image from book cover -Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind
image from book cover -Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind

Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind

Feb 22, 2006

While few soldiers may have read the works of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, it is undoubtedly true that the ancient philosophy known as Stoicism guides the actions of many in the modern military.


JOEL ROSENTHAL:Thank you for taking time out of your day to come and spend some time with us and with Nancy Sherman.

When we put together the series on "American Military Power: An Ethical Inquiry," Joanne Myers and I started to plot out who we should have speak to this theme of ethical issues related to the U.S. military. On the very short list of people we needed to get here immediately was Professor Nancy Sherman, who has been plowing this ground for quite some time. So I'm delighted that we are finally able to get you here to talk about your work and to talk about your book, called Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy behind the Military Mind.

No matter what your position on the war in Iraq or on the so-called war on terror, I think almost everybody would agree that the technical capacity and capabilities of the U.S. armed forces are impressive on every level. This afternoon we want to look beyond the technology and the know-how to issues of psychology and issues of philosophy, to the guiding moral principles of the U.S. armed forces.

Our guest, Professor Nancy Sherman, will explain what she calls the ancient philosophy behind the military mind. That philosophy, as she defines it, is Stoicism. If I remember correctly my reading from college days, Stoicism starts with those famous people, the Greek Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, who taught us some very simple but profound lessons about knowing what is in your power, but also what is not—a philosophy that teaches us about both human possibility and human limitation. Professor Sherman will explain to us just how this Stoic philosophy structures our understanding of the American military today, including principles of self-discipline, self-sacrifice, and serving a cause larger than oneself.

Some have argued that there is a growing gap between the culture of military service and its ethos of service before self, and our civilian culture, which focuses on individual flourishing and material self-interest. In an age of increasing professionalization and privatization of the military, this seems an inescapable question for us today.

There is nobody better to discuss these themes than Nancy Sherman. I met Nancy when she was the first Distinguished Chair of Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. If I remember correctly, that chair was set up by Charles Larson,who was superintendent at the time, a man of deep conviction about the power of moral principle in the military profession. In its wisdom, the Navy selected Nancy to be the first Philosopher-in-Residence. I know that her book is the result of work that probably started then, if not before, and, as she and I were discussing before the session today, it will continue beyond this.

Thank you again for coming to talk about your book.


NANCY SHERMAN:My pleasure. Thank you so much.

It is an absolute delight to be here. This is a room I have been in many times as a member of the Board of Trustees. The Carnegie Council is an organization very dear to my heart. I am absolutely thrilled to be in such good company as I am with other members of your distinguished series.

This book did come to be after I was the Distinguished Chair in Ethics, which was about the late 1990s. What Joel didn't mention is that I was called in after the notorious electrical engineering cheating scandal. Many of the academies, including West Point, came to have ethics positions after that debacle. It was the origin of my position.

What was interesting then was that there was a sense that ethics should be bred in the bone, that you learned it at home, you learned it in religious settings, synagogues, churches, and the like—and we know that is certainly an issue right now in Colorado Springs [at the U.S. Air Force Academy]—that you don't have to learn it formally. The attitude was that there are leadership courses, there is pop psychology of sorts, to motivate you; but ethics is not really something that needs to be taught, because you should know it already, especially if you are going to take on the commitments and honor and integrity of wearing the uniform as an officer in upholding the Constitution.

I argued that the best universities, almost all of them, standardly taught ethics because we just couldn't work out to our satisfaction all the moral ambiguities and gray areas that regularly face us?including some of the issues of misguided loyalty that led some of the midshipmen to cheat and then deny their involvement—and that it was not dangerous to start thinking about these topics, but in fact it was better to think about them in the atmosphere of the academy and then know how to apply some of these issues on short notice on the battlefield.

The one area that it felt totally natural to teach and that most of my midshipmen, and officers, appreciated was Stoicism. It was their philosophy. Anyone who has been around a military academy or boot camp knows that "suck it up" is the mantra. It is certainly the mantra at the Naval Academy; it's the mantra at West Point, and at boot camp in general. "Be stoic" was their vernacular; "stiff upper lip," if you are British. That there had been an actual ancient version of this, and not just one that we have inherited in the vernacular, was fascinating to them.

Moreover, one of their own had been a stoic of sorts. I am speaking about Admiral Jim Stockdale, who passed away just this summer and perhaps is known for a less shining moment, when he was the vice presidential candidate with Ross Perot. He was a senior prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton. He had been a philosophy student at Stanford, after Annapolis [U.S. Naval Academy]. He had wandered into philosophy after international relations and found philosophy more to his liking. He was handed a little book of Epictetus. The period we are speaking about is the third century BCE to the second century CE. This is the period that followed Plato and Aristotle. It is really the Hellenistic period of large Roman Empire expansion. It was one of the Roman philosophies, of sorts.

