Moral injury and moral repair in war veterans: A preliminary model and
Brett T. Litza,b,⁎, Nathan Steina, Eileen Delaneya, Leslie Lebowitzc, William P. Nashc,
Caroline Silvaa, Shira Maguend
aNational Center for PTSD, VA Boston Healthcare System, United States
bBoston University, United States
cNewton, Massachusetts, United States
dSan Francisco VA Medical Center, University of California at San Francisco, United States
a b s t r a c ta r t i c l e i n f o
and guerilla wars amplify these challenges. Potentially morally injurious events, such as perpetrating, failing to
the long-term, emotionally, psychologically, behaviorally, spiritually, and socially (what we label as moral injury).
Although there has been some research on the consequences of unnecessary acts of violence in war zones, the
lasting impact of morally injurious experience in war remains chiefly unaddressed. To stimulate a critical
examination of moral injury, we review the available literature, define terms, and offer a working conceptual
framework and a set of intervention strategies designed to repair moral injury.
Published by Elsevier Ltd.
Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
What might be potentially morally injurious in war? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Research on military atrocities and killing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
What aspects of existing theory might explain moral injury? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Basic concepts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
5.1.What are morals? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
5.2.Are there unique emotions related to moral beliefs?. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
5.3.The effect of shame on social behavior and connection . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
5.4.Self-forgiveness . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Working conceptual model . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Working clinical care model. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
7.1. Assumptions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
7.2. Specific treatment strategies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
7.2.1.Step one: Connection . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
7.2.2.Step two: Preparation and education. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
7.2.3.Step three: Modified exposure component . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
7.2.4.Step four: Examination and integration . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
7.2.5.Step five: Dialogue with a benevolent moral authority
7.2.6.Step six: Reparation and forgiveness . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
7.2.7. Step seven: Fostering reconnection . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
7.2.8. Step eight: Planning for the long haul . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Conclusion. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Clinical Psychology Review 29 (2009) 695–706
⁎ Corresponding author. Boston University, United States.
E-mail address: email@example.com (B.T. Litz).
0272-7358/$ – see front matter. Published by Elsevier Ltd.
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Clinical Psychology Review
Service members are confronted with numerous moral and ethical
challenges in war. They may act in ways that transgress deeply held
moral beliefs or they may experience conflict about the unethical
behaviors of others. Warriors may also bear witness to intense human
suffering and cruelty that shakes their core beliefs about humanity.
What happens to service members who are unable to contextualize or
justify their actions or the actions of others and are unable to
successfully accommodate various morally challenging experiences
intotheirknowledge about themselves and theworld? Aretheyat risk
for developing long-lasting psycho-bio-social impairment? Is there a
distinct syndrome of psychological, biological, behavioral, and rela-
tional problems that arises from serious and/or sustained morally
injuriousexperiences? Or, do existingdisorders, suchasposttraumatic
stress disorder (PTSD), sufficiently explain the sequelae of what we
term moral injury? And, can existing psychological treatments for
combat and operational PTSD be effective or impactful?
In the first iteration of the PTSD construct (DSM-III) “guilt about
surviving while others have not or about behavior required for survival
(emphasisadded)” was a symptomof PTSD.This was chiefly the result
of the predominance of thinking about the phenomenology of
Vietnam veterans and clinical care experience with veterans of war.
Consequently,prior tothe DSM-III-R, cliniciansin VA settingsarguably
tackled moral conflict and guilt (e.g., Friedman, 1981). Since then,
there has been very little attention paid to the lasting impact of moral
conflict-colored psychological trauma among war veterans in the
clinical science community. A possible reason for the scant attention is
that clinicians and researchers who work with service members and
veterans focus most of their attention on the impact of life-threat
trauma, failing to pay sufficient attention to the impact of events with
moral and ethical implications; events that provoke shame and guilt
may not be assessed or targeted sufficiently. This explanation seems
plausible given the emphasis on fear memories in evidence-based
models of treatment (e.g., Foa, Steketee, & Rothbaum, 1989).
It is also possible that some clinicians believe that addressingethical
conflicts and moral violations is outside the realm of their expertise,
preferring to recommend religious counseling instead. Care-providers
may also not hear about moral injury because service members' or
veterans' shame and concern about adverse impact or repercussions
(e.g., being shunned, rejected, misunderstood) prevent disclosure.
Mental health professionals may contribute to this; they may unknow-
ingly provide non-verbal messages that various acts of omission or
commission in war are too threatening or abhorrent to hear. Some may
believe that treatment would excuse illegal or immoral behavior in
some way. Others may veer from the topic to avoid the very thorny
question about whether perpetration of violence should lead to
diagnosable and potentially compensable PTSD.
Whatever the reasons for the scant attention paid to moral and
ethical conflicts (after DSM-III), we argue that serious exploration is
indicated because, in our experience, service members and veterans
can suffer long-term scars that are not well captured by the current
conceptualizations of PTSD or other adjustment difficulties. We are
not arguing for a new diagnostic category, per se, nor do we want to
medicalize or pathologize the moral and ethical distress that service
members and veterans may experience. However, we believe that the
clinical and research dialogue is very limited at present because
questions about moral injury are not being addressed. In addition,
clinicians who observe moral injury and are motivated to target these
problems are at a loss because existing evidence-based strategies fail
to provide sufficient guidance. Consequently, our goal is two-fold: We
want to stimulate discourse and empirical research and, because we
are sorely aware of the clinical care vacuum and need (especially in
the Department of Defense), we offer specific treatment recommen-
dations based on our conceptual model and a pilot study we are
conducting in the Marine Corps.
Below, we first describe the potential morally injurious experi-
ences in war, using the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as
examples. Second, we review and summarize the research pertaining
to events that have the potential to be morally injurious. Third, we
discuss why existing conceptualizations of PTSD may not fully capture
the different aspects of moral injury. Finally, we propose a working
conceptual model, a set of assumptions that guide our treatment
approach, and details about the treatment model.
There are three sets of important questions we will not be covering
in detail in this article: (1) What military training, deployment length,
battlefield context, leadership, rules of engagement, group processes,
and personality factors moderate and mediate war-zone transgres-
sion?; (2) What aspects of military training (primary and secondary
prevention strategies) help service members assimilate and accom-
modate various moral and ethical challenges, roles, and experiences?;
and (3) What are the learning history, personality, religious beliefs,
and social and cultural variables that moderate and mediate moral
injury afterward? These complex research questions require an
interdisciplinary approach (e.g., military, biological, philosophical,
sociological and social psychological, legal, religious, mental health
perspectives), and our intention is to offer a basic framework that can
2. What might be potentially morally injurious in war?
Service members deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan have been
exposed to high levels of violence and its aftermath. In 2003, 52% of
soldiers and Marines surveyed reported shooting or directing fire at
the enemy, and 32% reported being directly responsible for the death
of an enemy combatant (Hoge et al., 2004). Additionally, 65% of those
surveyed reported seeing dead bodies or human remains, 31%
reported handling or uncovering human remains, and 60% reported
having seen ill/wounded women and children who they were unable
to help. The rates of exposure to violence and its aftermath remained
high in a survey of soldiers in 2007 (Mental Health Advisory Team
Violence and killing are prescribed in war and encounters with the
grotesque aftermath of battle are timeless and expected aspects of a
warrior's experience. Still, the actions, sights, smells, and images of
violence and its aftermath may produce considerable lasting distress
and inner turmoil, comparable to consequences of direct life threat.
Morally questionable or ethically ambiguous situations can arise
for service members in any type of warfare. However, counter-
insurgency, guerilla warfare, especially in urban contexts poses
greater risks. These types of wars involve unconventional features
(e.g., an unmarked enemy, civilian threats, improvised explosive
devices) that produce greater uncertainty, greater danger for non-
combat troops, and generally greater risk of harm among non-
combatants. Not surprisingly, a select field survey in theatre revealed
that 27% of soldiers faced ethical situations during deployment in
which they did not know how to respond (MHAT-V, 2008). Guerilla
wars also expose service members to unpredicted and non-contingent
violence and the aftermath of violence; experiences that fail to
conform to schematic beliefs about warfare and roles for service
members. Research has shown that for those who are unaccustomed
or unprepared, exposure to human remains is one of the most
consistent predictors of long-term distress (e.g., McCarroll, Ursano, &
Unconventional features of war may make it more difficult for
service members to decide on the most prudent way to react towards
non-combatants (or potential combatants) despite strong battlefield
ethics training and the rules of engagement. Forexample, in 2003, 20%
ofsoldiersandMarinessurveyed endorsedresponsibility forthedeath
of a non-combatant (Hoge, et al., 2004), arguably due tothe ambiguity
of the enemy. Furthermore, 45% of the soldiers and Marines assessed
with a field survey in Iraq in 2006 felt that non-combatants should be
B.T. Litz et al. / Clinical Psychology Review 29 (2009) 695–706
treated with dignity and respect, and 17% of soldiers and Marines
surveyed believed that non-combatants should be treated as
insurgents (Mental Health Advisory Team [MHAT-IV], 2006). Also,
using a similar methodology, in 2007, 31% indicated they had insulted
or cursed at civilians, 5% indicated mistreating civilians, and 11%
reported damaging property unnecessarily (MHAT-V, 2008).
Further heightening the intensity of these challenges is the
increased demands on current service members (and their families),
such as longer and more frequent deployments. The cumulative anger
and frustration about losses, sacrifices, and adversities may impact
ethical decision making in some service members. For example,
deployment length has been found to be associated with an increase
in unethical behaviors on the battlefield within the first ten months of
deployment (MHAT-V, 2008).
It is important to appreciate that the military culture fosters an
intensely moral and ethical code of conduct and, in times of war, being
violent and killing is normal, and bearing witness to violence and
killing is, to a degree, prepared for and expected. Nevertheless,
individual service members and units face unanticipated moral
choices and demands and even prescribed acts of killing or violence
may have a delayed but lasting psychosocial–spiritual impact (e.g.,
guilt and shame). For example, it makes sense that most service
members are able to assimilate most of what they do and see in war
because of training and preparation, the warrior culture, their role, the
exigencies of various missions, rules of engagement and other context
demands, the messages and behavior of peers and leaders, and the
acceptance (and recognition of sacrifices) by families and the culture
at large. However, once redeployed and separated from the military
culture and context (e.g., with family or after retirement), some
service members may have difficulty accommodating various morally
To summarize, the current wars may be creating an additional risk
for exposure to morally questionable or ethically ambiguous situa-
tions. Many service members may mistakenly take the life of a civilian
they believed to be an insurgent, be directly responsible for the death
of enemy combatants, unexpectedly see dead bodies or human
remains, or see ill/wounded women and children who they are
unable to help. We are doing a disservice to our service members and
veterans if we fail to conceptualize and address the lasting
psychological, biological, spiritual, behavioral, and social impact of
perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that
transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations, that is, moral
3. Research on military atrocities and killing
Although moral injury, per se, has not been systematically studied,
there hasbeen some research on acts of perpetration such as atrocities
(i.e., unnecessary, cruel, and abusive harm to others orlethal violence)
and killing. Several researchers have demonstrated that self-reports of
atrocities are related to chronic PTSD in Vietnam veterans (e.g.,
Beckham, Feldman, & Kirby, 1998; King, King, Gudanowski, & Vreven,
1995; Yehuda, Southwick, & Giller, 1992). Moreover, the association
between reports of atrocities and PTSD is considerably stronger than
global reports of combat exposure and PTSD, in terms of very chronic
PTSD among Vietnam veterans. Furthermore, researchers have shown
that exposure to atrocities increases the risk for a variety of
dysfunctional behaviors and problems, namely depression (Yehuda
et al.), general indices of psychiatric distress (Fontana, et al.,1992) and
suicidal behavior (Hiley-Young, Blake, Abueg, Rozynko, & Gusman,
Compared to witnessing atrocities, perpetration appears to be
more problematic (Breslau & Davis,1987; Fontana, Rosenheck, & Brett,
1992; Hiley-Young et al.,1995; Laufer, Gallops, & Frey-Wouters,1984).
Still, some research has suggested that witnessing atrocities in theatre
is also associated with PTSD (e.g., Fontana et al.; Laufer, Brett, &
Gallops, 1985). Failing to prevent atrocities and learning about
atrocities might affect outcome as well; however, researchers have
yet to examine the unique impact of these types of potentially
Exposure to atrocities does not appear to be associated with
hyperarousal problems, which makes sense conceptually because
arousal difficulties arguably stem from high sustained fear due to life-
threat. When researchers have broken PTSD symptoms into separate
clusters, they generally have found that exposure to atrocities was
only related to the reexperiencing (Beckham et al., 1998; Fontana
et al.,1992; Henning & Frueh,1997; Yehuda et al.,1992) and avoidance
(Henning & Frueh; Laufer et al., 1985) clusters. Unfortunately, studies
to date have not disaggregated cluster C into its conceptually distinct
sub-components, namely, strategic avoidance (C1 and C2) and
emotional numbing (C4–C6). Overall, the sub-cluster analyses suggest
that morally injurious experiences are recalled intrusively and a
combination of avoidance and emotional numbing may also be a
Other studies have also shown that prescribed killing and injuring
others are associated with PTSD (Fontana & Rosenheck, 1999;
MacNair, 2002). Killing, regardless of role, is a better predictor of
chronic PTSD symptoms than other indices of combat, mirroring some
of the results on atrocities. For example, MacNair found that Vietnam
veterans who killed and experienced light combat had more PTSD
symptoms than those who did not kill and experienced heavy combat.
Among Vietnam veterans, killing was a significant predictor of PTSD
symptoms, dissociation, functional impairment, and violent beha-
viors, after controlling for general combat exposure (Maguen, Metzler,
et al., in press). Also, after controlling for combat exposure, taking
another life was a significant predictor of PTSD symptoms, alcohol
abuse, anger, and relationship problems among Iraq War veterans
(Maguen, Lucenko, et al., in press).
Role and choice appear to be related to outcome as well. For
example, Fontana et al. (1992) found that more active roles related to
killing (i.e., being an agent of killing and failing to prevent killing)
were more strongly related to PTSD, other psychiatric symptoms, and
suicide than passive roles. Furthermore, active potentially morally
injurious roles had significantly smaller associations with hyperar-
ousal than being the target of life-threat.
Although reports of perpetration on check-lists covary with post-
war symptomatology, the subjective responses to those acts are likely
to be the more critical components in the etiological chain—in other
words, the meaning that is attributed to actions and various attendant
observations shapes the long-term response. Supporting this conten-
tion, Fontana et al. (1992) found that retrospective accounts of
subjective distress related to acts of violence accounted for more
variance in outcome. Likewise, Laufer et al. (1985) found that feelings
of demoralization and guilt had much stronger correlations with PTSD
than reports of combatexposure andparticipation in abusiveviolence.
These findings are consistent with other research that underscores the
importance of evaluating subjective responses to combat and
operational stress (King et al., 1995).
