combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2006

Stoic Warriors
a reflective essay

re: Stoic Warriors, The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind by Nancy Sherman, Oxford University Press (©2005)

The impress of Graeco-Roman culture on our civilization is undeniable. In language, architecture and the arts as well as the sciences, the classical legacy is readily apparent. By one estimate two-thirds of our English vocabulary is derived from Latin. In the specialized sciences, such as medicine, the estimate for Greek and Latin influence rises to over ninety-five percent. Nancy Sherman's Stoic Warriors exemplifies another aspect of classical influence. Here the author focuses on the interplay between ancient philosophy, in particular Stoicism, and certain notions that structure the modern military mindset.

Trained as a philosopher, Sherman taught ethics at the United States Naval Academy from 1997 to 1999. There she encountered a kind of popular Stoicism resonating with both younger and older officers. Viewed in an uncritical way, Stoicism, to many of these officers, was the paradigmatic suck it up philosophy. This vernacular conception of Stoicism, she argues, is too unqualified and uninformed of tensions that exist even in the ancient writings themselves.

Her object then is not merely to search out historical contributions but rather to examine parallels. In the process, she reveals a synergistic dynamic between Stoicism and contemporary military thinking. Her dialectic is evaluative, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses in both ancient and modern patterns of thinking. The goal is to develop a conception of military character that answers both to ancient Stoic doctrine and modern aspirations to emulate that doctrine.

A too strict interpretation of traditional Stoicism, she rightly concludes, is not only psychologically damaging for the individual but also obsolete in the ambivalences of twenty-first century warfare. The ancient philosophers, for example, dismiss the body as a paltry thing subject to disease and disability. But the ancients could never enter the mind of a veteran whose disabled body lives and is sustained by sophisticated prosthetic devices unimagined decades ago. Stoic reproof without compassion hardly seems appropriate here. That said, she also concludes that the ancient writings, if properly and less strictly interpreted, remain compelling and useful for modern soldiers as well as those in civilian life facing challenges.

Her approach is anecdotal, drawing on war stories from antiquity to modern Iraq. Given the book's origins in an academic context, she also engages in a rigorous analysis of texts that demand close reading. For any military persons eager to reflect upon the intellectual underpinnings of their activities and attitudes, the effort to follow her philosophical argumentation is certainly worthwhile. Some of her academic conclusions, however, will roil the experienced and pragmatic.

When the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras was confronted with his son's death, he replied stoically, I knew my child was mortal. Most speakers of English would interpret the adverb stoically as meaning dispassionately. The precise origins of the expression, however, would not be perhaps so familiar. As a philosophical sect, Stoicism flourished from about 300 BCE to 200 CE. Its name derives from the Stoa, a painted colonnade near the Athenian agora, the central marketplace. Here practitioners carried on philosophical discussions while strolling up and down. The early Greek writers of the sect survive only in fragments, bits and pieces quoted here and there in other writers. From the Roman period, more complete works survive in Greek and Latin from such writers as Cicero, the Roman orator and politician, Seneca, the philosopher and advisor to Nero, the slave Epictetus, who wrote an influential handbook, and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. These writers constitute her major sources.

At the opening of the book, Sherman cites an example of the relevance of these long dead writers. On September 9, 1965, James B. Stockdale, a senior Navy pilot, was shot down over North Vietnam. An avid reader of Epictetus, for the next seven and a half years of his imprisonment, he used quotes embedded in his memory to avoid compromising his integrity. Like his predecessor Epictetus, he sought to empower himself in his enslavement, and he used Stoicism as a central weapon in his arsenal.

Fundamental to Epictetan Stoicism is the notion that we are masters of our opinions, desires, and emotions, and so we can, at least ideally, control our reactions to circumstances, however difficult, whether disability, deprivation, or torture in an enemy prison camp. Self-control and self-reliance are the core values of this philosophy, together with a firm rejection of emotions.

Among her topics are manners and morals, more exactly how a military aesthetic of clothing and gestures, virtually ritualized, relates to the development of character and, more generally, to an ethical and moral code. In simple terms, how does saluting and shining one's shoes make one a better person. She concludes that such ritualized etiquette and outward signs should not be dismissed as superficial and insincere. Rather they may serve to shape inner attitudes and be a legitimate way of expressing concern and respect for others.

Drawing on Cicero, who believed that decorum is blended completely with virtue, she analyzes certain contradictions. In the military, there is an obvious stress on uniformity, but at the same time a concern not to erode an individual's self-worth. The way a commander addresses his troops may be an index of good character and excellence, especially if he uses a tone that is stern but not abusive, authoritative yet still compassionate.

