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This essay seeks to introduce moral injury to the field of literary trauma studies. Moral injury, a term coined by Jonathan Shay and elaborated upon by Brett Litz, is best understood as the psychic pain that sometimes follows a perceived moral breach. It is related to but distinct from trauma, and it manifests with a unique set of symptoms. The essay goes on to identify salient examples of moral injury in Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866), Albert Camus's The Fall (1957), and Kevin Powers's The Yellow Birds (2012), and to trace some of the ways manifestations of moral injury might affect the form and style of literary texts.


trauma, PTSD, moral injury, Cathy Caruth, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Albert Camus, Kevin Powers

[End Page 43]

The Problem of "Perpetrator Trauma"

In the opening pages of her potent, field-defining study of trauma theory, Unclaimed Experience, Cathy Caruth presents us with an instructive image of trauma in literature borrowed (via Freud) from the pages of Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata (1581); in that text, the hero Tancred unknowingly "kills his beloved Clorinda in a duel while she is disguised in the armour of an enemy knight. After her burial he makes his way into a strange magic forest [. . .]. He slashes with his sword at a tall tree; but blood streams from the cut and the voice of Clorinda, whose soul is imprisoned in the tree, is heard complaining that he has wounded his beloved once again" (Freud, quoted in Caruth, Unclaimed 2). The story is one of many examples Caruth provides in developing her extremely influential model: Tancred's pain at the loss of his love is an exemplary trauma, and the image of the speaking wound attests to the fact that the voice of trauma "stubbornly persists in bearing witness" to our deepest hurts (3). However, as Ruth Leys points out in her zealous critique of Caruth in Trauma: A Genealogy, this particular vignette is potentially problematic—because Tancred seems less a victim than a perpetrator of violence.1 Isn't it more accurate to think of him as the one who inflicts pain—not as one who suffers it? For Leys, this confusion has "chilling implications": "Caruth's logic would turn other perpetrators into victims too—for example, it would turn the executioners of the Jews into victims and the 'cries' of the Jews into testimony to the trauma suffered by the Nazis" (297). These "chilling implications" make for provocative copy, but they also suggest Leys is overplaying her hand. Tancred kills, but he is no Nazi. In a combat setting, he slays an armed, armored individual he has every reason to believe is his enemy—not his lover.2 Thus, we are thoroughly unsurprised to hear that his mistake haunts him. More importantly, we sympathize. Nonetheless, Leys's prodding does identify a compelling question raised by Caruth's reading: is the pain of the one who is victimized equivalent to that of the one who thrusts the sword? And should we use the same model to interpret both?3

We are tempted to answer "no" to both questions, and recent research in psychology gives us the tools to do so plausibly. Indeed, in just the past few years, researchers have proposed, developed, and tested a new diagnosis that covers the pain of perpetration—and that is distinct from trauma and PTSD, maladies more clearly linked to victimization. That diagnosis is called moral injury (or MI). The term was coined by Jonathan Shay in his 1994 volume Achilles in Vietnam. Yet Shay defines moral injury rather narrowly as the psychological damage that may result when a power-holder commits—or forces another to commit—an unethical act. Thus, fifteen years later, a team of psychologists led by Brett Litz began developing and testing a new, much broader definition of moral injury that addresses not only the sins of authority figures but the crimes we ourselves commit. In the years since, Litz and a handful of other researchers have argued both for the reality and the utility of the moral injury diagnosis, contending that the category is necessary if we are to effectively address the complex array of psychic symptoms that follow in atrocity's wake.

In this essay, I argue that literary critics—like psychologists and therapists—would benefit from treating moral injury as a category distinct from trauma. Doing [End Page 44] so would allow us to accurately attend to fictional depictions of the real psychic pain of perpetration while preserving—even strengthening—the link between trauma and victimhood. Therefore, I take on two tasks in what follows. First, I offer an extended discussion of moral injury as it is described by contemporary clinicians. Then, I seek out manifestations of moral injury and its antecedents in three novels: Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866), Camus's The Fall (1957), and Kevin Powers's The Yellow Birds (2012). In these readings, I hope to demonstrate how an understanding of moral injury might supplement trauma theory, to begin exploring how MI shapes literary form, and to offer some initial comments on the ways literature might help us better understand the effects of MI.

Moral Injury Defined and Described

The psychiatrist–cum–literary critic Jonathan Shay proposes the term moral injury (hereafter MI) in his 1994 volume Achilles in Vietnam. For Shay, MI occurs when one witnesses an authority figure breaching what the Greeks called thémis, and what Shay translates loosely as "what's right": "When a leader destroys the legitimacy of the army's moral order by betraying 'what's right,' he inflicts manifold injuries on his men" (Achilles 6). Shay adopts the Greek term because he draws examples of MI from both the personal accounts of Vietnam veterans and from Homer's Iliad. Vietnam veterans might suffer from MI when a commanding officer repeatedly sends a grunt he doesn't like out on the most dangerous patrols. And Achilles is morally injured when Agamemnon takes from him the war spoils—in the figure of the captive Briseis—Achilles rightfully earns (13). In Shay's characterization, MI most frequently results in isolation and violent rage. One of his first real-world examples of MI is also the most unnerving. His client describes the wartime episode this way:

Word came down [that] they were unloading weapons off them. Three boats.

At that time we moved. It was about ten o'clock at night. We moved down, across Highway One along the beach line, and it took us [until] about three or four o'clock in the morning to get on line while these people are unloading their boats. And we opened up on them—aaah.

And the fucking firepower was unreal, the firepower that we put into them boats. It was just a constant, constant firepower. It seemed like no one ever ran out of ammo.

Daylight came [long pause], and we found out we killed a lot of fishermen and kids.

[. . .]

The fucking colonel says, 'Don't worry about it. We'll take care of it.' Y'know, uh, 'We got body count!' 'We have body count!' So it starts working on your head. So you know in your heart it's wrong, but at the time, here's your superiors telling you that it was okay. So, I mean, that's okay then, right?