By hook or by crook, Stockdale memorized this little thin book called Enchiridion, or "Handbook." On his fateful day, his shoot-down day, in September of 1965, he said, "This is 007"—he called himself "James Bond Stockdale"—"leaving behind the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus."

I interviewed him several times, once in October 2001. His voice, in an uncanny way, is that of Epictetus. I know the text fairly well, but I couldn't tell when it was him and when it was Epictetus, so seamless was the identification with this character.

That attitude kind of infiltrated, if you like, into the Naval Academy, and to some degree also West Point and the Air Force Academy. There is something of an attachment to the ancient Stoics.

So who are these folks? What are the blessings and curses of being a Stoic of any stripe?

We are talking, as I say, of the third century before the Common Era to the second century afterwards. The real founder of the school is Zeno. If you were a Greek philosopher, Zeno was a good name to have. There were many of them, but the pertinent one here was Zeno of Citium. Then there were other folks—not really household-names—like Cleanthes and Chrysippus.

And then there were also the Romans, often writing in Greek though, such as Epictetus, made fairly popular, I think, by Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full; and there is Marcus Aurelius. Bill Clinton was said to have read Marcus Aurelius twice a year.

I had a funny experience at West Point. I was in a taxi with a colonel and was asked, "What do you do?" I said, "I teach philosophy." He said, "I don't have much time for philosophy, but I do read Marcus Aurelius about four times a year." Aurelius is in a cute little pocket-size book these days, so he is being rediscovered after being neglected by the American groves of academe.

In addition, a fascinating person that I am researching right now is Judeaus Philo of Alexandria, a Hellenized Jew who interpreted the Bible, the Old Testament, which was written in Greek—he only read Greek—in a totally Stoic way. Absolutely amazing. He is an important source for us in that regard.

There is also Seneca. In the book, Stoic Warriors, he is my favorite. Seneca wrote copiously. He was the spin doctor, we might say—speech writer, publicist, adviser, moral philosopher—for Nero. He wrote on clemency; Nero needed that. He also wrote on how to curb your anger, because all the Roman lords and senators and military folks were used to abusive rage. He was arguing against their outbursts.

Cicero I mustn't neglect. He is not a Stoic, but Cicero was an enormously important Roman orator and philosopher, who really brought Greek philosophy into the Latin world. He was a translator of many Greek works into Latin. He wasn't a Stoic, but wanted to transmit it, so he wrote a lot of texts, and I will return to one in particular in a moment.

So that's the cast of characters.

I will give you four basic tenets quickly and then show you what the appeal is—and, I think, the hazard—for the military. I think I'm working in fours tonight. I think three is the gnomic best, and Kant and Hegel tell us three, but I'm going to do fours.

  • The first one is a sense, a Stoic sense, that what really matters in this world is your rational choice capacities, your reason, and the excellent version of it called wisdom or virtue. Kant, the 18th century philosopher, inherited that tradition of thinking. Reason is what you can control, and so your virtue should be just that.

  • Second, your reason being in a good state is equated with your happiness, well-being, flourishing, and self-sufficiency.
  • Third, everything else that we thought was valuable is really external, like the well-being of your children, your body—a tough body, a resilient body—your buddies staying alive in war, your army coming home with as many folks as it went to war with, or at least with minimal damages. Those were values that any Greek warrior would say really mattered, along with honor. Military academies are places, in a very interesting way, where honor is on your lapel. I learned to read from across a room what stripes meant. Anyone who is in uniform has an eagle eye for picking up what rank just walked in the door, across a very crowded room. Honor mattered too for the world of Homer, the world of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and to some degree for Aristotle, before the Stoics.

    Remember, Agamemnon had his honor stripped from him. He lost his war bride. He was demoted in status. He stole Achilles' war bride to make it all better, and Achilles said, "I'll sit out this war if you're going to snatch my honor from me."

    The Stoics say honor can't be that "snatchable," that transient; it has to be inner. They say that conventional goods, like honor, reputation, and bodily health, are all really external. They even went so far as to call them "indifferents." They are indifferent to your happiness; they don't make or break your happiness. Hence, the sage on the rack, the sage tortured, totally tortured, if he or she has not lost virtue and integrity, still has a shot at happiness. This is a very radical and counterintuitive claim.
  • Fourth, all these other goods then get recalibrated—conventional goods and evils, your health, some prosperity, freedom, and non-tyranny. If you are going to recalibrate all these, then you have to do something with emotions, because most of us are attached to these things. They are what we are standardly attached to. Stoics say that emotions, typically, are false, that they are false appraisals; get rid of them, because they are going to mislead you. So you have this very aesthetic kind of philosophy.

This is welcome news, in some sense, to a military person. It resonated with everyone I taught it to.

