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Nancy Sherman

SALT LAKE CITY — Suck it up. Truck on. And live in deprivation.

Today's form of the stoicism known to ancient philosophers thrives in contemporary military culture, says Georgetown philosophy professor Nancy Sherman.

She was surrounded by this mindset while developing an ethics program at the U.S. Naval Academy. She wrote about the connections she saw in a book published in 2005 titled "Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind."

But she found the warriors' stoic armor is not particularly adaptive to civilian life. And with the United States embroiled in protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, she decided to look behind the curtain of the stoic military culture and mindset.

"I wanted to think more about what it was to go to war, to deploy and to come home," she said. "I wanted to follow the arc of the emotions in some way."

The more time she spent interviewing veterans, the more obvious it became there was an elephant in the room that often went either unmentioned or unlabeled: guilt.

There's lucky guilt felt by escaping the calamities or hardships comrades have had to face; accident guilt for bad things that happened for which there was no obvious fault; survivor guilt for being alive when comrades perished; and collateral damage guilt, the complex result of war where civilians are frequently hurt because they and the combatants are mixed, and where there are no clear battle lines that separate neighborhood markets from battlefield mayhem.

There is even a civilians' guilt for people who see men and women in uniform, perhaps at the airport, who are a reminder of a secure life while others are at risk. "They don't know what's going on in their minds and say 'poor guys' or 'poor women.' They don't know how to express their own guilt at being safe when others are so exposed."

Interviews with veterans to give voice to their experiences resulted in Sherman's most recent book, "The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of our Soldiers." She talked about the experience researching the book during an interview at Westminster College on Thursday, where she was scheduled to lecture about the book in the evening as part of the Kim T. Adamson Lecture Series on International Studies.

Not all warriors return from battle beaten up and damaged. "Many come home very healthy," she said.

"I was giving a talk at Stanford and former Secretary of State George Shultz was in the audience. He came up to me and said, 'I was a Marine.' And he puffed up his shoulders. And he said, 'I came home stronger.' And there's certainly that. There's no doubt about it. There are certainly growth experience — some say post-traumatic growth — as well as post traumatic stress."


But that does not make guilt over battle experiences inherently good or bad. "It's bad in that it was painful, good in that it connected them with loss that otherwise might not have been fully recognized."

"We think of guilt as something you should get over — 'Come on, get over it' — especially if it's guilt for nothing that you did wrong," she said. "But that guilt was also a way of connecting to their buddies or subordinates."

That recognition of guilt also infuses morality into the human/military experience and can be an important step toward revising "war's best standards."

She interviewed a Marine commander who lost a private under his command in Iraq because the wrong battery installed in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle led to an electrical surge that caused the vehicle's machine gun to spontaneously fire, fatally shooting the private in the face.

The fallen Marine's mother continued to write to the commander as if she were writing to her son. The commander's responses to her letters were difficult to write but were part of a process of "moral repair," Sherman said, helping to "mend what was an awful, awful accident he was causally responsible for but not personally responsible."

"Humanity, and military humanity, shows through in a lot of these issues," she said.

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The cause and effect of which warriors come home stronger and which come home with unseen injuries is a complex one compounded by numerous personal, political and cultural factors.

"The British really view American views about mental health as coddling and pampering," she said. Their view is "you pull up your socks and get over it, that kind of thing."

Each culture deals with its wars, its history, somewhat differently. "They remember differently based as a result of how they constructed (their history). I think there are national differences and generational differences and the like."

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