Friday, April 4, 2014

The Moral Treatment of Returning Warriors in Early Medieval and Modern Times by Bernard J. Verkamp


The Moral Treatment of Returning Warriors in Early Medieval and Modern Times by Bernard J. Verkamp. Paperback: 195 pages Publisher: University of Scranton Press; New Ed edition (December 15, 2006).

Bernard J. Verkamp’s The Moral Treatment of Returning Warriors (University of Scranton Press) is a tour de force of research on the practice of the imposition of penances upon warriors returning from war. The author has compiled hundreds of resources into a dense though easily read narrative. In a seamless manner he methodically analyzes how soldiers returning from war have been treated morally. He then takes his readers on a journey into the past in hopes of retrieving the sanity for present, and future, soldiers who will return from the madness of war.

From a reading of Returning Warriors one could rightly lament that western civilization has gone down the dead end road of war for far too long. One might ask whether it is even possible – or advisable – to turn around and return to an attitude of an earlier time in all its exactness.
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The premise of Dr. Verkamp’s book is that in our modern time we have come to accept war as not only a necessary evil but as inconsequential to those involved in the killing. The author attributes this to the therapeutic society whereby “what were once described as wrongdoings and shortcomings are now often extolled as indicative of a liberated ego or dismissed as sickness and social maladjustment. Moral pain or feelings of guilt or shame, which were once considered the natural, interior complements of virtuous behavior are either ridicule, or reduced to psychic difficulties.”

Verkamp argues convincingly that soldiers returning from war today have experienced an “uneasy conscience” with the blood of fellow human beings on their hands. Without calling for an unrealistic return to an idealized Christendom, he discredits the modern therapeutic notion that the moral guilt and shame experienced by returning warriors can be treated and cured like any other neuroses and shows how specific elements of the ancient ritual of penance can be incorporated and assimilated in both secular and religious ways to assist returning warriors to return to society today.

In the first millennia of Christianity penances of one sort or another came to be imposed upon warriors returning from just wars as well as unjust. Though not truly universal in its application, the imposition of penances for killing in a just war could and did often mean something other than the imputation of guilt, namely that of shame; there was great shame associated with the killing of a fellow human being.

As such in the past it was assumed that soldiers returning from battle would feel guilt and be ashamed for their wartime killing and other behaviors associated with the ignoble tasks and abuses of war.

The returning warrior was encouraged to work through such feelings through “rituals of purification, expiation, and reconciliation.” Unfortunately in the modern era today feelings of guilt and shame associated with war are either denied or classified simply as post-traumatic stress or survivor guilt.

Even if the war was just and the soldier had only done his duty by killing the enemy, it was believed that he was still in need of purification in that he had shed the blood of a fellow member of the human family. The guilt and shame associated with the horror sanguinis was taken seriously. Verkamp quotes the ninth-century Pseudo-Theodore Penitential that stated even if a soldier had not committed sin by repelling and killing an enemy, he was still expected to fast and be purified due to his shedding of human blood.
Returning warriors oftentimes received penances owing to the dubious nature of a war or conflict, whether it was just or unjust. 

Verkamp points out that “even a war that was deemed just could become an occasion for sin” since the “motives and dispositions of those fighting might be less than good…Warriors engaged in a just war had to examine their consciences about their motives for fighting and the traits of character, or lack thereof, they displayed in battle. The battlefields could become an occasion for sins of cowardice, anger, pride, avarice, sloth, or any of the other vices.”[2]


The author takes the time to delineate the difference between guilt and shame: “guilt is aroused by the transgression of boundaries set by the conscience and is accompanied by fear of reprisal, shame occurs when an idealized goal is not reached and carries with it the threat of abandonment. The experience of shame, therefore, is relative to what one is, to one’s plan of life, to what one aspires to do, and to those persons with whom one aspires to associate.” He adds: “Relief from shame will be sought by any kind of good work that will restore confidence in the excellence of one’s person, or in other words, purify one by returning him to that mode of being...most in keeping with the paramount ideal of the culture to which he belongs.”

Transgressions which gave rise to a sense of sin and guilt might also have generated a sense of shame, in that the soldier might have been mortified and disgraced by his sinful deeds.” Yet a soldier might experience shame but not experience guilt. One might have engaged in a just cause, but still feel shame due to his act against the sanctity of life and the Christian call to love one’s enemy. 

There is evidence to suggest that many a warrior had “frequent misgivings about the killing he was doing on the battlefield.” Some “retired from fighting…perhaps motivated…to some extent by feelings of shame over the killing they had done in battle.” Those who fasted or gave alms “may very well have been trying to prove to themselves, and to their Christian fellows…their continued capacity to do good.”

With the crusades “came the concept of war that was spiritually beneficial to those” involved. In modern times there have been those who, as in the past, have taken delight in war and its spoils, but there are far more warriors who “feel guilty and ashamed of the killing” and other acts of atrocities they have done during combat. Sometimes the guilt is brought on because of “doubts about one’s worthiness to survive when others did not.” It is commonly called “survivor’s guilt”. Many soldiers believe that even if it is necessary to kill they still believe it is wrong to kill a fellow human being, no matter how noble the cause of the war. 

This has shattered many a soldier’s ideals, leaving him “disillusioned, disoriented, empty, and aimless, no longer capable of sustaining the will to achieve any goal, least of all a lasting relationship of love….they feel bitter, desolate, polluted and defeated—all symptoms of what is meant by the feeling of shame.” Regrettably, the moral feelings of current returning soldiers have by and large not been taken seriously. Verkamp argues that due to “the triumph of the therapeutic modern society has found it difficult to deal with the returning soldier’s pangs of conscience. 

Some of the material is reminiscent of Dave Grossman’s book On Killing that details how soldiers are trained to kill and come to consider it just a part of the job.
[3] Many of the soldiers who have negative feelings are encouraged to forget about it, and those who do not or cannot are diagnosed as sick with “shell shock” “battle exhaustion” and "post-traumatic stress disorder” and psychiatric care is utilized to cure them of their guilt and shame, besides their anxiety, grief, irritability, depression, withdrawal, insomnia, nightmares, and startle reaction. This approach tended to ignore the “profound moral pain” and reduce all symptoms to stress or as neurosis. Those who express feelings of guilt or disturbances of conscience are told that such feelings are inappropriate.


Even religious leaders may attempt to smooth over the concerns with assurances that God is on our side and the war was just. The author points out that returning soldiers “might have very good reason to feel guilt or shame, or at least a sense of regret and tragedy, depending upon how they judge the deeds they have done over against one or another set of religious or secularist principles.” 


It would seem that even if war is necessary it is still a tragic event, and the effects of war should elicit at least regret, if not remorse and sorrow. From the example of the bombing of Dresden or Hiroshima and Nagasaki those who ordered the bombing ought to at least feel ashamed of the deed if not guilty.[4]


Verkamp calls for us to go beyond a therapeutic approach by stating “soldiers returning from modern warfare might stand to gain considerably from the kind of examination of conscience,” namely a “moral evaluation of the soldiers’ past deeds on and off the battlefield.” This has to be a lot more than just swapping “war stories” which is often a way of avoiding painful memories or personal feelings connected to the experience of war. This must “’involve a deeper probing’ than psychotherapy is capable of by challenging the returning soldier to objectively “evaluate” their personal actions with reference to “the dictates of the just-war theory” and assess the consequences of their behavior in relationship to others.

The secular and religious benefits of such an examination of conscience might reveal that “’deeply held convictions’ have indeed been personally violated, with terribly ‘real and permanent’ consequences, like the death or maiming of innocent noncombatants, or the destruction of whole villages” and he may identify himself with a military force that was “mechanically ruthless” and share in its heedless “dedication to violence.”

