Moral Injury of War and the Invisible Wound of Empire
"Every time we shield memories of our own aggression upon our fellow man through historical revisionism, denial and deflection, we forsake the young whom our society sacrificed in its self-righteous suicide."
With the failure of the Democratic establishment, the crisis of liberal democracy is now seized by a new rise of power. The US empire with Trump as commander-in-chief has renewed its vow toward colonial domination. With nationalism and militarism in full swing, Trump’s America aims to radically alter the future of this country. His campaign slogan "make America great again" was a kind of historical revisionism, ignoring the deep oppression and inequality that runs beneath this nation’s history. From mass murder in the Middle East and the chaos of Libya to the destruction of Syria, along with conflicts with Russia and now tension with North Korea, the appetite of warmongering American expansionism never seems to end.
A similar trend is happening with US ally, Japan. As North Korea’s repeated missile tests threaten stability in the Pacific region, there is increasing pressure toward remilitarization. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aggressively pushes to revise the country’s pacifist constitution established in post-WWII world that called for the complete renunciation of war. Such move appears to be a politically driven ambition to bring the nation back to the pre-war imperial Japan. The ultra right-wing engages in a reinterpretation of the past in efforts to make Japan “beautiful” again. They aim to erase the country’s wartime atrocities in neighboring countries in Asia, by replacing the conquest of the past with a narrative of heroism, through denial and minimization of the Nanking Massacre and issues of comfort women.
"War turns love for one's country into hatred toward those who have been made into the 'enemies,' and eventually this flare of hatred burns oneself."
History repeats itself. What is this drive that tries to reenact abuses of the past? What grips our collective psyche, making it difficult to resist this return of imperialism? A novel titled Hooper’s War (2017) that portrays WWII in Japan provides a framework through which to understand this irrational force that regresses society and averts the path toward peace. The author, Peter Van Buren, a 24-year veteran of the US State Department, lived in Japan for 10 years and spent time in Iraq embedded with a US combat unit. His cross-cultural tale of the nation that suffered the horrific tragedy of the world’s first usage of a nuclear arsenal offers rare insights.
Hidden Scars of War
British investigative journalist Robert Fisk once said, "War is a total failure of the human spirit." If Fisk, a veteran war correspondent, exposed the cruelty of modern warfare to our face, then Van Buren, the former diplomat, with his lucid writing let the destruction of our spirit unravel in slow motion.
The story is set in an alternate WWII with the American invasion, through a fictional firebombing of Kyoto that Van Buren created, based on eyewitness accounts of the August 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sometimes, a metaphorical reality is more effective to reveal the truth of human affairs. In the intersection of historical facts and non-fiction, history is reawakened. We are able to see the wound of war that has been buried deep in the oblivion of our memory.
Clinical psychiatrist, Jonathan Shay identified this war’s invisible scar manifested in combat veterans’ prolonged suffering. Calling it “moral injury”, he defined it as "betrayal of what is right by someone who holds legitimate authority in a high stake situation." Shay describes how, when individuals are inflicted with this injury, their character begins to change, such that one’s social and moral horizon shrinks and they lose capacity to care for others.
While PTSD is fear-based and develops after the experience of a terrifying event, moral injury accompanies a pervasive sense of toxic shame, grief and intense guilt. Unlike a physical injury that is visible, a moral injury remains invisible, making the suffering of the wounded hidden.
Making of the Emperor’s Soldier
Moral injury is a ritual of war, a process of initiating a young man into a warrior. The invasion begins inside the hearts and minds of combatants. War kindles the fire of human spirit—faith, honor and loyalty, only to ensnare mortals into a vacuous moral desert, saturated with lust for dominion and conquest.
In his allegorical retelling of WWII Japan, Van Buren (2017) illustrates this process graphically with a sensitive touch. The story unfolds through reflections of both American lieutenant Nathaniel Hooper and young Japanese sergeant Eichi Nakagawa on their experiences before, during and after the invasion. In that period of Japanese imperialism, Japanese became the emperor’s soldiers. Sergeant Nakagawa depicts the lessons from Major Yamada at the training where young men are indoctrinated with the tradition and duty to fulfill obligation to the emperor. Major Yamada told Nakagawa, “You have a mouth but you cannot say what you wish. And you have a brain but you cannot think as you wish”.
"The horror of war haunts those who stepped into it long after they have left the combat zone."
In order for men to fight, first they have to cut their ties to the heart that knows what is right, that which stands in the way of their transgression. Those who were called to the battleground have to leave their bodies, being estranged from the living force inside that breathes and remembers our inherent obligation to one another. Out of this source of legitimacy now placed in the Emperor’s Imperial Army, honor and pride is generated. Each time a soldier takes up their sword, this feeling of greatness grows, filling up their emptied soul.
Suicide of the Soul
In his retirement home in Hawaii, Hooper recalled the essence of war not as men dying, but of killing. He says:
War isn’t a place that makes men better. Flawed men turn bad, then bad men turn evil. So the darkest secret of my war wasn’t the visceral knowledge that people can be filthy and horrible. It was the visceral knowledge that I could be filthy and horrible.
