A Soldier’s Self- Cannibalization: Moral Injury Introduction by Nathan Szajnberg, MD, Managing Editor
“A Soldier’s Self- Cannibalization: Moral Injury” Introduction by Nathan Szajnberg, MD, Managing Editor
My privilege to introduce Amit Goldenberg with his thoughtful and heart-felt contribution to IP.net. Mr. Goldenberg was my student at the Hebrew University and wrote his Honors Thesis based on interviewing all the surviving members of his elite Special Forces Unit. None had ever spoken to a therapist; all spoke with him, their comrade-in-arms. Mr Goldenberg is also a journalist and has completed his first novel, “Unetaneh Tokef,” (And (God) Validated). We will hear much more from him over the years, particularly on the dehumanization and rehumanization of the soldier. He begins with a deeply personal vignette. Let’s listen as psychoanalysts to his thoughts on the battlefield within: nonjudgmentally, open to learning. This continues our contributions to psychoanalysts among the soldiers
Click Here to Read: Your analyst wears combat boots by Nathan Szajnberg on this website.
A Soldier’s Self- Cannibalization: Moral Injury
Amit Goldenberg, B.A.,Hebrew University; Former Soldier, Israel Defense Forces
My first operation took place in a refuge camp during the Fast of Ramadan, when hunger amplifies the Moslem population’s agitation. To reach the camp’s main street, our team night- marched several hours. At 4 a.m. an Israeli tank was to rumble through the main street to awaken everybody. Our orders: shoot anyone carrying a weapon. Part of me, my civilian persona, felt unease: it seemed that we were provoking violence, not stopping it. My soldier persona existed at the same time, but in a parallel world. I was excited to prove my professionalism and skills; eager to shoot, use my training. I remember physically the visual and sensual experience of lying at night on the pavement, waiting to recognize a weapon, any kind of weapon, so I could shoot. I shot no one that night, but felt wounded.
Discussing battlefield psychic trauma often envisions these caused by acts, something done, something that happened. The soldier (or civilian) often attacks or is attacked by an enemy, therefore his trauma is caused by an act performed by him or upon him.
But, can a soldier suffer a traumatic experience simply through the power of his thoughts?
Think about the internal experiences of a battlefield soldier not only under the headline of trauma; consider “moral injury” for the moment. Developed and outlined by Jonathan Shay in Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America, this describes an unnamed experience which has long existed in the souls of many soldiers. Shay defines it as “a soul-wound inflicted by doing something that violates one’s own ethics, ideals or attachments.” While the predominant painful emotions in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are fear, horror and helplessness, the emotions experienced in moral injury are often guilt, shame and anger.
However, despite differences between trauma and moral injury, both are defined as the result of an enactment either performed by the soldier or witnessed by him. My purpose here is to outline a sub-type of moral injury: one not caused by witnessing or acting in battle; but rather by thought formation occurring in the battlefield. I define this kind of moral injury as self-cannibalization, something eating away at oneself.
It is important to distinguish between acting in battle and experiencing a battlefield. Those not involved in military affairs do not differentiate between being present in the battlefield and fighting in battle. Yet many soldiers, even while serving in the midst of severe conflicts (especially conflicts involving civilians and guerrilla organizations) most often experience the battlefield but not the battle. They carry out missions, arrest suspects in their homes, encounter the local population, sit in ambushes for days upon days, prepare and prepare again to attack and to be attacked, but do not participate in battle in its classic sense. In the battlefield, the feeling of battle prevails, the moral dilemmas exist, but acts and their consequences are not necessarily present. A soldier can spend months in a battlefield without ever shooting or being shot, or in other words, without actually fighting in a battle.
