Deserving Purple Hearts

Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s book Justice is a scrubbing-down of his popular university course of the same name. George Will called reading the book “like taking his… course… without the tiresome parts, such as term papers and exams.”

On the back of the dust jacket, Will also promises that Professor Sandel “is a liberal, but not the annoying sort.” Though he may be on point in regard to the book’s similarity to the undergraduate course, Will misses the mark here: the first twleve pages of the book quickly disgorge an annoyingly misguided discussion of what types of wounds suffered by American soldiers should be worthy of a Purple Heart: mainly physical ones, or psychological ones too?

Sandel, though he doesn’t say it clearly, advocates inclusion of psychological wounds, like Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, in the canon of deserving injuries. He quotes retired Marine captain Tyler E. Boudreau: “Sadly, as long as our military culture bears at least a quiet contempt for the psychological wounds of war, it is unlikely those veterans will ever see a Purple Heart.” There is no balancing quote from the other side of the argument, only a paraphrased argument that pointedly doesn’t “explain why bloodless injuries shouldn’t count.”

The explanation is this:

As Professor Sandel correctly notes, the Purple Heart is given for sacrifice, not bravery, and although the two are often paired in practice, such pairing is not necessary for awarding of the honor. It is given for sacrifice, and the most important quality of sacrifice is intent. There is no such thing as an unintended sacrifice. To wit: a man of modest means is walking down a street with twenty dollars in his pocket, sees a vagrant, and gives him the money. This is a sacrifice worthy of honoring because the man, though of modest means, is willing to make his own lot a little worse so that his neighbor, the vagrant, might be a little better off. In another scenario, the same man is walking down the same street with the same money in his pocket, and our vagrant quietly steals it. The man walks on, unaware. There’s no sacrifice here because that key quality of intent is absent. The man had no intent to make his lot a little worse so that he might help his neighbor. Rather, his loss was inflicted on him without his approval or knowledge. There’s honor in charitable giving, but not in being robbed, even if the ends are the same.

For this reason, soldiers who suffer psychological harm which they do not intend to place themselves in the way of should not be honored in the same way as those who suffer physical harm which they intentionally place themselves in the way of. As above, the difference is intent.

While it may be argued that all soldiers intend to place themselves at risk of psychological harm merely by joining the military and agreeing to go to war, this is a general threat. It is not immediately staring them in the face, and psychological wounds accumulate over time. Suffering mental wounds is more similar to slowly drinking contaminated water over many years without knowing it, than it is to being shot at. Similarly, firemen assume the risk of a general threat of being burned in a fire, but such assumption is a far cry from the specific threat of pulling alongside a burning house and running inside and up the stairs.

Conversely, suffering physical harm requires the intent of the harmed to place himself or herself in that harmful situation. While psychological harm is a general threat which comes along with the general threat of war, particular bullets and bombs being launched at a soldier are specific threats. The intent to step in front of them and return fire is thus a specific intent lacking in other types of wounds.

Unknowingly accumulating enough mental baggage to develop a disorder is tragic and regrettable and is a serious and real injury, but it is not a serious and real injury which is come by intentionally. Physical wounds are.

Soldiers intentionally place themselves in the line of enemy fire; they do not intentionally develop psychological disorders. The point of the Purple Heart is to honor sacrifice, and there can be no sacrifice without intent. There are no accidental sacrifices, and so accidents should not be honored with Purple Hearts.


2 Responses to Deserving Purple Hearts

  1. Stroup says:

    So should those injuried by IED be awarded the Purple Heart? It wasn’t really their intent to drive over a bomb.
    You’ve got the right idea, but the intent argument is all wrong.

  2. Andrew Eastman says:

    Stroup, thanks for reading… I think soldiers who drive over bombs should qualify for Purple Hearts because, though they didn’t go looking to drive over bombs any more than soldiers go looking to get shot, they know it’s a very real possibility and they go to work every day intending to put themselves in the way of that risk.

    My opinion is that something that happens to a person accidentally isn’t his choice, and so he shouldn’t be rewarded or blamed for it. It’s the choices we make intentionally that we should be rewarded for. Running somebody over on purpose is a lot different from hitting somebody because the brakes on your car failed.

    For soldiers who volunteer for road-clearing / IED-sweeping duty (I think most of those units are all-volunteer), the qualification for reward is their intent to place themselves in the way of immediate, distinct harm.

    Ignoring the intent argument though, I also think that physical wounds are often life-long, while psychological wounds can heal with time and treatment and so the two shouldn’t be lumped together.

    If not intent to assume risk, what do you think should seperate physical from psychological injuries?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: