Facing death stoically

Tom Daley joined the US Marine Corps in 1978, when he was 17, and retired in 2008, having served 30 years on active duty, and having completed tours in Beirut, in Grenada, in Panama, in the two Iraq wars, and in Afghanistan. He has been injured and evacuated five times while fighting for his country, including during the second battle for Fallujah, in 2004, when he was hit by shrapnel in the chest.

He first encountered Stoicism when taking an introduction to philosophy course as a young military undergraduate. “I wasn’t that impressed by it”, he says. When he was 27, he took a graduate degree in the Humanities, which included a class in existentialism, and through that, Tom encountered Marcus Aurelius, and read his Meditations. He says:

Once I read Marcus Aurelius, I felt like I understood Stoicism. I liked the fact he was a soldier. I liked the fact he was writing for himself. It wasn’t an outreach programme. He was trying to work out how to conduct his own life. I think people should show how to live by example, not by forcing other people to believe what you believe.

Through Aurelius, he encountered and read the other Roman Stoics: Seneca and Epictetus. He took them with him on tour, and read them when he had a spare moment to himself, while training a troop of fighters in Central Asia in 2008. He says:

I never said to them ‘I am a Stoic’. It’s not something I bring up. It’s something I try to show by how I act, by how or who I am. I’ve had people ask me about my belief system, for example when I was in Central Asia and was grouped with people who were all Muslim. They assumed I must be a Christiansince I’m American, but I’m not. I didn’t deny it though, because they would be horrified to think I was an unbeliever. They would ask me what I was reading, and of course, they wouldn’t have had the slightest idea what a Stoic was. But I tried to show them, by example.

It wasn’t easy, being posted in the mountains for a year, “among people of far different principles to one’s own”, as Aurelius puts it.

Tom remembers:

At my age [he was 47 in 2008] physical conditioning is much more difficult than when I was a teen. Nevertheless, I was asked to perform a job and I did that job to the best of my ability. Most of the young Central Asianmen I spent my year with spent their whole lives fighting in the mountains. They knew those mountains like we know directions to our favorite restaurant. And just like any bored city boy would run an outsider through false directions and unmarked speed traps, they wanted to have their fun with me.

I was asked to lead a patrol, being told it was a singular honor for an outsider. So I led them to our objective along perhaps the most difficult path I could have possibly chosen. This was not intentional, but they didn't correct me like I calculated they would. I am pretty good with terrain analysis and finding a good position. But if you don't know the land, finding that position is much more difficult than you might think. On one trail (and I use the term quite loosely), there was a large rock formation jutting out on one side and a sharp turn to the right when you passed it. Just as I was reaching the crest, I was distracted by the members of the patrol coming up behind and I looked back to see what was happening. It was then that I should have made the sharp right turn, but instead slid down a fairly steep slope which had a small landing at the bottom followed by a cliff of nearly 30 feet. My sliding, of course, tumbled small rocks and debris over the cliff, and right down to a small enemy campsite of approximately 10 persons. They had not been aware of our presence and I was completely unaware that they were in the vicinity.

As you can imagine, adrenaline is pumping when you think you're falling to your death or at least to serious injury, but I was not injured other than scratches and a few bruises, not the least of which was my ego. My patrol ran up the incline leading to where I fell, presumably to laugh at my corpse at the bottom of the cliff, and were immediately met by enemy fire. I somehow managed to take a few poorly aimed shots before the enemy retired. From my standpoint, I was nearly killed, was sloppy in the execution of my job, and caused no harm to the enemy when I encountered them. From my patrol's standpoint, I had seen the enemy, charged down the slope to engage them, and run them off before they could cause casualties to the patrol. Funny how one person's perceptions can differ from another’s.

Probably the most challenging situation he has been in, and the one where he has most used his Stoic beliefs, was the Second Battle for Fallujah, in Iraq, November 2004, which is widely considered the most intense urban fighting involving US forces since Hue, Vietnam in 1968.

During that month, elements of the US Marine Corps and the US Army fought to re-gain control of the ‘city of mosques’, in the centre of Iraq. The city’s initially good relations with US forces had soured after soldiers from the US Airborne Division had shot dead 17 protestors in April 2003, reportedly after being fired on themselves.

In February 2004, control of the city was handed over from the Airborne to the Marine Corps. Then, in March 2004, four American private contractors for Blackwater Security were killed, and photos and video of their mutilated bodies were widely circulated. Within days, the Marine Corps launched Operation Vigilant Resolve to take control of the city back. The Operation caused heavy civilian casualties, and ended with a ceasefire.