Let's start with the midshipman. The midshipman is in an environment where he can't control a lot of things. He doesn't quite square the corners of his bed or his shoes aren't quite up to snuff in the shine; or he has to salute but doesn't respect in any way the person in the uniform that he is saluting, he salutes the rank but not the person. He has to suck it up and say, "There are some things in my control, other things not in my control. I must constrict my agency to where I can make a difference." It is a very natural kind of survival skill.

Similarly, there is a sense in which, if you know you have to endure not just training but also the deprivations and gore and horrors of war, then there are things you must let go. Someone like Epictetus would say—and this is what a Stockdale would really quote—"Some things are up to us and some are not. Our beliefs are up to us, our desires, our aversions, our attitudes. In short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, and neither are our possessions, reputations or public offices." So, remember, if it's something that is not up to you, say to yourself, "It's nothing to me. It's an indifferent, and it doesn't matter." I have heard many, many soldiers, sailors, and marines rehearse some version of that.

One of my friends, Ward Carroll, has written an interesting series of novels called Punk's War. He said that just before the first Persian Gulf War, he was out in the Mideast on a carrier, had a wedding date set, knew he was not going to get back for his wedding date, and at some point just said, "It's not in my power to worry about this. I have to let this go. But that I signed on to do a good job is within the sphere of things that I can control, that I can handle."

So a sense of resilience, a definition of resilience, is part of the appeal, as is a definition of agency, autonomy. It's no surprise that Emerson took a page right out of the Stoics in his essay "Self-Reliance." The Stoics were a direct source there.

I am also reminded of something Epictetus says: "Imagine that you are an old athlete and you are pitted against the young." I was watching the Olympic ice skating last night and I was thinking of these very young athletes. Imagine someone who is not quite as young as Sasha Cohen comes out and has to compete against that amazing mettle and steel. You may fail. But Epictetus also says, "Guess what? You don't have to wait for the next Olympics. You don't have to wait four years. Every day is a day for mastery, and you pick up and move on."

So Stoicism is this test of mastery, a test against your own personal best, you might say, which is very, very appealing to the military mind. I wouldn't say it's a doctrine of resignation, but it's a doctrine of "push the boundaries of your agency as far as you can go and then know that you have done your best." That is the blessing it confers.

Any solider wants to think of himself as invulnerable, or as the least vulnerable kind of person, in battle. It is a kind of silver bullet for resilience. But the danger is that you might think you are bulletproof. I really think this is a danger.

I spent yesterday at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center], where I am beginning to interview people for a new project. There is this enormous danger that soldiers go into war thinking they really are, in a certain way, invulnerable. The kind of damage that war does is not something people really think about in advance. A stoic mentality of "gird your loins" doesn't quite prepare you for what happens.

At the beginning of the current war, Walter Reed Institute of Studies, the Medical Center's research arm, was suggesting that three months after the first deployment wave was set to come home surveys would show that about 17 percent had some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I don't think we should call it a "disorder." We don't say that people who come home as amputees have "missing arm disorder" or "amputee disorder." PTSD covers a huge range of symptoms. It carries a lot of baggage since Vietnam. But things like recurrent nightmares, hyperarousal, a kind of vigilance, as well as difficulty sleeping, some depression, and self-medication were all turning up in the veterans. Last summer the Surgeon General said that we were up to about the 30 percent range for these symptoms.

For a military that is very, very averse to seeking psychological help, because there is still stigma attached, there are now alternative therapies available, such as Yoga Nidra, massage therapies, as well as standard psychotherapies, cognitive behavioral therapy, and the like. But the higher up the rank you go, the less likely it is that someone will want to see a psychiatrist or a psychologist or a therapist. They much prefer to see a chaplain, especially if it will stay confidential, and there are certain rubrics under which it can.

With that sort of as a backdrop, I want to think a little bit about how Stoicism prepares you for war and brings you home. Let's think of just four easy areas: one, the body; a second to do with grief, permission to grieve; a third to do with attachment to others, cohesion, solidarity; and a fourth pertaining to anger, since a lot of fighting expresses rage.

The body:Here I think there is a real paradox. I think, both in the mind of the military soldier and in the mind of the public, the civilian, there is this paradox where we idealize the military body as a remarkable weapon, a tool of sorts. I jokingly say in the book that my husband never signed up for the military—in fact, he was part of the Vietnam era—but he did sign up for the Sergeant's Program at our local YMCA and went to boot camp for several months to get tight and taut; to have the body without some of the consequences and costs.

I run. I haven't run in the Marine Corps Marathon, but I have certainly run in many mini-marathons where there are Marine sergeants out there moving me along. So there's a sense of wanting to have that kind of taut, tight body. Think of a warrior image. Michelangelo's David is a pretty amazing warrior body.

That doesn't tell you anything about returning from war and how to cope with it. Right now we are seeing casualties at a ratio of casualties to death of 10:1. As much discussion as there has been about helmets and armor not being good enough, they still seem to keep a lot of the chest intact, but not the extremities or eyes or ears. So we are getting enormous facial disfigurement, as well as extremity loss.