(4–5; ellipsis mine, all other bracketed text original) [End Page 45]

Yet even with the passage of time, the veteran—though he actually receives an award for participating in the "raid"—is haunted by his memory of it: "He still feels deeply dishonored by the circumstances of its official award for killing unarmed civilians on an intelligence error. He declares that the day it happened, Christmas Eve, should be stricken from the calendar" (4). In the years following that Christmas Eve, this veteran suffers a variety of ill effects: rage, withdrawal, distrust, and despair.

However, Shay's definition of MI, situated as it is in the space between military superior and soldier, is relatively narrow. Thus, in 2009, Litz et al. began testing a broader, more clinically grounded version of the term. For Litz et al., MI is

perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations. This may entail participating in or witnessing inhumane or cruel actions, failing to prevent the immoral acts of others, as well as engaging in subtle acts or experiencing reactions that, upon reflection, transgress a moral code. We also consider bearing witness to the aftermath of violence and human carnage to be potentially morally injurious.

(700; emphasis original)

Litz et al.'s understanding of the diagnosis goes beyond Shay's in a variety of crucial ways. First and most importantly, they characterize MI as occurring not only when one witnesses an ethical breach, but also when one commits or fails to stop one.4 Such alterations significantly increase the number of people we might consider morally injured.

Since the publication of Litz et al.'s study, a number of other teams have published work both corroborating and elaborating upon it. Three pieces in particular—published by teams led by Drescher, Vargas, and Farnsworth—help us better understand the symptoms of MI. I have divided these symptoms up into four clusters for the purposes of simplicity and clarification. First, recent research backs up Shay's suggestion that MI may lead to both (a) anger and (b) social isolation. Litz et al., Vargas et al., and Farnsworth et al. see anger and aggression as linked to the feelings of shame resulting from the moral breach. Litz et al. elaborate on the ways such aggression coincides with other relational problems, including "toxic interpersonal difficulties" and "decreased empathy for others" (Litz et al. 699). Rage, anger, and other related antisocial urges may drive the morally injured individual to isolate him- or herself. And Drescher et al. argue that such habits may be exacerbated by another of the malady's prime symptoms: "reduced trust in others and in social/cultural contracts" (9). Farnsworth et al. note that shame activates "social hiding behaviors" (251). And Litz et al. posit that the social isolation may also result from the community's tendency to distance itself from perceived criminals: "those who suffer from moral injury may be more reluctant to utilize social supports, and it is possible that they may be actually shunned in light of the moral violation" (699).

A third cluster of symptoms groups around (c) poor treatment of the self, including poor self-care, self-handicapping, self-harm, and even suicide (Drescher et al. 9). In their less frightening incarnations, such phenomena may manifest in behaviors like "retreating in the face of success or good feelings"; more troubling manifestations [End Page 46] include exceeding recklessness and drug and alcohol abuse (Litz et al. 701). MI may drive an individual to parasuicidal behaviors—or even to suicide. For Brock and Lettini, this is the condition's scariest incarnation: "One of the most dangerous aspects of moral injury is the collapse of meaning and the loss of a will to live" (80). Such symptoms are related to a fourth cluster: (d) "demoralization," or increasingly negative feelings about the moral value of self and world. First, the morally injured often come to see themselves—rather than the act they commit—as bad, evil, or morally degraded. They are less likely to think they have done bad things and more likely to believe they are bad people. As Litz et al. put it, "The more time passes, the more service members will be convinced and confident that not only their actions, but they are unforgiveable" (700; emphasis original). More troubling, perhaps, is the tendency of the morally injured to begin to see not only themselves, but also the world, as irretrievably unethical. As an example, Brock and Lettini cite the eulogy delivered at the funeral of a military suicide: "He thought the world was supposed to be a better place than it is" (48). Litz et al. attest to the ways a bad feeling about the self might morph into bad feelings about the world in general: "An individual with moral injury may begin to view him or herself as immoral, irredeemable, and un-reparable or believe that he or she lives in an immoral world" (698; my emphasis).

A number of these symptoms also show up prominently among those suffering from PTSD. Yet as Drescher et al. argue, they are not "criterion symptoms": specialists acknowledge that such symptoms might accompany a PTSD diagnosis, but they alone will not trigger one. And by contrast, certain symptoms restrict themselves only to trauma: as one crucial example, a veteran suffering from PTSD might startle when hearing a car backfire in a mall parking lot while a morally injured individual would not. To confirm its uniqueness and its helpfulness as a diagnostic category, Drescher et al. conducted an MI survey with the participation of roughly two dozen religious leaders, academic researchers, clinicians, and policy-makers with specialties in trauma. Summing up their results, Drescher et al. write, "There was unanimous agreement that the concept of 'moral injury' is useful and needed [. . .]. There was also universal agreement that the construct of moral injury was not fully encompassed by the PTSD diagnostic criteria and its related features" (11). Such unanimity suggests that mental health specialists would be well served to begin treating MI as a unique diagnostic category.

Though MI is at least theoretically quite old, there are a number of reasons why scholars are only now turning their attention to it. First, especially in the American sphere, modern warfare is much more likely to put the soldier in a position where he or she will kill another human—a frequent trigger of MI. In World War II, nearly 75% of soldiers did not fire directly at enemy troops (Brock and Lettini 17). Having learned this startling fact, American military leaders began putting soldiers through "reflexive fire training"—essentially a fire-first-think-second shooting technique. By the Vietnam era, 85–90% of American soldiers fired directly at the enemy (18). Additionally, guerilla wars (like Vietnam) and counterinsurgency campaigns (like Iraq and Afghanistan) put reflexive-fire-trained soldiers in morally ambiguous situations more often (Litz et al. 696). When fighters dress like civilians, when children wear suicide vests, and when enemy gunners hold infants, ethical action becomes [End Page 47] even more difficult. Another crucial reason why MI has not received the attention it deserves is the fact that it manifests with symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder and often coincides with PTSD.5 Further, clinicians have long assumed that psychic suffering in the wake of war derives primarily from the stress of living for an extended period of time under the threat of harm or death (Drescher et al. 8). Yet recent research suggests that committing, witnessing, or being forced to participate in a moral wrong is a source of considerable torment for veterans. And early efforts at treating MI qua MI have proven beneficial for some clients.

