'Suck It Up'

In July, news accounts reported the death of retired Navy Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale. Known to the public as Ross Perot’s ineffectual 1992 vice-presidential running mate, Stockdale deserves to be remembered for his courage and leadership during nearly eight years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, four of them in solitary confinement. Stockdale underwent fifteen rounds of torture in prison. Later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, Stockdale attributed his fortitude as a POW to the intellectual and spiritual strength he had gained from studying Stoic philosophy. Georgetown philosophy professor Nancy Sherman devotes the first eight pages of her inquiry into Stoicism and the military mind to Stockdale, characterizing his POW experience as “an extreme application of Stoicism [that] is literally about empowerment in enslavement.”

Sherman has demonstrated considerable philosophical expertise in her previous books on the virtue ethics of Aristotle and Kant. She was the inaugural holder of the Distinguished Chair in Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy (1997–99). In 1994, following a major cheating scandal at the Naval Academy, the Navy took the unprecedented step of naming a four-star admiral, Charles Larson, as academy superintendent. Influenced by Stockdale and the course in moral philosophy Larson had introduced as president at the Naval War College (1977–79) at Annapolis, Larson instituted a character-development program, oversaw Sherman’s hiring, and established a civilian-led Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics.

These measures, combined with a spate of scandals that continued to roil the academy, led to a prolonged exchange of heated commentary in the Washington Times, the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings, and other publications about the “civilianization” of ethics and leadership instruction at the academy. Marine Commandant Charles Krulak (Annapolis class of 1964) complained to academy alumni in 1999 that “the atmosphere for moral and professional development is full of theoretical classes and seminars...mumbo jumbo about Freud, Kant, and utilitarianism...but short on straight talk, responsibility, accountability, and example.” Harsh invective on the subject was widespread, one vocal critic describing Sherman—maliciously and erroneously—as a “radical feminist” practitioner of the “cultural Marxism” to which the academy allegedly had succumbed.

The subtext of that experience underlies Sherman’s treatment of the subject at hand: the link between Stoic ethics and military culture. Her aim is dialectical: “a back-and-forth movement from military character to Stoicism in an effort to shed light on both.” Regrettably, this tack obscures Sherman’s position: Does she consider Stoicism a lens for interpreting and explaining military thinking and behavior, or a normative ideal the military should seek to approximate.

In popular parlance, Stoicism is virtually synonymous with philosophy—as in “let’s be philosophical about this.” It emphasizes self-mastery—self-control, self-denial, self-discipline, self-reliance, self-sacrifice—while abjuring the self-indulgent, self-serving behavior of the herd. Stoicism epitomizes leadership: example, principle, character. It is Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, Maximus Decimus Meridius in Gladiator, Jedi masters Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. But it is also extreme rectitude gone awry: Colonel Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai, or Lieutenant Commander Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, for example.

Sherman’s methodology is hybridized also. She adopts “the standard method of philosophers—namely, analysis of text and argument—but also the method of ethnographers who collect stories and anecdotes.” In practice, this means that philosophical precept dominates the analytical narrative, while military anecdote provides merely illustrative, not always systematic, accompaniment.

Sherman addresses six topics with Stoic roots that seem relevant to military affairs: the body (fitness, health, war wounds) and its relation to mind and spirit; manners and demeanor; anger and hate; fear and resilience; grief and mourning; and camaraderie, empathy, and respect. She underscores a cardinal tenet of Stoic ethics: that we should be indifferent to the things outside our power (wealth, fame, health, power) and concentrate on controlling those within our power (opinions, attitudes, impulses, desires). This is Stoicism’s fatalistic dimension, the operative rule being to tough it out, grin and bear it, soldier on, or in Sherman’s words, “suck it up.”

Sherman reminds us that Stoicism is not only about how you think and act, but about how you appear—to yourself and others. Since it emphasizes detachment and dispassion, it can lead to the appearance and the reality of callousness or cold-heartedness.

Finally, and perhaps most important (considering how the military, consciously or not, nurtures intolerance and aggression), Sherman emphasizes classical Stoicism’s cosmopolitan nature—the premise that we are all (gays and straights, Christians and Muslims, soldiers and civilians) citizens of the world, not simply of Fort Bragg, Washington, D.C.—or the United States.

Sherman’s book will find a welcome niche in the ethics courses of various military schools. It certainly deserves to be read, though less for the answers it provides than for the profound questions it raises. To wit: What does a doctrine that prizes reason over passion, but that itself is rejected by some for its dogmatism, offer a predominantly physical military culture that largely eschews intellectual pursuits? How do Stoicism’s various influences on Christianity speak to the increasingly pronounced evangelical religiosity of today’s military? How meaningful to those in uniform, who have sworn an oath of allegiance to the Constitution, is Stoicism’s link to natural law and, by extension, to the natural rights at the heart of the Constitution’s underlying philosophy? What does Stoic virtue say to those in uniform who may be given more to moral arrogance than to true moral superiority? What more should be said about prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and elsewhere—the disintegration of discipline, the unrestrained hatred and intolerance, the abject failure of those in leadership positions to assume responsibility? (Lamentably, this vital subject, appearing at the end of the book almost as an editorial afterthought, receives unduly cursory treatment from Sherman.)

In the final analysis, Sherman offers a thoughtful introduction to the military mind, but she remains at fair remove from plumbing the depths of the military soul. That is where attention should be focused, and where room remains for a volume not yet written.

Published in the 2005-12-16 issue: 
Tags

Gregory D. Foster, a professor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University, Washington, D.C., is a West Point graduate and decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. The views expressed here are his own.

Also by this author
War is hell

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Collections