November 2021 WATERtalk with Kelly Denton-Borhaug

“Military Moral Injury and Cultural Violence: Exploring The Intersections of Toxic Masculinities, Religion, and Ideologies of Nationalism in The U.S. Context”

with Kelly Denton-Borhaug

Wednesday, November 17, 2021, 1:00 pm EDT

Audio recording available here; Video recording available here.

WATER thanks Dr. Kelly Denton-Borhaug for her informational and insightful talk on moral injury. Following are the notes from the talk, both from WATER and from Dr. Denton-Borhaug’s own notes.

Kelly Denton-Borhaug has long been investigating how religion and violence collide in American war-culture. She teaches in the Global Religions Department at Moravian University where she is Professor of Religion and Co-director of the Peace and Justice Studies Minor. She is also the Executive Director of the University’s InFocus Centers of Investigation.

She received her BA from California State University at Northridge, her MDiv from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, and her PhD from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

Kelly is the author of two books: U.S. War-Culture, Sacrifice and Salvation and, more recently, And Then Your Soul is Gone: Moral Injury and U.S. War-Culture. She recently wrote “Why Are So Many Military Brothers and Sisters Taking Their Own Lives?” and “A Parable of (All-American) Violence” for

She will briefly overview her work from the last twenty years investigating “U.S. sacrificial war-culture” and the role (civil) religion has played in concealing and justifying its violence in the U.S. and wider world. Then she will turn to her latest work, And Then Your Soul is Gone: Moral Injury and U.S. War-culture to discuss why a social analysis of the phenomenon of military moral injury matters, for people living with moral injury, all citizens, and people across the globe.

We are indebted to WATER friend Amy Blumenshine from the Twin Cities who shared Kelly’s peace focus and activism for suggesting Kelly for this presentation.

Following are Kelly’s notes on her presentation (a full list of references is included in her attached ppt):


–Acknowledging the increased moral pain at this moment related to war and war-culture

–20th anniversary of 9/11; messy and violent withdrawal from Afghanistan

–anecdotally: veterans of these wars, as well as servicemembers, (and at least some civilians?) are experiencing heightened moral pain. What about war’s refugees, injured, displaced?

— Peter Marin on moral pain:

a. Bad conscience – transgressing one’s own values

b. Experiencing the pain and suffering of the world (i.e., through war and its devastation)

c. Experiencing the pain and suffering of the world, and finding oneself unable to meaningfully intervene, being imprisoned in the unbearable pain and suffering of the world as experienced – this truly is the world of war, war-culture and moral injury.

Overview of Presentation:

  • Place a few different definitions of MI (moral injury) on our collective table for reflection
  • Share my own point of entry into this public health crisis, and briefly discuss why a social analysis of military moral injury matters for all of us, the morally injured, those who are working to provide care and support, and all of U.S. society
  • Focus especially on the issue of cultural violence in MI, and the interpenetrating dynamics of toxic masculinities, religion, and nationalism


1) How definitions of MI are expanding, taking in an ever-wider landscape

a) A team of psychological researchers, led by Brett T. Litz, defined moral injury in the following way: “. . . someone perpetrates, fails to prevent or bears witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” The two prongs of MI: betraying one’s own deepest moral compass; being betrayed/transgressed by external realities, and other people – especially those with authority/leadership in a high stakes’ situation. Brett T. Litz, Nathan, Stein, Eileen Delaney, Leslie Lebowitz, William P. Nash, Caroline Silva, Shira Maguen, “Moral injury and moral repair in war veterans: A preliminary model and intervention strategy,” Clinical Psychology Review 29 (2009): 695-706.

b) Moral injury arises through the collision between a person’s reflective conscience, and the brutally harsh realities of war and killing. (Antal)

c) Moral injury is linked to the unjust and disproportionate distribution of moral pain.
(Antal and Yeomans 2019)

d) MI is despair of myself, and of the world (Yandell)

e) Moral injury is a likely consequence of participation in the moral distortion of the world that is created by war. (Kelly Denton-Borhaug/KDB)


