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The Art of Moral Injury: Decolonizing the Military Subject through Artisanal Destruction


This dissertation examines combat trauma under U.S. militarism, tracking its psychosomatic effects and aesthetic responses within U.S. veteran communities. It centers the concept of “moral injury,” psychiatrist Jonathan Shay’s term for the moment of psychic, ethical, and sociopolitical disturbance that often leads to PTSD. This dissertation reads moral injury through the lenses of critical race theory and U.S. imperial culture, examining the racial and imperial logics at work in the phenomenon of veteran self-destruction. It argues that the national crisis of veteran suicide exposes the limits of U.S. imperial reach and the ways race, gender, and religion coalesce to both form and undermine the military subject. This dissertation’s analysis of how white masculinity interweaves with the function and effects of moral injury offers insight to discourses on psychosocial wellness as well as disability studies, which often fail to adequately address questions of race and gender. Bringing disability studies into conversation with recent work on militarization, race, and religion offers the insight that moral injury destabilizes U.S. militarism.

This dissertation suggests that discourses on race and war must contend with combat-related moral injury, psychosomatic ability, and veteran self destruction. While the accounts explored are primarily from the post-9/11 Iraq and Afghanistan wars, this dissertation traces the notion of moral injury to the Vietnam war, connecting escalating veteran self-destruction to the emergence of endless militarism as “counterinsurgency” warfare. It reads domestic and overseas militarism as resulting from increased U.S. bureaucratization and socioeconomic demand for security. It contends that any analysis of the ways race interweaves with the contemporary phenomenon of endless war or relations between extraterritorial combat and domestic militarism must consider the nexus between whiteness, masculinity, and ability that produces the citizen subject on which U.S. imperialism depends.

This dissertation also brings moral injury to ongoing discourses on historical trauma in relation to U.S. racial formations. Through a comparative analysis between combat and “inner-city” PTSD, it tracks the racialized notions of moral authority and psychic invulnerability as well as individual, military, and state dominion inherent to moral injury and thus veteran trauma. It pushes psychoanalytic discourse to reflect on the ways trauma cannot be comprehended without attention to how the state deploys it through U.S. imperial culture, and to how it undermines that instrumental process. Through an examination of Operation Homecoming, this dissertation reads state desperation to salvage veteran behavior as an investment in the white, Christian, masculine citizen, or keystone of U.S. militarism. Its homogenizing therapeutic practices reintegrate affected veterans into the patriotic, heroic subject of martial might and sacrifice. Through analyses of the Combat Paper Project and Philip Metres’s abu ghraib arias, this dissertation then considers the abilities of art practice and poetics to produce an affective and psychosomatic realm through which engagements with trauma open the affected self to relational, collective vulnerability, memory, and experience, past and present. This collective self of historical trauma works to undo the bound, invulnerable, coherent individuality of the military subject. This dissertation concludes with a gesture toward decolonial feminist practices that illuminate a collective way forward.

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