Laurel Thatcher Ulrich WS ’78, 300th Anniversary University Professor, Harvard University

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is an historian of early America and the history of women. Her many awards include the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for A Midwife’s Tale and the National Humanities Medal Frankel Prize (1993). She is a MacArthur Fellow and Guggenheim Fellow.

Photo: Courtesy of University of Utah Alumni Association

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.”

Elizabeth S. Anderson CN ’86, Guggenheim Fellow; Academy of Arts & Sciences Fellow; John Rawls Collegiate Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Alice Dreger CN ’94, Guggenheim Fellow; Independent Scholar

Alice Dreger CN ’94: At the Intersections

Alice Dreger CN ’94 works at intersections—the intersection of medicine and ethics, of research and activism, of traditional academic work and publications for the general public. And she works with people whose anatomy falls between classical categories, and who find themselves carving out identities in those intersections.

“I wear two hats in most of what I do,” Dr. Dreger explains. “Under one hat, I do history of anatomy. I’m a historian by training, and what I study in that case is the way that people have dealt with anatomy…The other hat that I’ve worn in my work is as an activist, as a patient advocate—or, as I sometimes say, as an impatient advocate…. In that case, I’ve worked with people who have body types that challenge social norms.”

While her work encompasses the experience of individuals with a range of birth anomalies—conjoined twinning and dwarfism, for example—she is particularly known for her work with those who are intersex. As defined by the Intersex Society of North America, intersex is “a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.”

Dr. Dreger first became interested in intersex and other birth anomalies when her dissertation advisor suggested she look into hermaphrodites and the history of medicine. The connection between the two was not immediately apparent to Dr. Dreger, and she was surprised by what she found. “I looked at the Index-Catalogue of the Library of the Surgeon-General and there were 400 cases. And I thought ‘How is it I’ve never heard of this?'” she recalls. “I became really interested simply because of the fact that I had never heard of it and yet here, even in the 19th century, was this huge wealth of literature.” The dissertation became Dr. Dreger’s first book, Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex (Harvard University Press, 1998), which examines how doctors and scientists treated intersex people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and how they are treated in present-day medicine.Dreger_cover

Reading case studies, getting to know people with various birth anomalies, and hearing about their medical histories led Dr. Dreger to a more active interest. “I became fascinated and wanted to figure out if there were other realms of medicine where people behaved in this very strange fashion—where they lie to patients and do surgeries on children purely for cosmetic reasons without evidence that it helps. I started looking at case studies and, inevitably, running into people who had these birth anomalies or whose children had them. Getting to know those people, I became fascinated with the current system, and became an advocate for that population in trying to change it.”

Historical research and contemporary activism, Dr. Dreger says, “come together on issues of evidence. I’m a more subtle advocate than I think many people are because I’m not actually in it for the identity claim. I want to know what’s going to help and what’s going to hurt. So I look at the evidence—and sometimes the evidence goes against what activists say or want, and I have to disagree with them. Being trained in the history and philosophy of science, I’m still, at the end of the day, a big old science geek, and I really want to know: What does the evidence show?”

To change the system takes a combination of mass education and personal relationships, she explains. “It took me a lot of time to learn that social change actually happens through personal relationships,” Dr. Dreger says. “Some social change has to be tackled from the other end—which is to change conventional wisdom—and that I do through the media. But you have to do that one-two punch to actually get the change to happen. When you tackle both ends, personal relationships and public perception, you begin to get this feedback loop: The experts are hearing conventional wisdom change and they literally say to me, ‘Well, the culture’s changed enough that we can move in the direction you’re suggesting,’ and then the culture says, ‘Well, the doctor says that’s where we should be going, to change this, so it must be true.’ And nobody seems to realize you’re puppeting the whole thing from behind. It’s doing those two things together, I think, that is finally effective.”

Dr. Dreger’s commitment to mass education has made her a significant presence in the media and online. Mainstream media outlets and programs often consult her as an expert on intersex; she also maintains a personal website and blog, as well as a blog on Psychology Today (“Fetishes I Don’t Get”), and frequently posts on the Hastings Center’s Bioethics Forum. “At my core I’m really a writer,” she says. “I always wanted to write in mainstream venues, but it’s also clear that the Web is a place where you can directly access people’s minds and work for change. And being in a 24-hour news cycle, if I want to piggyback on some international story and twist the conversation in a direction that might produce some progress towards people opening their minds, the Web is a way to do that.”