The signature injury for this war and the leading injury at Walter Reed is traumatic brain injury. It's a concussive disorder caused by improvised explosive devices, roadside bombs, which literally shake the brain in the cranium and can lead to all sorts of very, very severe cognitive dissonance and cognitive deficits; aphasia, as well as people literally losing eyes, hearing, and memory.

That is an enormous challenge to cope with for an individual soldier, for a family. Having an image of oneself as a lover of extremes—many go into the military because they adore the challenge of extreme, hard physical output—and then to be not able to do those things again, or not even able to walk, is a real challenge.

Freud has a notion that I think is very useful, called "the bodily ego." It is a very common-sense notion: Your identity sits often on the frontier of your physical image. There is this controversial case of the plastic surgeon in France who reconfigured a face. We finally saw that face two or three weeks ago. That woman wanted to have a face again because she couldn't live without one. I think this is really a critical position.

An orthodox Stoic like Epictetus will give you a consolation, something to think about: namely, that your body is not really you. This is Epictetus:

Is your body, then, enslaved or free? Do you not know that it's a slave to fever, gout, dysentery, eye disease, to a tyrant, to feel, to fire, to steal, to everything that is stronger than itself? How, then, can you call it your own? You ought to treat it like a poor beast of burden, because it, in addition, needs all those things that beasts of burden need: food, drink.

So it's a donkey, he says. It's an ass that carries on it all these bridle packs that are yet further encumbrances. Let it go.

So it is an aesthetic image, not unlike Plato's image in the Phaedo, by the way: The body is the prison-house of the soul. But there is the sense that when soldiers come home they are supposed to be able to adjust quite soon to a radically altered body that can no longer can function as it once did. A Stoic mentality, if you buy it hook, line, and sinker, could get you into thinking that you really ought to not have much difficulty, because if you are strong enough in will, then you can endure it.

I will just say, as an aside, that as important as the body is, I think that in the case of torture the real issue is not that the body is inflicted with enormous, crucial, horrific kinds of tormenting. I am beginning to think about this; I was at Guantanamo in the fall. I have been rereading Inquisition materials, as well as having just reread, for the second or third time, Jacobo Timmerman's important book about Argentina in the mid-1970s. He was a publisher/editor who was put in jail for his views.

But torture is not about the body. The Bybee Memo, if we all remember, said "prolonged and severe pain," like organ failure. But torture is about the fact that your will may become complicit with the torturer, that you may lose your will, that you may collude. The shame is of the collusion, I think.

So the Stoics got something right. Stockdale said this too. He said, "Torture, for me, wasn't the broken leg." He was in solitary for two-and-a-half years, in shackles. It was losing his will as a prisoner that was most torturous. He could have lost it by betraying his colleagues; he was the head of the chain of command. He could have lost it by wanting something that would compromise him, that would lead him to become a propaganda puppet or something like that.

So I think the Stoics are onto something. Maybe the body isn't the be-all and end-all. I can think of what we know about dissociative methods, hypnotic methods—you can read about lots of people who go in for self-infliction of torture in order to find forms of sacred pain. But it is about giving your will over to the torturer, so that you begin to have the same project as they have and shame yourself. If the Stoics can hold you hostage to your own will, so you do not give it away, then they have something going. I think that is the real test case.

Grief: The Stoics are sort of ambivalent about grief, as is the military. Jonathan Shay's wonderful works, Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America, made it very clear to us that we need to do a better job of allowing our troops to grieve.

My father was in World War II, was one of 5,000 or 6,000 that came back on the Queen_Elizabeth 1. He was a medic. They had long, slow journeys back home, where they could really decompress in certain ways.

I was just talking to someone yesterday. Troops nowadays, especially the Reserves and the Guards, are coming home to Fort Belvoir in singles and pairs, with no time to grieve and to really reconnect.

I think we have learned something, but we still need to learn more. If you remember, in 2003 there was a very prominent picture in the New York Times of Chinookhelicopters. The Chinooks had been downed. It was the first big loss we had. There was a brigade-wide, regiment-wide funeral at Al Khadra, I think it was. Various forms of grieving were allowed—the typical rifle in the boots with the dog tags—but also people were crying. I think this is really critical.

One of the heroes of my interviews, who I interviewed a lot in Stoic Warriors, was a man of some notoriety in Britain, a fabulous guy named Rick Jolly, who was a senior medical officer during the Falklands War. He took it upon himself, with Prince Charles, to get 200 or 300 folks back from the Falklands. So many British were lost at sea, there were never proper funerals. He gathered them back. He told me how important it was to grieve.