Seneca, like Cicero, departs from the Cynics who believed such outward gestures were insincere conventionalisms. He also contends that even the simplest bodily gestures are critical in carrying out what is appropriate. Sherman also raises questions about decorum in new situations. What is the correct behavior for women soldiers stationed in Saudi Arabia who drive military vehicles or move about with heads uncovered? Would doing otherwise violate their own sense of self and personal freedom? Here the pragmatic might demur, arguing for focus not on individual empowerment but rather on the goal of the mission itself.

In her discussion of emotions, anger is primary, as one would expect in a military context. Western European literature begins with the war epic the Iliad, the first word of which and the essential theme is anger. The anger of Achilles triggers devastating consequences for the Greek army and for himself during the Trojan War.

In modern times, the consequences of a maladaptive battle rage continues to wreak havoc. Some WW II veterans, five or six decades after the War, remain susceptible to feelings of rage. In the recent Fort Bragg incident, four Special Operations forces returned from Afghanistan and killed their wives, motivated in part, according to one analysis, by battle rage – an analysis that perhaps requires some contextual refinement. And yet in the modern military world, anger, unlike the emotions of fear and grief, plays an ambivalent role as a kind of macho emotion. In a troubling way, as Sherman notes, in Vietnam it came to mask grief, sorrow and fear.

Since it is an emotion, the Stoics reject it entirely. Anger to them is simply an unalloyed evil, like alcohol, difficult to control once engaged in. Here Sherman rightly parts company with the Stoics. While Stoic abstention is valued in suppressing Rambo tendencies that might lead to confusing combatants from non-combatants (e.g.: My Lai), the total suppression of anger by what we today would call compartmentalization is unhealthy. Anger can be a legitimate human response to torture, massacres and rape and, in a sense, furnish moral parameters and motivators. The Stoics of course knew nothing of Freud, the dynamic view of the mind, and the devastating and long-lasting consequences of emotional suppression (i.e.: the conversion hysteria cases of WWI).

The Stoics similarly reject grief as an ordinary emotion concerned with circumstances beyond our control. And yet, as Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who specializes in PTSD, has shown, it is precisely the failure to grieve properly and seasonably that populates the inner lives of combat veterans with ghosts who demand their due. Sherman rightly points out the tension that exists between self-sufficiency and social dependence, in military terms, an army of one concept versus unit cohesion and camaraderie. Grieving may act as curative resocialization, reestablishment of group cohesion.

In the ancient texts, Sherman highlights what remains worthwhile and dismisses what seems naïve. Seneca, for example, emphasizes remembrance without theatrical womanly tears, but appears unaware that the past we remember is not static but subject to change. The past is ours, and there is nothing more secure for us than that which has been typifies the ancient view.

Here Sherman might well have expanded her discussion. The past exists only insofar as it is remembered, and it is remembered only insofar as it is needed. Any one who has ever listened carefully to a veteran tell his stories over decades will notice the slight changes in emphasis, the addition or subtraction of details, all of which are related subtlely to his present circumstances. Present context sets the parameters for the past's reconstruction.

Expressed in the vernacular, to a veteran there are two basic formulae with which to begin a war story: Once upon a time or I swear, this ain't no shit. The phrases are concerned with epistemology and not with absolute truth-value. They express recognition that objectivity does not exist here, that there is no sharp distinction between object and percipient, between the one who remembers and what is remembered. In simple terms a rawness will always exist which shapes content, as anyone who has been around veterans knows. Three veterans who fight near one another in the same battle may produce quite distinctive reminiscences which themselves will change in time. The implications for the historian are obvious.

Cicero, going against strict Stoic doctrine, refuses to deny one's grief, but argues for a calm exterior under certain circumstances. Obviously the Ciceronian approach has more to communicate to veterans today, but Seneca and Cicero fail to appreciate the cathartic value of tears and thus part ways with modern psychotherapists. Their attitude can be mapped in a historical continuum. Open male weeping is fine in the eighth-century warrior culture of the Iliad, but by the classical fifth century is looked down upon.

In her final chapter, Sherman questions how Stoicism, with its emphasis on self-control and self-reliance, fits within a military ethos where camaraderie and dependence on others is not only critical for combatants but also for veterans isolated by PTSD. Here again a sharp contrast emerges between ancient and modern thinking. In a broad sense the Stoics endorse a cosmopolitan sense of connection with others. In the word's true etymological sense, we must exist as citizens of the cosmos or world, giving even strangers their due respect. From a positive point of view, this Stoic notion might have deflected, she argues, some of the behavior at Abu Ghraib – a rather idealistic view of the merits and benefits of a proper education.

In regard to PTSD, Stoicism's negative attitude toward emotions creates another problem. Personal friendships and familial connections that give rise to such emotions as love must be downplayed. But modern researchers on PTSD emphasize three stages of recovery; establishing a zone of safety, remembering and mourning, and last, reintegration and reestablishment of social connections. Without the last, there is no cure. But to the Stoics the cure must come from within, which is at best ideal and hardly suited to therapy designed to assuage the psychological damage of war.

Overall, Sherman's philosophical analyses are thoughtful and her exploration of the ancient evidence is judicious. As befits an academic inquiry, her search for parallels is focused and presents an intelligent, balanced view of the ancient and modern evidence.

Hers is, of course, an academic approach, perhaps too focused to satisfy completely those who have been scarred, whether directly or indirectly, by war. For these individuals, uncovering a personal archaeology of their belief systems and pain is more critical than detecting parallels. After all, parallels, at least in Euclidean geometry, are lines that do not intersect.

The young men, for example, who came to the academy probably arrived already with an exposure to Stoicism. It did not leap out of their heads as part of a fully developed military mindset, the way Athena leapt out in full armor from the head of Zeus. In most cases, classical texts were not their only sources.

Sherman does show an awareness of Men's Studies, but she might, in a more encompassing (and, to be fair, different) study, adopt an even broader gender perspective and delve more deeply into the scholarship in Sociology, Psychology, and Childhood Studies. The Stoicism (or stoicism) she encountered at the Academy should be positioned within a cultural background. There is a wealth of historical literature that traces the virtually masochistic play activates of young boys from the nineteenth century down to the modern period. James Jones knew something of this. In some characteristically rambling and generalizing remarks on his childhood stories, he makes the point that his was a masochistic generation, suited well to the rigors of the War. More than the hardships of the Depression were responsible for this mindset. There was something deeper and darker lurking there, and Jones, who had his own demons, had caught a glimpse of it. And the men of that generation, when they returned, passed their attitudes on to a new generation who would go on to military academies and fight in other wars.

Today, psychologists would challenge the notion that masculinity necessarily and simply depends on macho strength and stoicism as emotional illiteracy. What Jones glimpsed, modern psychologists now study and describe as the Culture of Cruelty. And yet the notion persists in schoolyards and academies. Those who have actually fought in wars come away profoundly literate. One need only recall the reaction of Iwo Jima veterans to John Wayne on his publicity tour for the film Sands of Iwo JimaEnough of this macho bullshit.

Classical scholarship could also contribute to the issue of origins and intersections. Sherman's presentation of pagan classical parallels against modern military attitudes, the movement from the ancient world to the modern, is abrupt and ignores an historical continuum. A classicist might ask what are the origins of the popular Stoicism (or stoicism) she encountered at the Academy? In what permutations did it pass through time? Even if direct lines to the past are not drawn, historians would at least employ the modern notion of interactive cultural webs.

As Christianity prevailed against paganism in the Roman Empire, the new religion, rather than rejecting Stoicism, adopted it for its own ends and, in so doing, transformed it. A fictitious correspondence between Saint Paul and Seneca materialized as though the two had been intellectual pen pals. Socrates' death, as depicted in the Platonic dialogues, was again adopted as the paradigm for developing Stoically structured martyrdoms to exemplify the proper way to meet death and suffering. The paradigm was also used as foil, to develop gruesome narratives of the deaths of persecutors. For a detailed account of the historical development of this theme, see my article: "The Death of Herod the Great", Classical Philology (76:1) January 1981.

It was in this transformation that one strand of Stoicism came down through the Catholic Church to the twentieth century. Though Sherman is concerned with ethics and proper behavior, she mostly overlooks religious upbringing as formative on at least some military minds. Perhaps the reasons why she has little to say about this, in our contemporary atmosphere favorable to Humanism, are obvious.

In one personal archaeology, as schoolboys, we listened as nuns regaled us with tales how the Iroquois tortured to death the early missionaries and how the martyrs met their fates with a Stoic attitude. The stories made an EC horror comic sound like The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore. But again, behind these popularizations lurked the figure of Socrates, whom Sherman underestimates as a shaper of earlier and later Stoic influence. A more ranging discussion of this Nachleben (the fancy German name for later influence) would furnish her not just with parallels but actual points of intersection. Her treatment would gain more meaning and conviction for readers looking for origins, who seek to place their own lives and feelings in an historical sequence.

