I suspect most people have had the experience of having to forgive themselves for something bad they did because there was no way to seek forgiveness from the person who was harmed. “I wish I hadn’t shoved that kid off the teeter totter in kindergarten — he got a black eye. I’d apologize now, but I can’t remember his name and anyway I think his family moved away years ago.” “I wish I hadn’t argued with Grandpa in the last conversation we had before he died, I should have been more respectful and now it’s too late.” But we can usually forgive ourselves using our own powers of reason and our moral sense. For example in the former case “I was a child, I didn’t know better, and the victim probably doesn’t even remember it today” or in the latter case “Grandpa knew that I loved and respected him, and he would have died knowing that whether our last discussion was positive or negative”.
But what about people who have done far more horrible things than the above examples, and can’t argue themselves out of an enduring sense of guilt? It has been my privilege to work extensively with Vietnam veterans over the years, some of whom have been in this soul-rending situation for decades. The magnificent series “Vietnam: A Television History” had an interview of one vet who was describing Vietnam and then suddenly burst into tears and admitted he had shot a Vietnamese woman in a rice paddy without reason. I have known a lot of vets like that, they killed people or did other horrible things and they don’t know the names of the victims or even exactly where it happened. There is no one on this earth to forgive them, not even a surviving relative of the victim is available.
Some societies have addressed this with Truth and Reconciliation commissions. But most guilt-stricken people (Vietnam veterans or otherwise) will never have an opportunity to participate in such fora.
What I have seen in my career and life is that this ultimately becomes a question of religious faith. If the person believes in God, who watches and knows all, then there is always a witness from whom forgiveness can be sought. In contrast, if the veteran doesn’t believe in God, they may carry their guilt throughout their lives, wanting to atone but not knowing to whom to turn. I suppose some people would argue that lifelong guilt is condign punishment for having done something awful. But I don’t believe that, particularly when I think of soldiers who have been in horrifically stressful situations that would severely test the moral character of the best of us. When my skills as a mental health professional are exhausted and have proven useless for a guilt-stricken veteran, I therefore hope for something I don’t have the power to deliver, namely a restoration of faith and the possibility of peace it may bring.