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Nancy Sherman Ph.D.
Nancy Sherman Ph.D.

The Moral Logic of Survivor Guilt

Soldiers often carry this burden home.

If there is one thing we have learned from returning war veterans—especially those of the last decade—it's that the emotional reality of the soldier at home is often at odds with that of the civilian public they left behind. And while friends and families of returning service members may be experiencing gratefulness or relief this summer, many of those they've welcomed home are likely struggling with other emotions.

High on that list of emotions is guilt. Soldiers often carry this burden home—survivor guilt being perhaps the kind most familiar to us. In war, standing here rather than there can save your life but cost a buddy his. It's flukish luck, but you feel responsible. The guilt begins an endless loop of counterfactuals—thoughts that you could have or should have done otherwise, though, in fact, you did nothing wrong. The feelings are, of course, not restricted to the battlefield. But given the magnitude of loss in war, they hang heavy there and are pervasive. And they raise the question of just how irrational those feelings are, and if they aren't, of what is the basis of their reasonableness.

Capt. Adrian Bonenberger, head of a unit in Afghanistan that James Dao and other journalists of the New York Times reported on in their series "A Year at War," pondered those questions recently as he thought about Specialist Jeremiah Pulaski, who was killed by police in the wake of a deadly bar fight shortly after he returned home. Back in Afghanistan, Pulaski saved Bonenberger's life twice on one day, but when Pulaski needed help, Bonenberger couldn't be there for him: "When he was in trouble, he was alone," Captain Bonenberger said. "When we were in trouble, he was there for us. I know it's not rational or reasonable. There's nothing logical about it. But I feel responsible."

But how unreasonable is that feeling? Subjective guilt, associated with this sense of responsibility, is thought to be irrational because one feels guilty despite the fact that one knows one has done nothing wrong. Objective or rational guilt, by contrast—guilt that is "fitting" to one's actions—accurately tracks real wrongdoing or culpability: guilt is appropriate because one acted to deliberately harm someone, or could have prevented harm and did not. Blameworthiness, here, depends on the idea that a person could have done something other than he did. And so he is held responsible, by himself or others.

But as Bonenberger's remarks make clear, we often take responsibility in a way that goes beyond what we can be held responsible for. And we feel the guilt that comes with that sense of responsibility. Nietzsche is the modern philosopher who well understood this phenomenon: "Das schlechte Gewisse" (literally, "bad conscience")—his term for the consciousness of guilt where one has done no wrong, doesn't grow in the soil where we would most expect it, he argued, such as in prisons where there are actually "guilty" parties who should feel remorse for wrongdoing. In the Genealogy of Morals, he appeals to an earlier philosopher, Spinoza, for support: "The bite of conscience," writes Spinoza in the "Ethics," has to do with an "offense" where "something has gone unexpectedly wrong." As Nietzsche adds, it is not really a case of "I ought not to have done that."

But what then is it a case of? Part of the reasonableness of survivor guilt (and in a sense, its "fittingness") is that it tracks moral significance that is broader than moral action. Who I am, in terms of my character and relationships, and not just what I do, morally matters. Of course, character is expressed in action, and when we don't "walk the walk," we are lacking; but it is also expressed in emotions and attitudes. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, insists on the point: "Virtue is concerned with emotions and actions;" to have good character is to "hit the mean" with respect to both. Moreover, many of the feelings that express character are not about what one has done or should have done, but rather about what one cares deeply about. Though Aristotle doesn't himself talk about guilt, it is the emotion that best expresses the conflict—the desire or obligation to help frustrated by the inability, through no fault of one's own, to do so. To not feel the guilt is to be numb to those pulls. It is that vulnerability, those pulls that Boneneberger feels when he says he wasn't there for Pulaski when he needed him.

In many of my interviews with soldiers over the years, feelings of guilt and responsibility tangle with feelings of having betrayed fellow soldiers. At stake is the duty to those soldiers, the imperative to hold intact the bond that enables them to fight for and with each other in the kind of "sacred band" that the ancients memorialized and that the Marine motto Semper Fidelis captures so well. But it is not just duty at work. It is love.