Further underscoring the importance of subjective reaction to
combat roles, Henning and Frueh (1997) found that combat-related
guilt (chiefly indexed to various acts of omission or commission) was
associated with reexperiencing and avoidance symptoms and a
general measure of PTSD symptom severity. They also found that
combat guilt accounted for 30% of the unique variance in a composite
of reexperiencing and avoidance symptoms and 8% of the unique
variance in overall PTSD severity. Moreover, after controlling for
combat-related guilt, combatexposureandtrait-relatedguiltwere not
related to outcome. Based on these findings, the authors concluded
that combat guilt is largely responsible for reexperiencing and
avoidance symptoms, but not arousal symptoms.
Marx et al. (submitted for publication) performed two path
analyses examining the relationships between atrocity exposure,
B.T. Litz et al. / Clinical Psychology Review 29 (2009) 695–706
guilt, PTSD, and major depressive disorder (MDD) with data from
1248 male Vietnam combat veterans with and without PTSD from a
VA Cooperative Study. The guilt measure consisted of a 12-item
subscale from the Laufer–Parson Inventory (Laufer, Yager, Frey-
Wouters, & Donnellan, 1981) that addressed acts of commission and
omission. Results indicated that guilt partially mediated the relation-
ship between atrocity exposure and PTSD and the relationship
between atrocity exposure and MDD. Another study also found that
guilt partially mediated the relationship between the active participa-
tion roles (e.g., agent of killing) and loss of religious faith (Fontana &
It appears that participation in atrocities and killing is chiefly
implicated in reexperiencing and avoidance symptoms. Researchers
have yet to fully evaluate other important outcomes, such as
dysphoria and anhedonia (depression), general distress, relational
and parenting difficulties, parasuicidal behavior, domestic violence,
criminal behavior, and loss of spirituality and religious faith. It is also
unclear whether demoralization, shame, and guilt fully or partially
mediate the association between various conflictual acts and a variety
of negative outcomes. The lasting psychological and social impact of
witnessing unethical behaviors performed by others or witnessing
intense human suffering remains insufficiently addressed. Extensive
research is needed.
4. What aspects of existing theory might explain moral injury?
Service members face moral and ethical conflicts and may struggle
with how to manage their lasting impact. Going forward, should we
conceptualize the aftermath of these conflicts as adjustment disorder
or PTSD? Or, do issues of morality deserve special attention? To help
address these questions, we review the prominent theories of PTSD
and gauge their applicability to our conceptualization of moral injury.
Social-cognitive theories of PTSD delineate how traumatic events
clash with existing schemas that people hold about themselves and
the world (Horowitz, 1976, 1986; Janoff-Bulman, 1985, 1989; McCann
& Pearlman, 1990). Basic fundamental assumptions that may be
altered by a traumatic event include beliefs that the world is
benevolent, the world is meaningful, and the self is worthy (e.g.,
Epstein, 2003; Janoff-Bulman, 1989). If an individual is unable to
assimilate the traumatic event with prior knowledge and assump-
tions, intrusions and avoidance problems ensue. Intrusions, in the
form of memories and nightmares are accompanied by extreme
arousal and distress, motivating the individual to avoid thoughts and
memories (and situations that trigger recall) of the trauma. Although
avoidance strategies may temporarily alleviate distress, they tend to
interfere with accommodation of and, byextension, recovery from the
traumatic experience. Furthermore, traumatic events may alter
generalized self-schemas pertaining to themes of safety, trust/
dependency, esteem, independence, control, and intimacy, negatively
impacting the individual's functioning in his or her daily life (e.g.,
McCann & Pearlman).
Similar to social–cognitive theories of PTSD, we argue that moral
injury involves an act of transgression that creates dissonance and
conflict because it violates assumptions and beliefs about right and
wrong and personal goodness. How this dissonance or conflict is
reconciled is one of the key determinants of injury. If individuals are
unable to assimilate or accommodate (integrate) the event within
existing self- and relational-schemas, they will experience guilt,
shame, and anxiety about potential dire personal consequences (e.g.,
ostracization). Poor integration leads to lingering psychological
distress, due to frequent intrusions, and avoidance behaviors tend to
thwart successful accommodation.
The social–cognitive model needs to be expanded to account for
the impact of moral injury. Whereas beliefs related to self-efficacy and
competency to cope with life-threatening events have been the focus
of social constructivist models (e.g., Benight & Bandura, 2004), the
altered beliefs about the world and the self caused by moral injury are
likely to be deeper and more global. For example, 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
Moral injury may also share some of the avoidance elements as
described within the two-factor theory of PTSD (e.g., Keane, Fairbank,
Caddell, Zimering, & Bender, 1985), which posits that PTSD develops
from an initial phase of fear acquisition through classical conditioning
processes and is further maintained through instrumental avoidance
behaviors. During the traumatic event, various cues become asso-
ciated with “intense fear, helplessness, or horror” and acquire the
capacity to evoke strong emotional responses on subsequent occa-
sions when the traumatic event is no longer occurring. Quickly,
individuals learn to avoid these cues, but the avoidance prevents
natural extinction from occurring.
Moral conflict and dissonance arguably creates severe peri- or
post-event emotional distress (e.g., shame and guilt), which causes
motivation to avoid various cues that serve as reminders of the
experience. Although functional in the short run, avoidance thwarts
corrective learning experiences (e.g., learning that the world is not
always an amoral place, that the person can do good things, that
others still accept them), maintaining the negative psychosocial
impact of moral conflict. These aspects of moral injury seem
consistent with the two-factor theory of PTSD. However, the two-
factor theory of PTSD is based on conceptualizing the trauma as an
unconditioned fear stimulus and symptoms as conditioned responses
to fear. Events associated with moral injury are not chiefly based on
fear, but other affects and cognitions, such as shame. Whether these
experiences can be extinguished naturally or by therapeutic means is
an empirical question.
The enduring negative emotional distress related to moral injury
may also be partially explained by emotional-processing theory (Foa
et al., 1989; Foa & Riggs, 1993). The emotional-processing theory of
trauma proposes that pre-trauma schemas, the memory of the event,
and the memory of experiences prior to the event can interact and
interfere with the emotional-processing of the trauma, leading to the
development of chronic PTSD. Although many negative events are
emotionally reexperienced, the frequency and intensity of the
emotions usually decrease naturally (i.e., via extinction). Yet, if the
individual does not allow himself or herself to remember and
experience the emotions associated with the event, extinction and
habituation are disrupted and decreases in the emotions' frequency
and intensity do not occur, resulting in PTSD. The emotional
consequences of moral injury (e.g., shame and guilt) are, at least,
partly maintained through non-confrontation of the event and/or the
meaning of the event. However, it is unlikely that a lack of extinction/
habituation is the mechanism that maintains the emotional distress
associated with moral injury.
The cognitive model of PTSD may also be useful in partly
explaining the impact of moral injury. The cognitive model (e.g.,
Ehlers and Clark, 2000) posits that PTSD develops when traumatic
events produce a sense of constant threat through excessively
negative appraisals and data-driven processing (getting stuck in
sensory details), resulting in strong perceptual priming and poor
elaboration (i.e., the event is not given a complete context in time and
place) and that PTSD is maintained by a series of problematic
behavioral and cognitive strategies. A feature of moral injury that may
be consistent with the cognitive model of PTSD is the importance of
negativeappraisals andattributionsabout thetransgression thatserve
to create and maintain the lasting psychosocial consequences of moral
injury (such as shame and dysphoria).
Some recent models of PTSD have attempted to specify vulner-
abilities thatexplainwhysome developthe disorderand others do not
(Elwood, Han, Olatunji, & Williams, 2009; Charuvastra & Cloitre,
2008). Vulnerabilities are specific diatheses that manifest under
B.T. Litz et al. / Clinical Psychology Review 29 (2009) 695–706
conditions of stress and trauma (e.g., Bowman & Yehuda, 2004).
