Moral Injury, Forgiveness, and Atonement

Scott Hutchinson and D. Glen Miller

(This dialogue is the second of a series originally published in 2017 at

As a combat veteran, I have killed others.  In war those killed on the ground, up close and personal, are called enemies.  Later on in a veteran’s life he or she becomes more conscious of a nagging feeling, uncertainty or doubt that all killed were enemies.  Some might not be.  I pause and the soul releases a murder, then another.

We, Scott and I, have a relationship that honors truth-telling.  We respect and honor each story as part of what and who we have become and who we intend to be.  In our first dialogue we poked, prodded, and revealed my moral wounds.  I had witnessed a murder on my very first Army Ranger patrol.  Together, we came to atonement as a necessary and powerful step in healing moral wounds.  It is important to note that we chose to represent our thoughts in dialogue.  Our choice reflects the unveiling of truth-telling as an iterative process.  I reveal; Scott interprets with wisdom gleaned over the years in battle zones, as pastor, as counselor.  I interpret and respond to his thoughts and in dialogue more understanding enters our being.  

In this piece, we continue to explore atonement and its twin, forgiveness.                            —Glen Miller


Glen:  You and I have been talking about atonement.  It is a path I step into so that my identity is congruent with my life.  Helping build a school in Vietnam seems like the right thing for me to do.

Scott:  It would enact healing.

Glen:  Yes.  I feel a door to healing will open more fully through atonement.  I like engaging in movement.  You and I have begun to explore the relationship between forgiveness and atonement.  At first I thought about forgiveness as a kind of “bridge” to atonement.   That to be forgiven might be what empowers me to take action toward healing.  But now I am not so sure.  I think of forgiveness as an internal emotion while atonement requires action.  Maybe taking action first is what opens the door for inner change to follow.

Scott:  That’s compelling.  Tell me more.

Glen:  I am uncomfortable with the idea of “needing” forgiveness.  And I don’t like all the talk about sins and sinners.  Pastors and the Bible say we are all sinners but I’m not buying every bit of that.  If war is sin then, yes, I have sinned;  and so has everyone else!  War may be a necessary evil to prevent further abuse and oppression.  I just don’t accept that my actions as a soldier are necessarily sin.  I survived and most of the people I knew survived.  I do not see that as sinful.

Scott:  Sin is a difficult subject.  In the New Testament, the most common terminology for sin actually means “missing the mark.”  For me, “sinner” is unhelpful as a label but much more facilitative when understood as a condition.  I understand sin as the experience of distance:  from one another’s humanity; from our own truest selves; from our understanding of  God’s will.  These are experiences of sin.  You have very sensitively articulated each one as a part of your own combat experience.

Glen:  That helps.  Combat did not necessarily set me right with God!  Each patrol was a stride into moral ambiguity.  With reflection, I believe moral dilemmas were commonplace.  Innocent people, particularly “mountain people,” were not considered people, let alone innocent.  On most patrols the Ranger teams were sent into free fire zones.  In short, we could kill anyone according to war rules.  I resisted that command more often than not.  However, there are times when like that first patrol I feel guilty that I did not do enough.

Scott:  Perhaps this is where forgiveness is particularly important.  Glen, in the Christian gospels “forgiveness” means release or liberation.  To experience forgiveness is to be released from whatever has been binding us, burdening us, distorting our being.  I am interested in where and how you are experiencing release.

Glen:  For me, the door is opened in sharing.  I have opened that door with many partners; the most influential is you, my friend.  Perhaps together we move forward searching for the bridge between a whole soul and a fragmented identity.  Scott, you are not innocent!  You, dear peacemaker, are part of a nation that frequently declares war but rarely munches on the pain begotten by its actions.

Scott:  Amen!–to the part about me and the part about the nation!  That journey toward wholeness and the healing of fragmented identity is a shared one.  You and I have a shared story, whether we have recognized it before or not.  You are giving expression to a key truth about forgiveness: that it is always deeply interactive; an acknowledgement that all of life is lived in relationship.  In my faith tradition, the territory of forgiveness is where God’s story intersects with our stories, and with the stories of our neighbors and our enemies.  When the streams unite we have the  makings of a “whole” story!

Glen:  Can you connect that even more with what we have been discussing?

Scott:  The biblical terminology is rich and illuminating.  The healing power of forgiveness is about restoring sight when it comes to perceiving the full humanity of others, and of ourselves.   Accepting forgiveness is being able to claim our relationship with people we have hurt or failed to protect, or with people who have hurt us.  That is what you are doing right now.  Honestly.  Courageously.

Glen:  Wow.  But wait–I thought you received forgiveness from God only if you confessed your sins.  I already told you I am reluctant.  And yet you are telling me that I am already experiencing forgiveness?  On top of that, I don’t really want to forgive others until after they have acknowledged  their wrong and repented–if then. So how does this work?

Scott:  It’s already working in you!  Let’s get specific.  The COMPASS Circle you and I take part in is full of the power of forgiveness, the power for liberation.  It is in the sacred space that we create with one another, it is in the deep listening, and the accountability that does not condemn.  Forgiveness is made real in the articulation of truths that are difficult, and painful, and sometimes breathtakingly beautiful.  It is in community where the integrity of each story, and the pain within it, is honored.

Glen:  So in the Circle, we not only receive forgiveness but we are also agents of it?

