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Moral Injury and Revisionist Just War Theory

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 March 2022

Jesse Kirkpatrick*
George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, United States (


As part of the roundtable, “Moral Injury, Trauma, and War,” this essay explores the relationship between revisionist just war theory and moral injury. It proceeds in four sections. First, it offers a brief overview of the just war tradition, focusing on traditionalist and revisionist accounts, respectively. Next, it explores the relationship between moral injury and armed conflict. Then, it explores the links between moral injury and revisionist accounts of just war theory. Finally, by way of conclusion, the essay signals two potential complementary paths forward that future research could use to clarify the revisionist position and its link with moral injury.

Roundtable: Moral Injury, Trauma, and War
Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

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Development of this essay was supported by National Endowment for the Humanities award number AV-26061518.


1 Myers, Charles S., “A Contribution to the Study of Shell Shock: Being an Account of Three Cases of Loss of Memory, Vision, Smell, and Taste, Admitted into the Duchess of Westminster's War Hospital, le Touquet,” Lancet 185, no. 4772 (February 1915), pp. 316–20CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5 (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2013), p. 272.

3 For varying definitions of moral injury, see Maguen, Shira and Litz, Brett, “Moral Injury in Veterans of War,” PTSD Research Quarterly 23, no. 1 (2012), pp. 16Google Scholar; Litz, Brett T., Stein, Nathan, Delaney, Eileen, Lebowitz, Leslie, Nash, William P., Silva, Caroline, and Maguen, Shira, “Moral Injury and Moral Repair in War Veterans: A Preliminary Model and Intervention Strategy,” Clinical Psychology Review 29 (2009), pp. 695706CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; and Frankfurt, Sheila and Frazier, Patricia, “A Review of Research on Moral Injury in Combat Veterans,” Military Psychology 28, no. 5 (2016), pp. 318–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 I concede that there are fundamental internal disagreements between those who consider themselves revisionist and those who consider themselves traditional just war theorists. In providing a simplified overview, I do not mean to suggest that there is a single traditional or single revisionist position, just as there is not a single just war theory. For a thorough overview of these positions, see Lazar, Seth, “Just War Theory: Revisionists versus Traditionalists,” Annual Review of Political Science 20 (May 2017), pp. 3754CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 I say that revisionists “claim to be revising” traditionalist just war theory because there is historical precedent for the revisionist position in traditionalist just war theory. See Gregory Reichberg, “Just War and Regular War: Competing Paradigms,” in David Rodin and Henry Shue, eds., Just and Unjust Warriors: The Moral and Legal Status of Soldiers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). Although I agree that revisionism may not be all that revisionist, because “revisionism” is the terminology that has been adopted, I use the term.

6 See Derek Parfit, On What Matters, vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 143. Parfit makes three distinctions of types of justifications: They can be fact relative, evidence relative, or belief relative. For the purposes of this essay, I omit discussion of belief-relative accounts. See also Jackson, Frank, “Decision-Theoretic Consequentialism and the Nearest and Dearest Objection,” Ethics 101, no. 3 (April 1991), pp. 461–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Helen Frowe, “The Just War Framework,” in Seth Lazar and Helen Frowe, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Ethics of War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 41–58, at p. 50.

8 Nancy Sherman, Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 8 (emphasis added).

9 See Shay, Jonathan, “Moral Injury,” Psychoanalytic Psychology 31, no. 2 (2014), pp. 182–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at p. 183.

10 Shay notes that other researchers often emphasize transgressions resulting from an agent's own actions and do not focus on the transgressions perpetrated by third-party power holders. See ibid. For a discussion of betrayal and trauma, see Freyd, Jennifer J., DePrince, Anne P., and Gleaves, David H., “The State of Betrayal Trauma Theory: Reply to McNally—Conceptual Issues and Future Directions,” Memory 15, no. 3 (2007), pp. 295311CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Bryan, Craig J., Bryan, AnnaBelle O., Anestis, Michael D., Anestis, Joye C., Green, Bradley A., Etienne, Neysa, Morrow, Chad E., and Ray-Sannerud, Bobbie, “Measuring Moral Injury: Psychometric Properties of the Moral Injury Events Scale in Two Military Samples,” Assessment 23, no. 5 (October 2016), pp. 557–70CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

12 Jordan, Alexander H., Eisen, Ethan, Bolton, Elisa, Nash, William P., and Litz, Brett T., “Distinguishing War-Related PTSD Resulting from Perpetration- and Betrayal-Based Morally Injurious Events,” Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy 9, no. 6 (2017), pp. 627–32CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed, at p. 628. See also Nash, William P., Boasso, Alyssa M., Steenkamp, Maria, Larson, Jonathan L., Lubin, Rebecca E., and Litz, Brett, “Posttraumatic Stress in Deployed Marines: Prospective Trajectories of Early Adaptation,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 124, no. 1 (2014), pp. 155–71CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; and Drescher, Kent D., Foy, David W., Kelly, Caroline, Leshner, Anna, Schutz, Kerrie, and Litz, Brett, “An Exploration of the Viability and Usefulness of the Construct of Moral Injury in War Veterans,” Traumatology 17, no. 1 (March 2011), pp. 813CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Frankfurt and Frazier, “A Review of Research on Moral Injury in Combat Veterans,” pp. 318–330.

14 Similar concerns have been raised about diagnostic bracket creep in the expanding list of what constitutes a traumatic event in the criteria for PTSD. See Spitzer, Robert L., First, Michael B., and Wakefield, Jerome C., “Saving PTSD from Itself in DSM-V,” Journal of Anxiety Disorders 21, no. 2 (2007), pp. 233–41CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

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