Nancy Sherman: Nancy Sherman, author.
Question: What did your research for “The Untold War” consist of?
Nancy Sherman: Well, I’m a philosopher, so I was thinking of soldiers in terms of the meaning, the philosophical meaning of their stories; the emotions and the deep emotions. And I interviewed a lot of soldiers, probably about 30 to 40 soldiers of the current wars including some from Bosnia and Vietnam, and my dad, who is a World War II veteran and I really wanted to go beyond just stories about trauma, of which many soldiers don’t suffer, though of course we know of many who do, but I wanted to talk about the feelings everyone seems to come home with of trying to make moral sense of what they’ve seen and done, even when they do everything right by war’s best standards. So, it was talking about the moral weight of war, the moral burdens of war.
Question: How did your father’s war experience inform your war research?
Nancy Sherman: Well, my dad actually just died December 15, the days I was putting the final touches on the book. And I always knew he was a World War II veteran, and a medic. He never fired a rifle, or gun, during the war, but always had this sense that war was hell and he didn’t want to talk about it like many of his generation, a member of a laconic generation. And when he died, I was cleaning out his effects and found in his pockets his dog tags. And he never told me, and I never asked, and so it was 65 years of carrying his dog tags. They were an identity to be sure, but they are also a moral identity, or a moral burden. And I thought he really carried it silently, he thought it wasn’t polite conversation to talk about the war. When I probed, he would say, well aboard the QE1, the Queen Elizabeth 1st, and the Queen Mary, it was a slaughterhouse. It was a butcher shop with amputated legs and men that were really, really suffering. This one would have a leg and that one won’t. And so, it was painful, tears would come down and I realized that he never wanted to watch footage of the war, and he wasn’t traumatized, I don’t think. He was a very healthy, resilient guy, but if his war was difficult it was so for many and I don’t think war should be a private burden, whether it’s a draft war or a volunteer force, or you are National Guard, or a member—well contractors is another story; a complicated story, but both going out to war as part of the Reserves.
So, he was, I think, the unconscious reason, you might say. I also have an uncle who fought in World War II as a Marine, bayonet, Okinawa, really ugly. And he did suffer PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But the book wasn’t really about psychological injuries that we know about that are very acute. It’s about the every day ordinary mix of feeling exultant about the battle and exuberant and it’s the time of your life to shine, for some. And that’s the only way that you could go in and be a sniper who is defending himself and his buddies and for victory or survival. And then also feeling the shame of doing what you do when you do it all right.
Question: In what ways has the average soldier’s war experience changed?
Nancy Sherman: Well, it stays constant in the sense that you leave a civilian life, you put on a uniform, you kind of get cut to size, in a way, through boot camp and then rebuilt as part of a cadre and in a good army you’re really tight, it’s about solidarity, it’s about cohesion and you do better if there’s cohesion and if you’re not replaced one by one, you’re replaced by units where you go together and come back together as best you can and know you’re going to bring each other home, or try to at least. And, of course, now we have women in the forces, a small percentage, but they’re trying their best to blend. And in talking to women, it can be a struggle. We don’t think about ships, but in ships, those are tight environments, not a lot of outside contact and it can be very internal-looking.
So, those are some of the continuing factors that you go into a place that’s really high stress. But what’s different now, two things that come to my mind, one is that we’re fighting counter-insurgency wars. We had some of that in Vietnam, but we really have it now where you can’t tell the difference between the civilian and the combatant and the combatant, the insurgent, exploits that and shields, in a sense, civilians in, or shields themselves in civilian populations. So, we have right now rules of engagement that are tight. General Stanley McChrystal has said, “You don’t fire unless you are really are overrun.” And so soldiers are trying to hold back their fire if they run a risk of a civilian casualty and the preponderance of risk ought to be on themselves as trained soldiers. I think that’s right, I really do think that soldiers need to put the risk upon themselves, they’re the ones that are trained to fight, not the civilian. But it’s hard when you know you’re being taken advantage of. So, that’s a real stress factor.