Elwood et al. posited four cognitive vulnerabilities (based on Ehlers &
Clark, 2000) related to the development and maintenance of PTSD:
(1) negative attributional style (i.e., consistently attributing negative
events to internal, stable, and global causes); (2) rumination (i.e.,
repetitively and passively thinking about negative emotions, pre-
cipitators of negative emotions, symptoms of distress, and the
meaning of distress); (3) anxiety sensitivity (i.e., fear and anxiety
about unexpected fear-related experiences); and (4) looming mala-
daptive style (i.e., biased interpretations about present and future
threat). Of these, negative attributional style and rumination appear
to be germane to moral injury. We discuss the role of attributions in
detail later in this paper. A ruminative style may foster greater
distress, withdrawal, and reinforce destructive beliefs (e.g., of being
Charuvastra and Cloitre (2008) described how social bonds are a
vulnerability factor for PTSD, which is highly relevant to moral injury.
Social support resources, perceived or actual, are one of the most
robust predictors of chronic PTSD. Although less discussed, the
absence or withdrawal of supports is especially damaging. Social
support before and after the morally injurious event is likely to
influence the related psychosocial impact. However, compared to
those suffering from PTSD, 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. Charuvastra
and Cloitreunderscored howexposure to human-generated traumatic
events (typically interpersonal trauma) result in more toxic impact
and distress than exposure to harm alone because human-generated
events represent a breakdown of social norms in addition to
diminished expectations of safety. Because morally injurious events
are almost always human-generated, the breakdown of the social
contract is as germane. However, to date, the social bond impact of
perpetration and transgression have not been addressed.
In sum, prevailing theories of posttraumatic adaptation only
partially explain the development and maintenance of moral injury.
This is to be expected; theories of PTSD attempt to explain the long-
term phenomenology of individuals harmed by others (and other
unpredictable, uncontrollable, and threatening circumstances) and
have not considered the potential harm produced by perpetration
(and moral transgressions) in traumatic contexts. Consequently,
moral injury requires an alternative (but also complementary) model.
5. Basic concepts
Before further describing our concept of moral injury, it will be
instructive to review some basic concepts that inform our model and
5.1. What are morals?
The majority of individuals have a strong moral code that they use
to effectively navigate through their lives. Morals are defined as the
personal and shared familial, cultural, societal, and legal rules for
social behavior, either tacit or explicit. Morals are fundamental
assumptions about how things should work and how one should
behave in the world. For example, the implicit belief that “the world is
benevolent” stems from the expectation that others will behave in a
moral and just manner. Another tacit assumption is that “people get
what they deserve”; thus, if someone does not act within the accepted
moral code, a punishment should ensue.
Morality has been studied in the context of human development
(e.g., Kohlberg,1981), group processes, such as altruism and prosocial
behavior (e.g., Eisenberg & Miller, 1987), and ethics (Miller, 2003).
From an evolutionary psychology perspective, moral behaviors are
functional because certain primitive drives and instincts (e.g.,
aggression) may be destructive to the group and the culture. This
process was well articulated by Freud (1930/2005) in Civilization and
Its Discontents. A good deal of human suffering was argued to arise
from the lasting impact of punishment and withdrawal of love and
support in the aftermath of various acts of transgression developmen-
tally. The aversive learning experiences from powerful others
(parents, teachers, leaders) leads to self-censure and moral comport-
ment, as well as the expectation that others should conform to moral
standards, and if they don't, they should be punished.
5.2. Are there unique emotions related to moral beliefs?
Moral emotions, both self-focused and other-focused, serve to
maintain a moral code. Morality-related emotions are driven by
expectations of others' responses to perceived transgression. Embar-
rassment may encourage adherence to broadly or locally accepted
moral standards by prompting individuals to act in conciliatory ways
so as to win approval or inclusion (e.g., Keltner, 1995). Positive
emotions such as self-oriented pride and other-oriented gratitude also
shape moral behaviors.
Most research has focused on the experience of self-oriented
negative moral emotions, such as shame and guilt and how they
influence moral behavior (see Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007).
Guilt is a painful and motivating cognitive and emotional experience
tied tospecific acts of transgression of a personal or shared moral code
or expectation. Guilt, unlike shame, is associated with a decreased
likelihood of participating in risky or illegal behavior and often results
in the making of amends.
Shame involves global evaluations of the self (e.g., Lewis, 1971),
along with behavioral tendencies to avoid and withdraw. Therefore, it
results in more toxic interpersonal difficulties, such as anger and
decreased empathy for others, and these experiences can, in turn, lead
to devastating life changes. Generally, research has shown that shame
is more damaging to emotional and mental health than guilt (see
Tangney et al., 2007). Consequently, shame may be a more integral
part of moral injury.
5.3. The effect of shame on social behavior and connection
Shame is fundamentally related to expected negative evaluation by
valued others. It is, therefore, not surprising that individuals respond
toshame with a desire to hide or withdraw. The non-verbal and verbal
communication behaviors related to shame in interpersonal contexts
function to inhibit interaction and communication with others (Izard,
1977; Keltner & Harker, 1998). A number of researchers suggest that
shame behavior in relationships serves to reduce anger in others and
elicit greater sympathy (Gilbert & McGuire, 1998; Keltner, 1995;
Keltner & Harker,1998). In this way, one who commits a transgression
can minimize or avoid condemnation and rejection and elicit greater
sympathy and support. However, shame due to serious acts of
perpetration or acts of omission in traumatic circumstances is likely
to lead to extensive withdrawal, which in turn exacerbates shame
(e.g., expectations of censure and rejection are reinforced).
A good deal of research has shown that interpersonal forgiveness,
that is, forgiving others who have transgressed, helps people adapt and
recover from various social harms. Less studied, but no less important
from the vantage point of preventing wrongdoing and helping
transgressors, is the process of self-forgiveness, which is a means of
obviating self-condemnation and shame and a vehicle for corrective
action. Hall and Fincham (2005) define self-forgiveness as “a set of
motivational changes whereby one becomes decreasingly motivated to
avoid stimuli associated with the offense, decreasingly motivated to
retaliate against the self (e.g., punish the self, engage in self-destructive
behaviors, etc.), and increasingly motivated to act benevolently toward
B.T. Litz et al. / Clinical Psychology Review 29 (2009) 695–706
the self” (p. 622). Self-forgiveness conceptually entails acknowledging
the event, accepting responsibility for it, experiencing the negative
emotions associated with it (e.g., Hall & Fincham; Holmgren, 2002),
devoting sufficient energy to heal (Fisher & Exline, 2006), and
committing to living differently in the future (Enright, 1996). Hall and
Fincham (2008) have shown that feelings of guilt, conciliatory
behaviors, and the perception of forgiveness from others affected self-
forgiveness over time.
In terms of adaptation to behaviors required in war, Witvliet,
Phipps, Feldman, and Beckham (2004) found that lack of self-
forgiveness was related to PTSD symptom severity in Vietnam
veterans. The converse of self-forgiveness, self-condemnation, has
also been shown to be associated with depression and general anxiety
(Maltby, Macaskill, & Day, 2001; Mauger et al., 1992), dispositional
shame, poor psychological well-being, and self-punishment (Fisher &
6. Working conceptual model
To stimulate a dialogue about moral injury, we offer the following
working definition of potentially morally injurious experiences: Per-
petrating, 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.
Moral injury requires an act of transgression that severely and
abruptly contradicts an individual's personal or shared expectation
point afterwards (see Fig. 1). The event can be an act of wrongdoing,
failing to prevent serious unethical behavior, or witnessing or learning
about such an event. The individual also must be (or become) aware of
the discrepancy between his or her morals and the experience (i.e.,
moral violation), causing dissonance and inner conflict.