There was a lot going on while they were there. I was following it. One of the diary entries read like this: "On the day we all went to San Carlos"—after the ceremony was over, they retraced their steps and tried to retrace the battlegrounds where people would have been lost—"I stood outside the gates to the memorial just watching the huge range of emotions shown by my fellow pilgrims. I saw an ex-matelot (the French word for sailor that the British still use)struggling with his emotions. I was making my way to him to offer some comfort and support, but an ex-guardsman got there first." This is how it went:

Guardsman: You look like you need a hug.
Matelot: But I don't know you.
Guardsman: I won't tell if you won't.

The men embraced each other, offering kind and supportive words for a couple of minutes. Then they shook hands and went their own way. A very subtle but important moment of grief.

Cicero is fabulous on this. He lost his daughter Tullia in childbirth, not in military action. This must have been a very common occurrence in the Roman world. He is out of commission for nine months. He really cannot cope. He goes into the Tusculans, the forest, tries all sorts of self-help books of the time, reads Stoics who say, "Tell yourself that everyone goes through this. I always knew when I gave birth to my daughter that she's a mere mortal. Rehearse, pre-rehearse the evil. Mediate the evil, so that you can get used to it."

Then he finally says the following: "It's not within our power to forget or gloss over circumstances which we believe to be evil at the very moment they are piercing us. They tear at us, buff at us, goad us, scorch us, stifle us, and you Stoics tell us to forget about them?" He presents a very important testimony from someone who really tried the method, who thought the Stoics were going too far.

Seneca himself says to maybe let a little tear drop; that you can't help. But for decorum's sake, please, try to control the outside even if the inside is crying. He says, "I know I'm the patient, as well as the doctor." They called themselves "doctors of the soul."

So we need to remove the stigma, I think, about grieving. Someone I know who is a public affairs officer at Fort Rutger keeps emailing me, saying that he, as a colonel, was never taught about death in the military and doesn't quite know how to face it. He is asking me to look into suicide. He thinks there are totally unreported suicides in the current war, and they're getting signaled "contag" [phonetic], a term that even he, as a public affairs officer, believes is a cover-up for more suicides than we know. So there is a lot of grief conflict that is not being, I think, dealt with.

Camaraderie:"Be an Army of One," that could be a Stoic logo, if you like. But a great failure, most of my friends in the Army say, for Madison Avenue advertising. It's not an "Army of One" by any means, but there is still that notion that you should be able to go it alone.

We all know that most folks that are out there are not fighting, at the deepest level, for a cause. There is too much cognitive dissonance, as I was told yesterday, for them to really know if the cause is right or not, although, conscientiously, they should probably think about it more than they allow themselves to. But they are fighting for each other, they are fighting for the guy next to them, with the hope that the guy next to them or the woman next to them will be there for them.

This raises really important issues, which I hope the Carnegie Council is going to take up soon, of contracts and warrior contractors, and can you trust the guy who's doing it for money and not at the same salary level or in the same chain of command or with the same oversight or disciplined procedures that you are subject to—

But that aside, I want to just remind you of some of the most moving statements on this topic. Siegfried Sassoon is a fabulous example; not our best poet of World War I, but an important one, I think. Wilfred Owen may have been better. They are both captured in The Regeneration Trilogyby Pat Barker, a fabulous trilogy.

Sassoon wrote a lot about the war. He had met Bertrand Russell and became a pacifist; was very influenced by him. Robert Gravestold him, "You're going to be court-martialed and executed. You'd better sign into Craiglockhart"—that was the psychiatric hospital outside Edinburgh—"so worse doesn't happen to you." While there and in hospitals in London, though committed against the war, he still went back three times for the troops. He was a respected and revered captain.

One of his poems, from when he was in hospital, contains the following:

I'm banished from the patient men who fight
They smote my heart to pity, built my pride.
They trudged away from life's broad wheels of light.
Their wrongs were mine.

In another one called "Sick Leave," he hears his troops whispering to him, "When are you going out to them again? Are they not still your brothers through our blood?" I think a very moving testimony to the motivation of camaraderie.

Finally, anger. The Stoics are best at minimizing the role of anger in your life as a normative thing: you shouldn't have it; you should extirpate it, get rid of it; it causes the worst sorts of unlicensed abuse of behavior. Some might say Abu Ghraib was an example of sadistic rage, boredom, bad training, institutional pressures from the top, and a host of other things, such as failure to know if the Geneva Accords were in place or not.

That aside, the Stoics really think that you can minimize the abuse and inhumanity of human against human if you get rid of anger. They have funny stories: give it up for a day, give it up for two days, three days, four days. Then it's like alcohol; you'll get used to getting rid of it.

I don't think anger should be the combat battle motivator. I think going into war with revenge is a method for dehumanization. But there is a kind of anger that is important, and I will close on this note.

