Nancy Sherman


Read Excertps from: Stoicism | Grief  | Anger | Body | Torture


from Stoic Warriors

Anger can be as much a part of war as weapons and armor. But unlike weapons, it is not easily thrown off after the battle. So proclaims Seneca, a first Century Roman Stoic and resident philosopher, spin doctor, and political advisor in the court of Nero. Combat veterans all too often live out that truth. They bring home battle rage that can’t be turned off. The Stoic claim is that the professional soldier must not rely on rage to whet his appetite for battle. Justice rather than vengeance should be the motivator.

There is much for a present day commander to learn in this lesson. A stern lesson in the control of anger and sadistic rage might have averted the abuses at Abu Ghraib. That same lesson may also have averted the massacre at My Lai. The lesson is also important for all drill sergeants who prepare their troops for war.

Stanley Kubrick’s notorious drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket paints a picture of sadism with which few professional soldiers would wish to be identified. “You will be a weapon,” he bellows at his marine inductees at Parris Island. “But until that day, you are not even a thing.” He screams louder with eyes filled with fury, “I am hard, but the more you hate me, the more you will learn. Here you are totally worthless. Do you Maggots understand that?” “Goodnight, Ladies,” he barks, with a sexism woven deep into his anger.

The portrait is a caricature. But that is not to say there aren’t caricatures of the drill sergeant in the military itself. “There are some out there,” a philosophically minded Lt. Col. Tony Pfaff told me one day. “But they are cartoons. And others keep an eye on them. I’ve had long and drawn out arguments with some about the bully style of leadership. It may be a class of leadership. But the mean guy, the bully, has got limited resources.” The challenge, he suggests, is to be hard without being mean. “Military training depends upon breaking down a self and building it up again.” But Pfaff insisted that you don’t need hazing or the bullying drill sergeant to make that happen. We need to distinguish between “rites of passage” and “hazing,” he urged. “Hazing makes life in the profession of arms seem arbitrary,” simply a matter of power and abuse. It strips the officer of his dignity.