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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.

Philosophies for Life pilot: the results

11-10-13-mwc-1-1This year I’ve developed and trialled an eight-part course in practical philosophy, called Philosophies for Life. The pilot was financed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council via Queen Mary, University of London.  I trialled the course with three partner organizations: Saracens rugby club; New College Lanarkshire and HMP Low Moss prison; and Manor Gardens mental health charity.

The results were very positive –  the coaches of Saracens said the philosophy club was ‘the most popular thing we’ve done this season'; the participants at Manor Gardens philosophy club reported feeling more socially supported, more capable of coping with adversity, and much more interested in philosophy. And the participants of the prison philosophy club said they found the club more enjoyable and useful than the prison’s CBT courses, and became more interested in philosophy as a result.

I now plan to launch commercially, working with businesses, NHS mental health services and other organizations, and also developing an online course for the retail market.

The wisdom approach

I tried to develop a model of well-being education that balances evidence-based techniques with ethical discussion, approaching questions of the meaning of life in a pluralistic way.

At the moment, well-being courses in schools, mental health services, and businesses tend to be purely scientific / psychological. They teach evidence-based techniques for well-being, usually from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This is very useful from a practical perspective. However, a purely scientific approach either leaves out any questions of values or the meaning of life, or it simply assumes one definition of the meaning of life (for example, individual subjective well-being), and then imposes it uncritically and scientistically on participants. A purely scientific approach to well-being education easily becomes ethically illiberal and culturally insensitive.

On the other hand, the ‘critical enquiry’ method used by most philosophy clubs (and by organizations like SAPERE and the Philosophy Foundation in schools) is very good at facilitating group discussions of values and meanings, engaging people and respecting their perspectives. But it is perhaps too open and undirected –  it ignores the fact that ancient wisdom and modern psychology have discovered reliable hypotheses about how the mind and our emotions work, which it’s helpful to learn from the point of view of wisdom and cultural literacy. It leaves people adrift to rediscover wisdom from scratch, and does not teach any spiritual practices people can use.

And both the scientific and the critical enquiry approach to well-being education fail to teach people about the history and cultural variety of the pursuit of the good life, and how different wisdom traditions from various cultures have come up with differing answers to the question of the meaning of life. The Religious Education curriculum in England and Wales ticks this box – but RE tends to be entirely theory and dogma, rather than teaching spiritual practices people can use in their lives.

Philosophies for Life tries to combine the best of all these approaches. It teaches people evidence-based coping skills from modern psychology, and explores their roots in ancient wisdom traditions (Stoicism, Taoism, Buddhism, Sufism, humanism etc). Rather than just teaching instrumental ‘thinking skills’ emptied of ethical content, as CBT does, it gives people space to consider and discuss the original philosophical context for these skills, and the higher ethical goals they were designed to reach, such as inner peace, happiness, justice or oneness with the Tao / Logos / God.

Each session focused on a different ancient philosopher (Socrates, Epictetus, Epicurus, Plato, Aristotle, the Buddha, Lao Tzu and others), exploring one or two key ideas of theirs that we can use in modern life, and also whether evidence from modern psychology supports or undermines this idea. The session on the Buddha, for example, explores the importance of habits and training to the good life, and how CBT supports the Buddha’s claims about human nature and how to change it.

Then the second half of each session is a group discussion, both of the practical usefulness of the techniques we discussed, and of the philosopher’s broader ethical philosophy and the moral goal they were trying to reach (happiness, Nirvana, justice etc). The group discussion enables participants to accept or reject aspects of each philosophy, and to share their own stories and wisdom strategies. And it enables the course to cover various ethical life-goals and meanings without imposing any particular meaning onto participants.

I call my method the ‘wisdom approach’ and use the ‘wisdom tree’ as a symbol, because the course explores various wisdom traditions and how they share certain ‘trunk’ ideas about human nature, while then ‘branching out’ into various different life-meanings (happiness, social justice, Nirvana etc).

Tree_CM

Psychology now has good evidence for some of these ‘trunk’ ideas about human nature (like the belief we can use our reason to know ourselves and change our habits). However, when it comes to higher life-meanings, science can’t prove them or disprove them. It can’t prove that happiness is the proper goal of life, for example. That’s why we need philosophy to help us reflect, discuss and choose our own life-philosophy.

Results

Manor Gardens philosophy club

Manor Gardens Welfare Trust is a charity that works for the well-being of people in Islington. Our club met every Tuesday evening throughout March and April, initially attracting 15 people, which dropped to 12. Three quarters of the group were women, from their 30s to 50s, and were mainly Anglo-African and Anglo-Caribbean. The participants were mainly ‘mental health champions’ who do volunteer work for the charity.

I gave the participants a well-being questionnaire before and after the course, which asked them the extent they agreed to various questions, scoring their answer on a seven-point scale (with one being ‘strongly disagree and seven being ‘strongly agree’). This allowed me to get some sense of the impact of the course, however imprecise. It found the following

‘I lead a purposeful and meaningful life’  +12%
‘My social relationships are supportive and rewarding‘    + 21%
‘I am engaged and interested in my daily activities‘      + 6%
I actively contribute to the happiness and well-being of others   0%
I have control over my life and can move towards my goals   +6%
I am optimistic about my future  + 28%
When bad things happen to me, I can take steps to deal with them  +27%

The most significant impacts seemed to be in participants’ sense of social support, in their optimism, and their belief in their ability to cope with adversity.

