Sherman, Nancy, Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy behind the Military Mind, Oxford University Press, 2005. 242pp.
A recent article in the New Yorker discussed the repeated use of torture on the TV program “24.” Portraying torture as an effective, speedy means of extracting critical information from prisoners is flawed, it claimed. The program’s producer, Joel Surnow, continues to make torture a key dramatic element in 24’s “ticking clock” format, despite informal requests from the US military to avoid doing so. The military is concerned that young soldiers will decide that Jack Bauer‘s repeated brutalities are indeed a useful emergency tool on the modern battlefield. A contrary point of view about whether “24” is innately conservative is outlined in this article in TCS Daily.
Two questions lingered after reading the New Yorker article. (1) Is torture ever useful for gathering information on an urgent basis? (2) Does the American public’s apparent comfort with the fictional torture in “24” indicate some unrequited desire for retribution and intimidation, and/or reflect an unacknowledged (and untapped) group resolve?
On (1) I think we won’t hear from those who use interrogation (successfully or not) in urgent situations. That’s unfortunate but inevitable.
On (2), my guess is that 24’s popularity (with both sexes!) does reflect a deep sense of vulnerability, a need for catharsis, and is fully compatible with the tradition of popular American entertainment which stylizes vengeance, action, and “immediate problem resolution.” It may also be a “crabgrass Jacksonian” indictment of an American leadership which gives the appearance (perhaps inaccurately) of wanting to fight kinder, gentler wars. A parallel obsession with organized crime and serial murderers in American popular culture also has quite a history. The vicarious thrill of setting all restraint aside to deal with the frustrations and unfairness of American life is addictive. If there’s an appetite for these portrayals of American civilian life, it’s no surprise that we’d also see them extrapolated to national defense. We’re certainly not at the point, however, where public discussion of “just how far we’ll go” will be addressed honestly outside fiction.
For a variety of reasons, I don’t “get” this particular TV show. So its inherent contradictions and fictional simplifications don’t bother me greatly. Nonetheless, reading the New Yorker article on the controversy did remind me that I’ve been struggling unsuccessfully with some similar moral conundrums for the last 18 months. The ambivalence over 24’s violence, and its simultaneous popularity, is a reasonable starting point for a discussion of the world of military necessity and its repercussions for soldiers and society.
For many months, I’ve been grabbing “Stoic Warriors” filled with resolve to finish it and write up a summary. Ethics professor Nancy Sherman reviews the principles of Greco-Roman Stoicism and discusses whether this ancient philosophical tradition can offer something to the modern American military. I’ve had a long-standing interest in military matters and Roman culture. I’ve read a recent academic attempt to resurrect Stoicism as a serious modern philosophy. So I ordered Stoic Warriors with great anticipation, moments after seeing its publication announcement on Amazon. This should be a compelling read, I thought. Yet within minutes of first picking up “Stoic Warriors,” my mind would wander and I inevitably found something more urgent to do. Such as write reviews of forty other books. The cycle of try-and-fail repeated many times, despite the book’s solid writing and apt anecdotes.
It’s not the topic nor the subject matter of the book that has delayed this review. And it’s not the writing style nor any lack of author sincerity. It was instead the underlying set of cultural values that the author brings to the area of military affairs. Since Vietnam, it seems, soldiers are subject to standards above and beyond that of civil society. At least one portion of Americans wants its military victories without guilt and without mess. It wants perfection.
Trauma, error, and mismanagement that is ignored or mocked in prisons, ERs, animal shelters, slaughterhouses, slums, X-Games competitions, football fields, and obstetrics wards is now treated very differently when it involves the military. So does capital “S” stoicism have something to offer American soldiers placed under this unique and hypocritical spotlight by postmodern American culture?
No. I think it’s fair to say that the author, in the final assessment, believes nothing can console soldiers … except ceasing to be soldiers. Soldiering turned into some sort of physically-fit bureaucracy that does nothing useful militarily has a much better prospect of fulfilling its moral mandate.
My opinion, thoroughly amateur, is that ignoring (or underplaying) the mental and physical suffering of warriors (and their enemies) is an essential talent for any successful nation. That the Western world appears to be the first culture unilaterally abandoning that talent is rather amazing. So I see problems ahead.
How she reached her conclusion and how I reached mine, is the subject of a very long blog post (>14K words).
For the average person, stoicism comes wrapped in a Christian context. American Heritage defines “stoic” as “one who is seemingly indifferent to or unaffected by joy, grief, pleasure, or pain.” So in common parlance stoicism is about emotional reserve, endurance of pain and suffering, and commitment in the face of constant sacrifice. Indeed, much of the public’s admiration for the military centers around the deportment of its individuals. The personality changes associated with military training are the highlight of almost every TV ad recruiting young men and women. These are changes that command respect in friends, parents, and in members of society, generally. After years of adhering to a military standard of deportment, officers and NCOs are clearly different from the ordinary citizen, and new recruits find those exemplars deeply compelling. The practical role of such deportment in times of emergency or stress is still respected in the US, even as it is misunderstood.
Dr. Sherman’s goals for evaluating Greco-Roman Stoicism in military life are more ambitious. As the inaugural occupant of a Distinguished Chair in Ethics at the US Naval Academy from 1997 to 1999, she had a number of opportunities to work with cadets and military folk, and to reflect on the ethical challenges facing the American military more generally. Beyond simply the practical appeal of small “s” stoicism, can capital “S” stoicism provide the moral and ethical tools necessary to make virtuous decisions in America’s military? Can it provide sufficient solace for those damaged physically and mentally by the modern battlefield? If one circumnavigates the military’s ethical lapses over the last forty years, would Stoicism have a positive role to play? Are there case studies which illustrate ethical failures which Stoicism could forestall?
For a number of reasons, such questions have interested me for many years. In the course of this review, I’d like to summarize the book, identify its limited scope and applicability, explain why I found it so challenging to read, and broach some broader concerns about sustained human conflict in the future. Perhaps we can identify the price Anglosphere soldiers will be asked to pay. My viewpoint is that of amateur historian and anthropologist, so my opinion must obviously be discounted heavily. But I’m reasonably confident that I’ve identified some issues that the professionals (of many stripes) will need to address. My overall argument will be structured as follows:
1. Is an ancient philosophy worth resurrecting in modern times? An outline Dr. Sherman’s argument, and her primary concerns.
2. Was an ancient philosophy useful in the past?Evaluate Stoicism in its original historical and military context.
3. Are the conditions for soldiers changed from the past? Review the childhood experiences of our modern military recruits that might affect their adult expectations and endurance under stress.
4. Do Americans share the same premises about warfare? Inspect the “civilianization” of war and warfare in America, and the West. How does the political divide reflect a cultural divide?
5. What will be the conditions of warfare in the next century? Review the scale of the peace-prosperity differential across the world, its likely durability, and the resulting implications for the nature and length of future war.
6. What is the future of moral philosophy? Will the cognitive sciences overtake philosophy in better explaining human experience and human emotion?
7. Can we fight any future war successfully under current constraints? Some Conclusions. Ask whether the traditional blind spots supporting military sacrifice (and military victory) in the past are permanently gone, and conclude with some personal thoughts on the restructuring that I think will be needed to fight wars in the future.
Stoic Warriors raises many disturbing questions, yet skirts over the most important, in my opinion. Within the framework of Anglosphere history, I’m going to try to sketch out what I think a fuller set of ethical and practical issues might be.
Please note: For purposes of this review, Stoicism will be used to describe the formal Greco-Roman philosophy and attitude, while stoicism will represent the common usage of the term in our time, with its implicit Christian flavour.