     2) Moral injury is at least part of the explanation for military suicide

–4x as many committing suicide as dying in battle operations
— Suicides of veterans aged 18 to 34, have increased by 76 percent since 2005.  This age group of veterans has a suicide rate that is 2.5 times the suicide rate of the adjusted general population.
–Though combat deaths have decreased substantially since 2007, suicide rates of active-duty suicide have been slowly increasing since at least 2004. (See: Costs of War, Brown University)
–Additional data released end of Sept. 2021 by the Pentagon:

The number of U.S. military suicides jumped by 15% last year, fueled by significant increases in the Army and Marine Corps that senior leaders called troubling. They urged more effort to reverse the trend.
According to data released Thursday, there were 580 suicides last year compared with 504 the prior year. Of those, the number of suicides by Army National Guard troops jumped by about 35%, from 76 in 2019 to 103 last year, and the active-duty Army saw a nearly 20% rise. Marine Corps suicides went up by more than 30%, from 47 to 62; while the Marine Corps Reserves went from nine deaths to 10.
(Baldour, Burns, “Military Suicides,” Associated Press, Sept. 30, 2021)

3) Exploring the deeper and wider social landscape at the foundation, root of the phenomenon of MI: The Importance of a Social Analysis

a) On the importance of exploring the social structural and cultural preconditions that give rise to the development of MI: Bill Nash says:

  • “And in the military, if we’re going to create bad situations by prosecuting wars, by deploying into ugly situations even in its humanitarian missions, we have to do it with our eyes open knowing that we’re going to be putting people in positions where they’re going to be vulnerable to and at risk for moral injury. And it’s our duty … It is our duty to do what we can to prevent that, to recognize it, to help people move on, rebuild, heal, to create goodness where we have created evil.”

–“Dr. William Nash Discusses Moral Injury Beyond the Military Context,” Shay Moral Injury Center, (I don’t see a date associated with this transcript).

  • Also from Nash, “Commentary on the Special Issue on Moral Injury: Unpacking Two Models of Understanding Moral Injury,” Journal of Traumatic Stress. June 2019. Vol 32 Issue 3, pp. 465-470.
    • Nash emphasizes the significance of digging into the morality of MI, as opposed to other models that have primarily worked to “define trauma more narrowly as the consequence of a fear-evoking brush with death.” He asks, “How did we lose track of the moral aspects of trauma in our science and practice since the 1940’s?”  “. . . in every set of official criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) published between 1980 and 2013, no mention is made of extreme moral challenges as a relevant type of exposure event.”
    • Thus, in order to understand the nature of MI, we have to ask, “what process – especially related to “moral challenges” produces the symptoms of MI?” He continues, “. . . certain life stressors can be of sufficient magnitude to inflict literal harm to persons who are experiencing them. . . People are breakable. All people.”  “. . . the environments in which we live, especially our social environments, are capable of generating stressors (that is, moral challenges) of virtually unlimited magnitude.


b) Nash’s insights provide important ground for my analysis re: the cultural violence of U.S. war-culture. This culture trends toward justifying war and portrays its destruction as unavoidable, elements of fate, at times even divinely inspired, and as an inevitable part of human nature – but these are false characterizations. War and its violence are human constructions and involve the building of specific social environments. I take this further, with an investigation regarding just how those “social environments” (of militarism, militarization and war) have been constructed and maintained by human beings, and how those same environments (and the violence that pervades them) then are linked, providing the “toxic mulch” for the development of MI in individuals.
i) My 20 years exploring sacrificial war culture: My first book explores these relationships: S. War-culture, Sacrifice and Salvation (Equinox, 2011).

    • Definition of “war-culture”: “the ethos, institutions and practices of war that interpenetrate with vast and diverse civilian sites of life and culture” (KDB)
    • Nick Turse traces the expansion of the MIC (see ppt slide)


4) And Then Your Soul is Gone – Builds upon the first book, to develop a social analysis that explores the deeper social/cultural preconditions that give rise to MI.

a) We need to explore what violence is and how it operates, in order to better understand MI. Analysis needs to extend beyond the exploration of MI in individuals (and beyond “direct violence”). Galtung’s theory of the violence triangle (see slide). Definition of violence: “assault on basic human needs, and on

b) To understand the multiple layers of violence comprising moral injury, we have to go beyond direct violence to explore its connection with structural and cultural vectors of violence.


