“My guilt will never go away,” one former Marine explained. “There is a significant portion of me that doesn’t believe it should be allowed to go away, that this pain is fair.”
Somewhere in that sentence I found the voice of Lieutenant Nate Hooper, the main character in my new book, Hooper’s War, A Novel of WWII Japan. I wanted to write about what happens to people in war, combatants and civilians alike. The need to tell that story grew in large part out of my own experiences in Iraq, where I spent a year embedded as a U.S. government civilian employee with a combat unit, and where I witnessed two soldier suicides.
As I broadened my research, I found myself speaking with more and more veterans who suffered in ways they had a hard time describing but which they wrestled with God over everyday. They seemed to be trying out the words for the first time as they told me they went away with the wartime conceit “we’re the good guys,” and then spoke of a depth of guilt and shame when that good guy idea did not survive the test of events. Sometimes they were articulate like; sometimes their voices where blank paper.
I came to know this as moral injury. The term is fairly new, especially outside of military circles, but the idea is as old as war, when people sent into conflict find their sense of right and wrong tested. As they violate deeply held convictions by doing something (such as killing in error), or failing to do something (such as not reporting a war crime), they suffer an injury to their core being. Think Tim O’Brien’s iconic Vietnam War book, The Things They Carried, or films like William Wyler’s 1946 The Best Years of Our Lives and Oliver Stone’s 1986 Platoon. As beings with a complex sense of right and wrong, it follows that that sense can be broken.
Society once expressed skepticism toward such ideas, calling sufferers cowards, or dismissing them, saying it’s all in their heads. Yet today sister illnesses to moral injury such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are widely acknowledged. The two afflictions are often co-morbid. Moral injury, however, occurs at the intersection of psychology and spirituality, and so, in a sense, is all in someone’s head. Moral injury applies guilt and/or shame as a penalty. PTSD is more physical, more fear-based, and includes stresses like hyper-alertness, even in the absence of threat.
With those veterans’ voices now in my writing, it became important to set Hooper’s War outside of modern times. The things of war – decisions made in seconds that last lifetimes, balancing morality and expediency over things like torture that someone under battlefield stress thinks might save lives, accepting civilian causalities to satisfy a military objective, living in a world in which no action is ideal but avoiding decisions is impossible – have been with us forever.
But to talk about them in a modern context, say in a novel set in Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan, means dragging a lot of 2017 politics into something I wanted readers to see as universal. “The Good War,” WWII, is a familiar enough setting, but one removed from the weight of headlines. I think in some way we can talk more about post-9/11 wars by not talking directly about post-9/11 wars.
The setting evolved to WWII Japan, as I realized moral injury doesn’t just affect soldiers, the same as bombs and bullets don’t affect just civilians. So it was important to include civilians in my story not simply as victims or targets, but as complex participants. I was able to interview now-elderly Japanese who lived the war as children. They described the horrific choices they faced in a landscape of hunger and survival. Desperate people can be forced into desperate acts, and those too cause moral injuries that long survive the act itself. Sometimes things like that don’t end until the sufferers do. I learned moral injury is a debt that has to be settled, one way or another.
One incident in my book, a composite, focuses on a Japanese child seeing his neighbor killed by an errant American bomb. That changes him from an innocent boy into a soldier seeking revenge. It’s as if he was radicalized, a term we use today to describe the process by which a peaceful person, almost always Muslim in 2017, becomes willing to destroy themselves as a suicide bomber. The same for Japanese combatants such as the kamikaze. Are they so different? What the boy experienced changes him. He goes from playing soldier to fighting Hooper’s War.
As a veteran of modern conflict said to me, nothing good can come from prolonging such a war, and in my story atrocities and tragedies occur with a frequency one would expect of a fight driven by racial hatreds and profound cultural misunderstandings, where decisions routinely are right and wrong at the same time. Nevertheless, in the darkness, I placed hope as Lieutenant Nate Hooper becomes separated from his unit and has to deal on an intimately human level with that radicalized Japanese boy, indeed, deciding together a matter of life and death. The horror goes deep, but so too does the potential for overcoming it.
Hooper’s War is written in reverse chronology. It opens with a broken, elderly Nate Hooper and tumbles through the war back to his boyhood, a literary origami. Stories of loss of innocence in war – I’m thinking Saving Private Ryan – are traditionally told the other way around, from innocence to collapse. One watches the progression downward of a man, perhaps with sympathy, perhaps with sadness at what he has become. It is progressive.
The reverse chronology is essential to my story, and the idea of moral injury. I want the reader to see Nate Hooper as the man he ended up as, a regressive telling, as the events of a few weeks in war when he was 18 affected his whole life. We’re all responsible for the choices we make as young men and women, but Hooper is in his late 80s when he finally finds a form of redemption. He lived all those years with the things he had seen and done, and I want the reader to feel that as do those now suffering from moral injury.
And by working backwards, where the book ends with Hooper as an innocent boy as far away in rural Ohio as one can be from Japan, it drives home the desire to return to better days, to put terrible things aside, to just get this stuff out of one’s head, what every sufferer of moral injury seeks via opioids, alcohol, forgiveness or his/her own redemption.
That is where the reader ends up. There is a winner, of sorts, in Hooper’s War.
Peter Van Buren is the author of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. His first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, chronicles his experiences in that war. Van Buren is a 24-year veteran of the U.S. Department of State, and served ten years in Japan. One can follow him on Twitter @WeMeantWell.