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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.

Further thoughts on philosophy in prisons (from a rank amateur)

freiheit-3Yesterday I finished a pilot course in practical philosophy at Low Moss prison. It’s an eight-session course that introduces people to the ideas and life-philosophies of various ancient philosophers, including Socrates, the Stoics, Plato, Rumi, the Buddha, Jesus and Lao Tzu. I’ve been running it in partnership with New College Lanarkshire, which runs the learning courses in west Scottish prisons.

The emphasis is on how we might be able to use their ideas today. Participants are also encouraged to criticize the ideas, and choose which ones work for them. Pick n’ mix? Certainly, but that way they hopefully don’t feel they are being forced down one particular path. The pluralism of the approach, I believe, makes it more likely that a group of cynical and anti-authoritarian people still take onboard some good ideas.

We had zero drop-out in the course – nine started it, and eight finished (one prisoner was transferred to another prison) – which is not bad, considering this was 12 hours of quite intense learning and discussion. This may have been because Nikki Cameron, the formidable teacher who runs Low Moss’ philosophy club, made sure everyone attended!

I often felt quite naive, stumbling into elephant traps that an experienced prison-teacher would see coming a mile off. In a session on Aristotle and the art of citizenship, for example, I asked the group how they would improve the prison system. Bad idea! It fed immediately into prisoners’ deeply-held conviction that they are the pitiable victims of an incurably corrupt system. In fact, it was probably a bad idea to broach the whole topic of citizenship – the group were so utterly disenfranchized from politics (with the exception of one who had been an active member of the BNP).

In another session, we discussed forgiveness. It’s such an important topic – can we forgive people who have wronged us, do we deserve to be forgiven for our wrongs? But it rapidly veered into a discussion on the merits and methods of revenge. No one wanted to support an ethic of forgiveness – it might seem weak. A more experienced teacher would have been aware of that in advance, and more prepared to challenge the conventional revenge ethic.

Philosophy in prisons can touch raw nerves and open wounds – prisoners will bring up issues of race, religious sectarianism, or simply complain about the prison ad infinitum. It’s easy for an outsider like me to bounce in, bounce out and claim quick results – the truth is that people inside have deep levels of anger, hurt, despondency, self-denial and self-absorption. You only have to look at the rate of recidivism and the number of inmate suicides to see what teachers are up against.

It might be argued that the idea of raising consciousness through prison philosophy is a bad idea from the start, for both the prisoners and the prison. Instead, perhaps we should sedate rather than awaken prisoners’ minds, via large-scale meds programmes (prisons spend millions on meds like methadone each year).

But within the group there did appear to be cognitive shifts – probably not through my brief course, but mainly through the philosophy group that Nikki Cameron has been running twice a week for a year. One participant, a former BNP member, discovered a love of Rumi’s poetry, wants to find out more about Taoism, and told Nikki he wants to study social sciences when he leaves prison. This is a guy who refuses to take part in any ‘behaviour modification’ courses to reduce his sentence. Of course, that’s only anecdotal evidence, but Kirstine Szfiris is doing more qualitative analysis and has so far found positive results.

Nikki Cameron  (left) and Ruth Fracchini (right) of the Low Moss learning centre, with two visiting Holocaust survivors
Nikki Cameron (left) and Ruth Facchini (right) of the Low Moss learning centre, with two visiting Holocaust survivors who spoke at the prison this month

Philosophy and desistance theory

I asked the group what their ‘philosophy of life’ was at the beginning of the course, and then at the end, they wrote down their life-philosophy on a card, which they read out and could then put up on their wall. It’s the idea of having them publicly commit to their ethics, which perhaps makes them more likely to try and live by them – a ‘testimonial’ method which churches and 12-step programmes use to good effect.

Their espoused value systems were usually admirable – ‘using education to learn from past mistakes and move towards a better future’ was how one participant summed up his life-philosophy. The problem was sticking to them, or using bad ways to try and meet them. For example, many of their value systems involve loving and protecting their family, but the means they have used to reach that end have been highly counterproductive, ending with them separated from their family for years.

After they read out their ‘life-philosophies’, we presented them with a certificate of completion – I told them ‘you are now a philosopher’ and shook their hand, and the group applauded each other. Yeah, cheesy I know. But still, a good idea (of Nikki’s).

Desistance theory, a hot topic in Scottish prisons, thanks to the work of Fergus McNeill and others

It fits with a theory in criminology called ‘desistance theory’, which suggests that people stop re-offending partly through an internal choice. They choose not to. They choose to live differently, which partly means recovering a sense of personal autonomy and control, and rejecting the identity of being a criminal or bad person to choose a different identity or narrative.

Practical philosophy fits very well into desistance theory, as both Nikki Cameron and Kirstine Szfiris have been researching. It emphasizes the Stoic idea that while we don’t control many things in our environment, we do have some choice over own thoughts, beliefs and actions. We don’t control the past or the future, we can control the present. We don’t control what’s happened to us, we can control how we respond to it. It’s worth repeating, over and over, just as Epictetus repeated this idea to his students in lecture after lecture.

