Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On Nancy Sherman's Stoic Warriors

Nancy Sherman's <i>Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the
Military Mind</i> is an absorbing examination of Stoic thought as it
pertains to what is typically believed to be the military mindset. It
is a book that both engages stoic philosophy and attempts to capture
how it could work as a backdrop for a soldier's way of thinking about
various aspects of military life. Stoicism, as we have it from such
figures as Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Cicero, and Epictetus is a
comprehensive approach to physics, logic, and ethics. Sherman is
mostly concerned with ethics and the prospect of understanding whether
a stoic ethic is a viable way of handling issues that are an expected
part of a soldier's life.

Given the writings we have, we are able to reconstruct a stoic
approach to certain relevant themes including: the body, grief, one's
bearing and decorum, anger, fear, trauma, and general emotional
resilience. Her analysis is generally insightful and clear. Sherman
and her approach to Stiocism has a lot to teach us about how soldiers
think and how soldiers ought to think. One thinks of stoicism and the
image of a solitary individual devoid of emotion, expression and
feeling. And while this does not exactly sum up Stoicism and it is a
simplification, it is not all that far off. As Sherman says in the
opening sentence of the preface "This book is about 'sucking it up'";
which is military-speak for maintaining your composure despite the
fact that something traumatic happened.

And military personnel are never far from trauma. Members of the
military perpetually face the risk of getting killed or kidnapped,
getting in to a fight, taken hostage, getting wounded, losing a limb,
killing someone, and losing a friend. Facing the prospect of this is
sometimes a bit scary, but having it actually happen naturally causes
soldiers to experience emotions - and to a greater degree - then much
of the rest of society. Anger, fear, grief, rage, post-traumatic
stress, regular stress, guilt, relief, and sorrow are all common in
the military, especially during times of war. People worry about
themselves and dealing with the trauma of injury, for example and they
grieve when the lose friends. And friendships forged in war are said
to be amongst the strongest.

The problem then is how a soldier is to express the emotions that he
or she experiences? A soldier, after all, is encouraged and
conditioned to "suck it up and drive on", "Charlie Mike" - continue
mission, and "maintain control". A soldier has a very small range of
expressions that are generally considered acceptable, especially in
public. Part of the appeal of stoic thought is that it provides a
worldview in which a lack of emotional expression is both possible and
commendable. It does so by encouraging one to realize that happiness
must not be dependent on circumstances and events that are external to
one's control. And one must train the body to act in alignment with
this philosophy and not exhibit these emotions.

Sherman analyzises a few important emotions in chapter-length studies.
She talks about anger in one chapter, fear in another, and grief in a
third. In all cases she looks to the work of the Stoics for
inspiration adn guidance. But she doesn't stop at saying that there
are similarities between Stoic philosophy and being "warrior stoic".
She fully engages Stoic thought and challenges it, often for going too
far, sometimes for not going far enough. This is not a book of
history of philosophy <i>per se</i>, but rather a book that engages
the history of philosophy in the laboratory of contemporary mankind.

The backdrop of each chapter is clearly some account of virtue ethics
that takes the right way to behave as a function of having the proper
outlook on life, or the proper habits and dispositions. It is an
important virtue ethics characterization of a soldier's propensities
to act the way we typically expect them too.

The book is not a typical philosophy book. It is replete with stories
that illustrate attitudes and events sometimes via fiction and other
times via anecdotes culled from (apparently) her own interviews with
soldiers. The book is also thoroughly enjoyable.

There is enough to quibble in with the book. Most of my qualms are
minor. Expecting every soldier to be familiar with the Geneva accords
in the way she does seems naive (p. 177). The interpretation she
borrows of Exodus and Numbers (p. 119) is a stretch. Finally, most
soldiers, even during war will not be in combat and most of the
"sucking up" in the military actual involves the annoyance that
accompanies having one's leadership make decisions for you that don't
seem to be in your or anyone's best interest but their own. But those
are all minor issues with respect to the book's point, and not really
worth elaborating on, that do not detract from the overall value of
the book. It is valuable to understand the origins of, and the
problems with, the behavior that we take to epitomize soldierly

1 comment:

  1. After reading Aurelias' MEDITATIONS in early college I have found that not only my professional life as an Army Officer, but my personal life As well has taken on a more stoic twist. Whether his writings shaped many of my views about the surrounding world still remains to be seen. Moreover I think it could be misinterpreted by those who have never spent a day in uniform that we are nothing but a bunch of mindless, unemotional robots. Could stoicism also be a mark of a good leader? I personally believe that any leader who chooses not to bitch in front of their Troops is unknowingly adding a twinge of this philosophy into their leadership style- might seem like a far stretch- but just my two cents.

    -EOD CPT