She cites Caster Semenya, a South African runner whose sex was called into question by sports officials, as an example. “I dropped everything and made sure that I used that for a moment of international sex education,” says Dr. Dreger. “For the first time, the whole world was ready to talk about sex anomalies, and I thought: here’s a perfect moment to educate, educate, educate. I put a media advisory up on my own website that went through the same questions reporters were asking me. I just wanted to get some of them not to say ‘she has two sets of genitals,’ not to say ‘you’re a man if you have a Y chromosome.’ I was stunned when somebody wrote to me and said, ‘I read your quote in USA Today,’ and I thought ‘I didn’t talk to USA Today this week.’ It was a quote from the media advisory. And so a few million people got the story a little closer to right.”

Getting the story or the reform right is not a simple issue. Recently, the Australian government announced that passport applications would now include a third sex category: “X.” While the move might seem to be a step in the right direction, Dr. Dreger explains why “X” is not an option. “The truth is that there aren’t three sex categories in nature—male, female, and intersex. In nature, sex blends in complicated ways from one variation to another. The idea that there is a third category legitimizes the other two categories as if they are natural, when in fact the truth is that nature doesn’t draw these lines; we draw the lines on nature. I admire Australia for moving forward, but I think they’re still stumbling a bit on the details.” (Read Dr. Dreger’s blog post on the topic at Psychology Today.)

As much as Dr. Dreger is in the public eye, “there’s a lot of stuff that people never see that I do,” she says, such as consultancy work with doctors and scientists and helping individuals with birth anomalies that reach out to her. “Every day I get emails from people seeking help with some issue. Sometimes I can just send them to other websites and groups. But a few times a year I’ll run into somebody who really needs personal service, for whom it’s not enough to say ‘you need to join this support group’—someone who really needs to figure out what it says in their medical charts from the 1960s and 1970s. They have a Xerox copy of a Xerox copy and the handwriting’s unclear and the terms are unfamiliar. I’ll sit down with them and say, ‘Let’s figure this out.’ And I’ll call a bunch of docs and they’ll help me out.” She has written about helping individuals discover surgeries done at birth to address their intersex, and—in one particularly poignant essay—about helping a mother find information on the stillborn conjoined twins taken from her years before.

It’s this “history work” that Dr. Dreger would love to do full time. “If someone handed me a million dollars and said, ‘Do whatever you want with it,’ I would set up a group of pro bono, client-centered historians who would help people who’ve been through traumatic events by simply doing narratives. The psychological literature is very powerful on this: creating narratives around traumatic events helps people heal. There would be a historian stationed within the hospital, there purely for the purpose of taking a history—not a medical history but a history of the trauma. That person could give the patient a purely descriptive written document that says, ‘This is what you’ve been through,’ and provides historical context: ‘This is what was happening in the 1960s when you were being treated. This is what was happening in your nation at the time.’ And they would draw on all the historical wisdom and provide people context of their lives and give them that solace. That is really at this point in my life what I’d love to be doing. It’s so satisfying. The way people say ‘thank you’ when I write their four-page history is like no other ‘thank you’ in the world.”

Dr. Dreger is currently finishing her next book—”a memoir of other people’s lives” tentatively titled Galileo’s Middle Finger: Science and Identity Politics in the Internet Age. “It’s a first-person account of having worked inside, and having investigated the history, of scientific controversies. It’s an attempt to examine where we are now in the world in terms of how scientists and doctors interact with activists. Since I’ve been on both sides and have been sympathetic to both camps and helped both camps, I feel well-positioned to care about them both and to try to come up with solutions to the way that we deal with issues of human identity. A lot of the book is about trying to live the life of a historian but still remain very much engaged with our changing world.”

Learn more about Alice Dreger:

Max Paul Friedman AP ’00, Guggenheim Fellow; Associate Professor of History, American University


Looking for Fellowship Applications?

Fellowship applications and opportunities can now be found on our new website, citizensandscholars.org.

Visit Now

Get More Info

To sign up for more information about a specific program, click here.

To receive the Woodrow Wilson newsletter, complete these fields:

If you want a hard copy, enter your preferred mailing address here: