The Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship

Nancy Sherman

CN ’81

Nancy Sherman CN ’81, Guggenheim Fellow; University Professor, Department of Philosophy, Georgetown University

WHEN SOLDIERS QUESTION: Nancy Sherman CN ’81 explores the moral psychology of war from the warriors’ side

“Reflective soldiers will often think not just about how they as individuals prosecute a war—the just conduct of a war—but also about the cause for which they fight, what the tradition of Just War Theory call the just cause of war,” says Nancy Sherman CN ’81. “In the current conflicts, certainly many have asked, ‘Precisely what cause are we serving? And is it one that there is good reason to mobilize forces for?’ As someone who has taught in a military academy, I would say we’d like soldiers to ask those questions.”

In her book, The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of Our Soldiers (W.W. Norton, 2008), Dr. Sherman examines the moral psychology of war: What happens when soldiers question the cause for which they fight? How do they reconcile themselves—or not—when the stated cause of a military action changes? How do they justify to themselves the often-uneasy alliances between the military, civilian contractors, and local forces? And how, above all, can the public better understand the less visible, less incapacitating, but no less painful wounds—doubt, grief, guilt—that soldiers bear when they return from combat?

A University Professor at Georgetown, with appointments in philosophy and law and at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Dr. Sherman was the first holder of the Distinguished Chair in Ethics at the United States Naval Academy. She has also taught at Yale, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Maryland, and has authored, co-authored, or edited five previous books: Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind; Making a Necessity of Virtue: Aristotle and Kant on Virtue; The Fabric of Character: Aristotle’s Theory of Virtue; Ethics for Military Leaders; and Critical Essays on the Classics: Aristotle’s Ethics.


Dr. Sherman points out that soldiers have, for centuries, contemplated their own complicity in the wars they fight. She cites Shakespeare’s Henry V: The king, walking in disguise among his soldiers, learns that they consider the justice of the cause to be his issue, not theirs. Their own motivator, and that of soldiers “since archaic times,” Dr. Sherman notes, lies much closer to the battlefield. “They fight for each other as their main motivator, and less so for the cause. They have each other in mind. They protect each other. They count on each other to cover their back and they grieve, sometimes visibly, but sometimes in stoic ways, with what they think of as military decorum that the public doesn’t quite understand—with poker faces, but nonetheless in ways that sear their souls.”

Still, she observes, the shifting nature of contemporary war can create ethical challengers for soldiers. Following the massive mobilization after 9-11, Dr. Sherman says, some of the Iraq veterans she interviewed for The Untold War felt “suckered,” in their words, by the war’s changing public rationales and military grounds. Others felt tainted by circumstances that arose in complex coalitions—with local forces, in both Vietnam and Iraq, and more recently with defense contractors in Iraq. “These corporate warriors are not in uniform, but are certainly part of the support mobilization for the troops. Pay grades are very different. The discipline and punitive structure is very different. It makes for very difficult ethical alliances. There are all sorts of unspoken rules, and codes of fighting and behavior that the American soldiers do not subscribe to, and yet they have to be somewhat complicit in how these other groups behave.”


The complexity of such a situation, she points out, led to the 2005 suicide of Colonel Theodore S. Westhusing, at the time the highest-ranked U.S. officer to die in Iraq. Deeply distressed by allegations of fraud in connection with an initiative involving a security contractor, he shot himself at Camp Dublin, near Baghdad. The note he left read, in part, “I cannot support a mission that leads to corruption, human rights abuses and liars. I am sullied—no more. …. I came to serve honorably and feel dishonored.”

“War is very murky,” Dr. Sherman says. “There’s a lot of moral fog, not only because of these ambiguous relationships, but also just because circumstances are confusing—there’s lots of fielder’s choices and sometimes not enough time to understand fully the exigencies of the circumstance. Much more moral responsibility hangs on the individual soldier’s shoulder than we traditionally consider.”

Under such circumstances, it is scarcely surprising if soldiers—as dutiful individual citizens in civilian life—feel both a need to speak out and a lack of understanding listeners. “Many soldiers who did speak out against the Vietnam War felt that they had to,” Dr. Sherman observes. “They had seen it from the inside, and as much as they wanted to separate cause from conduct, they somehow still felt that they were tainted by cause and circumstances, even if their conduct was fully exemplary, and wanted to speak out about that, both to bring home their buddies and to fight for future generations.”


The blogosphere, cell phones, and near-instantaneous contact with family and friends stateside have created greater openness for military personnel to express their thoughts about the war. For example, the online Navy Times has covered such initiatives as the 2006 media effort on the part of several retired generals to challenge then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, as well as a 2007 initiative by a group called Appeal for Redress. The group of uniformed personnel held a public rally in Norfolk, then presented to Congress a petition to end the war, signed by 1,000 active-duty servicemembers.

The information age, Dr. Sherman observes, also shapes soldiers’ perspectives in more personal ways. “Every person in theater carries a cell phone and can text-message home. Sometimes, actually, this raises rather difficult boundary issues, as well as blurring the mentality and frame of mind a soldier needs to keep focused and compartmentalized while there. This border-passing between the civilian and military role makes for psychological and moral complexity.

“And then, of course, there are the different media and fora for protest that we now have in the instant news that any soldier can get, even when you’re in the most remote theaters. And then, thirdly, that very global network that brings you those other two kinds of access also brings you an enemy in a different shape and form. This is an enemy that uses a cell phone to remotely pull a trigger that will explode a roadside bomb, without any gun being in sight. So all sorts of borders are crossed, and technology has a lot to do with it. All of this does mean that questions of political role and questions of dissent are much murkier than they were before.

“But I would argue if you’re going to have an enlightened citizen-solider, then that citizen-soldier has to be reflective. It’s the responsibility of military education to produce that reflectiveness and encourage it—realizing at the same time that militaries are cadres, not debating clubs.”


As war becomes more morally complicated for those who fight it, Dr. Sherman urges, the public needs to be more aware of “the inner drama of war,” as she calls it. “I think we’re very good now at understanding acute war trauma. We learned from Vietnam that soldiers will come home changed and often traumatized, and that this condition can be exacerbated if the war is maligned at home.

“But what we don’t really appreciate is that soldiers—while still in uniform, when they come home, and long after they come home—harbor all sorts of doubts and ambivalences and conflicts that don’t rise to the level of pathology or acute trauma. There are real issues of moral and psychological conflict that need to be voiced—survivor guilt, or accident guilt. For instance, through no fault of my own, the Bradley tank misfires, and a private gets killed in front of an officer’s very eyes because the officer put a battery in that tank that every single manual said was okay to use. In this case that I’m thinking of, the officer is exonerated, but he is wracked with guilt. It’s not a guilt that will disable him—there are none of the usual indicators of post-traumatic stress disorder—but there’s a guilt that people don’t quite understand when they say, ‘Get over it. You didn’t do anything wrong.’

“These are burdens that soldiers privately bear, and as a public somehow we need to be aware of that. These stories need to be told, and they only really can be told by listening to soldiers, hearing their testimonials and realizing that these are, in a sense, noble and fine feelings. They’re signs of humanity. If soldiers didn’t feel those sorts of things, we would think them callous soldiers who had lost their humanity while holding onto their stoic demeanor.

“I’ve been very, very moved by those testimonies.”

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