Opinion

What war does to the warriors

Long after the killing is over, soldiers are haunted

This is the editor's letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.

When a B-29 bomber dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima 75 years ago this month, my father, then 20, was waiting on a troop ship in the Philippines for the order to invade Japan. The bomb, he always said, probably saved his life. The soldiers of his 86th Infantry Division, who'd already fought their way from France to Germany, had been told that 70 percent of the U.S. invasion force might die as Japanese fighters fiercely defended their homeland. In the war stories he told me, my dad made it clear he was proud of his service, but that he had seen terrible things and that he had killed many Nazi soldiers with his mortar. Only toward the end of his life did he speak of any feelings of guilt.

Of the 90 airmen involved in the bombing missions to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, just one, Maj. Claude Eatherly, ever expressed any regrets. Plagued by nightmares and shame, Eatherly sought psychiatric treatment and later became a peace activist, The New York Times reports. The morality of war is a slippery subject, especially to those who do the killing; in recent years, psychologists have coined the term "moral injury" for a special kind of trauma they're seeing in veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike PTSD, moral injury doesn't arise from fearful experiences, but from killing itself. Violating that fundamental taboo can leave soldiers haunted, and questioning whether they're still good people. Eatherly clearly suffered from moral injury, and so, in a less public way, did my dad. In his final months, left vulnerable by illnesses brought on by years of drinking, he confessed to me that he felt his suffering — and the cruel, untimely deaths of many family members over the years — was a punishment for what he'd done in the war. "I killed a lot of people, Bill," he said, quietly. I assured him that he was just a 20-year-old doing his duty amid terrible circumstances. He thanked me, but in his eyes I could see clouds of doubt.

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