Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Women in the Military: Implications for Trauma Studies”

An hour-long teleconference with

Rita Nakashima Brock

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

1 PM to 2 PM ET

WATER spoke with Rita Nakashima Brock for our May 2016 WATERtalk. Rita is Research Professor of Theology and Culture and Director of the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School. Her most recent book is Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury After War (2012), co-authored with Gabriella Lettini. This is the first book-length treatment of moral injury in veterans. In this WATERtalk, Rita addresses the removal of the last barrier to women’s equality in the military and the implications for women’s experiences of trauma.

I didn’t think this focus on military veterans would be my work at the end of my career, having been a feminist theologian and anti-war activist for years. But I grew up in a military family with a father who served in World War 2 and Vietnam, and a brother currently in the Air Force Reserve. These are, hence, not impersonal interests, and I’ve come to know many remarkable women in the military that help me understand the possibilities and drawbacks.

I want to address a series of issues that show where I’ve come with this work, in terms of what I now think and how much this work has changed me:

1. I believe Congress should pass a universal conscription law that mandates service to the common good for all 18 to 25 years old. We haven’t had conscription since 1973, but what we’ve had is a poverty draft, a trauma draft, and a legacy draft. People join because they want to go to college and can’t afford it, they are getting out of a bad context, or they’re in families with a history of military service.

With less than one percent of citizens in military service, the rest of society can afford to ignore the kinds of war that millionaires and Congress stir up. I am inclined to believe that we would be in fewer military conflicts if everyone, especially the children of the wealthy could be drafted. A perspective of those who do serve is that the refuge of civilian life in a shallow culture burdened with consumer debt, fixated on reality TV, and obsessed with ownership is not a morally superior position from which to judge those who were sent to kill and die on its behalf. In fact, military values of integrity, honor, respect for truth and authority, and a willingness to commit to a larger cause beyond personal gain or self-satisfaction characterize many veterans and, when they are home, these values isolate them from the preoccupations of their civilian peers.

2. If there is conscription, it should include women. All military jobs have been opened to women, including combat, but even before this change over 9,000 women had already earned the combat action badge in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 1,000 women had been killed in those wars.

Since 1993, women have been allowed to be in combat units but in “non-combat” roles, which can be, for example, loading bullets into a gun being shot by a man next to the woman. The opening of roles for women in combat just acknowledges what has been going on to some extent already. Many military jobs don’t require high muscle mass or physical strength – they require intelligence, dexterity, leadership ability, good judgment, mental toughness, endurance, confidence, etc.

The last argument against women in the military is the sexual trauma issue; but in fact, 53% of those assaulted in military are men. Though women have a much higher incidence of sexual assault, banning women would just make the assault percentage 100% men. The military is becoming much more serious, though not necessarily always better, at handling sexual assault. They realize they must change the system and structure of reporting and work on prevention. For example, sexual assault can now be reported outside of the chain of command, crucial in situations in which a commanding officer or their friend is the assaulter. An assaulted person can leave their unit, or the perpetrator can be removed.

A more valid counterargument against women in the military is the veteran distress level. The rate of suicide and PTSD for women veterans is higher. The VA is just starting to get up to speed on addressing women’s health – some still lack OB-GYN services or child care, for example. The military is a hyper-masculine environment, which women can do well in, but they have to compartmentalize in a much more extreme form around childcare issues and family issues. It’s not a perfect system, but in many ways the military has been a major barrier to women’s full equality and now those barriers have come down.

3. The military often leads social change. It has been in front of civilian society on interfaith cooperation, ecumenism, racial integration, and LGBT rights and marriage equality. When the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down, gay marriage became legal in the military, even in states that were anti-gay marriage, which set up serious conflicts in pro-military, conservative states like Texas when even the National Guard let same sex couples marry. Women lead disproportionate to their numbers in a merit system like the military—we are 15% of the enlisted ranks but almost 17% of the officer corps. The Air Force and Navy have had Chiefs of Chaplains, and women have reached very high ranks including four star general in 2008.