5) Cultural Violence at the root of MI

In my work I explore three different vectors of cultural violence involved in the growth of MI:

a) The colliding tropes of toxic masculinity in U.S. Society at large, and in military cultures in particular.

b) That intermix with (civil) religious sacralization of war;

c) While simultaneously both of these facets combine to contribute to the dynamics of nationalism in the U.S.

d) I find that frequently colliding tropes of military masculinity conflict with and contradict one another.

    • Bonnie Mann, and “Sovereign Masculinity”. Her question: “How does the “making sense” of gender relate to the “making sense of war?”
      • Sovereign masculinity “puts out of play” the human realities of mortal limitation, intersubjectivity, uncertainty and vulnerability – through the process of converting potential “shame to power.”
      • Culturally speaking, to be a “female” means to live in an “I suffer” body (this is shameful); in contrast, the goal in becoming a man, is to achieve an “I can” body liberated from any potential risk of assault; one rises above the potential for shame through the performance of violence, over and over again.
        • The “hybrid” nature of this masculinity, joining together reason/intelligence/technical skill with brute strength
        • To what extent is military training in dehumanization a “precondition” for Moral Injury?
        • “Violence should be seen as a last resort, but those who must engage in it have no better option than to temporarily place consideration of their target’s humanity to one side.” Shannon E. French and Anthony I. Jack, “Connecting Neuroethics and Military Moral Injury to Help Prevent Moral Injury,” War and Moral Injury: A Reader, Robert E. Meagher and Douglas A. Pryer, Cascade Books, 2018, 270-284.
      • Not only a process for individuals, but for the nation itself – “The nation needs to read “Shock and Awe” and feel their most visceral identity commitments expressed in the hyperbolic display of agency, the spectacle of invulnerability, that the headline announces. “Full Spectrum Dominance” became the doctrinal base for the massive structural overkill of U.S. war-culture in the post 9/11 era.
      • Chris Kyle (Navy SEAL, American Sniper); William James, The Hurt Locker – “soldierly calm, ruthlessness and technical skill”
  • Kathleen Barry, Unmaking War, Remaking Men“Core Masculinity”
    • People are shaped to have “expendable lives” – identified by their male gender, socialized and trained to know themselves as those who can be sacrificed in war. This trope frequently is hailed as the epitome of what it means to be a citizen, and a man.
    • Shame also a key ingredient in this analysis – “to experience fear is shameful; must be rejected; is addressed by ‘papering it over’ with violence, and managing fear through distancing.”
    • Also, must be performed over and over – not rooted in biology but “is needed by states and movements that require men’s combat.” The “devaluation of their lives is shown to them as manly, heroic sacrifice.” “Core masculinity seals anger and aggression away in the unconscious where it becomes the source of the rage that the military will tap to prepare you for combat.” Meanwhile, “the expendability that feeds into the expectation that you exist to protect others . . . often turns to violence against women.”
    • Example of Basic Training: “Reducing and degrading one’s humanity through the spectre of shame” . . . “identity is reshaped into the service of becoming one with your unit . . . you fear being belittled, ridiculed, humiliated if you do not hold up your part . . . your empathy and connection to shared human consciousness are being reconfigured to serve military needs. . .”  Hometown Hero banners/ Gold Star Family Memorial Monumentse) Tropes of toxic masculinity intermix with (civil) religious cultural patterns that interpret both the violence that servicemembers absorb, AND the violence they mete out consistently as “the necessary sacrifice” they make on behalf of the nation.
      • This sacrificial logic and rhetoric frequently are superimposed with various verses from Christian texts; such as John 15:13 – “There is no greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for a friend.” But biblical scholars agree that Jesus of Nazareth rejected militarized violence. We ought to ask, how did a nonviolent messiah become the template for interpreting the violence of war in the life of servicemembers? Violence is sacralized through analogy to what happens to Jesus on the cross, as one cultural meme puts it “Remember that only two forces ever agreed to die for you, Jesus Christ and the American soldier.” I have traced these kinds of connections in countless political speeches (and presidential administrations of every president post-9/11, civil religious national rituals, as well as in specifically religious communities’ observance, preaching, hymnody, ritual). Sacrificial rhetoric and logic predominate.
        • Tee shirts sold through “Meet America” – “a movement of millions of Christians from across all of America who pray in public, in their hometown, with hundreds of local Christians, for healing, unity and hope in our nation.”
        • Messages especially viral on days of national remembrance, i.e., Veterans’ Day.
          “On Veterans Day, we are asked to ignore all the horrors of U.S. militarism for the “sake” of the veteran . . . [and]
          justify the mission of the U.S. empire by setting aside a day that demands a certain degree of reverence for those who have carried out that mission.”
          Rory Fanning, Afghanistan War Veteran, 2019