The other stress factor, of course, that makes it different in addition to the counter-insurgency operations, is that we are a thinned out military fighting for 10 years—longer than the World War II period—with multiple deployments. And I don’t mean just one and two; three and four and five, and I’ve talked to some that are in six, with short dwell time at home. And I guess you could say a third factor, no front line and rear guard. You’re always exposed because there’s always an explosion that can go off.
So, those three factors—counter-insurgency operations with co-mingling of civilian; and combatant, thinned out Army with multiple deployments; and no front line, but always exposed—make for a very, very stressful environment.
You could add a fourth factor to that, certainly, and that is right now the war theater and the home theater are themselves co-mingled in a certain way. Soldiers can email, instant message, cell phone home and vice versa, and the upshot is that the insulation that sometimes was so protective isn’t always there. As a soldier you worry about what’s happening with your kids or your spouse, at the same time you worry what’s happening with your battle buddy.
Question: Which stories from your conversations with soldiers stood out?
Nancy Sherman: Two stories—two or three really come to mind. So, one story is by a guy who I worked with at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C., he was a Tech Support and he had just come back from Iraq and found out I was working on this book, and he said he had wanted to go to Afghanistan in the early part of these wars. He thought that was a cause he could believe in. He had fought in Bosnia and really felt that that was an important cause. He was called up for Iraq. He is part of the Reserves, he’s an older guy, he is now in his mid-fifties. He’s called “Pop” by his troops, but he couldn’t believe in the war, so he said he felt suckered. And that was a really potent word for me. One of those moral words, it meant betrayed. And he said for your upper echelon to sucker you in that way is a hard pill to swallow. And he has sad eyes, a bit of melancholic appearance. And I thought about it and what he really meant was that he—and he said, "I’m patriotic, I would go again, there’s no doubt, you don’t let your other comrades go and you stay back—you go. And I would do it again. And I don’t care if it’s a Democrat or a Republican, but to be suckered like that." And in his case, he was looking for WMD’s or at least part of a war movement, part of the forces that were there because of them, and he felt it was a story that he couldn’t believe.
And he would say, “I collected body parts.” That’s what you hear and we don’t see it on TV much, or we don’t see the images of charred body parts and our fellow soldiers are collecting them and bagging them and smelling it afterward, and the sense that—and he said, “I was almost killed. My buddy was killed. But I can’t believe in the reason.” So that dis-sync, that dissidence between a cause and the most upright conduct, and a sense of betrayal I think was really potent for me.
Another story is from a different side of the war; and that’s interrogation. We think of interrogation often in terms of torture. That’s been a national debate, are we a country that allows our soldiers, our military interrogators to torture? Do we torture? And not only is it useful, which most people say, no, but is it moral, irrespective of utility?
I have a student at Georgetown who I learned was in Abu Ghraib, an interrogator at Abu Ghraib for the Army, in the clean-up act. And so, I said, did you do anything that you felt awkward about, or that you didn’t feel good about. And I was expecting really quite frank discussion of some things that might have verged on waterboarding, or maybe some sleep deprivation. And he told me three things that you might say showed a side of his sensitivity, but were things that he really worried about.
One was, he would turn the screw on one of his detainees when he couldn’t get him to talk and remind him of his adulterous infidelities, which really made this detainee feel awful. But it kind of brought him down to feel like he had to start talking because he had sort of been—his guard was off.
The second case had to do with, he had a Sunni and a Shiite detainee and they were both in solitary for a while and they both were dying for recreation and he put the two of these to men together out in recreation. It was as good as if they were still in solitary confinement.
The third incident was someone, a woman, fell in love with him, or at least showed signs of falling for him. And so there was a sense in this case of, he did everything the right way interrogators are supposed to build intimacy, build rapport in order to exploit it, and to exploit it and to manipulate it and to use his power so, so rawly, just rubbed him the wrong way afterward where it left residue, moral residue you might say, or a moral remnant, a remainder. And he would do it again, and he knows it was absolutely right as a soldier, or as a military interrogator. But it’s not something he would ever do to his friends.
And so that dis-sync, lack of synchrony between what you do in uniform and what you would do as a civilian is often the soldiers I speak to and in his case, it wasn’t about fighting for survival or victory, which is what a ground soldier might explain, but rather in his case, what he was living with was power. The power trip. And that he could reduce someone to a sort of abject servility almost, and then manipulate them. That’s a hard feeling to live with. And yet, he did what was required, his duty, and honorable conduct in the military, but leaves a residue as a civilian.