My sense is that the diagnosis would be of use to literary critics, too; hence, in the next section, I turn my attention to Dostoevsky, Camus, and Powers in order to demonstrate how characters in their novels exhibit symptoms conforming with the moral injury diagnosis. I select these three novels because each exemplifies a particular type of moral injury. In the first, Raskolnikov's MI is the result of an act of commission: a brutal double murder. In the second, Camus's protagonist Clamence suffers moral injury as the result of an act of omission: his failure to stop a suicide. In the third, Kevin Powers's soldier-heroes are morally injured by witnessing the bad acts of others. I also offer some preliminary insights on ways in which the concept shapes these novels' form—notably their metaphors, diction, and imagery—and on ways in which literature might help us develop a more precise vocabulary for talking about the pain of perpetration.

Crime and Punishment

We turn our attention first to Dostoevsky's novel because it offers such a focused examination of an ethical breach and its aftereffects on the perpetrator. As such, it is an ideal place to begin a discussion of the ways moral injury and its antecedents manifest in literature. Crime and Punishment famously opens in the run-up to a murder. The protagonist Raskolnikov is an impoverished law student who has dropped out of school and is months behind on rent. Even in the novel's opening pages, he is considering killing an old woman—a moneylender to whom he has pawned some of his last possessions. The murder happens near the end of the novel's first part when Raskolnikov brings an axe to the woman's flat and hacks her to death in a scene whose explicit violence shocked Dostoevsky's contemporaries. Hiding in the apartment after the murder, Raskolnikov is surprised by the woman's younger sister, whom he also kills before staging a miraculous escape. The remaining five parts of the novel document both the murder investigation and Raskolnikov's slow psychic breakdown. Eventually, sensing incorrectly that investigators are closing in and crumbling under the weight of his wrongdoing, Raskolnikov confesses and accepts a sentence of hard labor in Siberia.

Of course, many characters in the novel notice both Raskolnikov's suffering and the strangeness of his behavior in the days and weeks following his crime, but it is the physician Zossimov who offers the diagnosis that is of most interest to us here: he wagers that Raskolnikov's "illness had, apart from the poor material circumstances of the recent months of his life, some moral causes as well" (207). And indeed, the [End Page 48] "illness" Zossimov sees carries with it symptoms that conform with the moral injury diagnosis. Prime among them are the student's repeated, strenuous outbursts of anger. One might presume that a man in Raskolnikov's circumstances would occasionally lose his poise, but Dostoevsky makes it clear that his outbursts are both excessive and difficult for him to contain. Even when speaking with his good friend Razumikhin, a man whose unfailing kindness toward Raskolnikov he neither requests nor deserves, the latter "snapped rudely and angrily, suddenly changing his tone" (253). Indeed, through large swaths of the novel, Raskolnikov swings wildly from torpor to fury. It is Zossimov again who first notes Raskolnikov's new tendency to fly "into a rage at the slightest word" (223)—as he does with almost every character in the novel, even those who are closest to him. But perhaps most confounding is his inability to conceal his anger in the presence of the investigator Porfiry. Indeed, from early on Raskolnikov suspects that Porfiry may be on to him, but he is repeatedly unable to control his temper with the persistent detective—a point that Dostoevsky makes over and over again throughout the men's extended conversations. Raskolnikov's ire is most apparent in their second talk. The young student has come to Porfiry asking the inspector to keep tabs on a number of the pawned items in the old woman's possession at the time of her death; these trinkets, Raskolnikov says, have sentimental value. Yet throughout what ought to be a mundane chat, he can barely keep his lid on, and Dostoevsky describes his attitude in extreme language: "Raskolnikov could not help himself and angrily flashed a glance at him, his black eyes burning with wrath. [. . .] Anger was boiling up in him and he could not suppress it" (251, 253). Outside the moral injury paradigm, these extreme fits of pique can feel either idiosyncratic or melodramatic; inside it, they make much more sense.

Raskolnikov's anger has the effect of driving his friends and family away, and their absence enhances the student's solitude. Accordingly, Dostoevsky frequently characterizes his protagonist both as seeking solitude and as physically repelled by the presence of others—this despite the fact that he is surrounded by a handful of characters who seek energetically to ensure his mental and physical well-being. That his mother, his sister, Zossimov, his friend Razumikhin, and his later-fiancée Sonya are all so devoted to him only serves to emphasize the decisiveness of his drive toward isolation. Indeed, Dostoevsky himself indicates in a famous letter to the publisher Katkov that Raskolnikov's solitude is both the primary and the most painful result of the young man's crime; he writes, "The feeling of being cut off and isolated from humanity that he had experienced from the moment he committed the crime had been torturing him" (Frank and Goldstein 222).6 He first begins to feel the working of this "torture" just a couple dozen pages after the murder, and he describes it as a unique feeling: "A dark sensation of tormenting, infinite solitude and estrangement suddenly rose to consciousness in his soul. [. . .] What was taking place in him was totally unfamiliar, new, sudden, never before experienced" (103). While he is sometimes able to shake that "sensation" and rejoin the company of his fellow humans, the feeling persists throughout the book.

In his solitude, Raskolnikov exhibits a lack of self-care that is also symptomatic of moral injury. When Porfiry sees him a few days after the killing, he exclaims pointedly, "Lord! How is it you take no care of yourself at all?" (344). This poor self-care [End Page 49] manifests itself in a number of ways. Most importantly, Raskolnikov doesn't eat. He seems mostly to subsist on bites of cold cabbage soup and old tea furtively given by his housekeeper. Further, when he does come into money that might allow him to feed and clothe himself, he repeatedly gives it all away. Most notably, a number of characters marvel at the fact that when his mother sends him a few dozen roubles to help him get by, Raskolnikov immediately gives them to the Marmeladovs to help them pay for a funeral (220). Another time, he simply throws money into the river (115). Near the novel's end, such habits have led him to a state of almost total destitution: "His clothes were terrible: everything was dirty, torn, tattered, after a whole night out in the rain. His face was almost disfigured by weariness, bad weather, physical exhaustion" (512). It's no surprise, then, that he is given to fainting spells, fatigue, and fever. This passage describes arguably Raskolnikov's worst night; destitute and alone, he wanders Saint Petersburg in a Shakespearean gale, and he later admits that he nearly ends himself that evening: "I [. . .] walked many times by the Neva; that I remember. I wanted to end it there, but . . . I couldn't make up my mind . . ." (517). Raskolnikov does not take his own life, as many others who suffer from moral injury do. But his survival was not a foregone conclusion. As Mochulsky notes, an early draft of the novel has Raskolnikov killing himself with "a bullet in the forehead" (283). Recall that poor self-care often accompanies suicidal or parasuicidal behavior; it certainly does for Dostoevsky's poor student-killer.