1. Is an ancient philosophy worth resurrecting in modern times?
Stoic Warriors – A Synopsis
In Dr. Sherman’s own words:
Popularized notions of being stoic resonated with young and older officers alike, but so too did the readings of actual Stoic philosophers such as Epictetus. The idea that one’s happiness could depend solely on one’s own virtue and that one’s agency and control might be bulletproof appealed to them. But few had thought seriously about the costs of being stoic. Personal psychological costs may the most obvious. Critical, but little noticed, are diminished capacity for moral reasoning and reduced ability to lead others in difficult and deadly circumstances. (p. ix)
In the pages ahead, I look at the idea of “toughing it out” or being stoic as both a blessing and a curse for military men and women — a blessing in that it girds them for facing the horrors of war, a curse in that it promises a kind of invulnerability that it cannot deliver and that leads to the undoing of the mind. Surprisingly, some ancient Stoics voiced similar worries about the costs of being too stoic. In the end, I argue for a gentle Stoicism that can still, in Seneca‘s terms, “cultivate humanity.” (p. x)
The book is hybrid in content, taking seriously both military matters and Stoic theory. But it is also hybrid in methodology. It adopts the standard method of philosophers — namely, analysis of text and argument — but also the method of ethnographers who collect stories and anecdotes. … [but] since so much of my understanding of the military has come from the storytelling of military men and women, it seemed only fitting to share those stories in the context of trying to understand stoic aspirations and themes.” (p.x)
Chapter 1 (A Brave New Stoicism) opens with the role of Stoic philosophy in the life experiences of Admiral James Stockdale, perhaps the most famous exponent of Epictetus’ Stoicism in American military history. Shot down over North Vietnam in 1965, he was subjected to repeated, brutal torture while a prisoner of war. As a ranking officer, he was also responsible for providing guidance for other prisoners. Stockdale drew on his familiarity with Epictetus to provide an ethos for his men, and himself. Released in 1973, in a very crippled state, he went on to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, write about his experiences, and finally serve as the President of the Naval War College.
Sherman then turns to the fictional considerations of Stoicism in the writings of retired Navy Commander Ward Carroll … the insight that one cannot control life’s circumstances but one can control one’s responses to them.
A central Stoic view that we have just encountered and to which we shall return repeatedly in this book is that emotions are, by and large, “things within our control.” We go seriously wrong when we think that emotions just happen to us and that the attachments and losses they represent are beyond our control. (p.9)
In a nutshell then, Greco-Roman Stoicism is about attitude and practice. The attitude about knowing exactly what is within our capacity to control (including the ability to take our own lives), and the practice (in the face of pain and fear) to return to that attitude, and eventually never leave it.
Sherman then gives us excellent capsule summaries of the leading lights of Greco-Roman Stoicism … the original “Stoa” of Greek Stoics, available to us only in second- or third-hand writing … and the latter, more famous, Roman Stoics: Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, and the emperor Marcus Aurelius. These final four authors, ranging from the first century BCE through to the end of the second century CE, are the core of her resources. All but Cicero were self-declared Stoics.
The subsequent chapters in “Stoic Warriors” address the Stoic attitude toward bodily health and vigor (in contrast to the body-obsessed American ideal), the role of manners and demeanor in the cultivation of virtue, and the possibility of emotional regulation and transformation. Separate chapters deal with anger and its control, fear of death and dealing death, grief and mourning, and finally the role of camaraderie, empathy, and respect among comrades. She concludes with a chapter on the role of Stoicism’s ideal of kosmopolites or “citizen of the world” as the basis of a sense of global community that would forestall events such as Abu Ghraib and My Lai.
Chapter 2 opens with the author’s commentary about the desire for physical control and competence reflected in the exercise “boot camps” now on offer to civilians. The discipline and effort required by the military in handling exertion and pain, and maintaining physical strength and endurance, have a broad social appeal.
But training and discipline, whether physical or mental, are one thing; attachment to the body is another. And Epictetus himself will argue, in Stoic fashion, that while we have a duty to care for the body, ultimately our bodies should be regarded as “indifferents,” not as intrinsic elements of our good. (p.21)
Sherman notes that this Stoic caveat is hard for wounded and permanently disabled soldiers to accept, since by nature and personality, many have identified themselves as their bodies, and as their physical competence. For Americans especially, the hardened muscular physique has become a model for both men and women. Sherman reviews this American obsession in a brief section, and turns to a consideration of Stoic writings on the subject of the body, its care, and its importance. The mental shock, and ongoing mental pain, experienced by modern soldiers when they are physically disabled is illustrated in a series of anecdotes and personal vignettes. For individuals whose sense of self-worth has been tied to their body … injury is particularly haunting.
Chapter 3 turns to manners and decorum … and the military regimentation which is meant to instill certain behaviours. The constraint of the “outer” to refine the “inner” is very much a part of military life. “The right way, the wrong way, and the Army way.” The ancient Cynics (and many philosophers since) have doubted the value of insisting on “appearances.” Sherman cites a number of incidents where common sense on appearance and uniforms seemed to be sacrificed on the altar of tradition and absolute equality. Her report of the tragedy besetting women cadets, unable to select their own style of underpants, seems a moral quandary very suited to the Clinton era, and Dr. Sherman’s tenure at the Naval Academy. Both Seneca, and the nominal Roman Stoic Cicero, offered considered rejoinders to those philosophers who disdained the cultivation of outer appearances. For those two Romans, the social implications of maintaining a neat and dignified appearance are important. Evidently sharing values, and projecting respect for, and kindness toward, one’s fellows is all part of decorum. Identity is therefore only partially individual and internal. It is also shared or communal, and external. Respecting the rank or uniform, irrespective of feelings toward the occupant, are part of the discipline of military life that make it possible to reduce otherwise insurmountable tension between individuals.
…the aesthetic of the outer — what one projects to others — matters, whether it be the crispness of a salute, mission readiness spoken in body language, or a steely look of determination and reassurance. It matters to those who share in the ritual and to those who depend on those signs for instruction and confidence. And it may be important for oneself, as a way of coaxing inner change. (p.63)
Chapter 4 is a consideration of anger, and opens with a number of anecdotes of inappropriate anger which bursts out of men suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and which can continue for many years. Sherman contrasts Stoic and Buddhist views of anger, and how it can be set aside:
[In] the Stoic view, it is not that we wrongly invest in the self; rather, we wrongly invest in external goods — property, wealth, fame, honor, and so on. In so doing, we fail to appreciate what is of true value in our lives: our reason, in its perfected form as wisdom or virtue, shared with others (and with God). (p.67)
Sherman turns to other ancient authors such as Plato, Aristotle and Plutarch on the potential role of anger, and the specific cases where it is appropriate or inappropriate. Kant, who was deeply steeped in the writings of Seneca, also makes an appearance. And she’s able to integrate commentary by modern soldiers on the effectiveness of stereotypic “drill sergeant” behaviour that engages bullying and seething anger as motivational tools. Mock bullying and mock anger, however, seem another matter. The ancients believed such emotion in the service of rhetoric was useful. And certainly Thomas Ricks’ excellent Making the Corps offers many examples where Marine drill sergeants apply their emotions in very carefully planned and focused increments. Sherman documents the ongoing debate amongst military officers of the appropriateness of anger … and point the finger at My Lai as a case of warrior rage at its worst. The author then leads us through some of the Stoic literature on anger as irrationality, and the ongoing price that is paid by those filled with anger.
She then continues with anecdotes from the first Gulf War, on the individual soldier’s anger on the battlefield, and where that anger may be focused. From Canadian General Romeo Dallaire‘s experiences in Rwanda, to Hugh Thompson‘s efforts to halt the massacre at My Lai, it’s clear that much of the anger generated in war has no specific focus. It does, however, separate the returning soldier from colleagues, friends, and family.
In a concluding section on “Therapeutic Strategies,” Sherman summarizes the different authors, ancient and modern, on whether anger should be restrained, eliminated, aired out, or fenced off. The quandary for modern soldiers is that there seems to be no clear medical indication whether the traumatic events of warfare can ever be reconciled with the rhythms of ordinary life.
Chapter 5 turns to the subject of fear, and holding up under it. This is a very rich and detailed chapter with anecdotes drawn from a number of military veterans. For Sherman, the subtle distinctions between the various definitions of stoicism, of the expectations for those who are “sages” and those who are attempting to follow its tenets, are matched by sections on the different kinds of fear which are presented to the soldier … fear of the unknown, cumulative fear of the new, fear which paralyses temporarily, fear of dying, and fear of killing. As with earlier chapters, the Stoic absolute of letting go of fear has severe costs. The milder variant, proposed by Seneca, acknowledges fear that a Stoic aspirant might appropriately and honorably experience. As with anger, fear is an integral part of PTSD, and transition from military to civilian life makes the fear more difficult to deal with. With fear, however, the bonds of “community with comrades” can provide comfort and protection.
Chapter 6 focuses on grieving, and while the issues are less dramatic than fear or anger, the ancients had plenty of experience with the matter, hard won. Seneca and Cicero were concerned with decorum, with tears that burst into weeping, and with the clear distinctions over gender and weeping which all societies note. Men crying, and the conditions under which they can cry, are different from culture to culture. Indeed, our own era has seen a shift to greater acceptance of open male grief, though without making much headway in respect for it, nor for a socially sanctioned decorum associated with it. Matching the ancient commentaries with modern anecdotes about the therapeutic role of grief, Sherman questions whether the cost of denying or deferring grief’s “natural expression” is still underestimated.
