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Georgetown Philosophy Prof. Delivers Lecture on Military Ethics

Modern day soldiers constantly face moral uncertainty, and ancient philosophers hold one key to addressing the wounds that this uncertainty inflicts. That was the theme of a talk presented on the Vassar campus April 25 by Nancy Sherman, a Georgetown University philosophy professor and a nationally acclaimed expert on military ethics. Sherman’s talk was co-sponsored by the Departments of Greek and Roman Studies, International Studies, Philosophy, Political Science, and Psychological Science and the Office of the President.

Professor of Philosophy Nancy Sherman talks about a lecture on military ethics that she delivered on the Vassar campus.Video: James Sullivan

The lecture, titled, “Moral Injury and Resilience through a Stoic Lens: Homecomings for Iraq/Afghanistan Veterans,” opened with a description of the grief and shame a naval bomber pilot, Lane McDowell, suffered when a series of miscommunications led to the fatal bombing of civilians, including several children, in Kosovo in 1999.

McDowell was still haunted by nightmares about the deaths many years later, when he was deployed in Iraq, Sherman said. She noted that no one in the military had blamed McDowell for the bombingit was ruled an unfortunate accidentbut that didn’t prevent McDowell from suffering.

“It was not his fault; it was the result of the confusion in battle that is a normal part of war,” Sherman said. “But Lane McDowell felt remorse; he felt responsible and had to come to grips with it. He did not run afoul of the moral code of war but nevertheless felt a moral injury that he had done this.”

Professor Sherman talks about the help she provided to the United States Naval Academy in the wake of a cheating scandal there.Video: James Sullivan

Sherman, who has taught ethics to thousands of members of the U.S. armed forces over the past 20 years, said many of them talk freely about the moral injuries they have experienced and about how the stoic nature of the military culture often assumes they just need to “get over” this pain. But she said she was convinced that the teachings of ancient Stoic philosophers can help these men and women cope with their grief and shame. “Some level of moral disquiet is healthy,” she said. “Modern day warriors live in a high-stakes moral world, but their pain is the catalyst for the beginning of moral growth.”

She said the ancient Stoics understood that in war, one often does things that he or she believes is morally wrong, and while part of the stoic code is to “suck it up” and try to set aside the emotions that such acts of war can trigger, it’s also true that stoicism in its truest sense can help heal these wounds. Stoicism can accomplish this because it recognizes that the pain of moral failings can be a catalyst for growth and healing. Rather than seeing soldiers as damaged, Stoic philosophers see their pain as a real and necessary starting point for such healing.

Sherman first became interested in military ethics in 1995 when she was invited to the U.S. Naval Academy in the wake of a cheating scandal there involving 133 midshipmen. Since 1995, she has consulted for the U.S. Armed Forces on issues of ethics, moral injury, stoicism, resilience, and posttraumatic stress, lecturing here and abroad. In October 2005, Sherman visited Guantanamo Bay Detention Center as part of an independent observer team, assessing the medical and mental health care of detainees. She is the author of Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy behind the Military Mind, The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of our Soldiers, and Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of our Soldiers.