Question: Did the soldier feel guiltier about psychological torture?
Nancy Sherman: That’s right, it wasn’t physical. It was all about emotional manipulation. Good rapport building is to find the emotional soft spots and then to just dig, dig, dig and what was fascinating about this individual is that he has a conscience and he didn’t leave his conscience behind. He didn’t check it out. He brought it to the interrogation cell. But, you have to leave it behind a tiny bit, so there are moments when he said he would come out after eight hours and kind of laugh and say, “I really finally got that guy to talk.” One case he showed him pictures of family members who had been killed in an explosion by a rival tribe, and upon reflection he thought, that was an awful way to deal with the hardship I inflicted on him. Yes, it’s about emotional suffering, psychological suffering, but even in the case of extremes of torture, it’s often about psychological torture, it’s not just about burning people, or pulling off their fingernails, old-fashioned style.
Question: What are the major short-term and long-term traumas of war?
Nancy Sherman: Sometimes the symptoms don’t show up right away, and there’s a kind of natural healing that can go on just like leaving a war zone and sometimes it’s not good to talk to people, we think now, right afterward, but rather to almost let the wound heal a little bit on its own. But some of the symptoms that we’re aware of and they will be a hyper vigilance, being in a hyper-sensory mode; so walking the perimeter, listening with acuteness the way you would in a battle area, or it might also be flashbacks, inability to sleep. One of my soldiers, Rob Kissler, just found himself in a bar with his arms around someone’s neck. He strangled this guy and then he realized that he had heard something and thought he was in fighter mode, and had just slipped into fighter mode imperceptibly. And that was about a year after battle. He was a long-term patient at Walter Reed and being treated, by the way, for physical injuries, a loss of an arm use, a titanium arm replacement and a leg replacement.
Other times it could also just be this numbing that you’ve had to—you’re exposed to the sort of stresses that are so superhuman that you have to protect yourself by numbing, and you continue to dissociate afterward. So those are some of the physical—the physiological effects that we are familiar with.
But what I’m trying to explore are the spectrum that doesn’t necessarily, or may include some of these, but also includes these conflict feelings, consensual feelings. Feelings of guilt for what you did or what you saw and did your best, but couldn’t help to do even better than you wished you could have done. To survive a battle when your buddies don’t, to be part of an accident when there’s no fault at all, no culpability, but you were implicated, causally implicated and you hold yourself really accountable. Or to love your buddies more than you love your spouse, or your family, and one of my soldiers said to me, “You know, I’m in a tent with someone day in and day out and I know when he passes wind at night. I know that fart.” You know, and he said, “How can I tell my mother that I was that physically close to someone?” So that feeling of a betrayal almost of your home family because you've reattached to others who got you through it.
Also feeling that life is darned boring at home when you’ve been so ramped up and revved up and hepped up, and it’s hard to find the same kind of thrill and adventure, even though it’s filled with danger.
Question: Do we understand soldiers’ traumas better than we used to?
Nancy Sherman: Well we’re doing better in that we’re sending mental health clinicians out to the field. And at Uniform Services University, which is on the campus of Bethesda Naval Hospital, I sometimes teach some of these folks who are going out to the field. So, they’re deploying with the troops and they’re going to be available, and they make themselves known in advance, and some of them do like warrior resilience training. I’m here, this is what a healthy soldier can expect to see, helping commanders know that they’re there, so if some of their troops are involved in incidents or they lose buddies or they kill civilians, they know where to go afterward and have touched base beforehand. So, there’s much more of that. We have more chaplains going out and being trained in these areas. We also now are using medical corpsmen to help fill these roles, so they’re not just dealing with first aid and physical wounds, but rather psychological wounds. So, we’re doing a lot better. It’s still stigmatizing to come home and seek help and self-medication is one of the first things that lots of folks do, sadly, which is alcohol or drugs.
