Brian Powers talks about his work, how he came to study Moral Injury and how he sees the value of Moral Injury research for society.
How would you define Moral Injury?
Moral Injury refers to the experience of sustained and enduring negative moral emotions - guilt, shame, contempt and anger - which results from the betrayal, violation or suppression of deeply held or shared moral values.
First observed in military members and veterans, Moral Injury frequently involves a particular sense of self-condemnation and the loss of a sense of meaning or faith in religious, moral and societal institutions. Jonathan Shay, an American psychiatrist who brought the term into the modern lexicon, noted that it was present when there had been “a betrayal of what’s right by a person in a position of authority in a high-stakes situation." We generally refer to these situations as ‘morally injurious events’ and are recognising that they can occur in many settings – military, healthcare, law enforcement, veterinary work, and many others.
While it can occur alongside Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), it is distinctly different, as it is not our body or mind’s reaction to traumatic stress, but is centred around a deep moral disquiet about our individual and collective actions, inactions and core values.
How did you come to specialise in this area?
I’m a veteran of the US Air Force, having served with Army units in Iraq and Afghanistan. I would say that I have experienced Moral Injury as a result of my service, yet in a profoundly less acute form than many others. When I separated from the Air Force, I went to seminary and graduate school in theology, attempting to reconcile my own experiences of wartime violence – including the suicide of several friends and brothers in arms - with my faith. I discovered a profound expression in the language of theology that, for me, could hold together both the injustice and agony of a broken world as well as point the way towards authentic hope. As a systematic theologian, I write about the ways that theology can articulate frameworks of meaning in which those who are morally injured might be able find solace.
Why do you think it is an important area of research?
The more we study Moral Injury, the more we realise how corrosive it is to our sense of self, our capacity for relationships and our ability to perceive ourselves as “good people.” Multiple studies suggest that it is existentially dangerous when we experience strong and totalising self-condemnation, as this can be linked to suicide and suicidal ideation. Several studies even suggest that in military veterans who suffer both PTSD and Moral Injury, the severity of Moral Injury is the greatest predictor of suicide.
So the better we can understand Moral Injury and explore potential pathways to healing, the better care we can offer to those who suffer from it, and the better we can understand where we may need to have national and societal conversations about our cultural values and how they contribute to Moral Injury.
How can people benefit from a greater understanding of Moral Injury?
For those suffering from Moral Injury, a greater capacity to understand their moral emotions, express them and find positive and safe spaces in which to do so can be a life-saving relief valve and eventually open potential avenues for recovery.
For clergy, chaplains, clinicians and others who care for those experiencing Moral Injury, a greater understanding of Moral Injury can mean a greater set of resources to draw from in doing so, leading to better long-term care and more positive trajectories for the morally injured.
For the general public, a greater understanding of Moral Injury and the moral traumas of war can collapse the distance between the rather simplistic moral language used in the political discourse around conflict and the experience of veterans, creating a more supportive environment in which military members may return from conflict and feel neither valorised nor vilified, but appreciated and supported by a community willing to help bear their burdens.
What have been your biggest challenges in this area of research?
Moral Injury defies simple and concise definition. Because it has so many facets, there is valuable work being done on it in multiple contexts and different fields of research and practice. Yet much of the work being done is atomised and can be difficult to discover.
One of the objectives of the International Centre for Moral Injury is to serve as a hub that can link researchers in different areas with each other in order to produce more synergised efforts.
What are you working on currently?
I am currently working on a second book that will explore the power of resurrection hope within the Christian tradition to point towards a meaningful future which models divine justice in a way that might inspire our imaginations in a morally injured world.
I’m working on an article exploring the connections between ritual concepts of penance and lament and recovery from perceived moral failure, and an article that weighs the conceptions of divine forgiveness in understanding Moral Injury.
I’m also working with an interdisciplinary group of researchers from the Universities of Portsmouth and Southampton to develop a project that would measure Moral Injury in retired military chaplains to determine how their duty to attend to the moral trauma of military members may be morally injurious to them, and if their perception of divine forgiveness is impactful in recovery from Moral Injury.
Read more on our Research page