Raskolnikov's inability to care for himself springs in part from his own demoralization, a damaging—and durable—negative evaluation of himself. Like the veterans mentioned above, Raskolnikov after the murder tends to think of himself rather than his act as reprehensible. A handful of passages suffice to demonstrate the trend. Shortly before his confession, he thinks to himself, "I'm wicked, I see that [. . .] why do they love me so, when I'm unworthy of it!" (520). He identifies the source of his "wickedness" when speaking to Sonya: "I have a wicked heart, Sonya; take note of that, it can explain a lot. That's why I came, because I'm wicked" (414). And to his sister, he mutters, "I'm a vile man, Dunya" (517). But one other example drives the point home. In one of the novel's most famous passages, Sonya urges Raskolnikov to a public display of repentance shortly after he reveals his crime to her: "Go now, this minute, stand in the crossroads, bow down, and first kiss the earth you've defiled, then bow to the whole world, on all four sides, and say aloud to everyone: 'I have killed!'" (420; my emphasis). Raskolnikov more or less dismisses her at the time, but again considers her command when trying to get his courage up to formally confess. Yet tellingly, when he recites her words, he changes the final phrase: "Go to the crossroads, bow down to people, kiss the earth, because you have sinned before it as well, and say aloud to the whole world: 'I am a murderer'" (525). "I have killed" becomes "I am a murderer." Here again is that telling syntactical shift; unfortunately, the killing has become part of Raskolnikov's self-definition.

Crime and Punishment is a helpful text for advancing our understanding of moral injury because of the ways it both isolates and reifies the MI concept. As mentioned above, contemporary researchers often have a hard time arguing both for the existence and the usefulness of MI because it often coexists with other, better-known maladies, most notably PTSD. In Dostoevsky's fictional landscape, however, there is no room [End Page 50] for quibbling: Raskolnikov suffers from a "moral" illness that is a direct result of his crime. Indeed, Raskolnikov even predicts such an illness in an essay he writes as a law student: in Porfiry's summation, "you maintain that the act of carrying out a crime is always accompanied by illness" (258). Raskolnikov previews this argument early in the novel, wondering in the run-up to his murder of the old woman whether "crime somehow by its peculiar nature is always accompanied by something akin to disease" (71). In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky gives us a novel in which the causal link between moral breach and moral injury is laid bare. However, he also makes Raskolnikov's MI more obvious by comparing it to a physical illness. The metaphor becomes most apparent during Raskolnikov's famous dream near novel's end; in it,

the whole world was doomed to fall victim to some terrible, as yet unknown and unseen pestilence spreading to Europe from the depths of Asia. Everyone was to perish, except for certain, very few, chosen ones. Some new trichinae had appeared, microscopic creatures that lodged themselves in men's bodies. But these creatures were spirits, endowed with reason and will. Those who received them into themselves immediately became possessed and mad. But never, never had people considered themselves so intelligent and unshakeable in the truth as did these infected ones. Never had they thought their judgments, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions and beliefs more unshakeable. Entire settlements, entire cities and nations would be infected and go mad. Everyone became anxious, and no one understood anyone else; each thought the truth was contained in himself alone, and suffered looking at others, beat his breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know whom or how to judge, could not agree on what to regard as evil, what as good. They did not know whom to accuse, whom to vindicate.


It would be going too far to say that this "trichinae" is moral injury, but some of the pestilence's symptoms are quite familiar, notably isolation ("no one understood anyone else") and the "unshakeable" quality of victims' moral valuations. If moral injury is hard to pin down in the real world, Dostoevsky gives MI (or something like it) physical form in the novel, rendering it both more recognizable and more observable.

The Fall

The philosophical reflections in Albert Camus's 1957 novel The Fall are set off by a literal fall. Late one night, while wandering the streets of Paris, Jean-Baptiste Clamence passes a woman standing alone on one of the bridges crossing the Seine. As he moves off the bridge, he hears a cry and a splash—presumably from the woman throwing herself into the water below. Barely hesitating, Clamence does nothing and pushes on, returning home and ignoring the papers the next morning.

Shoshana Felman advances what has become a definitive reading of The Fall in Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, a pillar of literary trauma theory. For Felman, The Fall must be read as a follow-up to Camus's [End Page 51] previous novel, The Plague (1947). According to Felman, The Plague is a novel primarily concerned with the possibility that one might accurately witness trauma—in this case, an actual plague that rips through a North African city. By contrast, The Fall is about a failure to witness trauma, namely, Clamence's failure to witness the anonymous woman's suicide. Felman describes Clamence's unwillingness to address or report her death in terms of a forcible silence: "Silence here is not a simple absence of an act of speech, but a positive avoidance—and erasure—of one's hearing, the positive assertion of a deafness, in the refusal not merely to know but to acknowledge—and henceforth respond or answer to—what is being heard or witnessed" (Felman and Laub 183; emphasis original). Yet for Felman, Clamence's silence is also metonymically linked to Europeans' failure to effectively witness to the death of millions of Jews in the Holocaust: "The Fall, indeed, enacts the Holocaust as a radical failure of representation, in both senses of the word: failure of representation in the sense of making present the event; failure of representation in the sense of truly speaking for the victim, whose voicelessness no voice can represent" (197; emphasis original). In its focus on silence rather than language, on "voicelessness" and unspeakability, Felman's reading is very much in keeping with other early trauma-theoretical readings of literature, among them provocative studies by Caruth and Geoffrey Hartman.7 Indeed, in a reading of Felman's essay, Colin Davis affirms that The Fall is "undoubtedly about trauma" and that "it is not difficult [. . .] to make the case for the relevance of La Chute to trauma studies" (39).