Those of us who grew up after the War as sons of veterans, in depressed ethnic working-class environments, encountered Stoicism in two forms. Boys, we learned early on, did not cry – a general cultural given. But Martyr stories, shaped by Stoic precedents, reinforced this mindset. If you were the son of a veteran, you belonged to an even more anhydrous subculture. In such a context, the struggle to find one's own identity, separate from the returning warrior father figure, has from the very beginnings of Western culture, generated neuroses, unconscious murderous impulses, as well as literary inspiration: Homer's Odyssey, for example, Melvyn Bragg's fine 1999 novel The Soldier's Return, and my own short stories, some of which have appeared in COMBAT magazine. With its classic Oedipal roots, the topic becomes like Bogart's Maltese Falcon – the stuff that dreams (of whatever nature) are made of.

Knowledge was passed on in a traditional, unchanging way for generations. We sat in the same schools, in the same rooms, at the same desks as our fathers and grandfathers and learned many of the same lessons. In these schools, we did not suck it up. We offered it up. Once during class, I sat glumly in the back of the room. At recess, a nun asked me what was wrong. I told her my old lady had backed out of the driveway and run my dog over. She commiserated, then smiled broadly. Just offer it up. If you suffer in this world, you won't suffer so much in the next. That dog should get you at least two hundred days out of the flames of Purgatory. I had burned my finger once and remembered the pain. Two hundred days out of the flames of Purgatory. At the time, Sister's calculus of suffering, though it appeared suspiciously like a sacred version of Pollyanna's Glad Game, seemed a fair trade – Rover's tail for mine. We could hardly wait for the North Koreans to get their hands on us. Our path to eternal salvation would be guaranteed. The Stoicism of the martyrs was activated through this teaching.

No whining here as a militant and Stoic Catholicism, virulently anti-communistic, complemented our fathers' strict military upbringing. Though it was harsh, this form of Stoic rearing contained within itself the very means by which we could liberate ourselves and thus move on in life, whatever the circumstance of birth. There were no shades of gray in this environment, no time to feel sorry for oneself, which meant it produced men of action. Its rigors perhaps still generate feelings of ambivalence, Odi et amo, but as the years lengthen and our culture and we ourselves decline, we no longer look back in anger. Something quite extraordinary, passed down out of a classical past, existed in that generation.

From Sherman's book we learn that there is much of value in the classical texts. But the ancient view of the personality and the mind was, with some exceptions, static. Freud's construct, with dynamic forces and impulses constantly striving to break forth, fits better the way we live and are haunted today. Those of us who grew up after the War watched our fathers and the friends of our fathers, all veterans, struggle with deep-seated emotions. They were hard men who gave and expected no quarter. They embraced a kind of Stoicism and knew something of the Code of Bushido as well. But when they were in their cups, immersed in some game of cards, and the name of a fallen comrade came up, we stood wondering as their eyes reddened. After all, if boys didn't cry, then men a fortiori. And the War, it had been over for ten years, a virtual lifetime to us. As we watched these men whom we modeled ourselves on, from whom we derived our notion of masculinity, we began to understand that the War and the world and the mind were far more complex than we had been led to believe.

We stood shuffling our feet uneasily, glancing at one another in our embarrassment, and nervously cocking the hammers of our cap pistols. It was the hooch we thought. The hooch could make even tough guys sappy. These men remained for us Stoic warriors. So we just stood there and shuffled. There was simply nothing else to do.

Seven years later, when MacArthur delivered his final speech at West Point, he remarked, when I cross the river, my last conscious thoughts will be of The Corp, and The Corp, and The Corps. There was a truth in his words about the abiding effects of war which at the time we only imperfectly understood.

Decades later, when our fathers' time came, the old names were still on their lips towards the end – Guadalcanal, Munda, Binalonan, and the names of the men who died there beside them. And though we had long ago put away the things of a child and gained wisdom outside of the working-class neighborhoods of our youth, we still shuffled, uneasy and humble in the presence of a great dark mystery. As the Greek poet Solon remarked, I grow old, ever learning.

by David J. Ladouceur
... who is a teacher and historian, having published non-fiction in professional journals, as well as creative writing in this and other magazines. Born into a military family, he is working on a novel, After the War, set in the early 1950's.

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