Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Moral Injury vs. Moral Bruising and a Green Beret Father

Written by: on April 1, 2024

I read Marc Livecche’s book,The Good Kill: Just War and Moral Injury, with a friend and my dad in mind, wondering how they might experience this book.

My friend

Doug is a DMin graduate of George Fox. His recommendation of the school was one of the factors I considered when I explored doctoral programs a couple of years ago. Doug was an officer deployed a handful of times to Iraq and Afghanistan where he served as a flight lead in the 160th special operations unit. Doug and I did a podcast a couple of years ago where we talked about leadership and some of Doug’s background.[1] If we were to do a second podcast, I’d want to discuss at least some of Livecche’s argument around moral injury, which I’ll briefly highlight below. I would also like to talk about the character formation of young people and the way institutions – including churches – participate in that formation before, during, and after people are deployed.[2]

I’ll come back to my dad in a minute, but first let’s look at Livecche’s argument.

Moral injury vs. moral bruising

Livecche contrasts the difference between what he calls “moral injury” and “moral bruising” in the context of warfighting. He describes moral injury as the “justified trauma that comes from the guilt of having done something morally wrong.”[3] However, moral bruising, much like a physical bruise, “is a result of an impact trauma that falls short of a long term, debilitating injury.”[4] Moral bruising “comes not from guilt but from grief, even the grief attending action that is morally right – as is lawful killing in war – or morally neutral – as is accidental killing.”[5] Levicche explores the way combat veterans experience psychological challenges as they deal with the trauma of having killed someone in battle. In short, he “argue(s) against the commonplace belief…that killing, including in a justified war, is always morally wrong—even when legally sanctioned and practically necessary to avert an even greater moral wrong.”[6] He wrote the book to help both the veterans and the caregivers as they process the morality of killing in hopes of helping with resiliency and human flourishing.[7]

In Mining For Gold, Tom Camacho writes, “To flourish means to grow or develop in a healthy, vigorous way.”[8] This is what Levicche is after.[9]

My dad

Before I was born, my dad served as a Green Beret and Special Forces Medical Specialist. Growing up, I had this tacit belief that he was one of those almost superhuman warriors who could do anything…especially when it came to keeping our family safe and secure, regardless of the situation.

I look back at my dad’s life with a bit of intrigue (and actually many questions). Many years after Dad’s military service, my parents gravitated toward a denomination that had pacifistic leanings, a tradition that would have resonated with well-known pacifists such as Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder. No doubt there were Christians in that tradition who believed that killing another human being is unequivocally wrong, in any and every circumstance. Regarding that position, Levicche writes, “The pacifist counsel regarding moral injury, that it is but one more proof for the need to eliminate war and renounce killing, gives no practical help for a world in which some men insist on pushing around their neighbors and in which other men rightly refuse to let them.”[10] Perhaps it is because of this latter sentiment that my parents did not sojourn in that tradition very long. That is something I would like to talk with them more about the next time I see them. I do know that my father, a bi-vocational pastor for much of his career, would want to explore war, killing, and a host of ethical topics through a Biblical lens, so that should make for an interesting conversation.

But it is my father’s second vocation that prompted me to call him recently as I read Livecche’s statement about the “relationship between killing and moral injury…linked to the suicide crisis afflicting combat veterans.”[11]

“De Oppresso Liber” (liberate/free the oppressed). That’s the motto for the Green Beret. What’s interesting is how my father embodied this posture later in life, this time as a social worker.

My dad worked as a case and program manager for an agency that helped homeless veterans find housing. I asked my dad about the link between killing, moral injury, and suicide, and though I won’t go into the details of that call, I will paraphrase something my dad said: As important as housing solutions are, one of the biggest needs in a veteran’s life is friendship. Those who experienced success in the social service program were those who had a positive relationship with someone who could be called their friend, someone willing to walk with the veteran through his or her life (or season of life) in a meaningful way. There were certainly other significant factors – one very key factor, in fact, but that is for another post – that contributed to a veteran’s resilience, particularly if they had experienced homelessness. However, a critical one was friendship.

If Livecche’s aim for the “book is to help bring moral clarity to the human experience of war, to give warfighters and those who care for their souls the moral confidence that what they are doing can be good and right,”[12] I would argue, based on my father’s work with “warfighters” who experienced homelessness, that caregivers need to include friendship as a critical need for those who wrestle with the line between moral injury and moral bruising. I’m not making an argument here for the case worker alone to be that friend (though knowing my dad, the veteran case worker, indeed did the work of a friend, going above and beyond in his service to veterans). But I am saying that those who experience a number of challenges, be it homelessness, addiction, isolation, and more…certainly need friendship.

This is where the church can step in.


[1] That episode can be heard here: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/012-doug-hurley/id1562257753?i=1000567369526

[2] Marc Livecche, The Good Kill: Just War and Moral Injury, New York: Oxford Press, 2021, Kindle version,  189 of 235.

[3] Ibid., 7.

[4] Ibid., 7.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Ibid., 2.

[7]Livecche writes, “In disentangling the very business of warfighting from moral injury, my hope is that we may begin to unburden warfighters from unnecessary burdens of guilt.” (Livecche, 202)

[8] Tom Camacho, Mining for Gold: Developing Kingdom Leaders through Coaching (London: InterVarsity Press, 2019), 92.

[9] In The Good Kill, Livecche writes from the position that the just war tradition is “deeply concerned with the promotion of human happiness, best understood as human flourishing.” (Livecche, 10) What’s interesting here…and perhaps something more to explore at another time…is how Levicche describes the use of lethal force, if deployed in a morally lawful way, can itself be a promotion of human flourishing  even for one’s enemy. (Livecche, 10) Levicche describes “how the punitive deployment of force against an unjust enemy can be motivated by the desire to stop his evildoing, hamstring his ability to continue, and, ideally, restore him to the fellowship of peace.” (Livecche, 10)

[10] Ibid., 8.

