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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.

The great PTSD conundrum

Why do 20% of American soldiers develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and only 3-5% of British soldiers? It’s one of the great conundrums of contemporary psychology / psychiatry – and one of the most contentious, touching as it does on sensitive issues of our countries’ moral characters, and how well our governments care for their soldiers.

Dan Collins, who took his life in 2012 – a year in which the number of suicides among serving soldiers quintupled compared to 2010

The question was revisited this week by a moving Panorama documentary called Broken by Battle, made by Sunday Times journalist Toby Harnden, who won the 2012 Orwell Prize for his book Dead Men Risen, about his time with the Welsh Guards in Afghanistan. The programme traced a sharp rise in the number of suicides among troops who served in Afghanistan, and suggested the Ministry of Defence is not doing enough to help soldiers coming home with PTSD.

Toby tells me:

While I was in Helmand, I’d see instances of ‘battle shock’, where soldiers would freeze in battle, curl up into the foetal position, and be helicoptered away. I’d wonder what would happen to them. I’d heard a bit about PTSD, but I wondered if it was real or some slightly nebulous condition like Gulf War Syndrome. But out in Helmand I got to know staff sergeant Dan Collins, who developed PTSD and subsequently killed himself.

The Panorama programme explores how Dan was sectioned in an NHS mental care facility, and what a blow that was to his pride as a brave soldier (the Army used to have its own psychiatric facility but closed it). We are then shown Dan’s last words, recorded on his phone when he had left his wife and retreated to the hills, self-exiled from human society. We see him, desperately alone, wearing his military kit and the bandana he wore in Afghanistan. He apologises to his mum for being ‘a bit selfish’ in killing himself, and asks for a full military funeral. We’re told that, shortly afterwards, he hung himself from a tree.

Toby says:

After writing Dead Men Risen, I moved to the US, and saw the staggering statistics of PTSD and veteran suicide in the US armed forces. They had clearly identified a huge problem there, while in the UK armed forces, the attitude seemed to be ‘nothing to see here’.

So why the dramatic difference in PTSD rates among US and UK veterans? This is where it gets controversial. UK military psychiatrists like Simon Wessely, director of the King’s Centre for Military Health Research, suggests it’s because the British army is older, has more officers and fewer reservists, and shorter tours of duty – all of which implies that if the US did things differently, it would have a much lower level of PTSD among its veterans. US military psychiatrists bristle at such suggestions, and point out that US soldiers were in much heavier fighting in Iraq – only 32% of UK soldiers reported coming under small arms fire, compared with more than 90% of US soldiers.

US psychiatrists also suggest that cultural differences play a role, and that the British ‘stiff upper lip’ means that (in the words of a New Yorker blog) British veterans are ‘less likely to be told they have PTSD. They are more likely, in turn, to end up abusing alcohol or to be given the less controversial diagnosis of clinical depression, according to William Nash, a retired U.S. Navy psychiatrist and co-editor of an influential cross-cultural anthology on PTSD, ‘Combat Stress Injury: Theory, Research and Management.’

Harnden’s view, meanwhile, is that the Ministry of Defence wants to limit its financial liability for PTSD, so it is deliberately underplaying the scale of the problem. His documentary explored how the MoD don’t keep track of PTSD levels among discharged soldiers, nor of suicide statistics once soldiers have left the Army (although a report will be published on that next year). He also showed how veterans often fall between the cracks of the MoD and the NHS. We have a minister for veterans, Mark Francois, but apparently he doesn’t have responsibility for veterans’ healthcare (so what does he do?). The US has a Department for Veterans and the Pentagon spends a huge amount trialling new therapies for PTSD, both in treatment and in prevention.

Simon Wessely of KCL says the Panorama programme was one-sided

Harnden also points out that the Kings Centre for Military Health, our main source for PTSD incidence in British soldiers and veterans, is mainly funded by the MoD. The head of that Centre, Simon Wessely, retorts that the Panorama programme was one-sided in its exploration of the issue, and that its ‘shock horror’ statistic that more veterans committed suicide last year than were killed in Helmand is sensationalist rather than statistically meaningful. Simon also suggests that the reason PTSD incidence appears to be going up in UK troops could be because stigma about it is slowly being reduced – which is a good thing.