In the final chapter of the book, the author summarizes the balance that must be found between dissociation of the horrors of war and maintaining the ties of friendship and humanity that make for a healthy human being. The Stoic authors waffle (whether from conviction or uncertainty) on the extent to which the emotions can be restrained, suppressed or avoided. Dr. Sherman turns to literary examples from World War One (Siegfried Sassoon, Septimus Warren Smith) for descriptions of the struggle to come to terms with the welter of emotions stirred up by wartime experience.
In concluding her book, Sherman cautions the reader that the hard Stoicism of the ancients seems an impossible goal for most people, and quite possibly a dangerous approach to dealing with emotional responses that cannot always be suppressed due to PTSD. Yet, the thin gruel she offers of “soft Stoicism” seems barely more than cherry-picked quotes from distraught Romans … none of whom faced combat directly. Thus Stoic Warriors offers the reader an erudite review of Stoic literature on the key emotions experienced by warriors, a somewhat more casual and idiosyncratic review of literary and personal recollections of war in the 20th century (mainly), and not much in the way of solution for the average American soldier in “cultivating humanity.”
I’ll hold my own conclusions about Dr. Sherman’s effort to the concluding section of this post, but let me take a somewhat more philistine approach to assessing the value of Greco-Roman Stoicism for the American military. One based on the history of both the philosophy and armed conflict.
“Stoic Warriors” Table of Contents
1 A Brave New Stoicism 1
2 Sound Bodies and Sound Minds 18
3 Manners and Morals 42
4 A Warrior’s Anger 64
5 Fear and Resilience 100
6 Permission to Grieve 130
7 The Downsized Self 150
2. Was an ancient philosophy useful in the past?
Roman Maybe, but Not Stoic
Having summarized Dr. Sherman’s cross-referencing of Greco-Roman philosophy with the emotional and moral challenges facing the 21st century American military, let’s turn to an obvious first question.
If Stoicism is to be useful for the American military, was it ever useful to the Roman military? If ever there was a rigourous laboratory for Stoicism, one would think it would be the 800+ years of Roman military history. How did the Roman army actually work, down through the centuries? The Romans managed a significant prosperity-peace differential across their frontiers for centuries, against both peer civilizations and barbarians. Perhaps their experience offers ideas for the West.
The officer rank of the Roman legions were staffed with Roman nobility, by and large, and it was through a combination of military and civilian responsibility that an ambitious Roman nobleman climbed the ranks of Republican, and then Imperial, service. Literate, indeed exceptionally literary, this group of individuals was fighting for career purposes and did not depend on the military for livelihood or pension — though the booty of conquest was a welcome addition to personal and familial wealth.
Ordinary soldiers were a different matter entirely. After a period of basic training they would join an auxiliary or legionary force and serve for 20 to 25 years, retiring with a pension and often a grant of land. The history of the Roman military is complex but for the sake of simplicity we can say that the life of the soldier for a great part of the history of Rome was one of distinction, that is, they were distinct from civilians. The boundary areas around military installations and frontier zones were “no go” for civilians. As Peter Heather points out in his recent book on the end of the Roman Empire, the Romans managed to keep their imperial legions rock-steady for centuries by pulling young men out of the civilian world and brutalizing them for 20-25 years … under rules that were completely different than those of their unarmed civilian counterparts. The Roman period of history had few rules governing warfare. Legions occasionally slaughtered and dispersed entire peoples. In turn, they were themselves slaughtered to the point of extinction at famous battles such as Cannae, Carrhae, and Teutoberg Forest.
For an ordinary soldier to leave the bounds of a fort without permission was punished with death. To fall asleep on sentry duty was punished by death. And to fall into the hands of an enemy usually meant a very, very bad death. To become a raw recruit was to suffer continual blows from the vitis (vine-branch staff) of the centurion. Civilian commentators of the time referred to the permanently-addled brains of the resulting soldiery. And contemporaneous accounts described the Roman military training practice as bloodless war, and Roman war as bloody practice. The Roman short sword was the gladius, and soldiers were trained to stab and twist with its tip while protecting themselves and their neighbours with the classic rectangular shield. Roman combat effectiveness, if we believe Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, came from placing centurions (vetted for their combat skills) behind the greener troops to ensure that they killed exactly according to their endless practice. An enemy’s reward for successfully hacking their way through the first few ranks of less-experienced Roman legionaries was to meet the most-experienced veterans of edged-weapon warfare at their daisy-fresh best. Evenly matched, few armies withstood the Roman legions. Roman civil war between competing legionary forces also records appalling casualties. The stakes in such domestic battles were often as large as those with an enemy of Rome. Casualties were treated on the field by experienced medical personnel (physicians and orderlies). The severely wounded, even on a victorious battlefield, were dispatched quickly, as best I can tell, by their own colleagues.
To survive one’s twenty-plus year enlistment, be granted citizenship and land, and established in a colonia of other veterans, one required more than ordinary toughness and good luck. Yet military life was not only attractive, it was followed (as we know by tombstones scattered across the empire) by father and son in many circumstances. Soldiers received preferential access to food, medical care, lodging, salaries, and social status. Their life expectancy was actually pretty good by comparison with civilians. The large-scale wars which form the highlights of Roman history could be widely spaced, so some soldiers would have only experienced one or perhaps two major campaigns in the early imperial period. The military, and its infrastructure, represented the vast majority of the Roman state’s annual budgetary expenditure. As the imperial era set in, the army was both protector and assessor of the Emperor, and was treated accordingly. That Rome sustained between 300,000 and 500,000 men at arms during its imperial heyday would suggest that Romans were good at getting military morale, effectiveness and motivation right. The NCO corp of centurions was a meritocracy: literate, professional, and honed by war. Promotion could lead to tremendous prestige. The tombstones and occasional written scraps of history describe individual common soldiers by name and detail their extraordinary careers in warfare, serving in many locations across the Empire. In a formal sense, then, these were professional soldiers, not part-time warriors.
And unlike the Republican era, these were not citizen-soldiers … they were soldiers destined to become citizens.
Needless to say, the sensibility of the Roman soldier was vastly different than the 21st century recruit. Life expectancy was a fraction of the modern era, for civilian and soldier alike. Most Romans would have been personally familiar with epidemic disease and its frightening random appearance. The vast majority of the Roman populace would have been involved in food production, and in the daily ritual of killing and butchering animals. As most of us are vaguely aware from years of sword-and-sandals epics, Roman sensibilities over animal and human suffering were dramatically different from our own. Whether through the circus, gladiatorial entertainment, or the justice system, the brutality of war never caught any new Roman soldier by surprise. Even Roman culinary tastes suggest a very “visceral” worldview, literally. Triumphal Roman public art glorified the physical destruction of its individual enemies. The dispersal of enemy men, women, and children to perpetual slavery was an ongoing part of imperial trade, and part of daily civilian experience.
Roman history was also replete with the enslavement, maiming and torture of captured Roman soldiers who had lost a battle. There was no gracious losing in the ancient world. In a period where human power was paramount for building and agriculture, the institution of slavery was pervasive and had a strong influence on warfare and the causes of war. Losers in a war became the acquired industrial might of the victor. Even the most humble of societies therefore had something valuable to contribute to Roman society — their own flesh and that of their offspring.
History records the Roman legions taking great delight in recovering comrades who’d been enslaved by Germanic tribes for 40 years. There’s some suggestion that the Parthians transferred captured Romans so far east after the battle of Carrhae (53 BCE) that they subsequently fought Chinese troops in Sogdia (near modern Samarkand). Roman war was, therefore, existential for the troops who fought … as was much of Roman civilian life, certainly. Geopolitics, let alone war, was a blood sport. While small colonies of allies did cause trouble in later eras of the Empire, there was no such thing as a conquered Roman enemy, within imperial boundaries, reconstituting its cultural values. Roman conquest could be final.
Paired in war with the legions were more lightly-armed auxiliaries. Often they were “just in time” soldiers recruited from barbarian or captive peoples for a fixed period at a fixed rate and given access to the spoils of war as opportunity allowed. In other cases, they would be used for lighter policing and frontier duties. During Imperial times, it was forbidden for civilians to carry weapons — so the interior of the empire was essentially defenseless in the face of trained soldiers. This pattern further distinguished military culture from its civilian counterpart. It wasn’t uncommon for auxiliaries to eventually join a legion and make their way up the ranks and through the service to retire on a pension. Rome was to face former barbarian auxiliaries in battle many times through its history.
What role did philosophy, especially Stoicism, play in the maintenance of Roman combat effectiveness?
Stoicism in the philosophical, capital “S” sense, seems to have played little role in the life of the ordinary Roman soldier. Despite the fact that Roman military history is replete with centuries of dramatic slaughter and enslavement, there are no temples or altars to Stoic principles. Nor could there be. Of brutality, pain, horror, and death, the average Roman soldier had plenty of experience. Of Stoic philosophical musing, apparently little. Our primary sources for Stoicism come from the Roman literary elite, as reviewed by Dr. Sherman, including the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. We might assume then, that the solaces of Stoicism were more thoroughly appreciated by political practitioners than by the military.
Archaeology of the period has uncovered temples, military votive altars, and religious objects that suggest that the worship of Fortuna, Mithras, Jupiter Optimus Maximus, or Roma itself, were more to the troops liking. The emperor assumed god-like properties during much of the imperial period and the legions were effectively under his control (or his life was at risk). Each recruit swore his oath to a special life-like metal mask (imago) which would allow the recruit to recognize the emperor. It was Christian reluctance to include the Roman emperor in religious observance that distinguished them from a multitude of other religious fads and traditions in the Roman world. Across the centuries of Roman civilization, religious appetites certainly varied. As Gibbon once noted, with plentiful sarcasm, “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.” Stoicism, as opposed to stoicism, seems unlikely to have played much of a role amongst the ranks of Roman soldiers.
After briefly looking at Roman military structure and success, and at the absence of any indication that Greco-Roman Stoicism formally played a part in it, we might profitably ask whether translating Greco-Roman Stoicism into an American military setting makes any sense.
Why even bother?
If the Roman troops left Stoicism to the emperor and sought more immediate and traditional religious support for their lives, why should we expect American troops to alter or abandon their religious beliefs (largely, though not entirely, Christian) for an updated Stoicism?
Here we must hypothesize briefly about Dr. Sherman’s motivations. Declaring such an exercise self-evidently fruitless and historically naïve (ab initio) would have made for a very short book. Really short books by academics aren’t considered a “good thing,” and Stoic Warriors is not particularly short. As wags have put it, “academia is about converting B.S. into plane tickets.” We therefore have “Stoic Warriors” for some reason, despite the lack of Roman military interest in the subject.
Perhaps Dr. Sherman was attempting to disabuse amateurs in the US officer corps about the modern value of Stoicism in a secular US military? Her preamble, quoted earlier, seems to suggest as much. Was this attempt an academic or publishing retrofit based on her available academic tools and her short tenure at Annapolis? “Stoic Warriors” does not elaborate on this point. We don’t have to doubt Dr. Sherman’s sincerity. The insights into personal psychology by ancient Stoics surely have their own intrinsic value and importance. But it seems to me we can expect some exploration of the stakes involved in American warfare, even if events such as My Lai and Abu Ghraib seem to loom large in the author’s imagination. Nor does the book make any attempt to set Stoicism, or the psychological and physical prices of war, in any broader historical context — Roman or American.
How might we evaluate the seriousness and sensibility of Dr. Sherman’s efforts to bridge the reality of eight centuries of Roman legionary fighting — heck even the two centuries of American warfare — with the modern sensibilities derived from Stoic philosophy?
Roman wars, to a degree unimaginable in modern America, were actively led by the politically ambitious nobles of their era. The sons of nobility entered military service as adjutants to senior commanders and worked their way up the political, economic, and prestige ladder by a combination of civil and military service. For these ambitious, hyper-literate, physically-fit youngsters, Stoicism might offer occasional solace for their time out of the civic spotlight and away from the comforts of villa and basilica. They would be expected to read the manuals suitable for military education of their class — and certainly the endurance of pain, fear, and discomfort would be part of their family upbringing as well as the expectation for their military service. Physical courage was as prized by the Roman elite as by the hard-pressed legionaries.
So we might imagine a tiny minority of individuals finding solace with, and inspiration from, Stoicism in a Roman Army. By I don’t think we can claim ancient validation for any modern application. Stoicism in the modern world must stand on its own, both practically and culturally.
My amateur conclusions are therefore as follows:
- To the extent that Stoicism is Greco-Roman, it is hardly military.
- To whatever minor extent it may be military, it is superficially so — and we can point to Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Admiral James Stockdale for evidence of its appeal to elite, rather than line, soldiers. This suggests that it is adequate perhaps only for certain rare personalities.
- To the extent that it was absent from regular soldiering in a slave-based, agrarian empire that faced existential threats for centuries, it is untested now as a basis for sustained military success in the modern world. It has had no earlier “practical test” of value, worth speaking of.
- I think it’s compelling testimony that the Romans found little military use for Stoicism, yet for reasons which I’ll outline later, every successful army (or male group, for that matter) has integrated some aspect of “stoicism” in its training and undertakings. The Stoics may therefore offer tangential inspirational reading for educated officers. As indeed they have for several centuries.
3. Are the conditions for soldiers changed from the past?
Killology and the “Hothouse” Society — A Personal Reflection
Dr. Sherman’s has advocated a “soft Stoicism” melded with an individual ethical compass derived from a variant of modern liberal transnational progressivism. Her citation of the Stoic phrase “citizen of the world” has perhaps lost some of its lustre since the era of her service as professor at the Naval Academy. In the last section, I reviewed the potential historical case study for Stoicism — an imperial military, staffed by professionals, facing centuries of peer and barbarian warfare. In this section, I’d like to look at the raw material from which our own society creates soldiers. If the Romans ignored Stoicism as a philosophy for soldiers, perhaps there are some new conditions under which it might still be applicable in the modern American military.
First we might ask, are American recruits (or any nation’s recruits, for that matter) psychologically ill-suited to the nature of modern warfare? If so, are we better off using proxy or auxiliary military forces to enforce state power … ultimately a more humane way to fight America’s wars? Again, how well suited are our adolescents for a life of modern war, with or without Dr. Sherman’s suggestions for dealing with emotional trauma? Are we asking the impossible of them? Do we need to create a separate culture for them and dispense with the citizen-soldier, taking the Roman model and offering citizenship as reward for service (as indeed the US military now quietly does)?
Under the rubric of Killology, former soldier David Grossman has written convincingly about modern military training, and how it is designed to directly overcome the instinctive limits on human aggression. (Actually, I was a little surprised that his ideas do not make an appearance in “Stoic Warriors”). Grossman also notes that videogame and entertainment culture of Western youngsters has immunized and numbed a generation to violence against other humans. He’s convinced that the results of both influences (training and entertainment) are deeply damaging to the individuals involved. While he does acknowledge, as noted above, the Roman breakthrough in the rationalization of edged weapon warfare, he doesn’t spend much time reflecting on the nature of those troops as they came to Roman military life.
I think this is a mistake.
A primarily rural culture, exposed to repeated epidemic disease, and the work- and childbirth-related injuries of such a community (let alone its abbreviated justice process), has a profoundly different relationship with death and killing. The political, social, and cultural turmoil of European and American history over the last few centuries was also filled with personal violence. Were Americans really dissociated from it before World War 2? I have my reservations about Grossman’s assumptions about the degree of discomfort with interpersonal violence for people coming from hunting/gathering cultures, or agricultural communities on the frontiers. Indeed, the American military still draws a disproportionate number of troops from rural areas.
While only 21 percent of Americans live in rural areas, 44 percent of the qualified recruits come from these areas.
For different reasons, the army is getting more of its officers from rural areas. About two thirds of officers come from ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) programs at colleges. Because of growing anti-military attitudes in many urban colleges, ROTC programs are disappearing from colleges in large cities. New York City colleges produce less than ten percent as many ROTC officers today than they did fifty years ago. The big drop came during the Vietnam war period, when anti-war fervor at urban colleges led to ROTC programs being dropped. Most of these were never restored. Thus, not only are a disproportionate number of troops coming from rural areas, but so are a disproportionate number of the officers, even though some of the best colleges are found in the cities.
Let’s turn briefly then to the childhood of soldiers (primarily men) in the periods up to the mid-20th century in America. Like the Roman recruits of old, much of America came from rural or agricultural origins.
Permit me a small tangent. My only practical reference for rural life experience is my own parents who were born on small mixed-agriculture farms in the 1930s. As children, most of the meat and vegetables they ate were raised and grown by their families. Eggs were collected daily. Chickens were slaughtered weekly. Animals were born in the spring (often in a night-and-day midwifery setting) and then neutered or butchered in the fall. Pigs, sheep, cattle, and horses came into the world and left it rather regularly through disease, injury, old age, or the cook pot. Elderly work animals were euthanized when injured or ill. Dogs and cats were part of the farm’s ecosystem and if they didn’t perform as required, they too were killed. Rats, mice, and various bird species were under constant attack from the farmer and his kids because they literally ate the family’s food. The smell of manure in the air was constant background hum. Guns and knives were daily tools.
By the time a child was ten years old, human nature (omnivorous and death-dealing) was pretty self-evident. Adulthood (for men and women), meant dispensing death regularly — usually to prepare the family’s food but occasionally to forestall animal suffering or simply to bring the farm’s economics back in balance. To be human was to kill. And children can be encouraged to hunt and kill with little apparent trauma.
This upbringing, not so distant from our own time, must contrast dramatically with the modern military recruit … sent forth to basic training perhaps with Grossman’s superficial videogame programming to kill humans yet without the life experience of having killed and butchered any of the food they’ve eaten since childhood. The average American eats roughly 200 pounds of animal flesh each year. Yet I suspect only a tiny percentage of our military does much more than cook and consume that flesh. I’d suggest that this distinguishes our modern military from the armies of even the recent past, and it creates a “hothouse” upbringing that perhaps increases the shock of dealing with the trauma of war, and its emotional consequences.
I do think childhood background might make a big difference in how an adult responds to the stresses of war. But that’s only my personal opinion. As recently as WW2, a significant number of soldiers in the Anglosphere armies of the US, Canada, and Australia would have been from farms or fisheries. As noted above, even now the American army gets over 40% of its military recruits from rural areas … way out of whack with national demographics.
Even in my own limited background as a child on a grandparent’s farm in the 1960s, execution, death, and consumption of animals was a constant reality. Whether chicks killed by ferret or fox, rat caught by dog, mouse by cat, piglet crushed by mother pig … any child from the point of self-awareness onward was surrounded by the harder realities of life. The events of human reproduction, birth, suffering, and death are mirrored daily in farm life. The world as it is. My own experience and response to that world referred always to my parents’ attitude. And because they were farm kids, my initial shock at animal death and tragedy was treated calmly and reassuringly by them.
That calmness was to influence my later life. As a graduate student, I took a summer job with a provincial museum, preparing animal skeletons for reference collections. In “Kali’s Basement,” I spent a few very stinky months flensing and “biodegrading” everything from baby field mice to adult buffalo. I pretty much butchered my way through the entire four-footed fauna of the Rocky Mountains, with detours for the occasional bird. The job definitely took some getting used to … but psychologically it was mostly a matter of coping with unusual sights and smells the first time, and then getting on with it. Did my childhood experiences on a farm make the difference in how I responded to that rather awful working environment? I assume so but it’s impossible to say. Perhaps it was predisposition of personality.
So with that brief tangent complete, let’s return to the issue of how children and young adults are raised to deal with battle, and with the tragedies of warfare and conquest.
I’m reminded of military historian John Keegan’s vivid comment to a rather horrified scholar that the greatest threat of injury to Napoleonic soldiers was the wounds caused by the shattered bone and teeth of their comrades which cannon fire would splatter around the battlefield (resulting in blood poisoning). Now Keegan has a real reputation for bringing battlefields to life, but that same imagination seems largely absent in the modern scholarship on warfare. That particular anecdote fully dramatizes the gunpowder era of military experience … and it certainly couldn’t have been much happier an experience when projectiles and edged weapons were how men met death and disability.
Dr. Sherman would have made a real contribution to the subject of Stoicism and the military if she had spent some time focusing on the stakes involved in warfare. How one can study war without understanding its implications, both social and political? How can one know the implications without a more fundamental experience of human vulnerability and its relation to the natural world? It’s something to ponder as heavily industrialized societies wage perpetual soft war in underdeveloped countries.
Irrespective of any conclusions one might draw about the increased susceptibility of modern troops to shock and trauma of the battlefield, America is now fighting with the military it has … not some pre-industrial Roman killing machine camped on its frontiers waiting for a one-in-a-generation opportunity for booty and mayhem across the border. Sustained military activity has a price. Dr. Sherman does a fine job outlining one slice of the price that must be paid. There are others.
PTSD is a serious logistical problem, and one which seems to be inherent to human physiology. This recent post on Strategypage.com gives a very good overview of the group statistics on American military incidence of PTSD … the “magic” number for an average soldier now appears to be 300 days of combat, stretched across the entire span of their military career. Some troopers handle less. Some seem to have a limitless capacity (it’d be interesting to know why!). No doubt better selection at the front end of the military recruiting and training process will incrementally increase that average number. Perhaps a new generation of pharmaceuticals associated with long-term memory formation will further expand that number as suggested recently here. A careful review of gender information may also suggest the more effective, but un-PC, redeployment of women in the military who appear to be suffering from higher relative rates of PTSD. Increasing combat availability of American troops may turn out to require better deployment rather than less.
Nonetheless, I think it would be instructive to look more carefully at the childhood of recruits to see if they provide suitable background for warfare. When we look at the cross-fertilization of police, fire, and emergency personnel with military service, it’s clear that some personalities (supplemented through their experience) thrive in conditions that most of us would find appalling and traumatic. An America which is inadvertently taking on the role of nation-builder for those who don’t want it, needs to be as creative as possible in fielding its armies.
A brief recollection of human history will confirm that humans can withstand quite horrific battlefield conditions if they (1) come from brutalized conditions to begin with, (2) and society offers only positive reinforcement for their efforts at coping, and (3) their personal experiences are left largely unrecorded. Military history is replete with dry accounts of what must have been hellish conditions. Soldiers and sailors were exposed to terrible conditions from an early age (think of the children who grew up in the Royal Navy as “powder monkeys”). Many of the severely injured died immediately of their wounds, picked clean thereafter by camp followers and those hired specifically to collect equipment, clothing, and weapons at battlefields. They were often unceremoniously buried overboard or in anonymous mass graves. So how did we as humans get this far, through a history filled with cataclysmic events, if there isn’t some capacity for human beings to withstand (albeit unevenly) and ignore suffering? Or at the very least, raise children less influenced by those events.
In my cynical opinion, if CNN treated childbirth, firefighting, college football, and car accidents the way they treat battlefield casualty wards, we’d have no newborns, houses, NFL, or automobiles. We might also have fewer Rwandas and Cambodias, but that’s a different story. Even so, the recent revelations about medical care at Walter Reed medical centre indicates how easy it is for even the most anti-war of media to miss a story that fulfills their agenda to portray the “futility of war.”
Creating an American army that is less in need of sophisticated philosophical solace, such as offered by Dr. Sherman, probably requires mobilizing a number of resources: better selection and training of combat troops, more careful deployment and husbanding of human capacity for trauma, greater use of proxies, auxiliaries, and mercenaries, and a reduction of the self-serving hand-wringing currently applied by liberal media only to military trauma. I’ll look closer at these issues shortly but first it’s worth considering the cultural premises that underlie an attempt to apply Stoic philosophy to American military life.
We need to turn to American attitudes toward war and the military generally, and judge whether philosophy has anything to offer that pharmacy and religion cannot provide.
4. Do Americans share the same premises about warfare?
Sherman’s March through Warfare — Hindsight Bias and the Anglosphere
It was noted recently that the US government’s financial obligations from the Civil War have only recently concluded … with the death of the last Civil War widow in 2003. With life expectancy still increasing in America, that fact should give everyone pause in considering the psychological footprint that modern war will have on a nation. With every passing year, we also get further information about the traumas inflicted on soldiers during WW1, WW2, and in Korea. Whether “shell shock” or “battle fatigue” or “post-traumatic stress disorder” … recent medical science has given us cause to be a lot more appreciative of the sacrifice that generations of men and women made during Anglosphere history. Apart from any therapeutic consideration for PTSD, what can we conclude from this new medical and psychological perspective on the individual price paid by soldiers?
I think the political divisions in American society, which parallel in general terms the various cultural origins of the colonists and immigrants of American history, can be carried through into an analysis of attitudes toward war. In general terms, “what are we fighting for?” The blogosphere is probably the biggest forum for this debate, and it is by no means concluded, so my own consideration will be brief, tentative, and narrow.
If one thinks, in parallel with one’s family, friends, and community, that American wars are always fought for some other group’s prosperity or values … or for some other class’ continued dominance, then the key issue of war in the democracy is how to forestall it. And when one cannot forestall it, how does one ameliorate its impact?
If one thinks, in parallel with one’s family, friends, and community, that American wars are always fought as part of a centuries-long process of resistance to alternative methods of governance and economic organization, and there’s nowhere else to go in case of defeat, then the key issue of war is victory, irrespective of the individual and cultural costs. The fact that such wars are now fought on a global scale, from the commanding heights of affluence and technological power is irrelevant.
Current Anglosphere security and prosperity has clearly been built on a metaphorical mountain of young white male corpses stretching back beyond Valley Forge. Many died needlessly of disease, military incompetence, and mere circumstance. Security was built further upon a much larger pool of traumatized survivors. We may well ask “what debt is owed those who provided American freedom?” And again, the question can be answered in two broad ways … “never again” vs. “now, our turn.”
The former approach, attempting to therapeutize the outcomes of war, and moderate the enthusiasms of those entering war in the first place, is very much part and parcel of “Stoic Warriors.” The book is both cautionary tale and heart-breaking recollection. It comes out of consultation with an academic career officer corps. It cherry-picks anecdotes that reference individual trauma, moral quandary, and moral failure, but operates fully outside any historical context of warfare … for the consequences of communal sacrifice by individuals.
The latter approach, however, places the individual sacrifices of soldiers within the broader social context of cultural self-determination. If suffering on behalf of liberal democracy has entailed nightmare, doing so for the losing causes of monarchy, dictator, and autocracy has invoked even grimmer dreams. Past wars were indeed ultimately futile for the Dacians, for the Venetians, for the Byzantines, for the French Revolutionary Army, for the Imperial Japanese Navy, for the Third Reich. But the individual sacrifices of generations of Anglosphere warriors have not been in vain when we turn to the issue of how their descendants have been able to control their global environment, and sustain their economic and cultural way of life.
“We rule” is a simple fact. How we got there is a sobering tale but not one that should paralyze us.
Victor David Hanson recently commented on the fact that America faces challenges from both the pre-modern and the post-modern across the planet. The reflexive attitudes of American commanders attempting to win a war have papered over many disasters throughout in American history. On the evening of May 5, 1864, Union troops at the Battle of the Wilderness spent the night amongst the skeletal remains of their comrades killed one year earlier at the Battle of Chancellorville. Through the night, the wounded out beyond the lines screamed as they were burnt to death by forest fires started by cannon fire earlier in the day.
In hindsight, should the Union forces have disengaged and marched back to Washington DC to save its troops such a horrible experience? With hindsight, in light of the implications for the future of the nation, and its slave population, few would now say “yes.” Yet at the time, I’m sure intrepid reporters could have found thousands of troops on both sides that would have said “hell, yes.”
“Hindsight bias” is a wonderful tool that lets humans pick and choose the moments in history when they would, or would not, have sacrificed for military success. The more time passes, the more lackadaisical our appreciation can afford to be. In the moment, we don’t have the luxury of knowing which course will be success, which morally significant, which task impossible.
It’s as if two men are standing under the same umbrella. The one holding the umbrella feels the raindrops and says “it’s raining.” The one just standing under the umbrella declares “there’s no such thing as rain.” Context is everything. And so it is, to my mind, with treatments of warfare and the military.
From a therapeutic or modern philosophical perspective, the challenge of educating military officers for the stresses and sacrifices of combat can be made relatively straightforward by simply ignoring the role of war and the nature of an enemy. Americans, under this ethos, can always live up to the highest ideals of their society, irrespective of circumstance, and irrespective of adversary. We’ll hold every soldier accountable to civilian post-hoc standards of behaviour, and if they lose a war, well that’s someone else’s fault and someone else’s problem. Such notions of idealized individual ethical obligation are further simplified by a conception of American culture that comes to us courtesy of late 20th century constitutional lawyers, rather than cultural historians.
If we view the military mere as an up-armored version of the police and firemen, then the solution to the Stoic dilemma of self-control and emotional reserve is further education, as compassionate a program to deal with disability and PTSD as possible, and lots and lots more money, lawyers, and reporters.
If we view soldiers as an expression of national will, however, then regrettably they are a consumable … like brake pads … as clearly they were treated during America’s wars before Korea. But this latter attitude cannot withstand modern public scrutiny, so it must hide itself until conditions get very grim. It is too paradoxical in a culture and nation that attempts to accommodate individual preference as much as possible.
Others have discussed the deeply compromised attitude of the modern social sciences and humanities toward military service and warfare. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Racial gerrymandering. Gender-based double standards. Accommodating civilian obsessions with military traditions is fraught with difficulty. Largely ignored by the rest of the world’s combatants, the US military’s “helpers” are convinced that they have something important to add to the equation even if it offers no sign of contributing success on the battlefield.
Since under a democratic system, it’s impossible for a government program or service to “go extinct” through incompetence it’s clear that a “civilian” model of military governance will prosper indefinitely in America, especially if the military is not required to win a war. And since the country has not faced existential combat for 60 years, we’ve yet to see how much of this new form of military governance will hold up under real duress. What is clear from the experience of the last five years, however, is that no American war will be fought in the near future without an emphasis on individual suffering rather than communal victory.
For this reason alone, Dr. Sherman’s book is a powerful map of the issues that one large portion of the American public thinks is important when considering military service. It’s all about the individual — their body, their emotions, and their legal liability (masked as moral obligation). So the topics which the author has ably summarized from Stoic literature — of decorum, of anger, fear, grief and loss … will be front and center for some time to come.
5. What will be the conditions of warfare in the next century?
Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish, and Short — Meet Your Neighbours for the next Few Centuries
In preceding sections, I’ve tried to place Stoicism in its historical context, reviewed the nature of modern American childhood and its possible impact on modern war-fighting, and skimmed over two competing visions of American warfare. Next I’d like to look at the circumstance of the wars we are liable to fight in the 21st century, because I think it is also central to whether Stoicism (or any form of secular philosophy) can sustain American war-making ability in the long term.
When thinking about ameliorating the suffering of our military at the individual level, what can we expect from the coming century? Are we prepared?
As the events of the post-Cold War period have illustrated, American troops in the Third World are better at drive-by action than setting up shop for good. Whether Lebanon, Haiti, or Somalia, the American government and its people have shown little appetite for going and staying. Germany, Italy, Spain, Korea, and Japan … OK. But anywhere else, it’s Special Forces country with mighty discreet visits indeed. Dr. Tom Barnett has done yeoman service in summarizing what the US military has actually done since the end of the Cold War, as opposed to what it wanted to do. To “close the Gap,” in his parlance, someone is going to have to go … and stay.
Now we stand at the cusp of decision-making about Iraq. It’s clear that migrating people from tribal and clan-based serfdom to a post-Ottoman nation-state is a non-trivial task. It’s also become an incredibly expensive task … one which only a mammoth economy like the US could attempt. A broader question for policy theorists and historians is whether it is an impossible task. At least for a 21st century America. This isn’t a frivolous intellectual endeavour because there’s no sign that Iraq will be the last place Americans attempt to “fix” in this century. It is likely just one of the first.
The reasons for this are, I believe, intrinsic to the economic and cultural structure of the modern world … and very much part of the bigger discussion outlined in this blog about Anglosphere exceptionalism.
Over the space of the last year or two, I’ve reviewed a number of books for this blog that discuss the dynamics of economic prosperity and the slow evolution of the habit of civic engagement (cf. Lewis on Productivity, Harrison on The Central Liberal Truth, Chua on market-dominant minorities, Crosby on the move to quantification in 13th century northern Italy, Mokyr on the Industrial Enlightenment, Stewart/Jacob on the role of public science in 18th century England). As noted briefly above, Dr. Thomas Barnett posits an industrialized Core sharing a world with a turbulent, unstable, violent Gap.
Based on reading those books, I think a case is made that the cultural underpinnings of advanced industrial society require deeper roots and greater cultural demolition than modern G7 countries are willing to admit. To my mind, we have no post-WW2 success stories on the migration of a nation from Third World squalor to Second World industriousness. If you weren’t conquered by the Japanese or the British (and subject to cultural “clear-cutting”), your 20th century didn’t make much difference to your relative prosperity. American oceanic hegemony during the last half of the 20th century gave many countries a boost in foodstuffs and a reduction in disease … which most immediately converted into more mouths. Net economic progress over the last half-century was often minimal (and sometimes negative).
So what if the deficit in the wider world is not financial but cultural? What if the “natural state” is neither modern nor industrial (in Prof. Douglass North’s estimation) but a melange of tribal factions maintained by overwhelming force? Where does that put the US military? And more specifically, for purposes of this blog post, where does that put Dr. Sherman’s pseudo-Stoic Kevlar-shrouded “citizens of the world”?