And it re-labels the participants from ‘offenders’ to ‘philosophers’. It recognizes their dignity as free-thinking agents. It also recognizes the dignity of their experience in negotiating adversity, and connects that to millennia-old wisdom traditions and their strategies for coping with adversity. It gives a positive value to their experience of adversity, rather than only seeing it as a negative. As one participant put it, ‘prison makes you become a Stoic, out of necessity’. Nikki said to them yesterday, ‘you’ve all had to practice more philosophy than most academic philosophers’, which is absolutely true in my opinion.

One of the questions in desistance theory is ‘why do people stop committing crimes?’ Age might be a part of it – their value system changes with their hormones (in that sense, it’s less of a choice than a chemical transformation). Time also plays a role – they just get sick of being in prison. Relationships play a key role – someone takes an interest in them, sees the good in them, and they want to live up to that. I see this clearly with Nikki’s relationship to the group. One inmate came up and apologized to her for expressing a vengeful opinion in the class. He said sorry to her ‘because you’re my pal’. The importance of personal relationship is worth bearing in mind in any attempt to ‘roll out’ some mass solution to the prison system. There is no such thing as ‘intimacy on a mass scale’ as one think-tank put it.

Reforming probation services

One of the key issues with desistance, of course, is what happens when the person is discharged? What happens when they leave the prison with £46, no house, no job, and often very little probation follow-up? The Ministry of Justice spends around £40K a year on each prisoner inside, but much less on follow-up. The re-offending rate is very high, particularly for short-term inmates (as much as 70%).

The Justice Ministry is, in fact, about to embark on a huge privatization of the National Probation Service, transferring about 75% of its tasks to private-sector companies. Forget the ban on buying books for inmates – the reform of the probation service is a far, far bigger story.

The historical roots of the probation service go back to missionaries like these chaps from 1906

Minister Chris Grayling says he wants to see more voluntary organizations involved, as part of a ‘compassionate Conservative’ approach. He seems keen to take probation back to its historical roots in charitable Christian volunteers. But the 21 ‘community probation companies’ who have been contracted to start work are mainly the usual suspects of multinational contractors – Sodexo, Capita, G4S, A4E. There is a risk that compassionate Conservatives seek Big Society but end up with Big Business.

Will these private contractors ‘join up’ with voluntary organizations so that people coming out of prison find jobs and supportive communities? Maybe, but there is not a clear alignment of interests or scale. Charities tend to be small, local and value-driven, while the community probation companies tend to be large bureaucracies and profit-driven.

Joining up with probation companies

Well, I’m so new to this area I really shouldn’t pretend to understand these issues! I’ll just highlight them, and end on this point – how do we join up desistance approaches inside prisons with desistance approaches outside? How do you help a person to extend the new story they have embraced into the wider world?

Christian or Muslim groups can do that – my friend Tom Seidler, an ex-offender, runs a charity called Transformed, which meets people at the gates and tries to embed them in churches. A Muslim group called Mosaic also works to try and help the 12% of the population in prisons that are Muslim (some London prisons are over 30% Muslim now, which is shocking considering only 4% of the British population are Muslim).

What about for the non-religious? Can you provide a strong community for prison graduates, other than the BNP?

As the arts and philosophy in prisons approach evolves, it would be great to build links with both voluntary organisations and community probation companies, particularly ones such as Co:here, a new probation company set up as a mutual, which is committed to the desistance / self-help model of rehabilitation.  Could ex-offenders become co-partners in these organizations, or is that meaningless jargon??

In the mental health recovery movement, for example, one of the steps to recovery is coming to see oneself not just as a victim of mental illness, but as an expert on recovery. I wonder if that’s possible in prisons too, where people could come to see themselves as experts on rehabilitation and resilience, with stories to tell that can help others?

And could the staff at prisons and in probation companies also be given time to go on courses in practical philosophy, so that some of these ideas filter out and become a shared culture? Could inmates and staff become co-philosophers?

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In related news:

Here is an article on desistance and prison arts courses, looking at the experience in west Scottish prisons like Low Moss.

Here is a piece I wrote comparing the ‘wisdom’ approach to the ‘critical thinking’ approach in practical philosophy, and here’s an initial article I did on doing a philosophy talk in HMP Dumfries.

Here is a useful PowerPoint from the philosopher Gregory Sadler, drawing on his experience teaching philosophy in prisons, and connecting it to a Kohlbergian model of wisdom development.

Here is an article on well-being in prisons, looking at the reform of the Singapore Prison Service.

Andrew Chignell, a Cornell philosopher, taught a course on the philosophy of hope in a New York prison, as he describes here.

Here’s the Prison University Project website, which provides philosophy courses in San Quentin prison.

Here is a blog by Alan Smith, who taught philosophy in prisons for 14 years.

Here is an article by Eric Anthametten, who teaches an introduction to philosophy course in Texas prisons.

This is an organization called Inside-Out, which links up academia to prisons.

Aislinn O’Donnell teaches philosophy in an Irish prison. She was part of an EU-funded project to explore how to build self-esteem among inmates using the arts.

Here is a short film about meditation in prisons. A documentary has been made about philosophy in prisons in Germany, called Inner Freedom, but it’s not online alas.

Finally, this is a website about a project at Roehampton Uni promoting Prison Reading Groups, which you can donate to if you want.

See you next week,

Jules