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Ask an Ethicist: Is it wrong to ask my son about his combat service?

Combat experience is sometimes difficult to talk about, especially for loved ones. Concerned parents want to learn more about their children’s time in the military, but many aren’t sure how to go about it. This week’s column helps explain why many veterans choose not to talk about their experiences and suggests that being there to listen, not asking, is the most ethical way to communicate with them.

In partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, "Ask an Ethicist," aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column features a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website.

Justin Synder HeadshotQuestion: Ever since my son came home from serving in Iraq in 2008, he has been a different person. Growing up, he was always outgoing, the life of the party. Ever since his return he has become a different person all together, a ghost of his former self. He rarely comes around anymore, and I don’t feel welcomed in his home anymore. He is seeing a psychologist, who is helping him with his post-traumatic stress disorder, but I want to understand what is going on. Every time I try to talk to him about what it was like for him over there he becomes belligerent and withdrawn. All I can piece together is that he rode around in trucks a lot, but that can’t be everything. I want to know what really happened to him and why he changed, but I don’t want him to become even more withdrawn or for him to feel like I am invading his privacy. Is it wrong to ask him about his combat service?

An Ethicist Responds: If you were a stranger or acquaintance, I would say, yes, it is, as a general rule, inappropriate to ask a veteran what happened in combat. However, close relationships depend on knowing about each other, and as a parent close to your son, you are right to want to learn more. But, the matter is at its roots about the ethics of listening rather than the ethics of asking. To understand this and to listen ethically, it helps to know the moral reasons why veterans may choose to remain silent.

Some combat veterans don’t talk about their experiences because they want to protect others from the horrors of combat. Lynda Van Devanter served as a nurse in Vietnam. In her memoir, she said she wanted to tell her family what happened but avoided it every time the subject came up. 

“I didn’t want to hurt them,” she wrote, “and I knew that if I went into all of it they would be devastated.” 

I spoke with a combat veteran who was deployed to Iraq and later to Afghanistan. He had told his mother that he was going to have a desk job in Iraq: “I didn’t tell her that we’re training to raid villages, and you know, how to make bombs and all these things…She didn’t need to know that.”  Eventually, he told her that he had been in combat but shared little else about his experiences.

Some combat veterans don’t want to talk about their experiences because they feel ashamed or guilty for what they did. I interviewed a Vietnam War veteran who killed innocent Vietnamese and unintentionally contributed to the death of two American soldiers. His guilt was unimaginable, taking an extreme toll on his health and family, but he refused to talk about his experiences with his wife or anyone else. He said to his wife, “If I told you everything I did, you wouldn’t love me anymore.”

For others, asking is an invasion of privacy, but not necessarily in the way we usually think about it. I asked a veteran of the Iraq War what he does when someone asks him if he killed anybody in combat. He said he avoids the question: “Whether I did or not remains with me and the people I was with.” 

A Marine told me, “I don't talk to other people (about combat) unless they were a Scout or a SEAL or something… You just don't talk about it … If you want to hear a war story, well, turn on the TV.” 

For these veterans, silence, or privacy about their experiences, preserves the sacredness of combat. Prohibitions on speaking or depicting are one way to set something apart as sacred. For example, according to the BibleHeaven was revealed to Paul the Apostle, and “he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” Combat veterans may set apart the combat experience and the battle community from the rest of us by making clear the boundaries of what may be uttered. War stories should remain only with the battle community, those who have been consecrated through the trials of combat.

It may be sacrilegious for a veteran to tell his or her stories, but it could also feel redemptive if people listen ethically. Some veterans want to tell their stories, but they feel abandoned by the public and don’t think the rest of us really care about their experiences. One veteran said of combat trauma, "Most people are not really interested in understanding more, you know; they just want a cursory understanding or even … they don’t want that, really.”

Some veterans may feel that if they do tell their stories that the rest of us aren’t listening to war stories on the veterans’ terms. A Marine who served in Iraq told me that he doesn’t talk about his combat experiences, not even with his wife, because people are “not listening correctly.” “They’re listening to what they want to hear.”  

In other words, people only listen to what confirms their own beliefs about war and soldiers, about themselves and about the person telling the story. They are not listening to the full story and the message the veteran is trying to get across. This is why the Vietnam War veteran and author Tim O’Brien wrote that, in the end, a true war story is about “people who never listen.”

The ethical issue is not just about asking but in the end about listening. Though it may not appear so, in his silence, in his anger, in his withdrawal, your son is already telling you an important part of his war story. Patiently sanctify what he is communicating now and create trust that you can listen ethically. To listen ethically is to listen with prohibition or restraint. Listen for him, not for yourself and your needs.  Listen without judgment. Listen empathetically, but don’t think that you can fully know his pain. If he tells you about combat, cry with him, but don’t cringe at the horror. Don’t expect his combat stories to give you the answers you want. If you think you have answers for him, be cautious about uttering them because they may interrupt his message. In the end, fully respect the story as he tells it, because it is sacred. 

Justin Snyder works for the Office for Research Protections in the Quality Management Program. Previously a sociology professor, Snyder spent three years interviewing veterans suffering from combat trauma. His particular interest is in the moral aspects of combat trauma.  He also conducts research on research ethics.

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"Ask an Ethicist" is a forum to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the Penn State community. These articles represent the interests and judgments of each author as an individual scholar and are neither official positions of the Rock Ethics Institute or Penn State. They are designed to offer a possible approach to a subject and are not intended as definitive statements on what is or is not ethical in any given situation. Read the full disclaimer.