And yet, as Daniel Just argues, "Clamence does not seem as traumatized as Felman asserts" (900).8 And one may choose to approach Clamence's decision to ignore the woman's fall from a related but distinct perspective: that of MI. For a close analysis of Clamence's long narrative reveals that he is psychologically scarred by what he comes to see as an ethical lapse—by his failure to stop a tragic event. Or more bluntly, Clamence is as much failed witness as he is actually complicit in the woman's death.9 Indeed, I contend that his inaction renders him at least partially culpable. As such, Clamence comes to understand his inaction on the bridge as a moral error that haunts him even as he tries to flee it:

Je compris alors, sans révolte, comme on se résigne à une idée dont on connaît depuis longtemps la vérité, que ce cri qui, des années auparavant, avait retenti sur la Seine, derrière moi, n'avait pas cessé, porté par le fleuve vers les eaux de la Manche, de cheminer dans le monde, à travers l'étendue illimitée de l'océan, et qu'il m'y avait attendu jusqu'à ce jour où je l'avais rencontré.


I realized, calmly as you resign yourself to an idea the truth of which you have long known, that that cry which had sounded over the Seine behind me years before had never ceased, carried by the river to the waters of the Channel, to travel throughout the world, across the limitless expanse of the ocean, and that it had waited for me there until the day I had encountered it.

(108) [End Page 52]

The cry follows and torments him because it is the aural symbol of his ethical failing, and its effects are clearly recognizable as the full array of MI symptoms. Yet rather than invalidate Felman's approach, an acknowledgment of Clamence's MI might allow us to better understand the forces that make him a failed witness.

Clamence's MI drives changes in his behavior in ways that conform with the diagnosis as explained above. First, his behaviors exemplify two of the ailment's main symptoms: rage and poor self-care. We see evidence of the first in an unexpected altercation with a fellow motorist. Stuck behind a frustrated man on a stalled motorcycle, an increasingly angry Clamence leaves his own car with the intention of attacking the unfortunate biker: "Tant de cynisme me remplit d'une bonne fureur et je sortis de ma voiture dans l'intention de frotter les oreilles de ce mal embouché" (57; "Such cynicism filled with a healthy rage and I got out of my car with the intention of thrashing this coarse individual" [52]). However, when another motorist comes to the motorcyclist's aid, Clamence turns his anger on this new "d'Artagnan" with the intention of "secouer l'imbécile qui m'avait interpellé" (58; "giving a drubbing to the idiot who had addressed me" [53]). Both men leave when the traffic snarl eases, but we see evidence here that Clamence's impulse in trying to resolve relatively mundane conflicts is physical violence. This willingness to resort to brawling is also evidence of his increasingly poor self-care. Indeed, in the years following the night on the Seine, Clamence slips into a life of alcoholism and promiscuity, pushing his body to the limit both physically and sexually. He drinks gin like water, referring to the spirit as "la seule lueur dans ces ténèbres" (16; "the sole glimmer of light in this darkness" [12]). When he is not thoroughly drunk, he frequents brothels: "Désespérant de l'amour et de la chasteté, je m'avisai enfin qu'il restait la débauche qui remplace très bien l'amour [. . .] couché, tard dans la nuit, entre deux filles, et vidé de tout désir, l'espoir n'est plus une torture [. . .] e couchais donc avec des putains et je buvais pendant des nuits" (108–9; "Despairing of love and of chastity, I at last bethought myself of debauchery [. . .] lying late at night between two prostitutes and drained of all desire, hope ceases to be a torture, you see [. . .] I went to bed with harlots and drank for nights on end" [102]). Later on, he describes the thin consolation these pursuits allow: "L'alcool et les femmes m'ont fourni, avouons-le, le seul soulagement dont je fusse digne. [. . .] La vraie débauche est libératrice parce qu'elle ne crée aucune obligation.On n'y possède que soi-même" (109; "Alcohol and women provided me, I admit, the only solace of which I was worthy. [. . .] True debauchery is liberating because it creates no obligations. In it you possess only yourself" [103]). But the solace is limited, and he soon begins contemplating suicide—another key symptom of MI. Earlier in the novel, he laments, "Ne croyez pas surtout que vos amis vous téléphoneront tous les soirs, comme ils le devraient, pour savoir si ce n'est pas justement le soir où vous décidez de vous suicider" (35; "Don't think for a minute that your friends will telephone you every evening, as they ought to, in order to find out if this doesn't happen to be the evening when you are deciding to commit suicide" [31]). Later, he even fantasizes about killing himself to avenge himself on those friends, "pour leur jouer une bonne farce, pour les punir, en quelque sorte" (79; "to play a trick on them, to punish them, in a way" [74]). However, he quickly realizes that at this point in his life, he has no one to punish: "J'ai compris que je n'avais pas d'amis" (79; "I realized I had no friends" [End Page 53] [74]). Indeed, his friendlessness exemplifies another of the MI symptoms he exhibits: social withdrawal.

By his own admission, we learn that Clamence before the fall is a gregarious, affable, social being. He not only enjoys the company of others but is eloquent and socially adept. However, after that fateful night on the Seine, he begins to remove himself from the society of others. He first abandons his Paris set, settling instead in Amsterdam and spending most of his time drinking at a woebegone bar at the edge of the city. Further, even from this lonely outpost, he seeks more emphatic solitude, taking a boat out on the foggy waters surrounding the city, where all land is invisible. His goal, it seems, is near-total isolation: "Pas d'hommes, surtout, pas d'hommes! Vous et moi, seulement, devant la planète enfin déserte!" (78; "No human beings, above all, no human beings! You and I alone facing the planet at last deserted!" [72–73]). Further, the narrative itself enacts Clamence's withdrawal: the book includes only his words. There is no narrator and no dialogue by other characters—even though Clamence's long monologue assumes the presence of an unnamed auditor. In brief, Clamence is talking to someone, but Camus never gives us any of the other person's words—nor even, really, absolute confirmation that he exists. (An extreme reading of The Fall has an addled Clamence speaking for 150 pages into the void.) In sum, Clamence is—narratively speaking—utterly alone.

Yet the night on the bridge affects not only Clamence's behaviors but also his attitudes. Before witnessing the young woman's suicide, Clamence has a strong sense of himself as an ethical being living in a world with a sound, predictable moral structure. He is well-mannered and courteous, almost to a fault. He takes pride in his altruistic impulses, helping the infirm cross streets and giving generously to charity. Indeed, he speaks convincingly of the support he draws from the sound ethical structure of his universe: "Le sentiment du droit, la satisfaction d'avoir raison, la joie de s'estimer soi-même, cher monsieur, sont des ressorts puissants pour nous tenir debout ou nous faire avancer" (22–23; "The feeling of the law, the satisfaction of being right, the joy of self-esteem, cher monsieur, are powerful incentives for keeping us upright or keeping us moving forward" [18; emphasis original]). Yet after his MI, Clamence's views of himself and the world change significantly. First, he comes to see his charity and goodwill as both self-serving and superficial, and he grows subtly ashamed of the pride he takes in his good works. Further, he eventually characterizes his altruism as a thin veil masking a will to power: "Au lieu de cela, je brûlais de prendre ma revanche, de frapper et de vaincre. Comme si mon véritable désir n'était pas d'être la créature la plus intelligente ou la plus généreuse de la terre, mais seulement de battre qui je voudrais, d'être le plus fort enfin, et de la façon la plus élémentaire. [. . .] Je découvrais en moi de doux rêves d'oppression" (60–61; "I was eager to get my revenge, to strike and conquer. As if my true desire were not to be the most intelligent or most generous creature on earth, but only to beat anyone I wanted, to be the stronger, in short, and in the most elementary way. [. . .] I discovered in myself sweet dreams of oppression" [55]). And as he ruminates on these themes, he comes to see the entire world as suffering from a similar malady: each and every one of us is immoral—is guilty—but all of us are buoyed by delusions of impunity. For Clamence, this false feeling of innocence is common if not universal: "L'idée la plus naturelle à l'homme, celle qui [End Page 54] lui vient naïvement, comme du fond de sa nature, est l'idée de son innocence" (86; "The idea that comes most naturally to man, as if from his very nature, is the idea of his innocence" [81]). And yet he comes to believe that the exact opposite is true. The central tenet of his new "faith" is a belief in universal guilt: "Du reste, nous ne pouvons affirmer l'innocence de personne, tandis que nous pouvons affirmer à coup sûr la culpabilité de tous" (116; "We cannot assert the innocence of anyone, whereas we can state with certainty the guilt of all. Every man testifies to the crime of all the others" [110]). Indeed, so swayed is he by this revelation that he alters the nature of his legal vocation. Where before Clamence defended "widows and orphans," he now takes on the cases of real criminals: pimps, thieves, and murderers. He explains, "Si les souteneurs et les voleurs étaient toujours et partout condamnés, les honnêtes gens se croiraient tous et sans cesse innocents, cher monsieur. Et selon moi [. . .] c'est surtout cela qu'il faut éviter" (44–45; "If pimps and thieves were invariably sentenced, all decent people would get to thinking they themselves were constantly innocent, cher monsieur. And in my opinion [. . .] that's what must be avoided above all" [41; emphasis original]). Clamence begins by seeing his act as bad but ends up thinking of himself as bad—and then spreads that self-condemnation over the entire world.

It is clear that MI has come to shape Clamence's view of himself, but a closer look at Camus's novel suggests that the cancerous spread of moral injury infects Clamence's language, too; as the novel progresses, he falls back more and more frequently on superlatives to describe his psychological experience. Or perhaps we might put it differently: literary hyperbole provides those who suffer from moral injury with a capacious language for explaining how their sense of wrongdoing feels as if it grows exponentially. A few examples suffice to demonstrate the trend. When Clamence finally faces his inadequacies, the revelation hits him with unbelievable force: "Je reçus toutes les blessures en même temps et je perdis mes forces d'un seul coup. L'univers entier se mit alors à rire autour de moi" (85–86; "I received all the wounds at the same time and lost my strength all at once. The whole universe then began to laugh at me" [80; my emphasis]). Articulating his sins in a revealing "confession" to junior colleagues, he characterizes himself as peerless in his depravity: "Je suis libre, soustrait à vos rigueurs, et qui suis-je pourtant? Un citoyen-soleil quant à l'orgueil, un bouc de luxure, un pharaon dans la colère, un roi de paresse" (100; "I am free, shielded from your severities, yet who am I? A Louis XIV in pride, a billy goat for lust, a Pharaoh for wrath, a king of laziness" [95]). If he were previously matchless in his charity, now he is matchless in his sin. And his final self-indictment is pithy and exaggerated: "J'étais le dernier des derniers" (146; "I was the lowest of the low" [140]). As this self-described worst of sinners turns his attention to the rest of the world, he observes wickedness everywhere and eternally. Eventually, he comes to see everyone else as somehow complicit in his crimes: "Je n'ai plus d'amis, je n'ai que des complices. En revanche, leur nombre a augmenté, ils sont le genre humain" (79; "I have no more friends; I have nothing but accomplices. To make up for this, their number has increased; they are the whole human race" [73]). However, the "whole human race" is not merely accessory to his sins; they are all guilty: "Du reste, nous ne pouvons affirmer l'innocence de personne, tandis que nous pouvons affirmer à coup sûr la culpabilité de tous. Chaque homme témoigne du crime de tous les autres, [End Page 55] voilà ma foi, et mon espérance" (116; "We cannot assert the innocence of anyone, whereas we can state with certainty the guilt of all. Every man testifies to the crime of all the others—that is my faith and my hope" [110]). This is the philosophical center of the novel, but it is also convincing evidence that Clamence suffers from a diagnosable psychic wound. Having hit rock bottom, Clamence reflects back on his happy, prelapsarian state. Yet even then, he continues to use hyperbolic language; before the fall, he says, "Je ne me reconnaissais pas d'égal. Je me suis toujours estimé plus intelligent que tout le monde, je vous l'ai dit, mais aussi plus sensible et plus adroit, tireur d'élite, conducteur incomparable, meilleur amant" (53; "I recognized no equals. I always considered myself more intelligent than everyone else, as I've told you, but also more sensitive and more skillful, a crack shot, an incomparable driver, a better lover" [48]). Later, describing his professional probity, he brags, "Je n'ai jamais accepté de pot-de-vin, cela va sans dire, mais je ne me suis jamais abaissé non plus à aucune démarche. [. . .] je n'ai jamais consenti à flatter aucun journaliste [. . .] je n'ai jamais fait payer les pauvres et ne l'ai jamais crié sur les toits" (24; "I never accepted a bribe, it goes without saying, and I never stooped either to any shady proceedings. [. . .] I never deigned to flatter any journalist [. . .] I never charged the poor a fee and never boasted of it" [19–20; my emphasis]). In sum, if in the novel's present, Clamence is "lowest of the low," previously he was highest of the high.

Such exaggerations match and mimic the exaggerations of moral injury itself. The individual suffering from MI has a hard time keeping his or her ethical breach within the narrow boundaries of its time and place; rather, it spills forth. Hyperbole helps such a person as he or she tries to mop it up.

The Yellow Birds

We close our exploration of moral injury in literature with Kevin Powers's 2012 Iraq War novel The Yellow Birds. The novel focuses on two young soldiers, Bartle and Murph, and the many psychic trials they undergo in Iraq. Bartle is the older of the two, and in a weak moment early in the novel, he promises Murph's mother that he'll take care of her boy. His inability to do so after Murph goes AWOL and is killed by insurgent forces inspires both guilt and shame. But I would argue that the moral injury Bartle and Murph suffer is driven primarily not by the acts they do nor fail to do but by the evils they witness. Their commanding officer is a man named Sterling, who is both ruthlessly effective and likely guilty of war crimes. As one example of his barbarism, we might turn to an episode described in the novel's first pages: after an intense firefight, soldiers train their guns on an oncoming car with white sheets billowing out the back windows; Sterling opens fire without verifying that its passengers are a threat. It turns out they are an elderly civilian couple who die almost instantly. Seeing the display, Murph mutters, "Holy shit, that bitch got murdered" (22). Elsewhere in the novel, Sterling sexually assaults a German prostitute, kills an Iraqi informant in cold blood, and orders an assault on a civilian neighborhood. Either Murph or Bartle witnesses all these (and other) heinous acts, and my sense is that they are morally injured as a result. It is telling, then, that Powers selects as his novel's epigraph a [End Page 56] quote from the seventeenth-century author and physician Sir Thomas Browne about the resilient mind's ability to move past misdeeds: "To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetfull of evils past, is a mercifull provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil dayes, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions" (Powers). In the novel's milieu, however, the quote is aspirational, as neither Bartle nor his friend Murph are able to forget the "evils" they see; each is tortured by "cutting remembrance," and their sorrows do remain raw from repetition. The state of mind Browne describes is effectively the mirror opposite of MI, and Powers works to develop a creative language in The Yellow Birds that describes its effects on American soldiers.

To avoid unnecessary repetition, I move somewhat more quickly through the litany of moral injury symptoms that manifest in Powers's book. Though one might make the argument that Bartle and Murph show flashes of rage, we see such behaviors most clearly in Sterling himself. Indeed, Bartle once describes him as a sort of conduit for anger and violence: "I hated the way I loved him when I inched up out of the terror and returned fire, seeing him shooting too, smiling the whole time, screaming, the whole rage and hate of these few acres, alive and spreading, in and through him" (Powers 20). Later in the novel, Bartle witnesses Sterling release that anger in less focused, more disturbing ways at a brothel: "I'd never seen him like that: on the edge of losing control, morose and somehow sentimental in his own way. It was like you could feel him about to shake loose from something, I wasn't sure what from, but I didn't want to be around when it happened" (68). During this particular episode, Sterling unloads on a sex worker: "The bargirl had backed away from him when he came down the stairs, and he let go of me and lurched around the bar. 'Not tonight?' he slurred at her. 'Huh, bitch? Not tonight?' He grabbed her by the face with his free hand and squeezed and she struggled to get loose and I could see on her cheeks a deep red where he held her" (66).

Here and elsewhere in the novel, the characters' rage is fueled by drink, and many abuse alcohol, self-medicating in an effort to ease their pain. Of course, alcoholism is also a key marker of MI-inspired poor self-care. We see it in Bartle late in the book, after Murph is dead. Bartle has holed up in a one-room apartment in Richmond, Virginia; he seems only to emerge for beer runs, carrying home cases that he drains like water. His alcohol abuse occasionally inspires suicidal thoughts, and Bartle flirts with self-harm during his months of isolation: "There is a fine line between not wanting to wake up and actually wanting to kill yourself, and while I discovered you can walk that line for a long while without even noticing, anybody who is around you surely will" (135). Arguably, Murph walks over that line when he wanders off base in the novel's climax. The perils of going solo and unarmed are obvious to all, and when Murph strays into enemy territory without armor or weapons, he is essentially signing his own death warrant.

Murph's death and Sterling's crimes haunt Bartle, and he exhibits the broadest array of moral injury symptoms in the novel. Accordingly, like Raskolnikov and Clamence before him, Bartle is demoralized; the evils he has witnessed (and participated in) feel as if they have imprinted themselves on him at a preternaturally deep level. Past the midway point of The Yellow Birds, Bartle explains an almost physical [End Page 57] sense of his own guilt: "I was guilty of something, that much was certain, that much I could feel on a cellular level" (179). This feeling drives him to see himself as a "kind of cripple" (143), though of course his body is intact.

His sense of himself as morally defective leads Bartle to solitude; accordingly, The Yellow Birds—perhaps more than Crime and Punishment and The Fall—testifies with remarkable poignancy to the ways in which moral injury leaves one feeling stranded and alone. We see such patterns first in Murph; as he falls deeper into his own pain, he separates himself more thoroughly from those who might help him. And this isolation becomes physically dangerous when he wanders off the base into the local scrublands. He is almost immediately captured by insurgents, tortured, maimed, and killed. In the weeks and months that follow Murph's death, Bartle—who feels guilty for promising Murph's mother to look after him—similarly drifts away from his unit and, later, his family. Early on, he takes some comfort in the delusion that his loneliness is "explicable" in terms other than those of his friend's passing: "It felt good, somewhere behind my breastbone, to sense that this separation was explicable, a mere failing of language, and my loneliness could proceed with a different cause for a little while longer" (53). But eventually, he accepts that his pain is a result of Murph's death. On returning home after his tour, he locks himself in his room for weeks at a time and later rents a studio apartment that allows him to avoid other people entirely.

The novel's heavy emphasis on the loneliness of its protagonists shapes its imagery as well. To explain how, I turn to the work of Jeff Nunokawa. In an excellent essay on Adam Bede, Nunokawa writes of "signs of [. . .] separations" in that novel that either reflect or predict characters' actual separations from one another (836). For instance, as Adam realizes his alienation from Hetty and his friend Arthur Donnithorne, we see images of separation amass in the text. As Adam walks through the wood, he sees a "'beech'—so close in sound to breech—the tree that he singles out from the forest, 'at a turning in the road,' not 'two trees welded together, but only one'" (836; my emphasis). We see something similar in The Yellow Birds, where "signs of solitude" both echo and enhance the loneliness of characters. They accumulate near the novel's climax, the discovery of Murph's corpse. Accordingly, the minaret from which Murph is thrown sits eerily apart from the surrounding settlements: "It jutted precariously over the bank of the river, a protuberance of mottled stone. There was nothing between us and the tower but a road and barren fields" (201). Matching the minaret is a single tree, similarly set off from other vegetation: "On the side of the road a tree rose out of the otherwise sterile field, bent and swaying softly in the stale breeze" (202). Like these lone landmarks, Murph by this point is cut off from community, and Bartle and Sterling imagine the boy split from the roster of American soldiers: "We had looked for him hard, this one boy, this one name and number on a list" (204; my emphasis). When they do find him, instead of returning Murph's body to his family—or to an American graveyard—they release him into a river that joins with the Tigris. With a lonely image, Powers emphasizes the fact that Sterling and Bartle ensure Murph's isolation as he decomposes: "And I saw his body finally break apart near the mouth of the gulf, where the shadows of the date palms fell in long, dark curtains on his bones, now scattered, and swept them out to sea, toward a line of waves that break forever as he enters them" (226). The dumping of the corpse haunts Bartle and leads to his [End Page 58] own solitude, and Powers develops the novel's imagery in such a way as to emphasize that estrangement. These imageries also provide visual support for what reads as one of the book's most prominent—and most damning—theses: as Bartle puts it, "I'd been trained to think war was the great unifier, that it brought people closer together than any other activity on earth. Bullshit. War is the great maker of solipsists" (12). Of course, one explanation for this statement is moral injury. The military reporter David Wood has called moral injury the "signature wound" of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As isolation is one of the markers of that wound, Powers's novel serves as literary support for Wood's provocative claim.

Obviously, the concerns raised in this essay deserve fuller elaboration, and in future work, I plan to continue pursuing some of the questions it provokes: In what other ways does moral injury shape literary form? Can literature serve as a means of healing those suffering the effects of MI? What is the appropriate ethical response to moral injury? Does it require some form of testimony? And yet, I hope that the foregoing serves to start a conversation about how we might use the MI concept to fine-tune our understanding of the ways in which creative literature both engages and advances our understanding of psychological pain. [End Page 59]

Joshua Pederson

Joshua Pederson is Associate Professor of Humanities at Boston University. He is the author of The Forsaken Son: Child Murder and Atonement in Modern American Fiction (2016) and numerous essays on trauma theory and the relationship between religion and literature. His new book project, entitled Sin Sick: Moral Injury in Literature, is forthcoming.


1. For more on Caruth's possible mischaracterization of Tancred as victim, see Di Prete, Hesford, Novak, Rothberg, and Sicher.

2. Further, as Michael Rothberg points out, Leys is guilty of a "category error" in her analysis of the story: she "elides the category of 'victim' with that of the traumatized subject. [. . .] While one speaks conventionally, as Leys does, of a 'victim of trauma,' such a formulation of victimization has a different ontological status from the distinction between perpetrators and victims with which it is often confused. Thus, on the one hand, we can conceive of a victim who has not been traumatized—either because the victimization did not produce the kind of disruption that trauma ought to signify in order to have conceptual purchase, or because the victim has been murdered, as in the case of Clorinda. The dead are not traumatized, they are dead" (90).

3. A handful of critics have tried, with mixed results. In a recent chapter, Alan Gibbs notes that trauma theorists have been "reluctant to acknowledge and therefore a little slow to examine" what he refers to as "perpetrator trauma" (165–66). Gibbs sees Dominick LaCapra as an exception to this trend but frets that LaCapra's discussions of it bely a "distaste for examining the phenomenon beyond a superficial level" (166). Though Gibbs himself writes a provocative chapter on perpetrator trauma in Gulf War memoirs, he admits that he uses the term "under erasure, or for want of a better term" (200n2). I contend that moral injury is that better term. For others who use the trauma model to treat perpetrator pain in literature, see Crownshaw, McGlothlin, Sanyal, Suleiman, Taberner, and Vice.

4. Shay acknowledges this difference in a recent article; for a new generation of MI researchers, he argues, "the violator is the self; in my definition the violator is a power-holder" ("Moral" 59).

5. Litz et al. provide a helpful review of the ways our understanding of PTSD might cover some of the manifestations of MI (698).

6. Among others, Mochulsky (303), Allan (142), and Tucker (221) all point out the importance of this theme.

7. For an extended discussion of the problematic relationship between trauma theory and the trope of "unspeakability," see my own 2014 essay in Narrative 22.3, "Speak, Trauma: Toward a Revised Understanding of Literary Trauma Theory."

8. Accordingly, Just's helpful reading of The Fall emphasizes Clamence's guilt, his irony, and his "impudence" (900).

9. In LaCapra's reading of The Fall in History and Memory after Auschwitz, the author offers a similar description of Clamence as an "implicated bystander" rather than a "victim of a traumatic incident" (76, 85).

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