In the case of a severe act of transgression, for most service
members, the event is, by definition, incongruent and discrepant with
fundamental beliefs and assumptions about how the world operates
or how an individual or group should be treated (or at odds with
military training and rules of engagement). The context and others'
reactions may moderate the degree to which the event is initially
dissonant or conflictual. However, we argue that many service
members will eventually experience dissonance and face the task of
reconciling their discomfort and expectations of social condemnation,
censure, and rejection (see Higgins,1987), if not literal punishment. If
a severe and abrupt discrepancy occurs between self- and other
schemas and the transgression, the psychological process of reconcil-
ing discrepant ways of seeing the self and the world creates emotional
turmoil and distress, and the accommodation process can consume
psychological and emotional resources (e.g., Lee, Scragg, & Turner,
2001; McCann & Pearlman,1990). If the service members feel remorse
about various behaviors, they will experience guilt; if they blame
themselves because of perceived personal inadequacy and flaw, they
will experience shame. Guilt responses are temporarily functional
because they increasemotivationtocorrectbehaviorortofindways of
correcting harmful ways of construing the experience, for example, by
conferring with peers.
We posit that the type of attributions made about moral violation
greatly affects outcome (cf. Weiner,1985). If the attribution about the
cause of a transgression is global (i.e., not context dependent), internal
(i.e., seen as a disposition or character flaw), and stable (i.e., enduring;
the experience of being tainted), these beliefs will cause enduring
moral emotions such as shame and anxiety due to uncertaintyand the
expectation of being judged eventually. If these aversive emotional
and psychological experiences lead to withdrawal (and concealment)
then the service member is thwarted from corrective and repairing
experience (that otherwise would temper and counter attributions
and foster self-forgiveness) with peers, leaders, significant others, faith
communities (if applicable), and the culture at large (see Fig. 1).
The more time passes, the more service members will be
convinced and confident that not only their actions, but they are
unforgiveable. In other words, service members and veterans with
moral injury will fail to see a path toward renewal and reconciliation;
they will fail to forgive themselves and experience self-condemnation.
The behavioral, cognitive, and emotional aftermath of unreconciled
severe moral conflict, withdrawal, and self-condemnation closely
mirrors the reexperiencing, avoidance, and emotional numbing
Fig. 1. Working causal framework for moral injury.
B.T. Litz et al. / Clinical Psychology Review 29 (2009) 695–706
symptoms of PTSD. The psychological imperative to reconcile morally
incongruent or discrepant experience (i.e., moral violation or conflict)
leads to reexperiencing and other intrusive mental activity (e.g.,
Rachman, 1980). Arguably, intrusive (automatic and unbidden)
psychological- and emotional-processing of moral violation is partly
functional because it reminds the person that they need to do
something about their inner conflict. If the person accommodates the
experience and attributes the event in a specific (i.e., highly context
[war] dependent), not stable (i.e., time-locked), and external (e.g., a
result of exigencies and extraordinary demands) way, this reduces
conflict and fosters moral repair; successful integration of the moral
violation into an intact, although more flexible, functional belief
Reexperiencing may consist of the painful recall (thoughts,
images) of moral violation with concurrent self-condemnation and
aversive emotions (e.g., anxiety about potential social censure or
condemnation, shame, dysphoria). Reexperiencing morally injurious
experience is aversive because, among other things, it weakens and
destabilizes self-esteem and tarnishes relational expectations (e.g., by
reducing worthiness or increasing expectations of censure). Conse-
quently, service members and veterans distance themselves and
withdraw from others and they fail to avail themselves of opportu-
nities for corrective, disconfirming interpersonal experience (e.g.,
unconditional love, life affirmation). Thus, expectations of being
tainted by moral transgression and being unworthy of forgiveness can
come full circle (this feedback loop is depicted in Fig. 1). In the worst
case, service members with moral injury suffer in isolation, feeling
helpless and hopeless.
Chronic collateral manifestations of moral injury may include: self-
harming behaviors, such as poor self-care, alcohol and drug abuse,
severe recklessness, and parasuicidal behavior, self-handicapping
behaviors, such as retreating in the face of success or good feelings,
and demoralization, which may entail confusion, bewilderment,
futility, hopelessness, and self-loathing. Most damaging is the
possibility of enduring changes in self and other beliefs that reflect
regressive over-accommodation of moral violation, culpability, or
expectations of injustice. This may occur because each reexperiencing
and avoidance instance leads to new learning affecting the strength
and accessibility of underlying schemas, which, over time, become
ingrained and rigid and resistant to countervailing evidence.
Some vulnerability factors for PTSD applicable to moral injury
were described above; however, other individual difference factors
may increase the likelihood of moral injury, including shame
proneness and neuroticism. Shame proneness has the most empirical
support. Research has consistently linked the dispositional tendency
to experience shame to decreased empathy for others, increased focus
on internal distress, and increased psychopathology (see Tangney et
al., 2007). Also, the tendency to experience shame has been associated
with remorse, self-condemning thoughts, and lower well-being
(Fisher & Exline, 2006), variables germane to moral injury.
Neuroticism (negative affectivity) has been shown tobe negatively
associated with self-forgiveness (e.g., Maltby et al., 2001; Ross,
Hertenstein, & Wrobel, 2007). In fact, compared to openness,
conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness, neuroticism has
the strongest relationship to self-censure (Leach & Lark, 2004; Ross,
Kendall, Matters, Wrobel, & Rye, 2004).
In terms of possible protective factors, prisoners (putative trans-
gressors) with just world beliefs are more likely to feel that their
punishment is justified and are less likely to act out and cause
disciplinary problems (Dalbert & Filke, 2007; Otto & Dalbert, 2005).
Moreover, prisoners with justworldbeliefs are more likely toview their
future goals as attainable (Otto & Dalbert). This finding has been
replicated with young adults in assisted-living housing (Sutton &
Winnard, 2007). Viewing goals as attainable and the expectation that
justice is balanced (i.e., that transgressions have consequences and
injury because they may increase the motivation to seek out
opportunities for renewal and redemption.
Also, researchers have found that self-esteem mediates the relation-
ship between belief in a just world and self-forgiveness (Strelan, 2007).
We posit that self-esteem (i.e., expectations of self-worth and personal
agency) is a protective factor against the development of moral injury;
these beliefs reduce the likelihood of global causal attributions and
increase motivation for corrective action.
7. Working clinical care model
Several assumptions guide our intervention approach and selec-
tion of specific strategies. First, inherent in our working definition of
moralinjury isthesuppositionthatanguish,guilt, andshame aresigns
of an intact conscience and self- and other-expectations about
goodness, humanity, and justice. In other words, injury is only
possible if acts of transgression produce dissonance (conflict), and
dissonance is only possible if the service member has an intact moral
belief system. Consequently, underlying and core repertoires are
available to experience and self-judgment but they become less
accessible due to the consequences of moral injury (i.e., shame,
withdrawal). Worse, there is conflict, confusion, and black-and-white
thinking about whether one can be good and moral and deserving of a
fulfilling life after having severely transgressed standards of conduct.
Accordingly, service members and veterans who earnestly seek care
are struggling, but still capable of reclaiming goodness and moral
directedness, and forgiveness and repair is possible in all cases.
Second, there are two routes to moral repair and renewal: (a)
psychological- and emotional-processing of the memory of the moral
transgression, its meaning and significance, and the implication for
the service member, and (b) exposure to corrective life experience.
