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Monthly Archives: September 2014

Nancy Sherman, the soldiers’ philosopher

20091102+Nancy+Sherman_0018Professor Nancy Sherman has worked with the US military for over 20 years, and has written several books on military ethics, including Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind; and The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds and Souls of Our Soldiers.

How did you come to teach philosophy in the military?

Through a crisis on their part. The US Naval Academy had a cheating scandal. Back, in the 1990s, 130 electrical engineering midshipmen were implicated in cheating on a major exam. They seemed to have got it in advance. These individuals were all brought before various kinds of honour boards, and as part of the ‘moral remediation’ they wanted an ethicist onboard. That was me. After two weeks they asked me to set up an ethics course. One thing led to another, and eventually I was selected as the inaugural distinguished chair of ethics at the Naval Academy.

How did you find teaching in the military?

My dad was a WWII vet, didn’t talk about it much. I was a child of the 60s, many of my friends were conscientious objectors. Now, I was in a place where there were marines and officers who had fought on the Mekong Delta. It was an eye-opener, to see the other side of a conflict that was very formative for me. I hadn’t really met my peers who had served. I learned a lot from them.

1897893_762289500447958_1645314971_nThe Naval Academy is a different sort of university. It’s uniformed. Everyone is Ma’aming and Sir-ing. They’re trying to figure out what rank you are. They were used to a very hierarchical universe. And a lot of Navy people are engineer-focused. They want bottom lines. Discussions without clear endings, or deliberative questions without easy right and wrongs, shades of grey, all of that was not something they were comfortable with.

But you discovered they have a natural interest in Stoic philosophy.

Yes. The course took them through deliberative models and major ethical theories – Aristotle, emotions, deliberation and habits; Kant and universalizability; Mill and Bentham, and notions of maximizing utility. When we got to Stoicism – Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius – they felt ‘this is the stuff I know: suck it up, truck on, externals mean nothing to me. I can’t get back for my wedding because I’m on a ship, well, it’s beyond my control.’

One of the greatest officers in their midst was Admiral James Bond Stockdale. He’d endured seven years in the Hanoi Hilton [the north Vietnamese prison], two of them in leg-irons. He’d been given a little copy of Epictetus when studying at Stanford. He committed it to memory and it became his salvation. That’s a well-known story in the military.

You met and interviewed Stockdale several times. What was he like?

He had a kind of James Cagney voice. And you couldn’t tell when it was him talking or when he was quoting Epictetus. It was seamless. You sometimes thought you’re in front of an impersonator. He had a noticeable limp in his left leg, from when his plane crashed in Vietnam, and Epictetus also had a limp in his left leg. So there was a physical kinship and perhaps a spiritual kinship too.

Are the Stoics widely read in the US military? I came across quite a few Stoic soldiers when researching my book, particularly in the Green Berets – I didn’t come across any in the British military.

The Roman Stoics are read by officers and commanders, not so much by enlisted men. How they come to it is an interesting question. I think in the Marines and Navy, probably through Stockdale’s influence on the curriculum – he was head of the Naval War College on Rhode Island. Also these are popular writers, easy to read. Everyone understands stoic with a little s.

How useful or appropriate is Stoicism for soldiers?

51h1oiS7REL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_It has curses and blessings. It fits an idealized model of invincibility, of external goods not mattering. I can expand the perimeter of my agency so that the only thing that matters is what I can control – namely my virtue. It meshes with what we know to be pretty natural responses to constant threat. As Stockdale once put it, you’re ‘as cagey a Stoic as you can be’. He was a cagey sage with his captors – this won’t touch me, this won’t affect me.

With that goes the notion that your emotions can be fully controlled and you can turn them off, essentially. Anything your emotions attach to in sticky and graspy ways is dangerous, because they can destabilize you, they can make you mourn and grieve. So there’s the idea of not missing something – a cigarette, your child, your spouse, or your buddy who gets blown up next to you. It’s useful armour. That’s the blessing.

The curse is it can be a way of not feeling, or as a lot of soldiers tell me, you feel ‘dead to the world’ – they can’t feel anymore. And that’s awful. You come home and you have this gorgeous child, and a family you want to adore, and you can’t even feel joy because you’ve turned off your emotions in certain ways. That is an absolute curse.