6) Analysis

    1. Why is this problematic? Once something is sacralized, it is put off the table for critical thinking and questioning; now the actions and activities of violence in war achieve an “untouchable status” so that to raise any possible objections, or emphasize any negative consequences, makes a person a heretic in the sacred theater of war-culture.
      1. The emphasis on sacrifice pushes certain story lines to the surface, and simultaneously buries other story lines. It is a longstanding (even ancient) and understandable framework that people are acculturated to reach for because of their unimaginable suffering grief over the losses of war.
      2. These frameworks also are regularly manipulated and exploited by political (and religious?) leaders to present a particular portrait of war, and avoid responsibility for war’s true devastation and losses. These frameworks play such an important role in pushing down the very important question all of us need to be asking – is the violence of institutionalized militarization and war really the best avenue for addressing what we call “national security”? Are there costs to this violence that we have refused to face? To what extent has the world we have created shaped all of us to see the violent response of war the primary “necessary response” to dangers and risks we face? In the discussion I hope we can talk more about what I call “the naïveté of the United States regarding its own violence and its costs.”
      3. Summary of our reality in the United States: religion and violence intertwine to fuel our ubiquitous war-culture, but, simultaneously, making war “sacred” conceals its death-dealing consequences from our consciousness.


7) Conclusion and Questions

First, I have learned that deep listening and attending to the voices of people like Andy (see case study in And Then Your Soul Is Gone) is the indispensable way forward. People living with MI need citizens to hear them and believe them.

Second, such listening cannot lead but to the moral imperative of facing our own reality of war-culture, as individuals, but also as people who are part of many diverse institutions, to find our corner of the social/cultural world we have made, to address its violence, and work for change.


Questions and Discussion with WATER attendees

  1. Phrases like ‘moral pain’, ‘moral distress’, ‘moral injury’ are used somewhat interchangeably in health care settings according to a health case chaplain.


  1. Ireland is very much a warm culture even though Ireland is sometimes seen as a broker for peace. Kelly spoke of the ‘concealment’ of war culture as some stories come to the surface and others do not. Likewise, the U.S. as a peace broker belies the toxicity of U.S. culture.


  1. Another participant raised the international importance of this work, citing as well the prevalence of sexual assault against women in many countries.


  1. Moral injury is an act of reclaiming human conscience. When war and human conscience collide, there is a situation ripe for moral injury.


  1. Another colleague spoke of the extreme violence which veterans and their families live with in many setting. The ‘command and control’ aspects that are drilled into people in military training can carry over to a patriarchal model of family with the father in control.


  1. One person affirmed Dr. Denton-Borhaug’s claims that military is built on lies and that no amount of training can protect one from the human instinct for life, the urge not to kill. Otherwise, there would be no moral injury. So, the question is whether we should worry more about people who do not suffer from moral injury? What is the state of their souls and psyches?
    Kelly acknowledged the importance of the observation. She spoke of death bed confessions by some veterans. She explained how they are valorized, pathologized, and/or demonized as a result of this no-win culture.


  1. Women in the military remain a major concern. Women of color are in a complicated bind, with racism an added burden to the already heavy problem of being a woman trying to be accepted in the military while at the same time the object of violence. More women suffer injuries from being in the military than for being in war.

Attached is the Power Point for Kelly Denton-Borhaug’s presentation: WATER ppt presentation

WATER thanks her for her time and expertise and highly recommends Kelley Denton-Borhaug’s  book, And Then Your Soul is Gone: Moral Injury and U.S. War-Culture.