The former is a necessary pre-condition and a formative and
constructive process.In otherwords, weassumethatservicemembers
and veterans have not disclosed and thought deeply, in a sustained
manner, about what they did (or failed to do). Accordingly, there are
aspects of the experience that need to be uncovered and fully
acknowledged (and shared) and tacit and ill-formed negative
appraisals and meanings need to be elucidated and articulated. The
optimal condition for such a process to occur is a raw and emotional
reliving and recounting, the core element of exposure therapy (e.g.,
Foa, 2006). As in the case of exposure therapy for life-threat and high
fear events (Foa & Kozak, 1986), a core corrective feature is breaking
through experiential avoidance (e.g., Barlow, Allen, & Choate, 2004),
which in the case of moral injury entails shame and expectations of
mortification and rejection. Once fully and poignantly exposed, dire
and negative beliefs and expectations can be examined and
challenged. The second corrective element, exposure to corrective
life experience, entails increasing the accessibility of positive judg-
ments about the self by doing good deeds and positive judgments
about the world by seeing others do good deeds, as well as by giving
and receiving care and love. This counters self-expectations of moral
inadequacy and the experience of being tainted by various acts.
Third, because beliefs about moral transgressions and violations
tend to be very rigid and resistant to disconfirmation, and service
members and veterans are typically highly convinced and confident
that they are unforgivable and only deserve to suffer, we assume that
they need to have an equally intense real-time encounter with a
countervailing experience. Consequently, after processing the trans-
gression and dialoguing about its implication for the service member
in the presence of an unconditionally supportive and caring therapist,
we ask service members to dialogue in imagination with a benevolent
moral authority or provide advice to a hypothetical service member
who is similarly stuck (service members are prone to be good leaders,
likely toofferhabilitativeandencouraging advicetopeers). The idea is
B.T. Litz et al. / Clinical Psychology Review 29 (2009) 695–706
to get service members and veterans to articulate ideas about the
capacity to do good and to talk about being forgiven and the need for
self-forgiveness, even if they don't initially accept these ideas. This
concept is related to a pilot study targeting shame in women with
Borderline Personality Disorder (Rizvi & Linehan, 2005). Rizvi and
Linehan found that compelling individuals to engage in “opposite
action” (engaging in the opposite action of what shamewould suggest
doing, that is approaching rather than withdrawing) resulted in a
significant reduction in shame. This study suggests the need for
interventions to counter withdrawal and avoidance when treating
Finally, this process takes time, there is no quick fix. In the ideal
case, service members and veterans will use therapy to get clear about
what happened, what it means to them moving forward, what they
need todoto repairand renew, andas means of primingthe process of
forgiveness and hopefulness.
7.2. Specific treatment strategies
Certain potentially morally injurious experiences account for a
greater variance in chronic posttraumatic stress symptoms than
traditional indices of combat exposure. Reasons for the increased
influence of morally relevant stressors may stem from the lack of
existing structures to mitigate initial acute distress and symptoms
about transgression and moral conflict (in theatre and post-deploy-
ment) and limitations in current treatment approaches.
As we have stated, the field tends to conceptualize the lasting
potentially damaging exposures in war through the lens of direct life-
threat and personal loss. Arguably, built-in, natural, and organization-
based opportunities to heal and recover from these two classes of
events reduce the risk for long-term damage. For example, because
extinction learning is hard-wired, high fear and conditioning resulting
from life-threat events may be healed if service members sustain
sufficient unreinforced exposure to conditioned cues. We are also
hard-wired to recover from loss; if service members avail themselves
of opportunities to reattach and reengage positively (or reacquire
social resources) their grief will heal naturally. Conversely, there
seems to be fewer built-in opportunities to heal from moral injuries. It
is difficult to correct a core belief about a personal defect (Tangney
et al., 2007) or a destructive interpersonal or societal response,
especially when these contingencies lead to a pervasive withdrawal
Also, empirically validated treatments for other syndromes, such
as PTSD and depression, may not sufficiently redress moral injury. For
example, traditional exposure treatment, which is commonly used to
address fear and anxiety-based PTSD symptoms, may not be the
optimal treatment because moral injury arguably does not stem from
conditioned processes that respond to exposure and response
prevention. Repeated exposure to a morally conflictual experience,
without additional components, could lead to iatrogenic effects (Foa &
Meadows, 1997), especially for those experiencing shame. In other
words, we argue that repeated raw exposure to a memory of an act of
transgression without a strategic therapeutic frame for corrective and
countervailing attributions, appraisals, and without fostering correc-
tive and forgiveness-promoting experiences outside therapy would be
counterproductive at best and potentially harmful.
Cognitive models (e.g., cognitive-processing therapy; CPT; Resick
et al., 2008) fail to provide sufficient specific strategies and heuristics
to target moral injury, and cognitive therapy assumes that distorted
beliefs about moral violation events cause misery, which may not be
germane. In the case of morally injurious events, judgments and
beliefs about the transgressions may be quite appropriate and
accurate. We appreciate the usefulness of basic cognitive therapy
strategies, such as getting patients to monitor their experience,
increasing awareness and predictability of trigger contexts, their
biased constructions of those contexts, and helping them to be
strategic and effortful in generating alternative ways of construing
(and experimenting with the more helpful and balanced ways of
thinking). We considered modifying this approach to foster corrective
learning outside of therapy in our intervention model. We determined
that the most efficient use of time in between sessions was to foster
reparation, reengagement, and reconnection (i.e., to foster behavioral
success experience). In any event, in our approach we do challenge
service members to think of alternative perspectives and ways of
construing the implication of the moral violation and we use Socratic
questioning. However, in contrast to CPT (and other cognitive
therapies), we employ real-time emotion-focused event-processing
(in imagination) and experiential strategies as core vehicles to reveal
tacit toxic attributions and constructions and to prime countervailing
We are piloting a modified CBT, designed to address the three
principal injurious elements of combat: life-threat trauma, traumatic
loss, and moral injury with Marines redeployed from the Iraq and
Afghanistan wars (Steenkamp et al., in press). Below, we summarize
the approach that targets moral injury, which includes the following
elements: (1) A strong working alliance and trusting and caring
relationship; (2) preparation and education about moral injuryand its
impact, as well as a collaborative plan for promoting change; (3) a
hot-cognitive (e.g., Greenberg & Safran, 1989; Edwards, 1990),
exposure-based processing (emotion-focused disclosure) of events
surrounding the moral injury; (4) a subsequent careful, directive, and
formative examination of the implication of the experience for the
person in terms of key self- and other schemas; (5) an imaginal
dialogue with a benevolent moral authority (e.g., parent, grandparent,
coach, clergy) about what happened and how it impacts the patient
now and their plans for the future or a fellow service member who
feels unredeemable about something they did (or failed to do) and
how it impacts his or her current and future plans; (6) fostering
reparation and self-forgiveness; (7) fostering reconnection with
various communities (e.g., faith, family); and (8) an assessment of
goals and values moving forward. Although these steps are presented
in a sequential order, we realize that there will be substantial overlap
in their application; some steps are intended to occur throughout the
7.2.1. Step one: Connection
Because of thesensitive and personally devastatingand disorienting
nature of moral injury, a strong and genuinely caring and respectful
therapeutic relationship is critical. It is likely that the patient has not
disclosed the event(s) to anyone else because of shame and the
expectation of censure, disgust, and disdain, a dynamic which is at the
core of moral injury. Without trust, details, responses, and meaning
elements will remain hidden, and in order to promote healing,
concealment needs to be avoided at all costs. To encourage disclosure,
the therapist must portray unconditional acceptance and the ability to
In preparation for working with service members and veterans
who report excessive and unnecessary violence, it is important that
therapists imagine, ahead of time and in detail, the range of possible
acts of gratuitous violence and figure out how to tolerate this kind of
material while being able to genuinely embrace and accept their
patients. The genuine relationship of the therapist to the patient and
the story he or she is telling will be a critical component of how the
event comes to be experienced. The therapist will need to model,
implicitly and explicitly, the idea of acceptance.
