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Nancy Sherman

Nancy Sherman is a Distinguished University Professor in the Philosophy Department of Georgetown University. She received her BA from Bryn Mawr College, her PhD from Harvard, and her MLitt from[…]

The “Untold War” author first became interested in the psychology of combat by observing her father’s tight-lipped silence about World War II.

Question: What did yourrnresearch for “The Untold War” consist of? 

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Nancy Sherman:rnWell, I’m a philosopher, so I was thinking of soldiers in terms of the rnmeaning,rnthe philosophical meaning of their stories; the emotions and the deeprnemotions.  And I interviewed a lotrnof soldiers, probably about 30 to 40 soldiers of the current wars rnincludingrnsome from Bosnia and Vietnam, and my dad, who is a World War II veteran rnand Irnreally wanted to go beyond just stories about trauma, of which many rnsoldiersrndon’t suffer, though of course we know of many who do, but I wanted to rntalkrnabout the feelings everyone seems to come home with of trying to make rnmoralrnsense of what they’ve seen and done, even when they do everything right rnby war’srnbest standards.  So, it was talkingrnabout the moral weight of war, the moral burdens of war.

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Question: How did yourrnfather’s war experience inform your war research?

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Nancy Sherman:rnWell, my dad actually just died December 15, the days I was putting the rnfinalrntouches on the book.  And I alwaysrnknew he was a World War II veteran, and a medic.  Hern never fired a rifle, or gun, during the war, but alwaysrnhad this sense that war was hell and he didn’t want to talk about it rnlike manyrnof his generation, a member of a laconic generation.  Andrn when he died, I was cleaning out his effects and foundrnin his pockets his dog tags.  Andrnhe never told me, and I never asked, and so it was 65 years of carrying rnhis dogrntags.  They were an identity to bernsure, but they are also a moral identity, or a moral burden.  And I thought he really carried itrnsilently, he thought it wasn’t polite conversation to talk about the rnwar.  When I probed, he would say, wellrnaboard the QE1, the Queen Elizabeth 1st, and the Queen Mary, it was a rnslaughterhouse.  It was a butcher shop withrnamputated legs and men that were really, really suffering. rn This one would have a leg and that onernwon’t.  And so, it was painful,rntears would come down and I realized that he never wanted to watch rnfootage ofrnthe war, and he wasn’t traumatized, I don’t think.  Hern was a very healthy, resilient guy, but if his war wasrndifficult it was so for many and I don’t think war should be a private rnburden,rnwhether it’s a draft war or a volunteer force, or you are National rnGuard, or arnmember—well contractors is another story; a complicated story, but both rngoingrnout to war as part of the Reserves. 

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So, he was, I think, the unconscious reason, you rnmightrnsay.  I also have an uncle whornfought in World War II as a Marine, bayonet, Okinawa, really ugly.  And he did suffer PTSD, Post-TraumaticrnStress Disorder.  But the bookrnwasn’t really about psychological injuries that we know about that are rnveryrnacute.  It’s about the every dayrnordinary mix of feeling exultant about the battle and exuberant and it’srn therntime of your life to shine, for some. rnAnd that’s the only way that you could go in and be a sniper who rnisrndefending himself and his buddies and for victory or survival.  And then also feeling the shame ofrndoing what you do when you do it all right.