I also asked participants for their own comments about what they liked and disliked about the course. Their comments can be grouped under four headings. Firstly, community: comments included ‘Tuesdays have been the highlight of my week for two months’, ‘a great sense of community, sharing, friendship’, and ‘great subjects taught and discussed in a very conversational manner that encouraged everyone to get involved.’

Secondly, the participants said they enjoyed learning about practical wisdom which they could use in their life. Their comments included: ‘I will take time to think about the bigger picture’, ‘relating theory to practice is what makes this course powerful’, and ‘the tools I have learned in this course and my belief in God will enable me to make major changes in my life’.

Thirdly, participants enjoyed the pluralism of the course – they felt they could learn about differing philosophies of life, without feeling their own faith or philosophy was threatened or undermined. This was a key aim of the course – to give participants a respect for various wisdom traditions, whether they are theistic, atheistic or agnostic. Participants’ comments included ‘Variety works well. It was interesting to hear how different people use different ideologies to guide their lives and how these ideologies can work well for different problems.’

Finally, all the participants said the course made them much more interested in philosophy – most of them having never read any before the course. Comments included: ‘I found the entire course inspiring; this motivated me to include more philosophy books in my reading list.’

Participants said they would have liked more of a range of philosophers, including black philosophers and female philosophers. They also said they would have liked the course to be longer, and to have a way to stay in touch with the other participants. Finally, they would have liked more materials to take away with them.

HMP Low Moss philosophy club

I taught the course over four Fridays in March to a group of 11 inmates in HMP Low Moss prison outside Glasgow. They were all male, mainly in their 30s and 40s, mainly white Scottish, and mainly long-term prisoners. The participants were already in a philosophy club run by Nikki Cameron of New College Lanarkshire, and my course benefitted from the thinking culture Nikki has created over the last year and a half. Nikki’s philosophy club explores questions through philosophical enquiry. I tried more of a ‘wisdom approach’, teaching practical ideas for life, and exploring their connection to modern psychology, particularly CBT.

CBT courses are already widely available in Scottish prisons and in other prisons around the world. However, these courses are usually compulsory, and either leave ethics out or include them in a quite dogmatic and non-criticizable form. I was interested in whether the participants would respond better to similar ideas presented in the context of philosophy, in which participants are not treated as malfunctioning brains to be fixed (low status), but as autonomous free-thinking philosophers (high status), who were not there just to take onboard ancient wisdom, but also to share their own wisdom. My sense was this made it more likely participants would engage with the course.

Feedback from HMP Low Moss philosophy club

I gave participants a questionnaire after the course, which gathered quantitative and qualitative feedback. It found that 66% of the participants said they found the course more useful and more enjoyable than the prison CBT courses (some of the group hadn’t done the CBT courses). When asked what they liked about the course, participants emphasized knowledge, wisdom and community. They liked learning about ancient philosophers and their relevance to modern life. They liked learning ‘coping skills’ to help them with the stress of being inside (Stoic philosophy was particularly popular). And they enjoyed the community of meeting up each week with the same people to hear each other’s views.

While I was doing the course, Kristine Szfiris, a University of Cambridge criminologist who is doing a PhD on philosophy in prisons, interviewed some of the participants. Here are a couple of quotes from them. The first shows one of the coping skills participants learned from Epictetus:

Jules Evans was in doing something about philosophy and he was talking about how we can jump to conclusions, and I do that when I play chess. I just look at the board and I’ll jump to conclusions and then I make a move and it’s been the wrong move kinda thing. I think it gave me a better understanding. I think it’s just about focusing on things I can control and not focusing on things I can’t control. I find philosophy really interesting and worthwhile being taught in prison.

And the second shows the benefit of a pluralist approach which doesn’t impose any particular ethical philosophy onto participants:

With Jules coming in, his views and opinions are set one way but he talks about all the different philosophers which we can disagree with or we can agree with if some of their points are valid. It allows you to take  snippets from each one and take something away from it. It’s impossible to take it all in, not in such a short space of time but if you can take a little bit of it away and practice it for yourself, it benefits you greatly.

Participants said they’d like more materials to take away and study in their own time, as well as suggestions for further reading that is available in the prison library. It’s also interesting to think about how ideas from prison philosophy clubs can be extended out into the rest of the prison, and also beyond the prison walls once prisoners are released (via probation organizations and community groups). Sometimes the group discussions were fractious, and discussion topics could sometimes have been better picked and facilitated by me.

Saracens philosophy club

Saracens FC are one of the world’s best rugby clubs. This season, they broke the record for most points scored in the Premiership, but sadly lost the Heineken European Cup final and the Premiership final in back-to-back weekends.