The Stoics were giving salvation for tough times. It’s a great philosophy for tough times, I’m not sure it’s a great philosophy for everyday living. It’s always good to feel more in control, but it’s not good to think that luck and the vicissitudes of the world can’t touch you or that you can’t show moral outrage, love, grief, and so on.

Do some soldiers manage to put on and take off that Stoic armour?

No, that’s really hard. This is a question about ‘resilience’ – the million-dollar-word in the military right now. The idea of resilience is you can bounce back. We have 2.4 million soldiers coming home from war. They can’t bounce back on their own. They can’t bounce back just with their families. They need a community that gets it. They need to know that we’re not just saying ‘thank you for your service’. They need enormous amounts of trust, hope, medical attention. Above all they need emotional connection.

There’s an idea in Stoicism that your loyalty to the Logos, to the ‘City of God’, comes before your loyalty to the state. The Stoics were quite individualistic, probably not great team-players. How does that fit in with the very strong collective or conformist ethos of the military? What if you’re asked to do something that doesn’t fit with your virtue?

The best service-member will never check their conscience at the door. It will be with them all the time. That’s not just Stoic. That’s any moral philosophy – you do the right thing. Your virtue is your guide. If you have an officer, a commander, who is giving you unlawful, immoral, bad advice, and it’s even part of a system – of torture for example – the moral individual will question that, whatever philosophy they have.

Major Ian Fishback
Major Ian Fishback

One of my friends is Ian Fishback, he now teaches at Westpoint and is going to do a Phd in philosophy at Michigan. He’s a special forces major. He served eight years or so in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was at Abu Ghraib and didn’t like what he saw there. He wrote at least 50 letters to command about what was going on. He got no answers. He finally wrote to Senator John McCain, who’d been a POW with Jim Stockdale, and said ‘this is what I’m seeing’. He went public. He blew the whistle. And from that came a referendum that was put before congress. To know Ian is to know that he is thoughtful. He is conscientious.

To be in the military is hard for the thinking soldier. All the people I work closely with, all my PhD students from the military – they have to accept some of the absurd of a career in the military, but you can’t accept some of the missions. You pick your battles. And it may be a career-ender. You face the possibility that you’re not going to be a yes-man.

How well is the military coping with PTSD at the moment? How big a problem is it?

the-untold-war-inside-the-hearts-minds-and-souls-of-our-soldiersWe don’t really know the numbers, but some say there’s maybe 30% incidence of PTSD in soldiers coming home. It’s a central issue which the Americans are taking on in various ways. The Pentagon, and in particular General Peter Chiarelli, wants to drop the D from PTSD. They argue it’s not a disorder, it’s an injury with an external cause. They want to destigmatize it.

Secondly, there’s vast efforts to deal with the suicide peak – for the first time in record-keeping, the rate of suicide in the military exceeds the comparable rate for young male civilians. It’s not always after multiple deployments. Often the precipitating factors have to do with coming home, with difficult family relationships at home. It’s very complex. Some would like to find a ‘biomarker’ for suicidal tendencies.

There aren’t enough mental health workers, that’s pretty clear. And there’s still stigma, still a sense that it’s weak not to be able to handle losing your buddy.

Also, traumatic stress has a moral dimension, often. It’s not just a fear symptom. It’s also that you keep going back to the situation and thinking ‘I should have done that, I wasn’t good enough, I let someone down’. It’s complicated what morality is in the complex of war. You’re in a lethality and violence-soaked environment, increasingly in population-centric environments. There’s a lot of grey area – who’s the enemy, are they a voluntary or involuntary human-shield, and so on.

I read the military isn’t doing a great job at keeping track of what treatments for PTSD actually work.

Well, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy seems to be the leader. But you’re talking about populations that are heavily medicated, on sleeping pills, on anxiety pills, on pain-killers. And that affects their ability to change their thinking.

What do you think of Martin Seligman’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme [ a $180 million programme introduced in 2010 to teach resilient-thinking skills to all service-members, to try and prevent PTSD occurrence]?