If we list the cultural factors that might be leveraged to concentrate the time, money, and people of the industrialized world in “fixing” some dire situation in Dr. Barnett’s Non-Integrating Gap, all appear missing or compromised in modern US military ventures. Whether through communication, or through organization, the American military capacity to enforce cultural change seems a thing of the past. And a glance at the 19th century history of Americans in the Philippines suggests that conditions for successfully inducing cultural change are even rarer than one might suppose. Anglosphere history is filled with stellar examples of successful colonization of hunter-gatherer environments, and very few successes in agrarian or pastoral economies.
Yet what if cultural change is the only route out of the turbulence besetting several billion people? What if the key to the riddle of 20th century capitalism is that burgeoning trade requires security … and security is about to become prohibitively expensive in many parts of the planet?
More than most people, and with plenty of dread therefore, I don’t think there’s much potential for *relative* change in the list of “haves” and “have nots” in our lifetimes. While the 20th century has been very successful in increasing world population, and alleviating absolute poverty in many parts of the world, changes in relative prosperity (short of cataclysm) seem very unlikely in the near- or medium- term according to the economic history of the last century. The result is that the best intentions of industrial world will always find an antagonistic constituency, and increasingly one that will turn violence and chaos to good advantage. Violence, as author Robert Kaplan has effectively illustrated in many of his books, is a perennially useful tool in much of the world — for taking what you want and keeping it. Suppressing violence will require yet more violence, and of an upfront, in-your-face quality that brooks no opposition – as the “campers” in Sadr City are trying out at the moment. In the era of modern explosives, this will place Americans or their proxies in great danger — danger, as we’ve seen in Dr. Sherman’s book, which includes death, dismemberment, and derangement.
As noted earlier, the statistics on PTSD indicate that the average American soldier reaches a career limit on combat at roughly the 300 day mark. In other words, one can roughly calculate the entire combat potential of the US military for the coming decades by tallying up the number of current soldiers, new soldiers, and the ratio of combat troops to support troops. All of them have to be paid, pensioned, and cared for (per Dr. Sherman) once they’ve become mentally or physically unable to fight. What I draw from these calculations is that there aren’t enough Americans (let alone American soldiers) to shift the world’s population economically or culturally to a scenario where they can join the industrialized world (led by the countries under the old British and Japanese colonial footprint). The American security umbrella may be able to sustain the Core (in Dr. Barnett’s terms) but I don’t see how it can find the money and troops to bridge, let alone “fix”, the Gap.
Just a day or two ago, I watched a television interview from Kabul with a British aid worker. The projects that were most successful and which invoked the least communal resistance had nothing to do with road-building or poppy eradication. Teaching practical building skills to orphans was a big success. In the natural course of things, the orphans could be put to immediate use refurbishing houses and compounds for local warlords. The kids had a job. The warlords got a new house. Everybody’s happy. Money to train orphans was welcome. All else was a cultural insult and deeply resented.
So if, at the end of the day, the billions (or more precisely trillions) of dollars spent in military and civilian geopolitical initiatives gets co-opted to simply strengthen tribalization of the Gap, or to restabilize the “natural state” in Douglass North’s words, the future will see a new generation of pre-modern warriors keen to attack the Core (while effectively living off it).
To summarize my argument then, (1) our prosperity and peace is far ahead of most of the world and increasing, (2) we don’t appear to have enough human capacity for combat to fix the world by force, and (3) money currently extracted from productive economies, filtered through unproductive economies, reappears as more combatants to start the cycle of disruption yet again. All in all, this seems more like a form of “Gap parasitism” enabled by the developed world’s good intentions.
Assuming I’m correct, and granting that’s a big assumption, the coming century’s peace-and-prosperity differentials (easily mapped below as per capita GDP [PPP]) will continue to create strong cross-currents of movement in people, products, and information. The values of people caught on opposing sides of the boundary (Core and Gap, to again use Dr. Tom Barnett’s terms) will be profoundly different, most clearly in the perceived role and importance of the individual in society. The importance of individual suffering (as a result of the experiences of war) will also been seen very differently. Dr. Sherman’s efforts, in this light, are likely a reflection of affluence — having the luxury to focus on real suffering which nevertheless has no geopolitical consequence.
Source: Adapted from Lewis, The Power of Productivity, 2004.
Since industrialized nations are behaving, per Amy Chua, as a market-dominant minority for the entire planet, and setting the constraints (if not the standard) by which economics and politics are practiced for all humans, we are surrounded by those who not only disdain our solutions but cannot achieve them if they wanted to. America has such a dominant global role for at least a few coming decades that the nation is being cast as parent rather than hegemon. And it’s requiring inhuman levels of restraint from citizen and veteran alike to respond compassionately to cultures violently resisting any change. The world has become the G7’s resentful dependent — resentful of green cards, of food, of money, of irrelevance to the rest of the world’s economic and social progress. Defeated in war first, and then indulged in riotous violent peace.
What if, as some scholars suggest, the chaos and turmoil of pre-industrialized world is the norm rather than the exception, and tremendous effort must be expended to move it out of such a “steady state”? Perhaps the one-time military differential provided by gunpowder is now forever gone, and all future efforts at changing economic circumstances will be far more tenuous and violent than even the dramas of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. There are, of course, many websites and blogs which address this issue directly.
Pace Dr. Sherman, but I think the formal ethics of Western philosophy will take a back seat to the exigencies of life in the Gap, and the solaces of religious belief in the Core. Some few individuals in America will be able, through quirks of personality, to distance themselves from the pain of life through mental disciplines like Stoic thought. And a great many more may be able to escape the mental and physical burdens of wartime injury through superior training and selection, carefully crafted pharmaceuticals, amazing breakthroughs in rehabilitation, and religious faith which reframes the duration and meaning of their suffering.
For combatants in the Gap, however, it will be suffering, suffering, suffering, with little amelioration. Much of that suffering will be unacknowledged and unnoticed. In other words, the historical norm.
6. What is the future of moral philosophy?
So What If I Haven’t Written Lately! Neither has Shakespeare.
The hurdles which Stoicism must overcome to provide value to the modern American military (beyond the actual content outlined by Dr. Sherman) include historical credibility, modern adolescent experience, cultural applicability, and economic and military cost (military affluence).
Finally, we can also take a quick look at whether Stoicism shares a substantial vulnerability with other branches of ancient and modern philosophy — the scientific revision of our understanding of human thought and emotion. Does Stoicism’s content, so carefully outlined by Dr. Sherman, actually match up with physiological reality? Or is it no more applicable for American soldiers than the four humours of Roman medicine (Galen’s blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm)?
Stoicism is very concerned about conscious and habitual control over the emotions. It focuses on the sense of Self (under one’s control) and Externals or Non-Self (toward which one must be indifferent). Do the cognitive sciences (neuroscience, cognitive psychology) have anything to offer which would support or negate Stoicism?
Modern cognitive science, in fact, has a great deal to tell us about the conflicts and paradoxes of conscious thought. And that information is changing almost monthly. As part of the Technological Singularity outlined by Ray Kurzweil, brain scanning equipment is leveraging IT technology improvements to improve both spatial resolution (the detail of brain activity) and temporal resolution (the number of “snapshots” per second) geometrically.
With development of fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), it is now possible to map and time the actions of the neurons of the human brain. For the first time in history, scientists have been able to tease apart the relation of feelings and emotions, between physical action and conscious decision, and the role of the emotions in rational decision-making. Even the mental processing during ethical dilemmas has been investigated at the cellular and organic level. How we think and feel, and what portion of our feelings are reflexive, habitual, or conscious are clearly very important in evaluating ancient philosophical theories.
While this blog post is hardly the place to review the scientific literature, and I’m not the person to do it accurately in any event, I can point to two major bodies of information which can be approached by the general reader.
The first is the area of the emotions and rational decision-making. Here authors such as Daniel Wegner have outlined the underlying physiology of decision-making and that fact that it is not entirely under conscious control. Wegner’s book The Illusion of Conscious Will is controversial but references much of the new scientific investigation of neural functioning in humans, especially the surprising delay between action and conscious thought about action. Apparently we consciously explain our behaviour after our brain has initiated behaviour. The implications of this discovery for Stoicism, and its emphasis on conscious control, are self-evident.
Working out how many fundamental emotions there actually are, and how they are converted into feelings, has been handled best (for the general reader) by Dr. Antonio Damasio in his two books The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness and Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. It turns out that scientists can map the basic emotions discussed by the Stoics, and begin to hypothesize how they are turned into feelings in conscious thought.