I ran the Saracens philosophy club as part of Saracens’ ‘personal development programme’. Saracens is unusual among professional sports teams in having an explicitly ethical mission, of focusing not merely on external results, but also on the internal goods of the well-being and character of players and staff. Saracens also have a willingness to try the new and unusual, hence the remarkable feat of getting 12 players and staff to attend and enjoy monthly philosophy sessions.

In fact, ancient philosophy seemed to me very applicable to professional sports – if you search ‘philosophy’ or ‘Stoicism’ in Google News, most of the results will be from sports. While many people in education are wary of talking about values, coaches are more prepared to do it. However, there can be a culture clash between an internal focus on character and virtue, and an external focus on ‘winning at all costs’. One even felt this clash at Saracens, despite their unusually ethical culture.

The timing of the sessions and the participants in the sessions were all somewhat fluid, due to the team’s schedule and fixtures. The philosophy club regularly attracted 12 or so participants, including first-team players and coaching staff.

Feedback from Saracens philosophy club

Feedback was quite haphazard from Saracens, as the players were very focused on two cup-finals at the end of the season (both of which they sadly lost), and then immediately went on holiday. However, the coaches, when interviewed in the Telegraph before the Premiership final, were kind enough to speak at length about the philosophy club. Alex Sanderson, the forwards coach, said “it has been the most popular thing we’ve done this season”.

Paul Gustard, the defence coach, said: “We spoke about the art of friendship, a higher calling – that could be faith or family – and it was nice to hear people speak openly about how they have changed along the journey that we are all on and where they sat on the ‘Golden Mean’. It was pretty cool.”

Kevin Sorrell, the backs coach, said: “It was an open forum for players to bounce ideas around. It was pretty enlightening to hear about how players felt individually about certain incidents over the last 12 months. Everyone left the room with a better understanding of what made that person tick and how they react to certain situations.” And Neil de Kock, Saracens’ scrum half, said: “I took an enormous amount of value out of Philosophy Club by having open and having frank discussions with colleagues on various topics very applicable to our game.”

As an organizational method, the philosophy club improved communication within the team, and also improved communication between the players and the coaches, helping them to see each other’s perspectives.

Again, the course would benefit from having more developed teaching materials, such as a handbook which participants could take away with them. Within an organization that has a very strong team-culture, like Saracens, it’s interesting to think of finding ways not just to reinforce that culture, but also to let people challenge it – otherwise group discussions just become ‘group-think’, rather than enabling people to think and speak for themselves.

Conclusions and next steps

The pilot was more successful than I expected. I initially wondered how philosophy would go down in these various communities (particularly the rugby club), and also how I would go down, as a plummy-voiced southerner. I think I went down OK, because I was open about my own vulnerabilities and flaws and didn’t claim to have all the answers. And the wisdom of ancient philosophies turned out to be very accessible to people from varying educational backgrounds, for many of whom this was their first exposure to philosophy.

The group discussions in the second half of each session worked well – people don’t want just to listen, they want to share their own ideas and experience. However, I think these group discussions were balanced well by the wisdom teachings of the first half of the course – people don’t just want to hear each other’s opinions, they also enjoyed learning about the ideas of Aristotle, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Epictetus and others.

The course worked particularly well with a demographic that is traditionally wary of group therapy – young men. Opening up about your inner life does not come particularly naturally either to rugby players or long-term prison inmates. However, both Saracens and Low Moss philosophy clubs were places where men could talk about what really mattered to them, and share life-strategies for coping with stress and adversity, without feeling ashamed or broken.

I now plan to launch the course commercially, by selling it to companies, to individuals, and to charities. It could either be sold as a full eight-part course, or as a one-day workshop, or as a two-hour session focusing on, say, Stoic wisdom.

There are two questions I need to answer: where would the course make the most money, and where would it do the most good?

Clearly, the most profitable way forward is to sell the course to businesses, business-people and entrepreneurs. Since the courses finished, I ran a workshop at a conference of business coaches in Spain, and the very positive feedback from that strengthened my sense of the commercial potential of running workshops on practical philosophy, resilience and flourishing for organizations. I’ve also joined the faculty of a school for entrepreneurs in London, called Escape the City School.

However, it would be an ethical mistake if the course was only taught to affluent businesspeople. I also think it has great potential to help people in schools, in prisons, in mental health services, and in the general population. I can afford to work with these groups if I subsidize it by working with business-people, and if I use technology to increase my impact.

The next steps, then, are firstly, building a strategy for the commercial launch of the course. I plan to work with a mentor and business coach to develop this in the next two months. Secondly, design and create teaching materials, such as online videos, handouts and activity sheets, and a website. I also plan to do this by September. Thirdly, expand my roster of clients and improving the course as I go on.

The best way to reach the biggest number of people is via the development of an online course. It will be important to find a technological infrastructure that can support this and take payments from participants. I may need to raise capital to design an online course and will discuss this with technology partners and possible funders in the coming weeks.

To read the 13-page report on this project, click here. If you’re interested in me running Philosophies for Life at your organization, as a workshop, a one-day event or as the full eight-part course, get in touch at jules dot evans @ mac.com