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Q&A: Nancy Sherman

Nancy Sherman on a soldier’s inner war

Nancy Sherman

Nancy Sherman

What drew you to write about the inner war that soldiers face?

I have long been interested in the emotions of soldiering, emotions like anger, shame, grief, guilt, and betrayal. And my sense from reading literature on war, both from a philosophical and psychological perspective, is that the inner moral battles of war and the emotions that record that inner landscape have largely been ignored.

You say that philosophy’s interest in war is too narrow. How so?

From the philosophical perspective, the focus has been on just war theory – on the justification of cause and conduct; from the clinical, psychological perspective, the focus is on symptoms of posttraumatic stress, such as hyperarousal, numbing, or flashbacks. But the emotions that track moral anguish and moral quandary seem to be left out of the discussions. Yet when I talked to soldiers, it was precisely these feelings that preoccupied them.

Soldiers wanted to make sense of anger that was somewhere in between a sense of moral outrage and a far more raw feeling of payback. They wanted to give voice to overwhelming feelings of being “suckered” to fight for causes and missions that were misrepresented to them or that were inadequately supported. Dereck Vines, a senior civil affairs sergeant in an intelligence unit deployed to Iraq, put it baldly to me: “The whole thing with the weapons of mass destruction. Did we ever find any? And that’s what we always say – did we ever find any weapons of mass destruction? All of the chemicals and stuff that Iraq was supposed to have – and we never found any. Okay. I’ve been suckered. For your upper echelon to really sucker you – that’s kind of a hard pill to swallow.”

A Vietnam veteran, Bob Steck, wanted to talk about the feeling of being “tainted.” He called my attention to Michael Herr’s famous line from Dispatches, his memoir of his time as a war correspondent in Vietnam: “I went to cover the war and the war covered me.”

You discuss a sniper and his sense of exuberance about killing someone who killed his best friend. Isn’t revenge – much less the delight he took in it – an awful thing?

Feelings of revenge are ugly and certainly can lead to atrocity and war crimes. And good commanders work hard to rein in troops to prevent raids and rampages. But at the same time, some soldiers I spoke to, like this sniper you mention, do feel, in the moment of self-defence, the adrenalin of fighting back. The feelings needn’t go with excessive or disproportionate harm. They can simply be combat-motivating, and yes, in a certain way, lead to the satisfaction of knowing that they got the guy that was trying to get them.

The Stoics are right to warn that those feelings can get ugly fast. But I don’t buy their argument that that is a reason to expunge anger in its entirety. Anger comes in many shades and qualities, as Aristotle insists. And some anger, however close it is to the desire for revenge, is important for battle readiness.

Soldiering, you say, is not just a career. It’s an identity. How is this connected to one’s moral conscience and the troubles some soldiers face?

I think we, civilians, underestimate how transformative that identity is. By that I don’t mean that soldiers come home as killers. What I mean is that soldiers grow skin that is hard to slough off. Or at very least, they struggle to make the transitions from soldier back to civilian. For a start, they are used to a ramped-up tempo of life, with their mortality always on the line. Civilian life can seem banal, drained of meaning and purpose, after going to war.

You interviewed an interrogator who worked at Abu Ghraib. He “crossed no lines,” you say, yet what he did still caused him moral anguish. What worried him?

The interrogator felt morally queasy about how easy it was to build rapport only in order to exploit it. He knew his boundaries well and certainly was not at all tempted to treat his civilian friends as he had treated his interrogation subjects. But still, what he did in that role – and this was an individual who did not at all abuse his role as an interrogator – was not easy to fully accept through his civilian eyes. He offered a striking analogy for what it felt like to be the interrogator he once was. Entering the interrogation cell was a bit like going into a mass with Gregorian chants sung in Latin: It takes place, he said, “in a different universe….War, too, takes place in a different time and space.” In essence, he was describing dissociation, or what the Stoics describe as detachment from certain objects and circumstances so they cannot affect you. Yet for this young interrogator detachment was not ultimately a viable solution: “I know I am the same person who was doing those things. And that’s what tears at your soul.”

The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of our Soldiers is published by W. W. Norton & Company at £21.00, $27.95 (hb)

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One comment for “Q&A: Nancy Sherman”

  1. [...] Sherman talks about the psychological turmoil of soldiers, and argues that philosophers should engage with the emotions of conflict as well as “just [...]

    Posted by baalbek.org » The inner war | January 26, 2011, 10:33 am