Once orders are given in the military, for example, to have more high-ranking African Americans, they figure out how to do it. They don’t do it on the basis of paternalism but on the basis of qualification. When women are officers and tell male underlings to do something, they do it whether they want to or not. The leadership training in the military for women is some of the best, and women who come through the training processes are leaders in civilian life.

4. Liberal mainline seminaries need to have military chaplain programs. After the Vietnam War, seminaries discouraged graduates from entering military chaplaincy work. Evangelical seminaries stepped into the vacuum, churning out military chaplains, so now 80% of military chaplains are evangelical, though only 20% of troops are. Some of the degree programs are of such poor quality that they have been removed as qualifying M.Divs, but even with those chaplains, there are not enough. An Army deputy chief of chaplains said many of his chaplains were not well trained; they were too black and white in situations of moral ambiguity, had never done a funeral or had counseling training, and were struggling with the same traumas as the troops while trying to take care of them. Part of the shortage is that atheists, wiccans, and other nontraditional religions can’t get in. The Unitarian Universalists can send atheists, but there are not enough of them. Though counterintuitive, you can be a pacifist and be a military chaplain, so not believing in war is not an obstacle. I’m advocating for Brite Divinity School to develop a chaplain military program, so higher quality chaplains can move up in the ranks.

What this means for feminist theology:

I’ve thought more deeply about the way we tend to divide up world between victims and perpetrators. When women self-blame in domestic violence work, the first response is to say that they didn’t do anything to cause this to happen to them, and that is true. But I think the impulse of wanting to take a little bit of power in the situation is an important impulse. So instead of inserting what I think is true in a situation, I try first to listen more deeply to the suffering I am hearing and what the statement means to the on making it. Sometimes they are refusing to be a helpless victim, because they want to take some agency back for the future. Many veterans will accept their role in doing something, even if they didn’t want to and were ordered to do it. This impulse challenges the paternalism that wants to take care of victims and punish perpetrators—what do you do if you feel both?

Much of the work against oppression to help victims is not solidarity work but a way for people to feel good about themselves and their ability to help “the least of these,” the less privileged people, instead of examining their own privilege as part of the problem. If you approach a veteran with a paternalist attitude, they may reject your help, politely humor you but not trust you, or take the help but feel worse. This changed my sense of the sharp division between perpetrator and victim, and to pay more attention to complex responses to trauma, including how morally difficult situations can afflict victims with a sense of being evil themselves.

Situations of extremity and what happens to people in them can cause moral injury. Even in natural disasters, which nobody caused, people will feel moral injury because they had to do things to survive, or they were so changed by the process of surviving that they don’t like the person they’ve become. There’s a dimension to moral injury in every kind of extreme trauma for some of the survivors.

My work on moral injury emerged from the reality that you can take an 18-25 year old male person, socialized to masculinity and still malleable, and train them to kill with skill and confidence and give them a medal for doing it, and after all that, they come out of the military afflicted with a sense of terribleness of having to do those things to the point they will kill themselves because they can’t live with it, says something profound about the persistence of moral conscience.

How do we construct a society that honors and values that quality of humanity instead of wanting labels for people as good or bad? I hope if more get involved in these complex issues around war, peace, and security, we may be able to face into the realities of war and how it so shapes our society. The culture has a powerful myth that violence regenerates us and it sanctifies the suffering that comes with being a victim of violence. So, while it may not seem connected, this work has brought me back into my first 30 years of work of disrupting the concept of atonement—which by the way, I just published in an essay “Post Traumatic Stress, Moral Injury, and Soul Repair: Implications for Western Christian Theology,” Issues in Science and Religion: Do Emotions Shape the World?, Michael Fuller, Anne Runehhov, and Knut-Willy Saether, v. 3 (Switzerland: Springer International, 2016)


Q: I appreciated your presentation and agree with you on much, but I was wondering about the category of moral injury as it relates to other places of sexual assault. Your point is well taken about victims and survivors struggle with their total experience. But in terms of being clear that someone did do something to that person, and in the of the perpetrator having a conscious, regret, that’s where I see the moral injury idea coming in. But I think we have to be very careful to not equate the person experiencing versus the person inflicting the trauma.