Service members, especially those higher in rank, routinely talk about unit members as "my soldiers," "my Marines," "my sailors." They are family members, their own children, of sorts, who have been entrusted to them. To fall short of unconditional care is experienced as a kind of perfidy, a failure to be faithful. Survivor guilt piles on the unconscious thought that luck is part of a zero-sum game. To have good luck is to deprive another of it. The anguish of guilt, its sheer pain, is a way of sharing some of the ill fate. It is a form of empathic distress.

Many philosophers have looked to other terms to define the feeling. What they have come up with is "agent-regret" (a term coined by the British philosopher Bernard Williams, but used by many others). The classic scenario is not so much of good luck (as in survivor guilt), but of bad luck, typically having to do with accidents where again, there is little or no culpability for the harms caused. In these cases, people may be causally responsible for harm-they bring about the harm through their agency—but they are not morally responsible for what happened.

But to my ear, agent-regret is simply tone-deaf to how subjective guilt feels. Despite the insertion of "agent," it sounds as passive and flat as "regretting that the weather is bad." Or more tellingly, as removed from empathic distress as the message sent to the next of kin, after an official knock on the door: "The Secretary of Defense regrets to inform you that ..."

Indeed, the soldiers I've talked to involved in friendly fire accidents that took their comrades' lives didn't feel regret for what happened, but raw, deep, unabashed guilt. And the guilt persisted long after they were formally investigated and ultimately exonerated. In one wrenching case, in April 2003 in Iraq, the gun on a Bradley fighting vehicle misfired, blowing off most of the face of Private Joseph Mayek who was standing guard near the vehicle. The accident was ultimately traced to a faulty replacement battery that the commander in charge had authorized. When the Bradley's ignition was turned on, the replacement battery in the turret (a Marine battery rather than an Army one) failed to shut off current to the gun. Mayek, who was 20, died.

The Army officer in charge, then Capt. John Prior, reconstructed the ghastly scene for me, and the failed attempts in the medic tent to save Mayek's life. He then turned to his feelings of responsibility: "I'm the one who placed the vehicles; I'm the one who set the security. Like most accidents, I'm not in jail right now. Clearly I wasn't egregiously responsible. But it is a comedy of errors. Any one of a dozen decisions made over the course of a two-month period and none of them really occurs to you at the time. Any one of those made differently may have saved his life. So I dealt with and still deal with the guilt of having cost him his life essentially ... There's probably not a day that doesn't go by that I don't think about it, at least fleetingly."

What Prior feels are feelings of guilt, and not simply regret that things didn't work out differently. He feels the awful weight of self-indictment, the empathy with the victim and survivors, and the need to make moral repair. If he didn't feel that, we would probably think less of him as a commander.
In his case, moral repair came through an empathic, painful connection with Mayek's mom. After the fratricide, Prior and his first sergeant wrote a letter to Mayek's mother. And for some time after, she replied with care packages to the company and with letters. "Oh, it was terrible," said Prior. "The letters weren't just very matter of fact—here's what we did today; it was more like a mother writing to her son." Prior had become the son who was no longer. "It was her way of dealing with the grief," said Prior. "And so I had a responsibility to try to give back."

In all this we might say guilt, subjective guilt, has a redemptive side. It is a way soldiers impose moral order on the chaos and awful randomness of war's violence. It is a way they humanize war for themselves, for their buddies, and for civilians, too.

But if that's all that is involved, it sounds too moralistic. It makes guilt appropriate or fitting because it's good for society. It is the way we all can deal with war. Maybe, instead, we want to say it is fitting because it is evolutionarily adaptive in the way that fear is. But again, this doesn't do justice to the phenomenon. The guilt that soldiers feel isn't just morally expedient or species-adaptive. It is fitting because it gets right certain moral (or evaluative) features of a soldier's world—that good soldiers depend on each other, come to love each other, and have duties to care and bring each other safely home. Philosophers, at least since the time of Kant, have called these "imperfect duties": even in the best circumstances, we can't perfectly fulfill them. And so, what duties to others need to make room for, even in a soldier's life of service and sacrifice, are duties to self, of self-forgiveness and self-empathy. These are a part of full moral repair.

This article originally appeared in the New York Times philosophy series The Stone.

About the Author
Nancy Sherman Ph.D.

Nancy Sherman, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers.

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