Any expression of disgust or fear from the therapist, even to
elements of the narrative unrelated to the patient's role, will be
experienced as condemnation. Detachment, while understandable, is
not therapeutic. Even if the patient is retelling acts of perpetration, a
therapist must find within the story or the person the elements
around which true empathic connection can be summoned. It is
B.T. Litz et al. / Clinical Psychology Review 29 (2009) 695–706
essential that therapists familiarize themselves with some of the
horrible things that people do and witness in war. Closely reviewing
these kinds of events while imagining sitting with the perpetrator will
give therapists a chance to have and examine their feelings of horror
and condemnation without harming an actual patient. This type of
preparation will also provide therapists with the opportunity to
examine their feelings of judgment and desire to create distance in
order to move into a place where theycan imagine caring for someone
who has done morally questionable acts.
7.2.2. Step two: Preparation and education
At the beginning of treatment, patients need a model or plan of
action to guide the difficult work ahead. They need to hear that
approaching psychologically painful content is both possible and
crucial in promoting a healthier life and that shameful material can be
shared without condemnation. Patients need to appreciate that
concealmentandavoidance, althoughunderstandable, is maladaptive,
as it not only narrows the repertoire of wellness behaviors, it restricts
exposure to corrective and reparative experiences. In addition,
patients need to be educated about the impact of moral injury and
various elements of the treatment plan. This should be a careful and
7.2.3. Step three: Modified exposure component
Inthis context,exposure isoperationalized asa real-time sustained
consideration of particularly upsetting deployment experiences that
will unearth or reveal harmful and unforgiving beliefs so that they can
be processed (reconsidered and changed). The basic mechanics of
exposure therapy apply (see Foa & Rothbaum, 1998) and we assume
that it will be helpful to patients to have their eyes shut so that they
can be less constrained by the relational aspect of sharing (e.g., direct
eye-contact). Throughout the process, the therapist needs to be fully
engaged and directive to encourage, support, prompt, provoke, and
cue the patient to process particularly painful elements so that
meanings, needs, and motivations can be discovered and examined.
The goal of the exposure is to foster sustained engagement in the
raw aspects of the experience and its aftermath. Extinction of strong
affect from repeated exposure is not the primary change agent, rather
focused emotional reliving is a necessary pre-condition to change;
service members and veterans will be unable to reconsider harmful
beliefs stemming from deployment unless they “stay with the event”
long enough for their beliefs to become articulated and explicitly
Step three (exposure) is done in tandem with steps four and five
described below. There is considerable latitude about how much
exposure (and steps 4–5) to do over time. By default, exposure should
be used each session to focus attention and activate poignant and
salient emotions about the experience, setting the stage for examina-
tion of meaning and implication (step four) and corrective discourse
(step five). Over time, the exposure should be brieferand may become
unnecessary if the patient is able to sufficiently uncover a full
complement of thoughts, appraisals, attributions, and meanings about
the transgression (they are able to go to step four without step three).
7.2.4. Step four: Examination and integration
An important step in self-forgiveness, reclaiming a moral core and
a sense of personal worth, that is, reducing the toxic psychological and
relational impact of morally injurious experiences, is the examination
of maladaptive beliefs about the self and the world. These beliefs are
examined with the aim of promoting the development of new, more
constructive meanings, or at least a dialogue about the possibility and
implication of alternative habilitative constructions.
The therapist asks about what the event means for service
members or veterans, in terms of their view of themselves and their
future (identification and exploration of schema changes). The
therapist explicitly inquires about the service member's attributions
about what caused the transgression and explores themes of
globality/specificity, stability/instability, and internality/externality.
Maladaptive interpretations about stability (e.g., “this event will
forever define me”), a lack of appreciation of the unique context and
contingencies inwar, and severe self-condemnation (“I am evil,” “I am
worthless,” “I can never forgive myself,” “I don't deserve to live or to
have a decent life”) are explored.
Therapists should help service members and new veterans to
process the event in a way so that accommodation, but not over-
accommodation, can occur. Rather than coping with a morally
injurious event by denying it or excessively accommodating it, what
is neededisa newsynthesis—a new waytoview theworld andthe self
in it that takes into account the reality of the event and its significance
without giving up too much of what was known to be good and just
about the world and the self prior to the event (and what can be
revealed in the future).
One vehicle is to help the person appreciate the time-locked
context-specificity of his or her responses to combat and to work
towards accepting an imperfect self. For example, a service member
may believe that because he killed a civilian he is a cruel and sadistic
person. Therefore, the goal would be to challenge the validity of (e.g.,
evidence for) extremity and rigidityand encourage the understanding
that even if a particular act is “bad” or “wrong”, it is still possible to
move forward and create a life of goodness and value. One does not
need to accept the act to accept the imperfect self that committed the act.
An avenue for challenging rigid beliefs about the self is to separate
the individual's overall worth from a particular act. Killing a civilian
while in a war zone does not mean the service member is an outright
cruel and sadistic person; individual events (even if they go against
one's personal morals) do not necessarily or wholly define a person.
Thus, the goal is for individuals to reclaim good parts of themselves
and to examine and accept—but not be defined by—what they did,
what they saw, what others did, and so forth.
It is important to appreciate that holding onto the idea of a moral
self or a moral code may require that a bad act be judged as such. In
other words, maintaining a sense of morality is likely to preclude an
easy forgiveness of a bad act and this is not something to be contested.
Rather, the goal is to help the service member or veteran to move
toward an appreciation of context and the acceptance of an imperfect
While processing and dialoguing about the meaning and implica-
tion of events, it is also important for individuals to be able to express
remorse and to reach their own conclusions about the causes of the
events, albeit with guidance from the therapist. Psychotherapists are
often too eager to relieve guilt, and, thereby, undermine the patient's
need to feel remorseful (Singer, 2004). Therapists should not assume
that they have enough knowledge or credibility to offer judgments
about how understandable a given morally injurious experience may
be, given the unique context of war or that service members and
veterans did not have a choice, per se, andso forth.This may invalidate
service members' and veterans' thoughts and beliefs about the event
or be distracting or annoying. The goal is to help patients consider
more useful and contextual appraisals. Service members and veterans
may first need the experience of telling another person about the
event, without it being excused, and still be viewed as a person of
7.2.5. Step five: Dialogue with a benevolent moral authority
learning, our treatment model employs a modification of an empty-
chair dialogue in imagination with a caring and benevolent moral
authority. The goal is to have patients verbalize what they did or saw,
how it has affected them, and what they think should happen to them
(or others) over their life course as a result, to someone who does not
want them to suffer excessively and who feels that forgiveness and
reparation is possible.
B.T. Litz et al. / Clinical Psychology Review 29 (2009) 695–706
Patients are guided through an imaginary conversation with
another person who they have great respect for and who can weigh
in as a relevant and generous moral authority. The requirement is that
the service member or veteran thinks of someonewho has always had
his or her back and who has been and will be in his or her corner no
matter what. If the patient cannot think of someone, he or she is asked
to dialogue with a service member or veteran who he or she cares
about. In this context, the patient is asked to provide guidance and
recommendations for moving forward to someone who is convinced
that he or she is irredeemable and deserves to suffer.