Verkamp suggests, with other scholars, that the returning soldier might benefit from the penitential practice of contritio cordis; such heartfelt contrition is not a self-loathing or self-flagellation, but rather compunction of heart “meant to be an expression of regret over the pain that one’s deeds have caused others.”

If a soldier recognizes that his behavior or complicity in war has caused unnecessary loss of life and wanton destruction, then would he not weep with grief? 

And soldiers who examine their consciences and humble themselves in contrition can turn from death to “live in the future that makes sense of the past” by paying their debt to the dead by bearing life and peace to the living. They may then profit from confession, if by that it is understood that confession is “a plea for forgiveness from others—from God, but also from one’s fellow human beings” in that they have an obligation to seek forgiveness from those offended.

Keeping with the medieval structure of the rite of penance, absolution would then follow confession. But what could that mean in a secular world? “The absolution conferred…was understood to be in the name of all the members of the corpus Christianum, both living and dead, including those who had been wronged.” 

As such, the four-step process of penance allowed for “reintegration or reconciliation of the penitents with the rest of mankind,” especially their seeking forgiveness from those against whom they have offended and with whom they want to be at peace.”

The fruit of penance is restitution, an expression of resignation whereby penitents “begin to repair some of the negative consequences of sin to themselves, their fellow human beings, and the world at large. Understood in such wise, the performance of penances by returning soldiers might still make some sense if by such acts they can give something back to the world against which they have sinned” and that the absolution “in the final analysis be a process of reconciliation.”Though the author is not calling for a return to a twelfth century socio-political framework, he is urging our secular culture to revisit certain features of the religious ritual of penance. 

Certainly an alternative approach accommodating modern advances in psychiatric care could accommodate the age old ritual of penance.Through their guilt and shame the returning warriors can be reincorporated into the body of the human community. The only questions: will the soldiers recognize their moral pangs of guilt or shame? And if so, will the community take their moral pain serious?

Verkamp states in his introduction, “I very much have in mind to say something about our present situation.” Indeed he does. In our pluralistic culture secularists and religionists alike have much to glean from this well-conceived treatise on the abandoned practice of the imposition of penance upon the returning warrior, especially when one begins to enumerate the implications it holds for our own time and the current unstable state of world affairs. 


[1] Henri De Lubac reminds us in his M├ęditation sur l’Eglise that “it would be a big mistake for us to think that we could ever rediscover the [faith of the] past in its exact tenor and all its richness, at the expense of all that has been clarified since” nor can we “run away whenever we feel like it into another age – not even if we don’t actually intend a negative attitude in doing so…for time cannot be reversed; even error and revolt, however complete their overthrow, impose a new lifestyle…” Prophetically he declared: “we must also remember that we are a long way off from having either fully listed or completely explored the wealth [of theology] laid down for us throughout the past” for nothing should put “an end to discussion and reflection alike” or discourage “the raising of new questions” (The Splendor of the Church, pp 20-21, 27, Henri De Lubac, Ignatius Press, San Francisco: 1986).

[2] According to a 2004 study conducted by researchers at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine (July 2004), 1 in 8 soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan experience anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic syndrome. Providing counseling to servicemen and service women should be utilized to help soldiers readjust to civilian life, yet an obstacle for many soldiers receiving care has been the stigma of shame that they fear in admitting they are troubled by their war actions. Unfortunately this reflects the popular sentiment that seeking mental health services is only for the “mentally ill.”

[3] Human beings are innately reluctant to take human life and the military techniques developed to overcome that aversion are examined in his book. “We are reaching that stage of desensitization at which the infliction of pain and suffering has become a source of entertainment: vicarious pleasure rather than revulsion. We are learning to kill, and we are learning to like it,” Grossman writes.

[4] Nearly 700,000 Iraqi civilians have died since combat operations began in March 2003. It is estimated that 1.8 million Iraqis had been displaced to neighboring countries, and 1.6 million have been displaced internally, with nearly 100,000 Iraqis fleeing to Syria and Jordan each month.[This is information from 2006].

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