This knowledge has implications not only for judging the validity of Stoic methods and concepts, it also provides the foundation upon which medical treatment and prophylaxis can begin. The choice to truncate or ameliorate the emotions triggered by trauma is on the horizon. This will no doubt have implications in military tragedies as well as civilian.
Finally, relating to the broader issues of philosophy itself, a new generation of social and biological scientists has started to disassemble philosophy (the “footnotes to Plato”) with an eye on the new physiological information. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh : The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought is an opening salvo from the sciences. The work by husband-and-wife team, the Churchlands, has led to a new discipline called neurophilosophy (Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain) which will challenge professional philosophers to step away from ancient epigraphy and address the specifics of how human brains work.
Whether categorizing soldierly emotions, or evaluating moral philosophy and ethics, books such as “Stoic Warriors” may have a limited shelf life in the 21st century. They are now wedged between new insights into the specific individual costs of combat, and the rapidly increasing knowledge of how humans actually feel, make decisions and experience trauma at a physiological level … science and medicine, rather than impossible standards, may ultimately doom the Stoics (and many philosophers) to the sidelines of the military world.
7. In Conclusion
Can we fight any future war successfully under current constraints?
“Stoic Warriors” is a well-written attempt to find an ethos for the American military that draws on ancient tradition. That it ignores the social dictates of war along the way is no drawback if one recognizes the limitation from the start. Back cover blurbs by Madeleine Albright and Anthony Lake clearly set out the political, cultural, and philosophical origins of the author and her approach to military experience. This is a philosophical and therapeutic work and reflects, in my humble opinion, all that has brought both philosophy and social science into popular disrepute in some segments of society over the last 50 years. But that reality cannot detract from the book’s sincerity and its general utility as a synopsis of Roman Stoic thought about the strains of military life.
Dr. Sherman believes that a “soft stoicism” has a role to play in military life but that its ancient form cannot offer solace in the face of the physical and mental suffering that modern warfare brings. Sherman has done a real service by extracting what she can from this body of knowledge but it is thin gruel for those who think that an army’s job is to win wars, one way or the other. The commanders who ordered Fredericksburg (1862), Dresden, the Ardennes counteroffensive, and Hiroshima were thinking about the capacities of their soldiers as well … and placing that burden in the broader context of national survival.
As mentioned in my earlier review of Fred Iklé’s book on geopolitics, we are all trapped to some degree by our biographies. Sherman’s book gives a great capsule summary of Admiral Stockdale’s experiences, of the themes of Greco-Roman Stoicism, and of the “small-s” stoic traditions that are part of the American military. It does a credible job of describing how deeply damaging the experiences of war are for the human body and mind. It highlights the constant ethical and moral pitfalls of the modern battlefield. And it makes a conclusive, if obvious, case that Stoicism is not an effective solution to providing moral or ethical guidance for the active American military.
The emphasis on “right thinking” as a path to happiness is now more common in the realm of religion than philosophy. And it is more and more often administered as a therapeutic dose of antidepressant. Enduring pain and hardship can be made part of an institutional ethos, and can be strongly buttressed by shared religious faith and manipulation of male psychology, but ancient Stoicism, to my mind, can never survive the twin threats of liberal democracy and modern neuroscience.
I believe Dr. Sherman is right about Stoicism, but pretty much oblivious about the biological and cultural roots of “stoicism.” Stoicism demands a level of equanimity in the face of terrible events and experiences that cannot protect the individual, in any real way, from suffering. And as the reality of suffering in the military is now seen as qualitatively different by Americans, Stoicism is insufficient. As for the stoicism of effective militaries, it is a reflection of male group psychology and has been refined since hunting/gathering days. It enhances risk-taking, endurance and group cohesion. But it’s certainly no protection from suffering and death.
As science and medicine get a better handle on the physiology underlying PTSD and find better ways to preclude and monitor it, I believe the individual burdens of warfare will become part of a much larger debate over the kinds of resources the American nation can commit to controlling the world around it. There are limits, theoretically, and it’s likely the 21st century will reveal them in detail.
Stoicism, as outlined earlier in my discussion of the Roman military, does not seem “fit for purpose” as a military philosophy. The methods of training and cultivation necessary to create warriors require building confidence, competence, and overwhelming group cohesion. All of that, as Anglosphere history fully illustrates, can be completed in parallel with a functioning religious belief. And without ethics professors, in point of fact.
It seems hypocritical to require standards for military service that are unmet by any other arm of government – police, firefighting, prisons, child protective social services, EMS, ERs. To my mind, the broader concern over the damage done by, and to, soldiers actually cloaks a deeper reservation about the role of military force in the modern world. Many commentators, more eloquent than I, have made the same point.
This is a well-written book, with much to recommend it (with narrow limits), however I think it’s fair to say that the dismal history of philosophers instructing warriors has merely received an uneventful modern chapter. Regrettably, female philosophers inaugurating a Distinguished Chair in Ethics in 1997 at the US Naval Academy during Bill Clinton’s presidency have a particularly large credibility hurdle to overcome. This book may cut ice with the social scientists and academics but it can’t lend much comfort to those required to fight wars.
Nonetheless, I would recommend this book to an educated soldier who has been through combat. In the absence of good medical handles on PTSD, this book will at least provide a sense of community and shared experience (a role which I understand is also played by Dr. Jonathan Shay’s Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming). And of course, there are the very rare men such as Admiral Stockdale who may take to Stoicism with whole heart, and find it sustaining.
For me, however, using a different method of assessment, Stoicism was a non-starter as an American ethos for war. It was “straw man” from the beginning.
1. Is For the Elite, not the Troops
2. Cannot Be Supported by Modern Science and Medicine
3. Is Better Suited For “Free-Range” and Short-Lived Humans, not the celebrated and documented individuals of modern society
Through the different sections of this blog post, I’ve tried to look both at Sherman’s discussion of Stoicism and the issues facing by the American military. This has turned out to be a fascinating area and one which contributed to the interminable length of this post, and the many months of hard slugging it took to complete it.
At the most practical level, I think we’ll see the following changes in the near to medium term:
1. Better selection of troops resistant to PTSD.
2. More refined deployment of troops according to their capacity to resist PTSD.
3. Better post-combat, post-trauma drugs to reduce the likelihood of PTSD.
4. Private and serious assessments about the amount of combat soldiers can withstand over a lifetime.
As the economic and human price of “nation building” becomes clear, and the stakes for global prosperity are raised, I think we’ll see a return to an earlier era of American warfare in the medium to long term.
4. More aggressive military tactics that reduce the exposure of American troops to the local effects of warfare (“50 thousand foot warfare”).
5. Greater use of proxy and auxiliary troops from Third World countries, raised for service from early adolescence or young adulthood like the Janissaries or the French Foreign Legion.
Most controversially, in the long-term, I think the Anglosphere will need to address the self-imposed hurdles that limit the US military’s capacity to enforce cultural change:
6. Greater control over domestic communication regarding warfare. This will entail masking or ignoring the individual price paid for war, and downplaying the suffering of enemy combatants and civilians. As the Instapundit points out, terrorists and “insurgents” have proven how effective violence can be in altering the behaviour of reporters (and lawyers). Behaviour rewarded is behaviour reinforced. Since this example will eventually become clear to angry Americans, domestic violence against these two professions will likely have a temporary uptick at some point in the future until the publicly acceptable standards of behaviour for lawyers and reporters are once more internalized by the professions, in a way that they were before the Korean War. What’s been “broken” will be repaired.
Finally, in support of the persistent prosperity-peace differentials between the Core and Gap, in the longest term, I see:
7. A resurgence of social behaviours that support communal will — religious/ideological belief and ethnic identification … and inevitably some greater acknowledgement of the role of Christian faith in the sustenance of American military force in the 21st century for the “Long War.” Unlike Dr. Sherman, I do not see American soldiers becoming “citizens of the world” in a world which now widely resents them for their particular brand of modernity.
All this presupposes that the nation has the appetite for both cultural security and military victory in the coming century. As history notes, the American military infrastructure is a financial hog-trough for both political parties, but remains a social experiment only for one. Once the army is again asked to win very hard, very long wars, we’ll see whether such social experimentation slows or ceases. Which route the American public takes to provide its security in coming years will be a political question that intrigues us all. These questions are incredibly serious and my own amateur reflections can only fall very short of the mark when it comes to a topic that needs sustained attention from senior combat veterans.
I think resetting the balance between individual suffering and national success (certainly a matter of concern to at least some of those long-dead Stoics) will be America’s challenge for the 21st century.
Meaning in Tragedy
Stoic Warriors 2 — Where Risk, Pain, and Death Are Ignored