Then, over the course of 2004, insurgents built up strong positions within the city, positioning snipers and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) around the city in preparation for another showdown with the Marines. The Pentagon believed the city had become the stronghold of around 5,000 Al Qaeda forces, led by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

In November 2004, the Marines began a new assault on the city, codenamed Operation Phantom Fury. The US Army moved in first in Bradley Fighting Vehicles, then Marines followed on foot supported by artillery and heavy weapons. They entered in the north of the city, and worked their way south house by house. Tom says:

It was pretty intense. I was responsible for quite a lot. I was a weapons specialist, and advisor to the battalion commander. It was a very dangerous environment. In such situations, it’s very obvious you are mortal. I would honestly tell myself, in some of those hairy situations, that everybody dies sometimes, and that sometimes, for the good of the whole, you have to put yourself at risk, or send others into risky situations. As Marcus Aurelius says, soldiers are assigned a place - it’s better to stay and die there than to retreat.

Of course, a lot of one’s thinking in such situations is automatic: “You act without thinking, that’s why you train so intensely, to instill automatic responses, so that you see something that needs to be done, like crossing a street, and you do it, automatically.”

He adds:

I would describe Fallujah as like driving in a car, and then the car hits a patch of ice and starts to spin out of control. So you turn the wheels into the skid. It’s instinctual.

It’s after the intense fighting is over that some people develop psychological problems, he says, “when they have time to sit around and think about it”. But he himself seems to have avoided deep psychological wounds, although he was physically wounded and had to be evacuated. He says:

I feel a strong sense of duty, it’s one of the key reasons I’m into Stoicism. People who have served, who have been in conflict, they know what it’s like. They don’t want to go into conflict, and they don’t want to have been there. They know it’s not like the movies, that there’s no glory in it. They’re just doing a job. Sometimes you’re in situations you don’t like, but you have a job to do. Most soldiers love to complain. I try not to complain about what I’m asked to do.

He retired from the Marines in 2008, and recently returned from security work in central Asia. He came back to his wife, and to his newly purchased home - six and a half acres near Dallas, in Texas. He says:

I want to come back, settle, and live a peaceful life. I’ve been unemployed since I’ve been back, though I have been doing some work with the New Stoa community, which I’d like to see expand.

But Tom’s plans didn’t work out like that. He tells me, at the end of the interview, that he had discovered the previous day that he has a brain tumour. He says:

The doctors confirmed it yesterday. I haven’t told my wife yet. I’m going to tell her after Christmas [the interview took place on December 22]. I don’t want to spoil her Christmas. She might not like me keeping it from her, but that’s just how it is. Then the doctors want to operate on me as soon as possible, so that will be first week of January.

I am somewhat stunned, and say how sorry I am to hear it. I ask him how he feels about it. He says:

Well, it’s not what you want to hear. That’s why I was thinking about the house: will my wife be provided for, if something happened to me? In fact, the mortgage is insured, so if something happens, my wife would get to keep the house.

I ask how serious the tumour is. He says:

It’s difficult to get a straight answer from the doctors. They say they want to operate first, and then see. They also want to put a radioactive pellet in my brain.

I’ve done several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. There have been several situations I’ve been in where it’s been likely I would be hit. And I have been injured, five times in my career. But I still never believed I would die in those situations, somehow.

With this situation, it’s different. For one thing, it’s not immediate, while in war death is probably immediate. I also know I’m likely to be injured. I’ve already suffered the loss of some language skills. Like, sometimes I can think of the word I want to say, but for some reason my lips can’t form it. I’ve also had some memory issues. Fortunately, I haven’t lost control of my reason.

A friend of mine passed away in 2007, it was almost exactly the same thing. He had surgery on a tumour in December, and by August he had gone. So I may have around six months left.

I ask him, tentatively, what his attitude is to the prospect of dying. He says:

A part of me thinks ‘this is your fate’, like Socrates facing his death. Another part of me thinks the doctors are here for a reason, that they could help me. Marcus Aurelius says something like, you could have a day left, or 10 years left, but everyone has to go sometime. That’s not being courageous, it’s just accepting the inevitable. Statistically, it doesn’t look good - if everyone in history has died, then it’s pretty likely it will happen to me too. I would prefer it not be tomorrow, but it’s not something I have control over.

Does he believe in an afterlife?

I think so, but there might not be. Again, Marcus Aurelius says, as I remember it, ‘if there is a God, be comforted. If we’re just atoms, then you won’t feel anything anyway’. If there is a God, I am sure he will understand the way I think, and why I think like I do.

Would he say the news has changed him, or changed how he thinks?

I guess people should think constantly about the life they lead. Am I the kind of person I’d like to be? Have I misled anyone? There are things I have no control over - the past, or the future. I get caught up in life like everyone else. I don’t always think first, but I try to review myself and my actions. I am a work in progress. Whether I get to complete that work in progress is not up to me. But I will try now in a more expedited fashion. I would like to have time to write my own version of the Meditations, with advice on how to live, for my son to read.

So, as a Stoic, should he fight his situation, or accept it?

The two aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s like going into battle. I accept that I might die, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t go down without a fight. If it’s my time, then I’ll go without crying. If it’s not my time, then I’ll have fought through it.

Tom went into surgery on January 4, two weeks after our interview. After initially making a good recovery, he underwent complications, and went into a coma. He passed away on the morning of January 26.