Nancy Sherman, the soldiers' philosopher
Professor 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.
The 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?
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.
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?
We 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.