[11] Ibid., 7.

[12] Ibid., 14.

About the Author

Travis Vaughn

10 responses to “Moral Injury vs. Moral Bruising and a Green Beret Father”

  1. mm Jonita Fair-Payton says:


    Thank you for sharing Doug and your Dad’s story. I worked with homeless Veterans in the late 90’s in San Francisco. It was the hardest work that I have ever done, It was hard on the heart and mentally hard. Your final statement really resonates with me. You wrote, ” I am saying that those who experience a number of challenges, be it homelessness, addiction, isolation, and more…certainly need friendship.
    This is where the church can step in.” I could not agree more. This was a great post, my friend!

    • Travis Vaughn says:

      Thank you, Jonita. You have a background / number of experiences (like working with homeless veterans!) that seems to have prepared you for the work you are doing today. Regarding the need for friendship among homeless veterans — There is so much a local church could do, but this seems to be something that is not talked about very much in local church settings. If there is a church that is figuring out how to befriend, support, and advocate for both those who experience homelessness AND those who vocationally serve the homeless, including homeless vets, I’d love to know who they are.

  2. Jenny Dooley says:

    Hi Travis,
    Thanks for a great post and for the service your father and your family gave to our country. I landed in a similar space with friendship and the church. We have steady stream of military families come and go from our church. How do you think the church can offer support? What do families need?

    • Travis Vaughn says:

      Jenny, thank you for your kind words, but let me clarify…my father served in the military / Green Beret before I was born (I went back and added “Before I was born…” in my post just in case there was any confusion.)

      You ask a great question — How can churches support military families and their needs? I think that would be a great NPO, actually, as I don’t have a great answer. I do think my friend, Doug, who I mentioned in my post would have some ideas, and I think that would be a topic I could explore with him (we connect every month on a phone call). He spent many years in the military, and I would guess he would have an idea or two. Has anyone in the congregation asked the families how the church could help them or how a church could be more inclusive of them given the often transient nature of their lives and work?

  3. mm Russell Chun says:

    Hi Travis,

    You wrote, ” But I am saying that those who experience a number of challenges, be it homelessness, addiction, isolation, and more…certainly need friendship.

    This is where the church can step in.”

    I so totally agree. Marc writes, that perhaps the clinical therapist should not be center stage. That perhaps a space of peers AND friends were more beneficial to the vet.

    I had not considered that and am seeking such peers/friends.

    It would be terrific if the church has a space for that (mine does not). Someone who had real world experience, but was rooted in Christ.

    My prayer is that the current churches prepare themselves to “step in” when the time comes….before, during…after deployments.


    • Travis Vaughn says:

      Having a space of peers and friends — YES! I like the way you worded that. The clinical therapist, along with others in various “helping” professions (like my dad who helped from a case management standpoint), certainly play(s) a part, holistically speaking, but personal relationships — both strong ties and weak ties — must play a big part, too. That conversation with my father where he discussed this need with me was so helpful. And, as I said to Jenny and Jonita (see above responses) — I’m not sure of any churches helping to come alongside veterans, including those who experience homelessness. I think there has to be both programmatic and organic ways that people could enter this space, but it certainly seems to be a gap.

  4. mm Pam Lau says:

    Thank you for telling the stories of your friend, Doug, and your father, the Green Beret turned social worker. What strikes me about the book we read and your post is that Marc LiVecche makes a pretty good case for caring about the soldier’s character–I felt that through his words. But your insights about friendship, connection, and companionship are what the book is missing! I am curious if your father believes only veterans can be the friend of a veteran?

    • Travis Vaughn says:

      Pam, I can hear my father saying “no.” I believe that those who have military experience can perhaps relate to veterans in ways that others cannot, but I know my dad would say that a veteran (including those who deal with homelessness) needs other non-veteran friends, too.

      I do think that character formation — something I do hope to talk with my friend Doug (mentioned in my post) about, whether that’s on a podcast in the future OR in person or on the phone — is important. In my inspectional reading of Livecche’s book, I didn’t see too much in the way of friendship/companionship formation. Perhaps the chapter on Friendship in The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis would be a helpful companion to Livecche’s book.

  5. mm Kim Sanford says:

    Travis, I appreciated hearing a bit about your parents’ path that led them a little closer to pacifism at one point and then away again. You quote Livecche as he describes “a world in which some men insist on pushing around their neighbors and in which other men rightly refuse to let them.” That word “rightly” is really where the pacifist argument hinges, isn’t it? That’s probably why it jumped out at me. Pacifist teaching, including John Howard Yoder whom you mentioned, would take issue with the idea that Christians should cling to their rights and refuse to be “pushed around.” I’ve always been curious about the intersection of those values (turn the other cheek, vengeance is the Lord’s, etc.) in private vs. public life, again a recurring debate in pacifist thought.

  6. Travis Vaughn says:

    I agree with what you said about Yoder’s posture when it comes to Christians and their “rights.” I became a bit more familiar with how the anabaptist / neo-anabaptist tradition might engage in the public sector (including politics) when I read James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World about 13 years ago. Hunter challenges the ways Christians in multiple camps try to shape the public sphere and culture and how each of those on the right, the left, and among (neo)anabaptist populations resort to what is basically different uses of power. Hunter calls each posture “defensive against,” “relevance to,” and “purity from,” though those are generalized descriptions.

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