And what we’re not doing enough of, I think, is really getting support to the families. The families served too, in a way, as I said, they go to war in a sense with their soldiers because they’re in such close communication. They can email their war theater and home theater are not so separated, and when they come home, they’re often limited in resources. How do you deal with a soldier, male or female, who comes home and just retreats inside, or can’t begin to talk, and also unemployment rates are much higher for returning veterans than they are for those—for civilians.
So, we’re getting better, but we still have this enormous yawning military/civilian divide. And the families in a sense are civilian families, of course, but they’re military families because their loved ones have served and they feel society often isn’t supporting them enough.
Question: What new solutions or interventions would you propose?
Nancy Sherman: Certainly more money into the VA, stronger benefits, more robust programs for seeking jobs, making sure that the military hospitals are not themselves shaming places. Walter Reed had a very big scandal about three years ago in mismanagement and it was a bullying place where soldiers would come home and they were still kept in holding units where they would be ready as if to deploy, but most of them knew they weren’t because they had such severe injuries, yet they still had to go outside for 6:30 a.m. formation, and stand in formation and whatnot. Though many had been on very heavy medications at night, or might not fall asleep or drift into sleep until 4:30 in the morning, and if they were on leave for awhile, they didn’t get back in time, they were really bullied. So, making sure that our environments are healthier. We’ve done a lot to clean those up with something called Warrior Transition Brigades. Soldiers themselves helping other soldiers move through this passage.
But I would say, one thing we can do, and I’m involved in this to some degree. If you’re on a teaching campus, talk to those veterans that have come home and try to break down the barriers, and make them understand that they don’t have to feel it’s only those that have been to war and come home that can really be talked to, that we really want to understand and listen. And similarly those that are about to go to war who are part of ROTC programs. Make sure they are not feeling marginalized in class, or afraid to say that I’m going to be serving in a year’s time, or whatnot, and really trying on a person-to-person basis to break down some of the barriers in our local communities. I think that’s really critical. In addition to large scale policies of more resources in the VA, having the VA talk to the military hospitals more smoothly. We’re working that out right now with unified computer systems.
And also understanding that multiple deployments have an attrition; a psychological attrition on the mental health of soldiers. Resilience is sort of supposed to be, you bounce a ball and it for a while continues to hold its bounce, but then balls after awhile they keep bouncing and bouncing and bouncing and the bounce gets lower and lower and lower. And a little bit like that with troops. You send them three and four and five times to war and their resilience just doesn’t hold up the same way as in the first round. Stresses on families as a result, high divorce rates.
Question: Are some of these stresses unavoidable in an all-volunteer army?
Nancy Sherman: It’s an Army that wasn’t designed to fight two wars at the same time for 10 years. If you think about it, I teach 18- to 22-year-olds, half of their lives have been exposed in a very indirect way, but nonetheless, that’s the background factor to war. That’s a long time, longer than exposure during World War II. So, yes, big debate, certainly about draft versus volunteer. I don’t think we will go back to a draft easily. There’s not enough support for that in Congress. But we certainly could have more service of various sorts, national service and making military service one of those options so that those that go into military service aren't the only ones who are doing compulsory national service.
Question: How did military ethics become a field of serious inquiry?
Nancy Sherman: If you think about the history and its introduction into the military academies, it often is indexed or linked to a cheating scandal. And that was certainly the case of the Naval academy when I was brought in, in the mid-‘90s. They had taught psychology of leadership and also the law of war, or the law of the high seas, that sort of thing, but they didn’t teach military ethics until they had a massive electrical engineering cheating scandal. And the same, I believe with West Point, and I thinking 1959, the Air Force probably was ahead of the curve and did it, I think without provocation.
But it’s a relatively new field in the way that the ethics of, these applied ethics are sort of business of law. Often they come about when there’s a problem and they realize that some of us who have been teaching ethics for the longest time and teach these general issues even though they might not be specifically applied to a kind of profession. But it’s as old—the topic is as old as the ancients. If you think about it, in the Iliad, Achilles drags around Hector’s body seven times around, desecrating it in revenge, wild revenge for the death of his buddy, Achilles’ buddy, Patroclus. And Homer says finally, he breaks down and says, “Even the gods cannot sit by quietly and watch this.” And they protect the face of this desecrated body so that in fact, because if the gods watch, it’s never really desecrated. So there’s this important sense of the ugliness of revenge. Maybe it’s a combat motivator, maybe it’s fire in the belly that adrenalizes, we would say, but it’s got its really ugly side.