Scott:  Yes.  Glen, think about how telling your truth has loosened the bonds that were strangling you; how the sharing of your truth has encouraged and helped other vets, and now civilians who were disconnected before.  Forgiveness removes obstacles.  In our Circle, we have been committed to the renunciation of bullshit. That is incredibly liberating!  And we have discovered that the gift of someone else’s story–their truth–can unlock something deep within us.

Glen: So, to experience forgiveness is to realize the place where our stories, and each of us, can belong?

Scott:  Yes!  Where it becomes real.  It seems to me that the Circle has become a forgiving place for a gathered people with an abundance of truth in their guts;  people who, even when hurting and bewildered, have already begun an inner journey committed to authenticity and accountability.

Glen: So our deepening relationships become outward expressions of at-one-ment, even as they help us to reconstruct a more whole and healthy personal narrative.  I have sought kindred spirits in my life, but haven’t always been able to find them.  Immediately after my tour I would open up to friends.  Most–actually all–turned away from the deeper secrets of war.  When they asked me about my war experience and I answered honestly, they quickly needed to excuse themselves to go to the bathroom or to get a drink or take care of something they just remembered.   I felt very isolated from my community.  The way you are describing atonement is that I am no longer isolated from my growing community.  I’m at-one with others who actually know most of me, including my most violent and compassionate self.

Scott:  I think of this as holy ground that we sanctify with our trustworthiness and our entrusting.

Glen:  And with protection.  In this case it is not protection from the truth, but protection that enables truth to be told. I feel safe in the Circle.  The security comes from it being in a sacred place.  Security and protection of truth-tellers comes from a common bond.  We are authentic together.  I have looked for that ever since I fought and survived with a bunch of men that I did not know until I went on patrol.  Good soldiers are authentic:  they show fear but do their best for all, including themselves.  Bullets fired in your direction are very real.  The bullet’s intent is not confused; enemies aim to kill.  How one responds is the essence of authenticity.  The question, “Who am I as a soldier?,” is answered the very first time someone really tries to kill you.  You either fight or you don’t; that is who you are plain and simple.

Scott:  Isn’t your authenticity an expression of your deeper humanity?  You once told me, “I learned in Vietnam that I am a warrior and enjoy that role.”  That is both a statement of acceptance and a declaration!  A primary self-understanding, even vocation, is realized.  And there is a paradox interwoven with it.  Even as you have described so vividly an environment where moral rules were officially suspended and where it was kill or be killed, you also discovered the freedom to flesh out that warrior identity in much fuller and deeply human terms, with each decision you made, some of them unpopular with your men.

Glen:  Morality is tested every day in a war zone.  In Vietnam mountain people were basically caught in the middle.  As a Ranger our war zone often included where mountain people lived.  My orders were to gather intelligence and kill anyone in the “free fire zone.”  I just could not obey those orders.  One time three woman, and older man and one child walked out in front of my Ranger team.  Being in charge, I was in a moral dilemma.  Let them go, call in a helicopter to extract them, or kill them.  I let them go and the mountain people were later pressured by Viet Cong to describe our whereabouts.  At dusk mortars fired into our position where we saw the mountain people.  Fortunately I had moved the team onto the other side of high ground.    No injuries or death but the story illustrates the challenges to morality.

Scott:  And in the release you are now experiencing, four decades later, you are able to claim that even then you functioned as a moral agent!  So you are able to teach me about integrity.  And as you continue to embrace this “letting,”  this permission to reconstruct and reinterpret your story, I would call it accepting for-giveness; engaging your role as a valued teacher, a person of wisdom.

Glen:  I think I have been working on telling my story for many years.  I survived combat.  I learned a lot about myself and the world because of that year in combat.  I instinctively know that my combat experience was blood real.  As I accept what I did and what I learned, I want others to learn form me.

Scott:  Accepting your experience is a move toward wholeness.  Also, it frees you to seek justice and peace because you know the disruption and pain of war.

Glen:  Yes, I think anyone who has fought to the death has experienced that reality as transformative.  I am in fact different than I was before I fought in combat.

Scott:  Our colleague Roger Brooke says that as a warrior you have learned lessons: about the nature of evil; about politics, about duplicity; about life; about the human condition.  “There are lessons learned and it is difficult to find peace ultimately . . . until you’ve taken up those lessons and somehow carried them back into the culture that could surely do with those lessons.” (1)

Glen:  That is what is I have started to do over the last couple of years. Back in 2003, I was furious when the commander-in-chief stated “mission accomplished.”  I had no idea what to do with my rage at the time.  Now I am speaking out so that others may learn the realities of war.  It is not glorious.  It is never over.

Scott:  Early on you said, “Helping build a school in Vietnam seems like the right thing for me to do.”  That is also a clear assertion full of heart and vision!  How do you get from here to there?

Glen:  By continuing to step into that path that enacts healing.  For example, I now look forward to Veterans Day.  I never celebrated or acknowledged that holiday until a couple of years ago, when we started witnessing to the high suicide rate among veterans and active duty military.  Now from November 1st until Veterans Day I am getting up every morning to gather with others to bear witness to the soul pain that ends up in suicide.  We hang sets of dog tags on a tree in a public place,  one set for each warrior that has taken their life, over a period of eleven days.  Publicly witnessing, bowing our heads and praying and caring about the fallen is conscious action to bring attention to a wrong.


(1)  Brooke, R.  (2015).  Project 22 Interview. At: