MUST WE WITNESS TO MORAL INJURY?*

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By Joshua Pederson

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The Montréal Review, October 2023

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Over the last decade or so, psychologists have proposed a new concept that helps us understand the unique ways individuals may suffer after breaching their own ethical codes. That concept is called moral injury. The term was coined by Jonathan Shay in the 1990s, but contemporary specialists have significantly expanded on his narrow definition. Briefly, moral injury is the enduring psychic pain that may afflict someone who either commits or witnesses a significant moral transgression. It is similar to PTSD but manifests with a distinct symptom set and seems to require a novel suite of treatment strategies. As with the study of PTSD, research on moral injury began in the military setting with specialists’ work with veterans. To understand the difference between the two, we might consider two figures: one service member who barely survives an IED blast and another who accidentally shoots a child. Both may be tormented by their experiences, and previously, we might have described each as “traumatized.” It turns out, however, that they may suffer in different ways. The blast survivor may have nightmarish flashbacks of the explosion or a heightened startle reflex. The shooter, by contrast, may be irrationally angry, take unnecessary risks, or begin to question his or her own sense of goodness. This divergence exemplifies Edward Tick’s claim that the pain of perpetration – or moral injury – is a “characteristic wounding.”

Here, however, I would like to deal not with the wounding itself but rather with the ways others approach it – and with some of the ethical concerns that might arise when they do. Because the turn to moral injury compels us to wrestle with some thorny questions. How much attention should we pay to moral injury? Does attending to it steal focus from the suffering of the traumatized? Or by contrast, is it possible that moral injury actually imposes a responsibility on bystanders? Might we think of ourselves as being ethically obliged to “witness” to MI?

It is well established that certain traumas make moral demands of those who experience or learn about them. We speak of those demands in terms of testimony and witness. It is crucial that some trauma victims be given space to testify to the violence inflicted upon them, especially if we hope to avoid such violence in the future. And it is equally crucial that others witness to their pain, either because encouraging them to tell story of that pain might effect healing or because doing so might allow for justice and restitution. But do we have a similar responsibility to those who suffer the pain of moral injury? The answer here is not so straightforward. Some argue that the appropriate response to perpetration is simply condemnation. So Dominick LaCapra claims that “moral norms” encourage “repulsion toward the perpetrator.” Certainly, such an approach seems appropriate in the case of history’s most dastardly crimes, but it also might give way to a false sense of ethical purity and what Susannah Radstone calls a “Manicheanism” that dictates that humans are either totally good or totally evil. Our approach to the morally injured must avoid such simplifications. For we would do well to remember that good people are capable of bad acts and bad people of good. Or, perhaps we might go one step further in accepting that identifying people as good or bad is part of a bigger problem.

Yet we can say more. First, my sense is that Alan Gibbs is correct in suggesting that our attitude in addressing those suffering the pain of perpetration should not be “repulsion” but rather must begin with “analysis and understanding”—and an acute sense of our own fallibility. In an analogous situation, Primo Levi urges us to attend to those suffering the pain of perpetration with “pity and rigor, but that judgment of them be suspended.” I add to these sensible claims a somewhat more provocative suggestion: we do have a moral responsibility to witness to—and aid in the healing of—moral injury, at least in certain cases. Let me see if I can explain why.

In discussing the challenges involved in articulating an ethical response to moral injury, it is worthwhile to examine the exchange between the literary critics Cathy Caruth and Ruth Leys over the appropriate way of addressing the pain of perpetration in Caruth’s seminal work of trauma theory, Unclaimed Experience. There, Caruth presents us with what she believes to be an instructive image of trauma borrowed (via Freud) from the pages of Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata. 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.” 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. Yet Caruth’s use of Tancred has rubbed more than one critic the wrong way, for isn’t it more accurate to think of him not as the one who suffers pain, but as the one who inflicts it? In her zealous critique of Caruth in Trauma: A Genealogy, Leys enumerates problems that might arise from such a transposition. 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 […] If, according to [Caruth’s] analysis, the murderer Tancred can become the victim of the trauma and the voice of Clorinda testimony to his wound, then 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 […] On Caruth’s interpretation, what the parable of Tasso’s story tells us is that not only can Tancred be considered the victim of trauma but that even the Nazis are not exempt from the same dispensation.

Leys’s analysis is scathing, and there’s no mistaking the vehemence with which she objects to Caruth’s approach. And yet we might ask, what exactly is she objecting to? Certainly, she refuses the notion of Nazi victimhood, and in this she is not alone. Primo Levi does the same in The Drowned and the Saved: “to confuse [Nazis] with their victims is a moral disease or an aesthetic affection or a sinister sign of complicity; above all, it is precious service rendered (intentionally or not) to the negators of truth.” But Leys is not targeting only Nazis but any perpetrator who might be construed (or misconstrued) as a victim, and we should ask forcefully why Leys opposes such a construal. The reason is simple but not unproblematic: perpetrators, it seems, are unworthy of witness. Theirs is a “suffering” that does not deserve “testimony.” “Testimony” is a “dispensation,” a grace from which perpetrators are exempted by their misdeeds. Here is a perfect example of a response to the pain of perpetration (MI) that is driven (in Gibbs’s terms) not by “analysis and understanding” but by “repulsion.” And while Leys’s approach is understandable, it is also somewhat facile, and I think there are good reasons to argue that some if not most versions of moral injury might demand a brand of testimony analogous—and perhaps even identical—to trauma witness.

Some of these are unproblematic. Should we attend to the suffering of one who experiences without participating in great wrongs? Of course. Should we witness to the pain of the individual who is forced to breach his or her ethical code? Yes. (In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues convincingly that one is not responsible for actions committed under compulsion.) But do we have a similar responsibility to witness to the pain of those who commit, enable, or are complicit in significant misdeeds? The answer comes to one’s lips less quickly, but my sense is that that answer is still yes.

To make this case, we must first review why trauma witness is so important. (Agamben’s distinction between the two Latin derivations of “witness” is germane here; I am concerned not with the “witness” who lives through and has direct experience of the traumatic event (superstetes) but with the responsibilities of third-party “witnesses” who have only mediated access to that event (testis).) On a primary level, witnessing to an individual’s trauma has therapeutic value. Dori Laub outlines this argument in one of the chapters in Testimony, claiming that attentively listening to stories of trauma might have both a liberating and a purgative power for those who suffer it. For Laub, trauma traps its victim, and therapeutic listening can help him or her decontaminate and escape:

To undo this entrapment in a fate that cannot be known, cannot be told, but can only be repeated, a therapeutic process—a process of constructing a narrative, of reconstructing a history and essentially, of re-externalizing the event—has to be set in motion. This re-externalization of the event can occur and take effect only when one can articulate and transmit the story, literally transfer it to another outside oneself and then take it back again, inside. Telling thus entails a reassertion of the hegemony of reality and a re-externalization of the evil that affected and contaminated the trauma victim.

Such a therapeutic approach to witness is presumably the one that Leys would rather we not apply to perpetrators; surely, we are not obliged to help liberate the Nazi from psychic pain. Yet witnessing to trauma does not serve merely a therapeutic function. Laub indicates that witnessing may also allow for stories of atrocity to be told for the first time. He famously calls the Shoah an “event without a witness” in no small part because the Nazis hoped to eradicate all traces of their massive crime. Witnessing to the stories of survivors, then, undermines that effort and lets the details of that crime be revealed. (Such a responsibility would hold in all cases in which the unrepentant would rather great misdeed be buried; there are many.) Of course, we hope to reveal these details in order to keep such crimes from ever happening again. Or, to quote the Civil War photo caption Susan Sontag cites in Regarding the Pain of Others, “Here are the dreadful details! Let them aid in preventing such another calamity from falling upon the nation” (53). But for Sontag, we witness to such details not only to keep particular histories from repeating themselves, but for the more general purpose of remembering. (It is Agamben again who reminds us that the Greek word for witness is martis, which derives from the verb “to remember.”) Accordingly, she calls us not necessarily (or not only) to remember specific dark events but to think on what those events reveal about humanity’s grisly potential: “Let the atrocious images haunt us,” she writes; “Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing—may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget.” So yes, we witness to trauma to help with healing. But we also witness to learn, to remember, to warn, and to prevent. And I contend that all of these latter responsibilities still hold in cases of moral injury. Indeed, instances of human cruelty on both the personal and collective levels spawn both trauma and moral injury, and while we do not want to treat the two types of pain as ethical equivalents, we should nonetheless acknowledge that they may impose similar obligations on third parties.

I go one step further. If our goal is to staunch cruelty and calamity, we might sometimes be better off attending to them by witnessing to the pain of the morally injured. I say so in part because, as others have argued, trauma witness is often a more fraught process than perhaps we would like to admit. I note three pitfalls here. First, as Thomas Trezise points out, even when the well-intentioned listen to the stories of trauma victims, they sometimes fail to listen as well as they might, rushing past the most uncomfortable parts of the story. Trezise attributes such failures to a “desire to rescue survivors from their traumatic past” or a wish to “reduce tensions aroused in oneself by the witnessing of witnessing.” Such failures go hand in hand with what LaCapra sees as a desire to airbrush trauma narratives, to make them neater, less tragic, or less disturbing. He argues that witnesses have a tendency to situate trauma in “fetishized and totalizing narratives that deny the trauma that called them into existence by prematurely (re)turning to the pleasure principle, harmonizing events, and often recuperating the past in terms of uplifting messages or optimistic, self-serving scenarios.” LaCapra sees Spielberg’s Schindler’s List as a prime example of this “harmonizing” impulse at work. Of course, this urge comes from a good place; it derives from our sympathy for the traumatized and from a desire, we presume, to keep them from having to revisit their pain in its rawest form. And yet as Sontag contends, sympathy can be a counterproductive emotion when one tries to witness to unjust suffering. In such situations, sympathy tempts us to believe that there’s little to be done about such pain and too quickly forecloses on the possibility that the witness might share some responsibility for it. “So far as we feel sympathy,” she writes, “we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent—if not an inappropriate—response.” To counteract these tendencies, and to avoid a facile sympathy for the victim, LaCapra urges the witness to develop and maintain a sense of “empathic unsettlement” when considering testimonies of both personal and collective trauma. Accordingly, we must let ourselves continue to be haunted by trauma and perhaps vulnerable to its sharp edges. Writes LaCapra:

Empathic unsettlement poses a barrier to closure in discourse and places in jeopardy harmonizing or spiritually uplifting accounts of extreme events from which we attempt to derive reassurance or a benefit (for example, unearned confidence about the ability of the human spirit to endure any adversity with dignity and nobility). The question is whether historiography in its own way may help not speciously to heal but to come to terms with the wounds and scars of the past. Such a coming-to-terms would seek knowledge whose truth claims are not one-dimensionally objectifying or narrowly cognitive but involve affect and may empathetically expose the self to unsettlement, if not a secondary trauma, which should not be glorified or fixated upon but addressed in a manner that strives to be cognitively and ethically responsible as well as open to the challenges of utopian aspiration.

This last point is crucial: LaCapra is not arguing that we fetishize the trauma or seek out pain. But he does argue that our understanding of the causes of trauma (and our ability to fight against future iterations of them) will be unhelpfully simplistic if we do not work to recognize their continuing power to cut, hurt, and destroy.

But perhaps empathic unsettlement is difficult to maintain because its opposite (be it closure, comfort, or simple moving on) is so common. Time passes. We forgive. We heal. And even if we don’t, we forget. So says Jean Améry: “Natural consciousness of time actually is rooted in the physiological process of wound-healing and became part of the social conception of reality.” To hold on to wounds, then, is either unnatural or uncommon. And yet for Améry, a resistance fighter and camp survivor himself, we have a moral responsibility to allow some wounds to stay fresh. He argues that in certain cases, notably his own, there is ethical value not in forgiveness but in resentment. “A forgiving and forgetting induced by social pressure is immoral,” he writes, adding:

My resentments are there in order that the crime become a moral reality for the criminal, in order that he be swept into the truth of his atrocity […] What happened, happened. This sentence is just as true as it is hostile to morals and intellect … The moral person demands annulment of time—in the particular case under question, by nailing the criminal to his deed.

