The Shame of Abandoning Their Kurdish Allies Will Haunt our Troops for Years. We've Betrayed Them, Too | Opinion

Over the past month, President Trump has given vivid accounts of distraught widows and disfigured soldiers as he pushes to end America's involvement in endless wars. His pronouncements may play well in some circles, but there is a dark side to his remarks. While we know the withdrawal from Northern Syria remains controversial, our men and women in uniform must be supported without hesitation.

That support also extends to our allies that have fought side by side with our soldiers on the front lines and risked their lives. Abandoning our Kurdish partners who valiantly fought with us against ISIS, in the face of a Turkish invasion is not consistent with who we are as a military force. Likewise, the potential release of thousands of ISIS fighters, enabling their migration to the nations that make up the heart of our NATO alliance, is also inconsistent with who we are.

Nevertheless, while withdrawing US troops may remove them from immediate physical danger, the action is not without longer term risks to service members and the military as a whole. This is because the modern battlefield is not only physically and physiologically dangerous—soldiers often risk life, limb, and sanity — it is also morally treacherous. Indeed, abandoning long-term and committed allies on the front lines sets the stage for moral injury among our warfighters.

Abandoning the Kurds, considered by many warfighters to be our best allies on the front lines in the fight against ISIS, can only raise serious doubts in the minds of American service members. From senior military officials to advisors embedded with the Kurds, there has been a deep sense of betrayal in the wake of the withdrawal. Moral injury arises out of trauma caused by a sense of betrayal.

The decision to withdraw has likely morally injured the advisors on the ground in Syria. Our soldiers trust their leaders, both military and civilian, to rely on core values no matter the challenges or circumstances. When that trust is broken, soldiers are at risk of moral injury. We see individuals suffering from this special kind of trauma in large numbers coming out of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. One plausible mechanism has been the ambiguity and uncertainty that comes with fighting in that part of the world. Ambiguity and uncertainty create anxiety along with inner distress.

Moral injury refers to serious inner conflict and moments of intense anxiety. There is damage caused to a person's capacity to behave in a just and ethical manner that occurs when a person perpetrates, fails to prevent, bears witness to, or is the victim of an act that affronts their deeply held beliefs and expectations regarding human dignity. Understandably, the soldier wrestles over worries of having committed grievous moral transgressions, regardless of whether or not he, or she, is ultimately responsible for the action. Over time, these worries overwhelm a personal sense of goodness and humanity. This is not only bad for the individual soldier, but for overall force readiness, as morally troubled soldiers are ineffective, and sometimes dangerous, on the battlefield. Similar to physical injuries and mental health conditions such as PTSD, moral injury degrades our fighting force's vitality and effectiveness.

Societies have long acknowledged that war is a dangerous activity, and therefore most would agree that societies have obligations to those it sends into combat. First, as Americans, we rely on a sense of justice and "being right in our cause" when we send men and women into combat with moral justification. Next, in committing forces to combat, we have an obligation to ensure our military is well-led to succeed in completing the mission at hand. To that end, good military leaders take initiative to reduce the risk of avoidable harm to their soldiers, whether the harm be physical, psychological, or moral.

This specific act of betrayal to our Kurdish allies impacts US warfighters. If our strongest regional allies can be abandoned on a whim, then how can our troops feel confident that they will not be discarded in the future for political expediency? Moreover, the decision to withdraw may condemn future US troops to intervene at a later date. Current service members understand very well that today's withdrawal may result in tomorrow's invasion, and this may leave troops with a sense of anticipated survivor's guilt.

The foundation of American exceptionalism is our value system and our ability to influence world affairs does not strictly lie with our military force. Rather, the true source of American power lies with our strong relationships with our allies. President Trump's decision to withdraw from Syria puts at risk both our value system and global relationships. Our troops understand the moral significance of breaking one's word. The military's core values are the foundation for who we are and how we act in the service of our nation. They anchor our conduct regardless of the challenges and demands we face, and when in doubt, they give us a compass that will never let us down. So when the commander-in-chief chose to break our nation's word to the Kurds, we not only betrayed our allies on our word, we betrayed our soldiers.

Stephen N. Xenakis, a psychiatrist and retired Army Brigadier General, serves on the executive boards of The Center for Ethics & the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania and is an Adjunct Professor at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences.

Jesse D. Hamilton, a philosophy graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, is an Iraq War veteran and former advisor to the Iraqi Army.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​