A: I agree with you, and making sure survivors of violence have the support they need and don’t get blamed for what happened requires us all to engage the systems that protect perpetrators and do not hold them accountable—so often survivors are not believed. I also think that, with moral injury, you have people who are not perpetrators, not in the usual sense of perpetrators, but they experience moral injury because of what their work requires them to do. Medical doctors, nurses, attorneys may face this. Moral injury is can be complicated than being assigned to one type of experience. In Holocaust injury can afflict survivors, some who feel ashamed or guilty to have survived – some even say “None of the good ones survived.” Often people are not trying to say they’re responsible, but sometimes they’re looking to see if they have any personal power left, that if they have done something differently, there is a possibility of thinking forward.

Q: I’ve been thinking and writing about the death of Daniel Berrigan. Is that sort of pacifism something you’ve moved away from? I’m seeing a line between that sort of civil disobedience and the Vatican declaration that they’re moving away from the just war theory. (Editor’s note: There was a conference at the Vatican recently at which participants recommended moving away from the “just war” theory but there has been no official change by the institutional Roman Catholic Church.)

A: I don’t know if I’m moving away from the importance of action against war. I have been very involved in anti-war activism, but I realized the conversation felt stuck to me and I became more interested in the conscience of people in the military. Many veterans were outraged at the Iraq war, but some of them now feel used politically by the peace activists who liked having them speak, but didn’t care how much they were struggling with coming home or how the knee-jerk anti-military attitudes they encountered alienated them. Gabriella Lettini and I made a conscious effort after veterans spoke at the Truth Commission on Conscience in War to stay in touch with them—and several gave us permission to write about them. Not all were or are anti-war. I’ve developed meaningful friendships with most of them and with amazing people, both men and women, I have met in this work, and that has changed me.

I believe you have to take your own opinions and attitudes off line to do the kind of listening that hearing about moral injury requires, and opening your heart to someone deeply is transformative. Moral injury is about losing trust in profound ways, so you have to be a trustworthy listener. In the face of profound isolation, anguish, anger, and suffering, just being present with an open, nonjudgmental, calm heart can be a gift of life to a good person who needs someone to understand.

As a citizen, I have an obligation to stand up for the principles I believe in, but I’m also intrigued about doing this work on moral injury as a way to have different conversation about why we’re engaging in war. There’s a lot more complexity in this than I first thought when I pursued the subject. For example, some chaplains would lose their jobs if their endorsers knew that they had counseled a gay couple, etc. They agonize over that. I find the puzzle of these kinds of struggles currently more interesting than taking the clearer positions that I have taken my whole life. In the process, I’ve become less angry about some things and more strategic about effective interventions.

Q: How might your model also apply to the denial of complicity in racism and environmental destruction?

A: I haven’t thought deeply about this, but I have learned from the military that how you change people is not to try to get them to change their individual behaviors, you ritualize change in groups. You press people through an intense extended ritual experience. Recovering from moral injury is not an individual, therapeutic problem. You have to accept that these terrible things are part of your life story that will never go away, and rebuild who you are by being in community with others where your life matters to them. Changing individual behaviors around environmental issues is hard because we are so isolated and often anti-social in our behaviors. Changing behavior in this culture has to have collective and ritualized dimension to it that connects people.

Q: Thinking about the power of ritual, perhaps there are military rituals that have gone astray.

A: Military training uses ritual, or drills, to teach shooting so you don’t think but shoot reflexively. Thinking is too slow in combat, it has to be on command, automatically in the same context as the training, which simulates reality.

I do think the military takes ritual more seriously than any other social institution, except some religions. In a Protestant-inflected culture, though, ritual is usually disparaged as superstition or brain-washing. Hence, the military does ritual better than many churches I’ve been in. I’ve been to military memorial services that have moved me to tears – they just seem to know how to do it.

Q: Reflecting on statements that 16 percent of women are entering the military now combined with more numbers of women committing suicide and having PTSD. There’s a lot of research being done about psychological, physiological sameness and difference between men and women. In opening the draft to include women, I’m hearing the structural and systematic and psychological impact on women would be greater.

A: Those are legitimate concerns. Women’s bodies are just different, but then again, our ideas of gender are constantly being challenged by the trans movement and as we see physically powerful women on athletic teams and doing other such things. Shira Maguin studied PTSD in women veterans and found more cases with older women, which is the reverse pattern from men. They don’t know why that’s the case, but the idea is that younger women can adapt to military roles better versus older women who are less malleable. I think the higher rates of PTSD in women correlates to military sexual trauma, because there’s such a higher rate of occurrence, and perhaps, the longer a woman is in the greater the odds of being assaulted. As more women enter into this process, the military will get better at reporting and prevention. The military hasn’t had to deal with a significant number of women integrating into the military. These institutions can move like molasses, but they know that they have to make the military more female friendly, and many want to. I don’t think that the solution is to bar women from all the rights and duties of citizenship – especially if conscription includes free college and free healthcare. The VA was also set up for men, and the process can be intimidating for women, so an adjustment there is also happening. Some VA Centers now have women’s sections.

Q: How about trans people in the military – is there any data yet? Does the move towards more fluidity in gender identity have an impact on these things we’re talking about?

A: They’ve already started working on how they integrate trans people in the military, and when regulations change in the military, people have to follow them no matter what. Military often is prepared to change and often pushes these social change issues because they want a good military. They are mission driven, not identity driven.

Q: I’m an employee of the VA, a hospitalist in psychiatry – and not speaking for the VA – and I can’t disagree with much of what you’re saying. It seems counterintuitive, but a full draft for service would be a momentous change for society. A couple remarks on the VA: It’s not necessarily true that gynecologists aren’t available – many have women’s health clinics with specialized nurse practitioners. For other complex issues, there are ways to be sent somewhere and get good care. There’s a national shortage in many areas, but trained nurse practitioners are usually there instead.

My impression is that the number of sexual traumas is way underestimated, and many who experience military sexual trauma don’t know who did it to them. Finally, to go back to moral injury, moral distress was a category of research in nursing many years ago. Moral distress was about nurses who weren’t allowed to follow their conscience and what it did to them. A final point is about the vulnerability of draft age people 18-25 and the development of their brain. The pre-frontal context that helps inform moral conscious is not fully developed yet, so young people in this setting at very vulnerable to moral injury, PTSD, etc. The kinds of experience are specific to branches of the military as well.

A: In some ways it’s similar to the college-age sexual assault problem. Sexual assault rates are high on campuses too, and covered up and underreported, but we don’t stop daughters from going to college. In terms of PTSD and moral injury in different branches, those pushing buttons still know they’re in combat, still experience PTSD and moral injury. They’re not identical, but there are commonalities.

A comment posed after the teleconference via email:

Q: Given the work that you’re trying to do, including the Institute you’re building, I can understand your interest in having incremental impact on the military. But for most of us, a more prophetic direction/voice is essential related to the military. What if they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing?  What if the enterprise itself is evil?

I’d like to return to your discussion of the power of repetitive behavior with the concern that our country is being militarized in profound and disturbing ways. A society that accepts exploding 100s of thousands of bombs —with all of their destruction of homes, livelihoods, and lives– has to dismiss the significance of human life. The belief system that violence will save us is becoming very popular in this culture as is the worship of power, and we see this in the particularly high rates of sexual assault in the military; it’s acceptable to use force to get what you want. In particular, vulnerability–and that is associated with the feminine and feelings–is denigrated and despised.