For Améry, resentment has a positive ethical value because it helps him maintain a healthy sense of hostility toward atrocity and keeps him (and us) meditating on issues of responsibility and prevention while avoiding pat or unearned moves toward closure and comfort. Or put more forcefully, resentment is a more effective driver of the empathic unsettlement that keeps us in touch with (and disturbed by) the crimes that often produce both trauma and moral injury. Hence, in certain circumstances, if what Améry says is true, resentment can be a firmer foundation on which to build effective witness.

Hence, my argument here is that at least in some cases, moral injury witness is an effective approach to atrocity and cruelty insofar as it is more likely to inspire resentment and the empathic unsettlement that LaCapra says is crucial for maintaining witness. Let me provide just one example. When prisoners arrived at Auschwitz, their possessions were collected by another group of inmates often referred to as the “Kanada Kommando”—or simply Canada. Members of the Kanada Kommando were responsible for sorting the possessions and arranging for the shipment of valuables back to the Reich. However, assignment to Canada was understood as a small privilege in the camps, as members slept in barracks and, if they were careful, could steal food and other necessaries from the piles of goods they handled. Of course, this is ghastly work—and a prime example of the ways in which Nazis further degraded inmates by making them complicit in the horrors of the camps. Levi calls this and similar transfers of responsibility the Nazis’ “most demonic crime.” Writing of the Sonderkommando—which were constructed with a similar logic in mind—he notes, “Behind the pragmatic aspect (to economize on able men, to impose on others the most atrocious tasks) other more subtle aspects can be perceived. This institution represented an attempt to shift onto others—specifically, the victims—the burden of guilt, so that they were deprived of even the solace of innocence.” Witnessing to such atrocities is remarkably difficult, Levi writes: “It is neither easy nor agreeable to dredge this abyss of viciousness, and yet I think it must be done, because what could be perpetrated yesterday could be attempted again tomorrow, could overwhelm us and our children.” How best, then, to dredge?

Dori Laub articulates a trauma witness approach to Canada in Testimony. In the process of interviewing one of the contributors to Yale’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, he realizes from details in her narrative that she was likely a member of the Kommando: “She emphasized with pride the way in which, upon returning, she would supply [clothes and shoes] to her fellow inmates, thus saving the lives of some of them who literally had no shoes to walk in and no clothes to protect them from the frost.” Laub asks her, then, whether she was part of Canada; startled, she says no, at which point Laub stops the line of questioning. Why does he stop? It seems obvious; he quits out of sympathy and tact. In his words, he does not press further out of a sense of “respect” and from a desire “not to upset, not to trespass.” His decision is thoroughly understandable—even laudable—but even he admits that it keeps him from asking a number of valuable follow-up questions: “We did not talk of the sorting out of the belongings of the dead. She did not think of them as the remainings of the thousands who were gassed. She did not ask herself where they had come from. The presents she brought back to her fellow inmates, the better, newer clothes and shoes, had for her no origin.” Trezise argues that Laub might have justifiably continued—and that pressing the woman on the details of her testimony might be construed as a “welcoming” move: “holding the witness accountable to certain objective standards in order to fulfill the responsibility of listening for others might well be considered a way of welcoming the witness herself into the community of these listeners.” Perhaps. At the very least, it is worth noting that Laub, in seeking to avoid upsetting and trespassing, is not cultivating the empathic unsettlement that LaCapra says is necessary to the most valuable forms of witness. And he is not, to use Levi’s word once more, “dredging.”

It is worth noting here that nothing in the woman’s testimony suggests that she is morally injured by her experience in Canada. She looks back on her decisions with “pride.” For contrast, then, we might turn to Borowski’s oft-anthologized short story, “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.” The Auschwitz survivor’s short focuses on a group of men in the Kanada Kommando and centers on the experience of the narrator, who is generally read as a stand-in for Borowski himself. The characters in the story cope in different ways. A giant Ukrainian named Andrei alternates between brutal violence and stoic silence while self-medicating with vodka. A Frenchman, Henri, retreats to a faux-philosophical distance: “Ah, on the contrary, it is natural, predictable, calculated […] Why, I’d even call it healthy. It’s simple logic, compris?” The narrator of the piece, however, breaks down: “I look up, but the face swims before my eyes, dissolves, huge and transparent, melts into the motionless trees and the sea of people … I blink rapidly: Henri. ‘Listen, Henri, are we good people?’” The speaker fears that he is being degraded by the work; he worries that his compelled participation in the machinery of genocide has begun to damage his sense of himself as a moral being.

