral necessity?

Alex Horton: There are two, kind of like, splits that we experience when it comes to moral injury. The first one is doing violence to people and the consequences of that. The other is making the wrong decision, or failing to make a decision, that gets someone else hurt.

Like if you didn't spot the IED wire, and your vehicle drove over it and someone else got hurt or killed. Or you fell asleep and you missed something. There was this guy in our unit who was the driver of the vehicle and hit an IED, and everyone except him was killed. Six guys and a Russian journalist. So he felt responsible, even though it was at night and there was probably no way he could even tell. That's the thing.

Your mind invents all of these circumstances that are impossible to know that you kind of take real responsibility for.

Another friend of mine was killed. He used to be in our squad, and he moved to a different platoon. And a few months later he was killed.

So I walked it back. I'm like, I didn't have a whole lot to do with it, but we didn't get along at times. He was sort of an eccentric guy and he was a bit of a hothead, so he moved around a little bit.

I was on leave when he was killed. So I was like, if I didn't play my part, maybe he wouldn't have been on that rooftop when that sniper fired that round. Because our unit would have stayed together that much longer, and he would have been in an entirely different place.

And of course it's just an absurd thing to work through, but I do it all the time.

I know on one level it's just ridiculous and futile. On another level it's like, "What did I do to cause that?"

Ultimately, logically, the answer is nothing. Morally, the answer is: probably something.

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