In the first phase, the goal is to get the patients to disclose the
transgression, articulate their attributions and how they have been
feeling about themselves since the experience, and what they think
should happen to them in their life course as a result (their plans and
goals in light of their moral injury). To enhance engagement and the
intensity of the exchange, patients are also encouraged to share their
remorse andsorrowandwhat they would like to dotomakeamendsif
they could. After the patient sits with the emotions arising from this
exercise, the therapist asks him or her to verbalize what the moral
authority figure would say to him/her after hearing all of this. If
necessary, the therapist is instructed to introduce content that is
forgiveness-related, tailored tothe specifics of the case. At the end, the
therapist elicits feedback about the experience, by asking questions
such as “What was that like for you?” and “What are you going to take
from this?” This process may need to be repeated during multiple
7.2.6. Step six: Reparation and forgiveness
During the preparation and education step, the therapist intro-
duces the idea that in order to repair moral injury, the service member
or veteran needs to find decency and goodness and ways of doing
good deeds as a vehicle to self-forgiveness and repair. In simple terms,
this is couched as making amends. To amend something means,
literally, to change. Making amends means drawing a line between
past and present and in some way changing one's approach to how he
or she behaves and acts so that one moves towards the positive,
towards better living. During the treatment, the therapist employs
concrete and detailed patient-generated and realistic and doable
behavioral task assignments in service of this goal.
Therapists need to be mindful that this idea of making amends can
sometimes be taken to an extreme; patients can come to feel that they
idea of righting a wrong is usually a poor idea because it is typically not
possible. In general, the idea is not to try and fix the past, but rather to
drawa firm line around the past and its related associations, so that the
a pre-occupation with the past does not prevent possible future good.
Making reparations can help morally injured service members or
veterans begin to reconnect with their values, as well as allow them to
feel like a contributing member of society.
7.2.7. Step seven: Fostering reconnection
By the end of successful therapy, the patient has had a positive
experience of accessing painful material in the presence of a caring
other, demonstrating that it is possible, and perhaps healing, to
disclose thoughts and feelings, no matter how disturbing. However, if
patients fail to use their therapy experience to connect or reconnect
with important people in their lives and become less dominated by
beliefs that they are not worthy of caring and loving relationships,
gains will not last. Veterans and service members need to improve
their relationships with others and, more importantly, with them-
selves as relational demands arise over their life course.
Patients are strongly encouraged to seek positive and healing
relationships outside of therapy. This process needs to be framed,
planned, and structured in a way that will increase the probability of
success and exposure to corrective experience. Patients should
generate a list of the people in their world who are (or were)
important to them and who have (or had) a positive influence in their
lives. The individuals (or groups) should be arranged in a hierarchy
based on the expectations of difficulty in relating in light of the moral
injury. The patient should be encouraged to move up the hierarchy
incrementally and systematically and learn something useful and
growth-promoting in each instance.
Patients may want advice about whether they should share what
they did or saw or failed to do. Because many people do not know
what to say about such things, and their reactions may be difficult to
predict or interpret, guidance will be needed. Significant others may
not know what to say, or they may have good intentions of helping,
but are ultimately unhelpful. A dialogue might be awkward, if not
destructive. It is important to tell patients to remember that they are
not responsible for others' feelings or what they “do” with their
feelings. However, it is up to the patients to make sure their
relationships are a useful and positive force in their life. It might
mean that patients will have to tell people exactly what they need
from them, so that family and friends do not end up feeling like they
have no idea what to do or say. A conversation about preparing for
moments of possible self-disclosure is important before therapy ends.
Therapists may also want to establish a dialogue about spirituality,
which, if defined as “an individual's understanding of, experience
with, and connection to that which transcends the self” (Drescher,
2006, p. 337) supports the underlying theme of the treatment. The
goal is to find ways of revealing the full impact and implication of the
morally injurious experience in terms of self-construction, setting in
motion the possibility of transcendence. That is, not being defined by
the experience, and correcting the wounds by not succumbing or
being that construction of the self (e.g., only possible of doing bad
things), through subsequent mindful and purposeful experience
moving forward. This framework is consistent with mindfulness
approaches to trauma care (e.g., Follette, Palm, & Pearson, 2006). In
the context of moral injury, forming connections with positive
cultures and groups may be an optimal vehicle for transcendence—
being part of something and being accepted by a group helps
construct meaning and purpose that transcends the self. Conse-
quently, patients should be encouraged to engage in group activities
and spiritual communities (e.g., a church; Drescher, Smith, & Foy,
2007). Forgiveness within religious and spiritual frameworks is
potentially instrumental in alleviating guilt, shame, and demoraliza-
tion. For example, Witvliet et al. (2004) found that veterans who fail
to forgive themselves and have punitive religious beliefs (e.g.,
thinking that a higher power is inflicting punishment or withdrawing
love) have worse mental health outcomes.
7.2.8. Step eight: Planning for the long haul
The therapy should end with an extensive conversation about
what patients will take with them from the work they have done and
their plans for the future. The therapist should specifically assess
values andgoals moving forward.Inother words, what would patients
like to see for themselves and the people theycare about over the long
haul, in light of their values? If therapy has been helpful, these values
should be thematically useful, positive, hopeful, and relational. As is
the case with serious and sustained combat and operational trauma,
there should be the expectation that there will be challenging times
ahead—periods where the moral injury becomes more the figure than
the ground. As a result, it is important to plan for times when the
person is at risk for being defined by the moral injury.
We have devoted extra attention to two potentially morally
injurious acts: atrocities and killing. Because research is very limited,
our focus on these two acts arose out of necessity rather than
intention. Ideally, we would have also examined the repercussions of
B.T. Litz et al. / Clinical Psychology Review 29 (2009) 695–706
learning about the unethical behaviors of others and bearing witness
to intense human suffering and cruelty. We believe that an exclusive
focus on depraved acts of commission greatly confines the discourse—
it is counterproductive to assume that atrocities and gratuitous killing
are the only potentially morally injurious experiences in war.
Rather than limiting investigation to these two acts, we recom-
mend a thorough evaluation of many different types of morally
conflictual elements of service. In our view, the critical elements to
moral injury are the inability to contextualize or justify personal
actions or the actions of others and the unsuccessful accommodation
of these potentially morally challenging experiences into pre-existing
moral schemas, resulting in concomitant emotional responses (e.g.,
shame and guilt) and dysfunctional behaviors (e.g. withdrawal).
The inability to contextualize, justify, and accommodate acts is likely
to lead to long-lasting impairment (i.e., moral injury) due to the lack of
built-in and contextual salutogenic factors and the presumed inapplic-
ability of current treatments. Accordingly, many researchers have found
that atrocities and killing are better predictors of chronic posttraumatic
stress symptoms than combat exposure (e.g., Beckham et al., 1998;
Fontana & Rosenheck, 1999; King et al., 1995; MacNair, 2002; Yehuda
et al., 1992). Also, Fontana and Rosenheck (2004) suggest that veterans
with high combat exposure are more likely to seek VA services due to
guilt and loss of faith than PTSD or lack of social support.
What is needed, then, is multi- and, ideally, interdisciplinary
research. Moral injury in service members and veterans appears to be
a distinct phenomenon warranting its own line of inquiry and
development of special intervention strategies. The first step is
psychometric development. We need to generate instruments that
can reliably and validly assess moral injury. Our working definitional
structure should serve as a guide in item selection, emphasizing
content validity, and as a means of fostering construct validation.
Researchers should also expand measures of combat and operational
exposures to include a full range of potentially morally injurious
experiences (these would need to be psychometrically validated as
developed and validated, the next step is epidemiological. The
questions that need to be addressed are: How prevalent is moral
injury among service members and new veterans? What are the
psychosocial and military context (e.g., leadership, cohesion, morale)
predictors of moral injury or successful navigation of various
transgressions in the context of combat and operational challenges?
Finally, we need randomized controlled trials of interventions that
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