This, of course, is the voice of moral injury, and “This Way for the Gas” can be productively read as an MI narrative. It is also worth noting that it provides the deep dive that Levi believes is necessary if we are to witness to the most horrific crimes. Borowski answers all the questions that Laub avoids in his interview with another member of the Kommando—about the “sorting out of the belongings of the dead,” the “remainings […] of the gassed,” the origin of the “newer clothes and shoes”—and many others Laub doesn’t dare pursue. Unsurprisingly, then, “This Way for the Gas” is a deeply disturbing story, because of both the answers it provides and the ways it forces us to wrestle with the narrator’s complicity. Do we “resent” the speaker for his actions? No. But does his narrative stoke empathic unsettlement? Absolutely. There is no closure here. No forgiveness. Only detailed meditation on demonic crime. Further, Borowski’s story demands our attention—and our witness. And it demonstrates the potential value of witnessing to and through moral injury narratives.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the crucial distinction between the trauma testimony of Laub’s interlocutor and Borowski’s tale, colored by MI themes: the first is autobiography while the second, even if it is colored by the author’s experience, is fiction.Therefore, I close this essay with a few words on the testimonial value of literature that engages moral injury themes.

Bryan Doerries is the artistic director of Theater of War Productions, a troupe that presents readings of classical Greek plays (primarily Sophocles’s Ajax and Philoctetes) to military and civilian audiences in the United States and Europe. In his 2015 book The Theater of War, he argues that ancient tragedies—especially in performance—can help illuminate “the moral and spiritual dimensions of trauma.” And yet Doerries isn’t particularly interested in what these plays can teach us, or what they say; he’s more interested in what they do. For the director hopes that these productions do not merely educate but that they can heal. In his book, he tells a story about one of these readings, staged for a group of service members in Germany. After the production ended, Doerries opened a Q-and-A with a simple question that he often asks in such settings: “Why do you think Sophocles wrote this play?” One service member raised his hand and said, “He wrote it to boost morale.” Pressed as to how this tragedy about a soldier’s depression, violence, and suicide might “boost morale,” the young man continued, “It’s the truth […] and we’re all here watching it together.” Doerries and everyone else who runs the Theater believe that seeing “the truth” of the psychological problems that service members suffer can help veterans cope with them. As the troupe’s web site (and effective mission statement) reads, plays like Ajax:

timelessly and universally depict the visible and invisible wounds of war. By presenting these plays to military and civilian audiences, our hope is to de-stigmatize psychological injury, increase awareness of post-deployment psychological health issues, disseminate information regarding available resources, and foster greater family, community, and troop resilience. Using Sophocles’ plays to forge a common vocabulary for openly discussing the impact of war on individuals, families, and communities, these events will be aimed at generating compassion and understanding between diverse audiences.

I share Doerries’s hope that creative literature—not just plays but novels, stories, and poems—has the power to get us closer to “the truth” of our invisible wounds, among them moral injury. And I contend that merely disseminating such information may have healing power, especially in a moment when MI is hurting multitudes but is known by few. The military psychologist Wayne Chappelle fears that MI is still “not widely accepted by the military or the psychological community.” That so many of our service members and veterans might suffer from a condition that is neither widely understood nor accepted suggests that any efforts to raise awareness about it, whether in the world or in literature, are worthwhile.

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Joshua Pederson, Associate Professor of Humanities at Boston University, is a literary scholar whose interests include religion, trauma, and ethics. He is the author of two books: "SinSick: Moral Injury and War and Literature" and "The Forsaken Son: Child Murder and Atonement in Modern American Fiction." His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, Harper's Magazine, and various other outlets.

* This essay is a slightly modified version of the final chapter of Sin Sick: Moral Injury in War and Literature, published by Cornell University Press in 2021. More information about the book can be found here.

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