Two people I interviewed at length for my book died this past summer. One was Jim Stockdale, and the second was a person maybe some of you know. His name was Hugh Thompson. He was the hero of My Lai, in some sense, if there could be a hero of My Lai. He was the helicopter pilot who saw unarmed men and women being shot, stopped his helicopter, told his side gunner, Larry Colburn, "I'm going to free the civilians that are in the hooch. If the GIs try to shoot at me, shoot back"—a very, very, very controversial order. In fact, we brought him to the Naval Academy thirty years after My Lai, and there were vets in the audience who still thought he was a traitor for that remark.

He saw bodies in an irrigation ditch that looked like it was a funeral pyre, and yet some of the bodies were moving. In tears, in my office, thirty years later, he was still reconstructing what he saw, rationalizing. Was it a burial ditch or was it not? Then he realized: if they're moving, it can't be; it must be the site of a massacre.

Shortly before I met him, he had gone back to Vietnam, as a number of vets have, and he saw this woman who he remembered as a young girl. She pulled at his sleeve and said, "Mr. Thompson, Mr. Thompson! Why didn't you bring back the other GIs?" The translator was trying to catch up, and Thompson was listening very carefully. The sentence ended in a way that he didn't expect. As he said it, tears rolled out of his eyes. It was, "So I could forgive them." He said to me, in thinking about that, "She's a better person than I."

For me, it raises all the issues of what the conditions for forgiveness are; when we forgive, when not forgiving is reasonable but perhaps supererogatory; you would want it to happen, but it's obligatory.

I end on that note, with a plea from Seneca, who really is the man of humanity among all the Stoics. He is a moderate. Someone said that my version of Stoicism—it was a very good review—maybe should be called "Peripatetic Warriors," which was Aristotle's term. But no one would buy it if it was "Peripatetic Warriors."

Seneca ends on anger, saying, "Let us cultivate humanity." I really believe very, very firmly that, as a nation that will probably be involved in military engagements for some time to come, we need to be able to train our troops, when they go to war, when they are in war, and when they come home, in a manner such that they will not lose their humanity as a result of the experience of war. That is, I think, what we all should be committed to.

Thank you.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: You mentioned only once the Reserves and the Guard. Could you comment on the stoicism of professional military and reserves and of the Guard?

NANCY SHERMAN: A very, very important question. I am looking forward to a future book, as I was telling Joel, just about this.

We are depending enormously on the Reserves and the Guard. I mentioned that they are coming home to one base I know of, Fort Belvoir, not as units but in singles and pairs, which takes an enormous toll on them. They are often going into the field without the same kind of training that the full-time troops, and certainly the academy-trained troops, have received.

It's something we have to do better. Not only do we have to do better in the training, we have to do better in the return to civilian life. And we have to do better in the pay—pay for them, pay for their families—and reintegration back into their jobs.

I had a child in school who had a beloved teacher. That teacher was out, was in the Reserves, came back, and had a very difficult transition.

When I was giving a talk recently to a military audience, one of the guys said, "Professor Sherman, can you please talk about the "switching", meaning the transition and the in-and-out of war. I think the burden is enormous on the Reserves, both in terms of training and reintegration. We are not doing a very good job at all, and we're relying very, very heavily on them.

QUESTION:I'm a Canadian. I have spent my whole life at the United Nations. It's a curious paradox that what you have been telling us about is an individual discipline, but it's a discipline within a group. It involves the abandonment of basic moral choice. The assumption is that the group to which you belong is doing good. How do you apply this to the political decisions? You take yourself out of the basic moral decisions. What about the Germans, the Nazis? Those boys were very disciplined, but look what they did.

NANCY SHERMAN: A very, very important question. I hope it's a question you will ask Michael Walzerwhen he is here, because there is a raging debate right now—and I certainly am part of this discussion—as to just what moral responsibility and accountability the individual soldier has for fighting for a cause that he or she believes is just and for stopping fighting or selectively conscientiously objecting when they believe the cause is not just.

Someone like Jeff McMahan—he had the lead article in the Carnegie Council's fine journal, Ethics & International Affairs, the last issue or the issue before—has argued that a soldier, a combatant, is not just if he is fighting for an unjust cause and believes it's an unjust cause. So it is not enough that he fights with just conduct, discriminates, and does not use excessive means in bringing about an end. So proportionality and discrimination, parts of just conduct, aren't enough.

Against Michael Walzer, Jeff McMahan would argue that the battlefield isn't a place of symmetry. Those that are fighting for unjust causes are unjust combatants, and they have moral responsibility and should do something about it.

The issue is the practicality of that. That is where the argument falls down, I think. Someone like Jeff McMahan would argue that they do have individual responsibility, but could they be exculpated because it's impossible to bring everyone before a court-martial. It is a notion of mitigated responsibility.

But I think you are absolutely right. I would say two things. As someone who has taught many, many midshipmen, an officer's ultimate obligation is not to the commander-in-chief; it's to the Constitution. If you believe that some order that you are being given, or even the cause for which you are fighting, is not in keeping with the Constitution, then you have an obligation to object. It's at great cost: potential court-martial. It's an enormous sacrifice.