Self-cannibalization is captured by expanding the vignette opening this essay. As a soldier in the Israeli army, I spent much time in the occupied territories. The area, in a chronic state of war since 1967, illustrates a battlefield comprised of different types of sporadic and organized battles. I was a sniper in a special operations unit. I was motivated to perform my duty well. I treated my profession as a sniper as any motivated young professional would treat his profession, and without fully understanding the consequences of a possible success. My first operation took place in a refuge camp during the Fast of Ramadan, when hunger amplifies the Moslem population’s agitation. To reach the camp’s main street, our team night- marched several hours. At 4 a.m. an Israeli tank was to rumble through the main street to awaken everybody. Our orders: shoot anyone carrying a weapon. Part of me, my civilian persona, felt unease: it seemed that we were provoking violence, not stopping it. My soldier persona existed at the same time, but in a parallel world. I was excited to prove my professionalism and skills; eager to shoot, use my training. I remember physically the visual and sensual experience of lying at night on the pavement, waiting to recognize a weapon, any kind of weapon, so I could shoot. I shot no one that night, but felt wounded.
When we returned to our base I criticized the operation to my officer. He looked at me and laughed. “Don’t bullshit me with your ethical problems,” he said, “I lay next to you the whole night out there. You were dying to pull the trigger.” He was right. Not a single bullet fired, yet the experience often plays back in my head. The need to succeed and be a professional soldier overcame another part of my personality; I felt that I was being self-consumed. The mission contradicted my beliefs of the duty of a soldier in the battlefield. The guilt I associate with the experience originated from a thought, the possibility of an action, but not by the action itself.
During the past few years, I have interviewed and listened to testimonies of soldiers sharing their army experiences, both as part of my research on the militarization process and as a volunteer in the organization “Breaking the Silence”. I found that the feeling of self-cannibalization is hard to detect unless one asks directly. Scholars researching trauma and moral injury focus on a soldier’s actions and their consequences rather than on his thoughts. Soldiers rarely talk about scars from the inner struggle between the professional soldier and the human being.
One scenario to broach self-cannabalization, is when soldiers share their experiences of counter terror trainings. In the past several decades, counter terror trainings have been enhanced in the Israeli army in order to deal with guerrilla warfare. The trainings are focused on the implementation of urban setting tactics in addition to an Israeli method of martial arts known as Krav Maga. This method focuses on real-life situations and is most brutal. Soldiers receive severe hits in order to understand the body’s abilities and become more accustomed to pain. Krav Maga taps into brutish instincts, encouraging soldiers to attack with intense vigor.
Counter terror trainings develop aggressive capabilities within the soldier. Soldiers often report that these trainings evoke violence and aggression that they have not previously experienced. In many cases, this results in an internal reverberating reaction of self-cannibalization. As counter terror training often increases a soldier’s confidence in confrontational situations, soldiers are eager to put their new abilities to the test. Graduates often report their desire for confrontations followed by a sense of guilt. One soldier described that whenever he experienced risk, a feeling of rage would flood his consciousness. In this state, he felt as if he were a “bull with a red screen in front of his eyes.” He talked about these experiences with a great sense of guilt. Unleashing certain aggressive patterns, occasionally uncontrollable, is another good example of self-cannibalization. One part of consciousness experiences an uncontrollable negative change and a sense of guilt emerges. Yet while this guilt enables one to reflect on the change, it does not enable one to stop it. Thus a self-destructive, self-consuming mechanism is created that can affect the subject’s self-perception.
Conceptualizing self-cannibalization is only in its initial stages. Dr. Shay suggests ‘Autopsycophagia’ as another name for the phenomenon, borrowing from autophagia, “eating one’s own flesh.” We can also frame this experience in Freudian terminology as conflicting voices of the super ego and/or the ego ideal versus aggressive impulses, but these words are more experience distant than the sense of eating oneself up. Much more needs to be said about self-cannibalization as a form of moral injury. This short essay is merely outlines the phenomenon. However, I suggest that battle is not the only scarring experience in one’s army service. Moral injury can also be caused by being in the battle field, participating in conflict situations and even training in a military environment: the battlefield is also within. Israeli veterans who spent most of their time in the occupied territories often joke that their lack of battle experience does not justify their scars. ‘I did not shoot anyone, nor was I shot,’ they say, ‘and yet I have great regret for what I did.’ They eat themselves up; they feel guilt even if they did not act.