The loss of one’s moral compass that war inflicts on soldiers leads them to not just die in honor, but murder their own soul. War turns love for one’s country into hatred toward those who have been made into the "enemies," and eventually this flare of hatred burns oneself. Nakagawa told the man who used to be a soldier, "Maybe, old man, maybe. I hate the Americans, but I now also hate something of what we have become. And I will die because of it. I even look forward to it."
The invisible scar of moral injury is like an unspoken oath. The pain that could not be felt in our betrayal of our own humanity binds every emperor’s army, commanding man’s spirit into the hands of an imperial state, to fulfill its insatiable hunger for power. Major Yamada urged the young sergeant to listen carefully:
You can kill as many Americans as you like and it will not make a difference to this war. But you, you cannot live if you forgo obligation, and you cannot die well if you forego obligation. This is thus not about your life, Nakagawa, but about your damn soul.
The horror of war haunts those who stepped into it long after they have left the combat zone. This military code of conduct that binds the soul is never broken. Hooper said, "People say, 'whatever you have to tell yourself,' but they forget you can’t lie to yourself alone at night. Imagine what it’s like to be my age and scared of the dark." No amount of myth-making through symbols of flags and patriotism and medals of honor can cover up the deep wounds, the guilt and shame that remind veterans of the living hell that they helped to create.
Bringing Troops Home
The explosion of the “Little Boy” uranium bomb on August 5, 1945, was said to end the Pacific War. The spread of fireballs and poisons of “black rain” created hell on Earth that no life can withstand. The pictures of atomic victims that were kept from the American public are now available to be seen. These horrific images of those who were killed in this dreadful nuclear fire make war’s brutality naked to the eyes. Yet, until a soul that was taken into a battleground is returned, there is nobody that can fully witness the event and degree of this human destruction.
Intermingling spirits across shores—friction of ancestors who fought for the land of the rising sun and also the land of the free and the home of the brave—turned the Earth into a wretched ghost town. Bombs bursting in air blew out both Hinomaru (the sun-mark flag) and the star-spangled banner.
“O, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed, at the twilight’s last gleaming?” Cries of deceased innocents; thirsty and hungry souls get stuck in the ribcages of men in uniform, as they sing their national anthem. Former lieutenant Hooper laments over memories that follow him to the present:
Well-meaning people would say, "open the wound, let it out." The problem was those wounds had never closed in the first place. Other people get it a little better, knowing it’s not about overcoming as much as coping. They tell us, "You’ve got to fight as hard at home to beat this as you did over there to get home," except we’re not sure what we’re fighting for.
In the ashes and ruins of Hiroshima, both Japanese and Americans have left their souls behind. We have buried the truth—this unbearable pain that radiates beneath the skin of our soldiers, the children and women, being transmitted over generations. Souls vacated from bodies in the waving shock of atomic bombs also now hover over Vietnam and are lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, just wanting to get back home.
Retrieval of Moral Courage
Invisible wounds of war call for our witness. Every time we shield memories of our own aggression upon our fellow man through historical revisionism, denial and deflection, we forsake the young whom our society sacrificed in its self-righteous suicide. Only through courage to claim this invisible wound as our own can we break the chains of command that keep us all in murderous arms of empire and resuscitate the heart, letting its light of conscience show us our way back home.
"The honest account of the past can transform the flash of light of the atomic bomb that once blinded us, into a force that could enlighten the world."
Hooper’s War is a story of this courage. It invites readers to retrieve vanished memories of human events. In multiple perspectives depicted in this novel, we are able to see the truth of war, not by a view defined by nationality, neither Japanese nor American, but simply as a human. In the breath of words that unite these souls from different shores, Van Buren asserts his own voice, bearing witness to this tragedy of Hiroshima in his soul.
He asks, "Was there a path that bypassed both the atomic bombings and a land invasion?” There was such alternative. He tells us, “To end the war, neither the use of nuclear weapons nor a land invasion of the Japanese mainland, was, at least, a possibility."
Moral injury happens when we give up our own power to outer authority. Whether it is a king, president, an emperor or prime minister; when we try to find change from outside, through control and use of force, we were kept in a narrow band, within the selected reality of the few. We give in to military might that is often offered as the only option.
The honest account of the past can transform the flash of light of the atomic bomb that once blinded us, into a force that could enlighten the world. For the first time, we are able to see the real enemy, the monster unleashed by wars that continue to devour our hearts, shedding the blood of future generations to come. Only then are we able to lift our gaze and see the alternative path that has always been there. We can free ourselves from the tyrannical past that tries to repeat itself. In this crack opened in history, we find our creative power, to which we can surrender the sword forever, making war an option that we no longer need to take.
Author’s note: I am a native of Japan, living in the US. I wrote this piece while I visited the city of Hiroshima for the first time. I thank Peter Van Buren for his courage and compassion that allowed me to see war’s invisible moral injury. His new book Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan is a must read for anyone who wishes to understand the real consequence of war and reclaim our hearts that can heal the past and create a peaceful future.
Van Buren, P. (2017). Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. Luminis Books.