This was introduced in 2009 / 2010 when the suicide rate was going up. They needed something fast. As one army psychiatrist said to me, they expected broken bodies, they didn’t expect broken minds. I think Seligman’s work has been shown to be effective in populations of children in tough neighbourhoods. He had not done previous work with combat lethality-saturated environments.

Emotional intelligence is a great thing, being able to talk about things soldiers don’t typically talk about is great. You need forums, you need lots of time. My understanding is you get two hours training twice a year when you’re not deployed. That’s not a lot.

Some military psychiatrists worry that the programme could further stigmatize those who still develop PTSD. If you’ve gone through the preventative programme and you still can’t sleep at night, you’re still racked by guilt, you may feel even worse. Prevention is one thing, but you can’t further stigmatize those who are traumatized. Still, I applaud the armed forces for realizing that mental health is critical for soldiers’ health.

You still work with soldiers now?

I have a lot of veterans enrolled in my classes in Georgetown. I’ve been working with soldiers for 20 years now. They’re my buddies. Next year I have a book coming out about soldiers coming home, called Making Peace with War: Healing the Moral Wounds of our Soldiers, which involved a lot of long interviews with soldiers. My heart goes out to folks who are trying to morally process really complicated issues.

To go back to the beginning, you initially started work with the military because of an ethical crisis, which they thought could be solved with an ethics course. Do you think ethics courses really do improve people’s ethical behaviour?

I think these courses have enormous value. Not when they have sets of right or wrong answers, but when you have small enough groups where you can have discussions. Finding time to think, when you’re not on the spot, is really powerful. It goes into the unconscious and is part of your reserves for hard times.

If you’re interested in the application of Stoicism in modern life, including the military, come to the Stoicism Today event on November 29 at Queen Mary, University of London.

A review of Sam Harris’ Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

18870514Sam Harris, the second-most-famous atheist in the world, is an unusual sort of atheist. On the one hand, he’s a neuroscientist who reveres the scientific method and despises the superstitious dogma of religion – so far, so normal. On the other hand, he’s spent many years meditating in spiritual retreats in Asia, and taken a lot of mind-expanding drugs, all of which has convinced him that at the core of spiritual experiences are important truths about human consciousness.

His new book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, insists that spirituality ‘remains the great hole in secularism, humanism, rationalism and atheism’. Scientific accounts of spiritual experiences tend either to reduce them to pathologies or to compare them to the mild awe we might feel looking at a sunset. As a result, people who have ego-shattering spiritual experiences can only find a positive explanation in the dogma of organized religions or in New Age quackery. Therefore rationalists – and the world at large – needs a better science of spiritual experiences.

Spiritual experiences, he says, tell us ‘empirical facts’ about human consciousness. Harris thinks he has come across two such facts. Firstly, an experience on MDMA in his twenties gave him a sense of ‘boundless love’ for all beings – something many mystics and contemplatives have felt. Secondly, he has had glimpses of the non-existence of self, particularly through the Tibetan teaching of Dzogchen. If the illusion of self is the cause of all our suffering and restlessness, then the blissful experience of non-self is the solution to our problems. And we can get this experience without signing up to any supernatural dogma.

The best insight in Harris’ enjoyable book is this: everything we do is for conscious states, particularly for the conscious state of happiness, joy and bliss. Yet we go about seeking these conscious states in foolish and roundabout ways – striving for money, power, endless sensual gratification. These bring us little hits of pleasure and comfort, but they always have to be topped up, and often bring suffering in their wake (not to mention environmental devastation).

What the great contemplatives have discovered is that bliss is available right here, right now, in our minds, for free. There is an incredible renewable source of happiness in our minds, which we ignore in favour of toxic external substitutes. This is what the mystics mean when they talk in parables about forgotten inheritances, buried treasure, secret gardens, kingdoms within and so forth.

Harris thinks Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta most clearly express this core experience of the non-existence of self. Yes, there is still some supernatural woowoo in these traditions, but the empirical insights can easily be detached from any silly stories, unlike in Christianity, Judaism or Islam.

He admits that some contemplatives in the Abrahamic faiths also discovered inner bliss and the non-existence of self, like Meister Eckhart, Jalal ad-Din Rumi or Thomas Traherne. But such mystics tended to be on the fringes of their religion, and were often imprisoned, excommunicated or murdered for their insights.

In fact, the Abrahamic faiths are a positive ‘impediment’ to spiritual insight, because they insist on the existence of a separate self which will be judged by a terrifying God for eternity. Western culture in general is embarrassingly ignorant of the interior world. We must humbly turn east, and find a Buddhist or Advaita guru to teach us. Harris warns, however, of the danger of seeing gurus as perfect, and is amusing about the grotesque moral failings of teachers like Osho, who owned 95 Rolls Royces, drugged prospective funders with Ecstasy, and ‘demanded fellatio at forty-five minute intervals’.

His denigration of western contemplative wisdom is somewhat harsh. There is no mention of Greek philosophy as an guide to transforming consciousness, although modern cognitive behavioural therapy was inspired by it. There is no mention of Plato’s sublime guides to waking up from the trance of unconsciousness, or his influence on later mystics like Augustine, Rumi and Ficino. There is no mention of the rich contemplative tradition in Orthodox Christianity. There is no sense that Christian compassion was an influence on the evolution of democracy, which flourished in the West and not in the East. There is no sense that the Christian path is all about dying to the self and opening to a deeper spiritual reality.

There is no hint that we might be so incredibly ignorant of the interior world in the west partly because of the one thing Harris most celebrates: the rise of western science and industrialism, and the decline of Christianity. Did not this turn our gaze from the ‘kingdom within’ described by Christ, and instead make us look for our gratification in the material world, at enormous emotional and environmental cost?

There is no mention of the arts as a means to spiritual experience. We get several pages exploring the bicameral theory of the brain, and not a word about three millennia of the arts. That’s a fairly stark omission in a guide to spirituality. But Harris, the son of a Quaker, is an ultra-Puritan – he just wants ‘facts’, shorn of any ‘stories’. There is no interest in how stories, symbols, poetry, music, dance, architecture and ritual help us move beyond ordinary consciousness to reach a more expanded consciousness.

Harris’ spirituality seems to me quite individualistic, like other scientific accounts of spirituality in the works of Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow or William James. In Harris’ spirituality, you jet off to Nepal for various retreats, and then eventually arrive at the insight that there is no such thing as a permanent you. This hopefully feels blissful. But the insight doesn’t connect you to other people, as it does in, say, Stoicism, Christianity or Hinduism. We are not One. Nor does it connect you to the cosmos or God. It simply means you have no permanent self. Well, so what?

Harris has a more relational experience of boundless love for all beings, while on MDMA. But is this state of boundless love an ‘empirical fact’? Why should it be? Why should we scientifically and rationally feel boundless love for all beings?

Harris insists that such experiences tell us nothing about the cosmos or matter, they only tell us things about human consciousness: that it exists, that ordinary consciousness is just one type of consciousness, that we can reach an experience of boundless consciousness which may involve a sense of infinite love for all beings.

But even that tells us something about the cosmos – it’s a cosmos in which such experiences occur, where the mind can alter the physical structure of the brain, where experiences of bliss are freely available, right here, right now. Why should Darwinian evolution in a material cosmos have left us with this foundational state of inner bliss? Just good luck?

Surely it’s at least possible that the great virtuosos of contemplation are right when they insist spiritual experiences do tell us something about the cosmos, and that the experience of infinite loving-consciousness is a glimpse of the very ground of being, also sometimes called God, Brahman, Allah, the Logos, the Tao, the Buddha-realm.

Harris says he is open-minded about the many reports from people who’ve taken the psychedelic drug DMT, who say they visited another dimension where elves passed on futuristic technology. Well and good. I don’t see why he is not also agnostic about the much more credible possibility that infinite loving-consciousness is the ground of being.

Still, this was an enjoyable and insightful book, particularly his accounts of his own spiritual explorations via psychedelics and meditation. You come away with a respect for his willingness to undergo retreats involving 18-hour meditations, and a sense of his refreshing humility about his own spiritual progress. I think he is ignoring what his spiritual experiences point to, but then as a theist, I would say that.