Within this belief system, those venerated as the elite, the military, have been initiated into a sort of cult. Current basic training uses many of the same techniques used in an ancient cult related to killing. Along with Karl Marlantes, I identify it as the cult of Mars. While Basic Training, like any experience, varies greatly in its impact on different people, for many many recruits it has been a life foundational experience, shaping the lens through which they understand the rest of their life. Essentially, they are indoctrinated into “might makes right; worship the strong”. I have witnessed how the interpersonal “skills” taught in the military damage families.

It would be terrible to insist on a public service draft that required everyone to be shaped in that way. Imagine Donald Trump shaping our youth towards his preferred agenda.

This is the moral injury of the nation when global domination and humiliation, through bullying up to applying lethal force, are our country’s main investment. Like the cult of Mars, and all the death cults with which I’m familiar, we are essentially in a process of destroying ourselves.

A: If the military is simply evil, I think the whole society and its governance system is, especially the civilian sector, since it was war that stole the land from the Native Americans and war that separated us from British rule so we could have a Constitution that instituted a militia—which we have all benefitted from, save the Native Americans, descendants of slaves, and working poor. Belief that violence saves us is the founding myth of the culture, as Jill Lepore so eloquently lays down in The Name of War. It is not worse now—in fact, the myth may have started to crack after Vietnam, and what we are seeing is a fierce backlash to restore it. When mainline churches abandoned the military after Vietnam, the vacuum was filled by more conservative people, which has created a more conservative officer corps, and chaplaincy without enough to cover the job and with many who do real harm because they are not well educated or try to proselytize. Nixon wanted the draft eliminated because he believed we would never be in another war if it stayed, and he appears to have been prescient.

It’s important to remember that the military does not decide wars; our elected civilian representatives do—as Constitutionally mandated–and they vote to fund them after we elect them. When over 20 retired high-ranking generals broke longstanding traditional protocol and publicly spoke out against the Iraq War, many of the generals had to resign their commissions to speak. So they gave up their careers to protect those under their command and oppose a war they thought was illegal, while the many in Congress voted for the war to keep their jobs.

Since the Pentagon is the largest employer on the planet, and it is paid for by the taxes of those who don’t have to send their children into the military most of the time, I don’t think just opposing the military will get us very far in changing the myths of war that are deep in the culture. Polarizing things as good and evil is part of the problem I think, so I am especially intrigued about moral injury because it is outside the polarization. Military folks care about what is happening—I’ve spoken to folks in the Pentagon in the office of the Joint Chiefs who support what we are doing, including military psychiatrists who have tended to be suspicious of religion. And one of our partners in the work is Quaker House in Raleigh, which has managed to get time at Ft. Bragg. I’m not where any of them are politically, but I love working in both arenas.

It’s always tempting to offer a one-sided picture of an institution and offer a solution, but I don’t think in the case of the military, opposition makes much of a dent. I grew up in the military with a father whose life was dramatically changed by his time in service, mostly good until Vietnam, and I dated an occasional GI in high school, so I think I have a somewhat different view of it. I’ve also found my view of the military informed by working with the chaplains and current veterans. According to the Director of Psychological Health for the Marine Corps, the military has pretty much ended the hazing and cruelty that once characterized basic training, though, like much athletic training for excellence, they push people to their limits. While some people are terribly wrecked by being in the military, they are not likely to recover without a long processing of both what they hated and what they loved—staying angry is not a solution. I know others who have been saved by military service, even as they understand the problems and limitations. They found meaning, friends, and a life that was far better than what their situations offered, like my father. Some of the best students I have taught were veterans, both women and men—they were far more emotionally mature than their peers and committed to goals beyond personal success. They find the consumer-oriented, narcissistic, celebrity-fixated culture of their peers shallow and uninspiring, so they are often struggling with isolation and anger, but they work hard and are deep thinkers.

WATER thanks Rita Nakashima Brock and wishes her every blessing in the year ahead. The next WATERtalk will be June 8, 2016, from 1 to 2 pm ET with Joan Chittister. Register here.