And so the Stoics come in later as a comment on the ancients, they themselves, like second century, before the common era, the second century after, and say, you ancients, including Plato and Aristotle, but before that Homer and his warrior tradition gave carte blanche, you might say, open ticket to revenge, but revenge knows no limits, knows no excess. So, event he warrior ought not to have it. Do it for its own sake. Fight in there because the cause is right, or because you believe in the cause, not for the sake of payback, because you won’t be able to control the revenge. Once it’s out of the gate, the game is over.
So, it’s been around for a long time and that gives you a sense of... it’s been around as a worry about the inward war, not just what you’re doing to other people and whether your conduct is good, but how you can control your own inner motives. So, that’s what I’m fascinated by, it’s not just the limits of just war. That’s been also a tradition since the medieval... since the Crusades. How does a king get his, or the church get his Army going and have them not have massacres? And how do they separate the people that are legitimate targets from those who aren’t legitimate targets? Are the civilians, or the folks that aren’t knights in armors, are the legitimate? No, they’re not legitimate. But there’s always been rape, pillage, and plunder. In the middle ages, it became a cause célèbre. Let’s write rules for the church so they know how to fight. So that’s been about justification. When can you go to war and how does the honorable, chivalrous soldier fight well?
What there has been very little discussion of is what goes on in the head of the soldier and how do they conduct the moral debate in side and live with the moral difficulties and quandaries. And that’s sort of what I’ve been interested in, and it’s in the border between philosophy, that's worried about justification of wars, just causes, and just conduct. And psychology that’s worried about what goes on in the privacy of a clinician’s office and the unloading of the trauma. Between those two goals, there’s a huge area about the moral psychology in the inner psyche of the soldier.
Question: Is there some truth to the idea that "all’s fair" in war?
Nancy Sherman: There’s a real sense that all’s fair in love and war, you know, and that all the rules are off. But since the Middle Ages and the formulation of just war, however abstractly, the idea has been that there are rules of permissibility. Both for those in charge of declaring war, what counts as a reasonable cause, a just cause, a justification for going to war, and aggressing or defending yourself. And also for how the soldier conducts herself, or himself, justly, honorably.
So, there’s that, and then there’s the reality of it, as you say, and the concrete cases. So, right now, we, with the surge in Afghanistan, are dealing with, or should be dealing with the real heavy moral implications of the nature of the fighting. So, General McChrystal has made it very clear that there will be tight rules of engagement on the troops, the 100,000 troops that will be fully deployed in Afghanistan. And those troops will not be able to—if they’re mingled civilian and insurgents, the troops need to put the preponderance of risk upon themselves and take additional risk rather than risk the lives of civilians, unless the unit is being overrun, and we’ve sent that that is not full proof. In Marsiya, there were 12 killings, there have been drones that have killed civilians, and now the Special Forces are under the same tight restrictions, so, unified command.
Now the way that—you have to think about that, how does that play out on the troops? Well we know a lot of the grunts, the ground troops, are grumbling bitterly on fighting with one hand tied behind my back while they get all the advantage because they can shield their innocence in... They shield their insurgents in civilian populations and then I as a combat troop have to restrict my fire. So, you have to say, are they risking troops at the cost of saving the civilians in Afghanistan and some will say that. And we’ll say, oh, it’s just a political ploy. We need to buy the hearts and minds of the population. But I think it also is protecting the hearts and minds of our own soldiers, and that’s the military ethics really made concrete.
The soldiers I have spoken to who have been involved in civilian casualties, that’s an awful term, collateral damage. It makes it—it’s so euphemistic. But it means not just accidental killings of civilians, it’s where you foresee that it might happen, but you don’t intend it. The civilians are in the periphery of the target area and it’s an important enough target that you go for it. In cases like checkpoint incidents in Afghanistan and Iraq where this has happened, and especially if the civilian is a child. The Marines that I’ve talked to just decompensate almost, they feel so awful about killing a vulnerable child; it’s like the mythic child that has been killed. And if you think about it, here they are in a place on the Helmand Province we are fighting in Afghanistan, and they are there not only to be fighters, but they’re policeman, they’re community organizers, they’re building a city in a box. They’re building civic order in a box. And that’s how it’s been phrased. And they’re the savior in a sense, they’re bringing order. And there’s a lot of idealism about them, but also the sheer reality of what’s happening. And when they can’t do that and they fail miserably in the sense of see a kid killed in the midst of that operation, I think that really, really plays hard.
So, I think the restrictions which come from high up and are imposed through the chain low down by a commander that has to work really hard to restrain his troops and restrain the fire force, the fire power that’s used are protecting the hearts and minds of our own soldiers. They’re reasonable moral restraints. Not just to buy the hearts and minds of the country we’re in, but to preserve our own souls.
Question: Whom do you blame for the ethical breakdown at Abu Ghraib?
Nancy Sherman: I think it was a breakdown from high up, breakdown from the top down. There were attempts, we know, from the torture memos that came from the Office of Legal Council, Jay Bybee and John Yoo, to figure out ways that we could permissibly, legally, torture by some other name. And it was through Cheney and through President Bush that there really was an attempt to do this. And it trickled down. So, there were commanders who gave permission, or turned their head. And we also used forces in interrogation that weren’t fully trained. Some of them had been in other environments and they were told to kind of get creative. And also there is a feeling of lack of respect for the enemy. Once you degrade the enemy to just being a thing, all bets are off as to what you can do to them. And as my young interrogators told me, the temptation to get information out of someone who you’re—when you get so frustrated and it’s been days and days and days and you’re not making any breakthroughs and you know that there may be some high intelligence that may be gathered. You run the risk of harming this person, of doing something you ought not to do.
And in his case, he said there was a moment where he saw a fellow U.S. officer, who was a woman, a woman pilot who had been mangled by the enemy, and that really got his ire up, and he really wanted to do something to be able to prevent that kind of incident in the future. And that’s when he knew that his conscience really in high gear, hold back. That’s the temptation you have to be prepared to fight against.
And I don’t think—that’s a very reflective, conscientious, very humanistic interrogator. Not all are like that. I went to Guantanamo as part of the medical observer team, not a physician, but we were looking at psychiatric and psychological conditions of the detainees from the side of care and also from the side of interrogation and also for hunger strikers. And there was an attempt to even then when they wanted to bring an observer team out to ask us to try to find a legal loophole for separating the kinds of professionals, the psychologists who were involved in the interrogation from the kind of psychiatrists clinicians involved in treatment. And if the one is involved in an interrogation never do the treatment, then maybe they could be a little bit more aggressive or don’t have to worry about the same restrictions as the ones on the treating side. And that, you could already see, that’s a way of eroding the responsibilities we have to the care of the detainees who were supposed to be treated as if they were American forces when they are in POW situations.
Question: What ethical loopholes still need to be closed in the war on terror?
Nancy Sherman: Oh well, the legal situation is very complicated. As you know, Eric Holder is really, the Attorney General, is fraught and there’s lots of internal debates in the Obama Administration that I can’t begin to chronicle about whether there are military tribunals or civilian sorts of tribunals and where to have the trials, as you know, New York or other places, and who should be released and who not. But there is certainly a commitment, I believe, to efficiently closing Guantanamo, and also a sense that torture is a) we know it’s not effective, it’s not instrumental. It does not get you the information you want. And b) it’s just flat out wrong. And so there is that recognition I think. How it gets played out, especially when you have TV programs like “24” making it very real, or making the notion of “no holds barred” in interrogation, that’s really rough.
And I know cadets at West Point and my young interrogator watch these in amusement and voyeurism and whatnot, but I also know that the Superintendent, or the Commandant of West Point have gone out to speak to the producer of this program and say, this isn’t how it works, we don’t want this propaganda, you’re really making it harder for us because these aren’t the rules that we are telling to abide by. And so that’s really tricky. So, it certainly an awful education that we’ve had to go through, but I think we’re coming out of it.
Question: What can Aristotle teach us about ethics?
