Nancy Sherman


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


from Stoic Warriors

Soldiers, however tough and stoic, are also social creatures. And grieving for loved ones—whether fallen buddies or families from whom one must be separated for what can seem an eternity-- is an expression of that sociality. It is an expression, too, of vulnerability—that bonding to others makes one vulnerable to loss.

The Stoics urge in their stricter moments that we must love in a way that doesn’t subject us to profound and lasting grief. This resonates deeply with warriors who must carry on with the mission even after they have lost their closest buddies. These warriors have learned how to stave off grief.
But commanders need to recognize that proper grieving can strengthen, not weaken moral fiber and troop solidarity. Commanders must give their troops permission to grieve openly and collectively. We know from the suffering of Vietnam veterans that failure to take time to grieve on the battlefield greatly exacerbates post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Current studies from Walter Reed Army Institute of Research indicate that 17 percent of those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Experts predict that the numbers will swell three and four years after deployments end. It is likely to be worse for those engaged in fighting up close with insurgents. Military leaders need to prepare their men and woman to be able to endure the profound psychological stresses of war. And recognizing that there is dignity in grieving is one way to do it. Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s archetypal Stoic warrior, got it right, when he described the challenge for a warrior: ''It is no little thing to make mine eyes to sweat compassion."

One person who knows grief well (and too, the moral outrage that can come with loss) is Hugh Thompson. He is the American helicopter pilot who ordered his side gunner to open fire on the G.I.’s if they blocked his attempts to stop the My Lai massacre. Thompson returned to Vietnam some 30 years later. A frail, aging woman who survived the massacre (that killed 350 that morning) rushed up to meet him. She implored, “Why didn’t the people who committed the murder come back with you…” She finished her thought without pause but the interpreter’s translation lagged behind. “…so that we could forgive them.” This was not how Thompson thought the sentence would end. At that point, he recalls, “I totally lost it. How could this woman have compassion in her heart for someone who was so evil? She’s a better person that I am.” (from personal conversations with Hugh Thompson)

This is a central tenet of Stoicism. Another is the belief in cosmopolitanism—that we are global citizens and that a universal ethical community must supplement bonds of tribal, religious, or national affiliation. Cicero (106-43 BCE), not himself a Stoic but one of our best sources for Stoic views, promotes this Roman ideal: “We must exercise a respectfulness towards men, both towards the best of them and also towards the rest…In short…we ought to revere, guard and preserve the common affection and fellowship of the whole of humankind.” This is a lesson for all time, for civilians and warriors alike.