Both, ultimately, want to help British soldiers, and if PTSD is rising among our troops, that may be because of the intense fighting in Afghanistan in the last few years. So how could the MoD do more for our soldiers and veterans? The families of soldiers who committed suicide have drawn up a petition, which has seven demands:

1) Medical notes should be automatically passed onto GPs after a soldier is discharged. (This is to try to get the MoD and NHS to link up better).

2) The Army should carry out mandatory welfare checks on soldiers every six months after being discharged as per the recommendations of the ‘Fighting Fit’ mental health policy paper drawn up by Dr Andrew Murrison MP.

3) There should be residential units to treat all serving soldiers and veterans suffering with PTSD.

4) Serving soldiers should be able to access NHS services.

5) To reduce waiting lists for veterans seeking help for mental health related issues. Waiting lists are currently too long and it should not be left to charities to deal with this problem.

6) Soldiers should be able to ask for help with mental health issues without it going on their permanent Army records.

7) Soldiers’ families should be informed about the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD) and other mental health related illnesses.

You can sign the petition here.

Permission to be hurt

If there is still a ‘stiff upper lip’ in the British military, then I’d suggest that the military (and all of us) need to broaden our conception of male strength, to incorporate the Stoic idea that being strong means knowing how to take care of yourself, rather than taking out your problems on yourself and those around you. That definition of ‘Stoic’ is not the same as denying or bottling up your feelings, which is how some people misinterpret stoicism.

Personally, I was diagnosed with PTSD when I was 20, and I bottled it up for years out of a sense of shame at my weakness and foolishness (there was nothing heroic about my wound – I’d done too many drugs). Funnily enough, one of the things that helped me come to terms with my woundedness was a book about shell-shock by my great-grandfather, Lord Moran, called Anatomy of Courage.

My great-grandad, who served as a doctor in the Somme trenches

My great-grandfather was a doctor serving in the trenches during the Somme. I was particularly touched by one passage where he admitted his own fear and woundedness. He wrote of how, during the Somme, the man next to him was obliterated by a German shell: “I had a feeling as if I was physically hurt though I was not touched, the will to do the right thing was for a moment stunned…The war had never been the same since, something in the will had snapped…At the time I do not think I was much frightened, I was too stunned to think. But it took its toll later. I was to go through it many times in my sleep…Even when the war had begun to fade out of men’s minds I used to hear all at once the sound of a shell coming.”

My great-grandad went on to do great things – he was Churchill’s doctor during the War – but what touched me was that brave moment of vulnerability and candour in his writing. Even though there is a vast difference between him getting shell-shock in the trenches, and me traumatizing myself with LSD, it still seemed to give me a sort of permission to be wounded.


In other news:

Talking of the stiff upper lip, this excellent short essay by GK Chesterton argues that the stiff upper lip was invented by decadent aristocrats in the Edwardian era and that actually manly Brits are fine with sobbing like babies.

Cary Cooper, guru of well-being at work at Lancaster University, has published a massive book called Well-Being: A Complete Reference Guide. So that’s that sorted then.

Here’s an interesting initiative:

City AM, of all places, looks at the revival of the liberal trivium in education and business.

Daniel Dennett gives an interesting interview on religion, why Jesus is a good role model and why we need secular places that make us feel special and loved.

This week I’ve been pondering whether and how ecstatic / revelatory experiences can be ‘tested out’.

Danny Fox of Frieze considers pretentiousness with reference to Eno and Paris is Burning.

The Stoned Age: were cavemen on drugs? Would the Bronze Age have happened quicker if they weren’t?

Finally, the LA Review of Books reviews an interesting-sounding book by Dutch philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, arguing for a spirituality based on the idea of practice, with the goal of saving humanity from itself. Interesting – although the Nietzchean / Foucaultian idea of spirituality as care of the self, which Sloterdijk draws on, is highly individualistic and ignores the idea of religion as relational – as a relationship not just with your self but with your community and God. It also, perhaps, ignores ecstatic experience and the idea of people feeling a connection with God.

However, the title of the book, You Must Change Your Life, hints at the idea of hearing a divine voice – it comes from a brilliant poem by Rilke, where he stands in front of a headless statue of Apollo, god of prophecy (on the right), and seems to hear a voice telling him ‘you must change your life’. Is that his own projection, or the God speaking to him from the ruins of antiquity? Here’s the poem, ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ in translation:

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

See you next week,