But I do think we would be more selective in our wars if we thought longer and harder about what the causes were, and not just about what the conduct is once you are in uniform and fighting.

QUESTION: Edward Luttwak was herea couple of years ago. He said one of the things that is true is that war is fun. Of course, a lot of people here took offense at that. But he said that's why people have done it over the centuries. Sure, there are people who object to it, but essentially there has always been a recruitment of young men into the military.

The other side of things is, talking about the Stoic aspect, you have to be a Stoic of sorts to go into war, especially when you are heading into battle knowing that the guy next to you, or maybe even yourself, is not going to come back, or that he is going to have his head shot off or an arm or something. You have to believe that you are coming back somehow, so you can keep going.

The ethics of a situation like you are talking about, of somebody possibly objecting and then not fighting the war, doesn't always hold. It's fine for a democracy like ours or England's. But if you remember what the Russians did in World War II—those who objected were sent to the front without guns and were not permitted to come back, because the KGB was there with machine guns and would mow them down if they tried to leave—then the argument breaks down. You have a lot of that same kind of thing in Iran.

So I think there are situations here where you are dealing very theoretically with stuff that doesn't always apply to the practical aspects.

The military, essentially, is a sanctioned killing machine. That's what they are. That's what they are for. So when you are in that, you are doing the work of the government. You can object at some point, but the citizen's duty is to oblige. If you are fighting for an unjust cause, like the Nazis, you have a different problem. Somebody is going to beat you, hopefully. But in this country as well, once you are impressed into it, you have to carry it out. It's not up to you, as a soldier, to have an individual determination that this is not a just fight. If you do, you're going to pay the price, because you can't have that kind of military floating around and expect to win.

I have one question for you, after all of this. Are there certain aspects of the Stoic nature that might be adapted to civilian life, particularly in an age like ours where you have extreme self-indulgence?

NANCY SHERMAN:A very important point. Though I have been focusing on the soldier class, the lessons are very broad. In fact, many who have read the book are dealing not only with issues of self-indulgence and the new generation and the like, but also with issues of the enormous vicissitudes of life through natural disaster—the book came out just after the tsunami had hit and just around the time of Katrina. This philosophy pertains to more than just the violence that we intentionally inflict on others.

The point that I want to stress is that Stoicism is an incredible tool for going into war and an incredible armament, armature of sorts, for making yourself resilient. Just as constant rushes of adrenaline or norepinephrine for emergency situations don't do you well if they are flooding you all the time, so too Stoicism doesn't do you well after the battle, coming home to a family. We know that the single most important thing in being able to reintegrate is to be able to attach to someone. It doesn't mean it has to be the spouse or a therapist, but being able to attach. That requires a certain kind of nondissociative capacity.

If Stoicism is a kind of compartmentalizing capacity that is subvened by a lot of neurological mechanisms that help us in emergencies, then we need to also know ways of letting go, where we can engage the full human palette of emotions that are really important for other aspects of living. That's really the point.

QUESTION:My first question is: What is the relationship, if it exists, between the [inaudible] philosophy and the Stoic philosophy? If this relationship exists, and taking into account your statement about anger and revenge, what is the conceptual difference between anger, revenge, and the surprise attack?

NANCY SHERMAN:Let me just see if I understood you correctly. What is the difference between anger, revenge, and the surprise attack?

QUESTIONER:The surprise attack, yes.

NANCY SHERMAN:So do you mean, is anger or revenge a reasonable response to surprise attacks?

QUESTIONER:Yes, or if a surprise attack could be considered as revenge.

NANCY SHERMAN: Oh, I see. Understanding anger and revenge, even for someone like myself, who has spent a lot of years thinking about emotions, is tough. I'm not sure I fully understand. Anger is a very, very complicated emotion. We have all these books, including one, I think, by Robert Thurmanthe Buddhist, a little book on anger. It's a very, very complicated emotion.

Revenge is usually thought of as the ugly cousin of anger: "The Sopranos," vigilantism, extralegal. You are acting in a way that goes beyond what is proportionate or what is legal; you are taking the law into your own hands. Retribution or a proportionate kind of anger and punishment might be okay, but not revenge. It suggests something beyond.

That said, can we say that something like revenge or anger is a reasonable way to go into war, especially if there is a surprise attack? I suspect many people rev themselves up for war, and I have talked to many colonels who get their troops going by a touch of revenge. If you listen to the music that folks have in their headsets before they go to war and the kind of pep rallies, et cetera, there is a touch of revenge.

Normatively speaking, do I think it's a good idea? No. The Stoics said it's a runaway emotion. It typically oversteps reason. I think they are right about that. It is one of our emotions that is very hard to rein in.

