The Injured Virtues of Vietnam Veterans
In Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam, parallels are drawn between the psychological, social, and moral events of Homer’s Iliad and the experiences of returning Vietnam veterans. Many veterans suffer from psychological problems, brought on during the war, which may have lead to unethical actions. Aristotelian Virtue Ethics best accounts for the moral dilemma encountered by these veterans, as it covers the interpersonal actions on the front lines as well as the intrapersonal thoughts and behaviors of the veterans. The events war left soldiers struggling with the virtues they have failed, or continue to fail, to uphold upon return, trying to reconcile and understand their behavior and what brought them to a place where they could commit such actions.
Shay states quite specifically that the moral conflicts encountered veterans have to do with their ‘character,’ the standard by which Aristotle judges morality. Shay writes, “…my principal concern is to put before the public an understanding of the specific nature of catastrophic war experiences that not only cause lifelong disabling psychiatric symptoms but can ruin good character.” To a virtue ethicist, Shay is saying that the experiences of these soldiers destroyed their morality. In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes about happiness as the goal of all good actions. He comes to this conclusion because happiness is inherently praised as something more divine than other goals. Aristotle explains that the gods and happiness are the goods to which all other good things are compared, and that this inherent goodness found in seeking happiness is what is truly praised in people’s actions. To this end, he writes, “For praise is concerned with goodness, because this enables men to do fine deeds…” Aristotle concludes that happiness is the action that results of the soul acting with perfect virtue, and that virtues are how people describe and interpret one another’s character. If all that Aristotle has deduced is accepted as a moral framework then it can be established that Shay is proposing that the ruined character of veterans is the result of them being forced to be without virtue and/or happiness during their wartime experiences.
Shay describes soldiers experiencing what he refers to as ‘moral luck.’ Some soldiers were fortunate enough to be assigned a place or mission that did not prevent them from being virtuous, or at least virtuous in light of the moral compromises made for soldiers engaged in combat. Others were less so, placed in a situation where military direction, training, and rhetoric, particularly the demonization of the enemy and/or the enemy’s people by post-Biblical western militaries, lead them to perform horrible amoral actions. He draws the dichotomy between a soldier stationed where there were no civilians at all and one who found himself inexplicably brought to murder civilians, despite having arrived in Vietnam believing himself incapable of such actions. In any moral framework the slaughter of civilians is seen as amoral, and in Aristotle’s case there is an added layer immorality in that the veteran is not brought any happiness from his actions as a result of this situation.
Additionally in Achilles in Vietnam, Shay describes the ‘berserk state,’ soldiers enter during combat. He extensively details the experiences of soldiers who enter a berserk state where hatred and anger become motivating factors rather than happiness, with soldiers often describing their actions as beastial or animalistic, as if someone or something else was in control. Aristotle asserts that this alone makes their actions unvirtuous, independent of the wanton death and destruction. Aristotle draws a clear distinction between seemingly virtuous actions, done incidentally and actual virtuous actions done with preexisting intention of one’s own choice. This alone places the berserker state outside of the realm of virtue, even if the actions of the soldiers could ever be perceived as virtuous.
Aristotle’s virtue ethics can be used as a successful framework to explain the deep seated feeling of moral injury felt by the veterans of the Vietnam War, particularly given the lack of control most of these soldiers had over what kinds of situations they found themselves in. On top of lack of situational control, many in the heat of battle, influenced by hateful rhetoric, found themselves feeling a lack of personal control over their own actions, committing horribly unvirtuous acts, and feeling nothing but regret in the aftermath. Unwillingly separated from control or happiness in their actions, it is a small wonder that Vietnam veterans feel morally wounded by their experiences.