Nancy Sherman: Aristotle is one of my heroes, as you say, so who’s a lifetime companion for you? Sure, it’s my husband and my son and daughter, but it’s also Aristotle, he’s with me all the time. And we have kind of imbibed his lessons, as you say, but we’ve also—he sort of teaches us that, well one thing he teaches us is in contrast to the Stoics. I’ve also written—the last book was called "The Stoic Warriors," about the Stoic ethos of the military. And they say no place for anger, no place for grief, no place for the kinds of feelings that make you vulnerable; detached, detached, detach so that you can become strong and self-sufficient. And so you know what’s in your power and if those things are not in your power, let them go, leave them alone.
And that’s great news for a soldier because there’s so much that is not in your power. When you’re coming home, when are you going to redeploy, will your wife still love you? Will your boyfriend be there when you come home? All of those are so risky. So being in charge is an amazing thing. Suck it up, suck it up, suck it up was the mantra of the Naval Academy when I was there, and always is. But Aristotle is the counter-voice and he’ll say, “It’s important to grieve because you are, by nature, a social creature, and you’re attached to other people and you are... you know, virtue is in your capacity... in the matter of your effort and in the matter of your resolve, but a lot of whether you’re going to do well in this world has to do with luck and has to do with people that are outside you. So, Aristotle reminds us of that. He reminds us also that anger is a good thing because... the right kind of anger. Because if you never felt righteous indignation, you would never record the injuries and indignities that people suffer. You would be indifferent to them. So, you should feel some anger, the right anger, the right time, toward the right people.
Similarly, don’t feel anger so much that it makes you servile that you are a slave to your own anger, but in a right way. So he’s very sensitive to the role of emotions in the good life. And certainly I think and have been arguing in the past 10, 15 years through my work that the role of emotions in a soldier’s life can’t be emphasized enough. They need to grieve; they need to recognize that they may feel betrayal, and that they have to reconnect with their families when they come home. One of my soldiers said, “No one ever told me how hard the war after the war would be.” Meaning, the inner battles he has to face.
So, accepting and owning and working through the positive and negative emotions of war I think it an Aristotelian kind of lesson. And I’m very sympathetic to the Stoics, and the Stoic warriors. I felt myself talking to them the whole time and I’d interviewed Admiral Stockdale, who was a Senior POW along with McCain, John McCain, in the Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam, North Vietnam. And he had memorized Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, in order to get through—he resonated with it and it became his consolation in 7 ½ years of prison, 2 ½ in solitary. And I think that’s an important voice, the idea that you will never be a "slave to your passions," let’s say, Epictetus, or "Only those things within your willpower can you really claim as your own." But it does have a downside of thinking that you can really be unaffected, that you can be invulnerable. And I think that’s a real, real hazard. It’s a moral hazard. A real moral risk. So, Aristotle would correct us on that one.
Question: What’s the biggest challenge you face in your work?
Nancy Sherman: I’m a parent of two amazing kids and—adult kids now, and a spouse, a wife, and an academic and a writer, and it may sound trivial, but being able to do well in all of those things all the time, or most of the time, some of the time, is always before me. And it’s not just about juggling, but it’s about being there. When my children were little, my son Jonathan would sort of catch on when I was playing Legos and I really wasn’t there, there with him. You know, I wasn’t in the game and empathically involved because my head was thinking about some paragraph on the fabric of character I was about to write, or a lecture I had to give in the morning. So, I think for me, the challenge is—and I feel this with my students too, to always remain empathically connected to the people that I’m with and not be so busy... But I think right now, I feel is the challenge and I share this, I’m sure with many others, I think we are about to implode because of being plugged in. Everyone on the street has got their head in some little device, electronic device. And my students feel guilty that they’ve been in a lecture for 15 minutes and someone might have been texting them and they haven’t been able to answer in the 15 minutes. So, this sense of—you might say there’s a flip side of what I was saying, of being over-connected. But it’s over-connected in an insidious way. So, I’d say, go off to the mountains and smell and breathe and workout hard and attach to people in the real, physical, concrete, emotional way, and not just through cyberspace. That would be the—that’s the instruction we have and the challenge to realize as well.