QUESTION:There is a relatively new phenomenon in the Iraq war, and that is the extensive for-hire support for the servicemen. It's clear that a lot of it is an economic motive. They're paid higher in those jobs, driving a truck in Iraq, than they would be in their own neighborhoods. On the other hand, these people are in the eye of the storm. I wonder if you have thought at all about these people, who are not strictly in the military, but in many cases carry out military behavior?

NANCY SHERMAN:I have thought a lot about it actually. This summer I was in South Africa, where there has been a history of contract warriors, corporate warriors. I was giving a paper on it at a conference. It's something I am working on now.

I don't know if you have had P. W. Singer here talking about it. It is an incredibly important problem. Martha Minowof Harvard Law School talked to my war class, a a seminar at the Law School at Georgetown last year, suggesting that 50 percent of our Department of Defense is outsourced, covering everyting from logistics, armaments, pencils, food, and MREs, to contractors, or "mercenaries" to use the old-fashioned word.

I am very concerned, in about four different ways. Firstly, oversight. They are not in the same chain of command.

Second, differentials in salary. There was a huge issue last summer about Zapata, a corporation in North Carolina that does mines. There was some shooting and it was unclear where it came from. A Marine checkpoint put these contractors in jail for three days, humiliated them, abused them, taunted them, saying, "You're making 200K a year, and I'm making only 40K or 50K." There are legal suits going on right now regarding this incident.

One of my friends, who is the top American Marine to have died in Iraq, Ted Westhusing, an instructor of philosophy at West Point, committed suicide, apparently—I think the information is not fully sorted out—because he started to uncover what we would call war atrocities, war crimes, involving contractors acting against Iraqi civilians.

When I was at Gitmo, the head interrogator was a contractor.

So we use contractors in all sorts of ways. They are not subject to the UCMJ, the Uniform Code of Military Justice,and issues of oversight and chain of command are only the tip of the iceberg.

Two more points on this: They are going to come home; they are not eligible for Veterans Affairs benefits, for Walter Reed, for Bethesda Naval. So integration and psychiatric and psychological testing are not there. And they stand ready to be an independent militia, looking for a cause. I think it is a very, very, very, very big problem.

QUESTION:You passed very quickly from talking about anger to talking about [inaudible]. Can you extrapolate a little bit more, especially about military people. I think it's going to be [inaudible], for instance [inaudible] of Vietnam, but military people moving from anger to forgiveness.

NANCY SHERMAN:Absolutely. Anger, the Stoics think, is a demon. It demonizes you and it demonizes other people. To live with it is like being an alcoholic. It possesses you.

It has traditionally been a combat motivator. In the book I talk about the film Full Metal Jacketand that classic scene of a sergeant bullying his boot-campers in order to get them into action. That is the ugly side of it. The non-ugly side of anger is what we all call something else: righteous indignation, moral outrage. The absence of it, many would say, is an absolute deficit in the moral personality. If Stoicism says don't have anger, then you have a very, very defective Stoic sage there, because we need to show moral anger about a lot of things.

Now, forgiveness is sometimes a personal thing. It's psychological. There is a time to move on, independent of whether the other person repents and, if he's a wrongdoer, brings himself back into the moral community. In some cases forgiveness, some would say, is absolutely impossible, and the person is never subject to forgiveness. Pol Pot, some might say, and Hitler,would never, ever be subject to forgiveness.

A third kind of position might be: I need to move on. It's a psychological growth moment for myself. It also has to be conditional upon two things. I have to view it as time to move on, and the person who is my wrongdoer, who has victimized me, has to have given an apology, has to have done something to make himself welcome again in the moral community, a moral equal, in my eyes.

That's a personal trajectory. There is a very, very moving article by Laura Blumenfeld about a terrorist shooting incident in Jerusalem that I sometimes assign to my students. It is called "The Apology" and it appeared in The New Yorker many years ago. It's a very moving story. I think it became a book. Then, of course, there is Simon Wiesenthal's very important book, The Sunflower. Jacobo Timmerman, whom I was just reading, says, "I never will forgive or forget." It was too horrific to ever forgive.

Then there is collective forgiveness. We know right now that in Rwanda, in an attempt to have amnesty and reconciliation, after some of the trials, the victimizers committed suicide. Even after there is an attempt to neutralize the evil, they can't return to their communities, nor free themselves of their own shame.

So it's extremely complicated. As a moral philosopher, I think it's where the money is. It's fascinating. It absolutely grips me. The whole notion of shame grips me. I think torture is about shame. That is why it is so humiliating, because you adopt the torturer's stance toward yourself. You buy in where you shouldn't. You become this big [gesturing]—an ant. That's the test case for a Stoic, I think: Can you hold onto your will when someone is exploiting your will in the absolute worst possible way?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you for elevating the discourse, Nancy. You have given us a lot more to think about.

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