facebook twitter twitter

Guggenheim Fellowship
Nancy Sherman has been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for 2013-14 for her research on moral injury and moral repair after war.

Email Nancy

University Professor, Georgetown University

Curriculum Vitae

Download a pdf of Nancy's Biography

Author photo by Julia Sabugosa.


Nancy Sherman

Nancy Sherman - Author of The Untold WarMy introduction to the psyche of the soldier, in a sense, goes back to my father and my childhood. My dad was a WW II vet who never talked about “his” war, though he carried his dogtags on his keychain for 65 years. The war never left him; he took it to the grave; and he always felt that his burden was private. I suspect I always felt that the burden ought to be shared, or at least, that I ought to understand it better.
The chance came when I was appointed the first Distinguished Chair in Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy in the mid-nineties. I had been an academic in ethics for most of my career, focused on ethics and the emotions, in ancient and modern philosophy. I also had a background and research training in psychoanalysis.  For the first time in my life I became a civilian in a military world, and I began to understand better the secret world of my dad.  I started teaching and writing about the moral challenges of going to war and returning home, and have been immersed in that research ever since.

The issues couldn’t be more urgent for a nation now fighting endless wars for almost two decades. The issues are especially urgent for servicemembers and veterans struggling to understand whether their wars are just, how killing in war that appears discriminate and proportionate may nonetheless not be if the overall war or its interim goals one is fighting for aren’t. Combatants struggle with how to understand moral responsibility when moral conscience pits one against role duties and norms that don’t easily tolerate moral skepticism or quandary . The morality of war is never easily sorted out by gut feelings and moral intuitions . And the justice of a war is not easily decided. But that doesn’t condone moral withdrawal when the stakes are so high.

Soldiers whom I have interviewed over the years often talk about guilt that they feel to do with accident or luck or losses that seem preventable after the fact. They are hounded by “could’ves” and “should’ves.” Others speak of the moral dilemmas that come with displacing populations or toppling governments and leaving a vacuum for a more despicable regime. Still others try to sort out the moral aftermath of fighting in areas where it is next to impossible to spare civilians or distinguish between a human shield that is voluntary or coerced .  Others speak of command betrayal; many women speak about a patriarchical military that hasn’t fully accepted women.  The moral challenges of soldiering have always been complex. But they are increasingly so in the 21st Century asymmetric battlefield. Moral anguish is never magically lifted by insight. Nor should it be. But insight can play some significant role in helping to move beyond psychological and moral paralysis . More important, probably, are the trusting relationships that often develop over years of talking together about war and its consequences.

Much of my work in the classroom and in public lectures is geared toward building that trust in a way that can help disentangle the moral complexity of war. I view my work as not simply a contribution to war ethics, but as a way of helping service members and civilians together understand the inner wars that can rage for years before it feels safe enough to speak.  

Since my time at the Naval Academy, I have written something of a trilogy of books about going to war and coming home. Stoic Warriors  (2005) grew directly out of my experience at the Academy. When I taught there, Midshipmen and officers immediately cottoned onto the Stoics. It was their philosophy. To survive the deprivations of military life required “sucking it up.” Stoicism was just the ticket. Epictetus, the slave philosopher of the 1st and 2nd centuries C.E., was a folk hero of sorts.  In part this was to do with recent naval history. Epictetus’s short handbook, the Enchiridion, was the book that helped the then young naval officer, James Stockdale, survive 7 ½ years as a POW in the “Hanoi Hilton,” two years of which were spent in solitary confinement mostly in leg irons. (He served as a POW during the time that John McCain did.)  Stockdale was to become the senior member of the chain of command of American POW’s and he endured by remembering Epictetus’s Stoic tonics: “Some things are up to us and some are not…. And if it is about one of things that is not up to us, be ready to say, “You are nothing in relation to me.”

Yet despite Admiral Stockdale’s legacy in all the military academies, few knew other Stoic texts or redactions, even those highly accessible, such as by Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, or Cicero. In Stoic Warriors, I argue that this richer set of resources has much to offer in laying out both the blessings and curses of being a Stoic. The book has had wide appeal not just within the military, but also in the business world, where Stoicism has  generated a self-help movement.   The Untold War followed  (2010) as I began to talk to many of those I taught who were now coming home from war and morally anguished. In some cases, the issues were squarely to do with interrogation techniques and an American policy that condoned torture.  Afterwar (2015), my most recent book, continues the mission to listen to service members and veterans  tell their stories, and when apt, to help them probe the moral contours of what they have seen and done, or left undone.

 I have listened to those stories with the ear of a philosopher and psychoanalytically trained researcher, but also with the ear of a daughter, who always felt that she needed to understand more about what her father went through.    In these works, I have aimed to write in a voice that steps outside the academy—and to be accessible to folks like my dad who never lived in the ivory tower. The aim is to talk accessibly about visible and invisible wounds of war and ways to heal. And so I take up such topics as moral injury; PTS; resilience; military suicide and its prevention; military honor; guilt, and shame. And I do so always guided by the voices of those I have interviewed.

I remind myself as I write these words in 2018 that my incoming students at Georgetown have only lived in a United States that has been at war. And yet few know those who have gone to war. The university is a place for both sides to come out of their bunkers.

As an ancient philosopher by training, my work in military ethics is also always informed by the ancients. Stoic Warriors relies heavily on the texts of the ancient Stoics who give us rich resources for filling out a Stoicism that might actually help us psychologically.  Untold War an Afterwar draw on the philosophy of emotions and its connection with moral injury and repair.   I don’t think you can fully understand moral injury unless you understand the kinds of emotions and emotional expressions through which we hold ourselves and others morally accountable .

Sophoclean tragedies also figure in my work .   The Philoctetes and Ajax are brilliant, “safe” texts that remind us that the moral hazards of war are age-old. Those plays staged in giant amphitheaters in ancient Greece, written by the military general that Sophocles himself was, and performed for civilian and military alike, are homecoming plays.  They are designed to show how soldiers can feel so dishonored that they take their lives (as Ajax does on stage at the tip of his spear), or struggle as a pariah after being marooned on an island in the Aegean for ten years (as Philoctetes was) because of a fetid leg wound that made him a military liability.  Seeing these stories on stage had impact then, and continue to now. They serve as critical reminders that the humanities remain a way to help heal the warrior psyche, in part, by being fully candid about the moral costs of war on all those caught in its web.

At Georgetown I am a distinguished University Professor in Philosophy and an affiliate at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics. I also teach some semesters at Georgetown University Law Center. I taught at Yale for seven years before coming to Georgetown.

I spend much of my free time outside. I swim outside most days, and hike as often as I can.  Here I take lessons from my grown children:  My daughter Kala was a competitive swimmer at Dartmouth, and my son Jonathan has cycled across the country for Habitat for Humanity with a Yale group; he also led cycling tours in Europe. But as my daughter once said to me, “Mom, you’re athletic, but no athlete!”   As a family, we love to hike-- in the Northeast, the Rockies, the Lake District in England, and in years past, Corsica. But our local Billy Goat trail, on the Potomac, is also a favorite.  I adore dancing—modern dance – something I have been doing since college. Come summer, I turn into an obsessive gardener and on a not-too-buggy D.C. day, I like nothing more than losing myself in the mud.   Cooking is also a serious family business. My husband Marshall, also known as “chef Marcel,” is a remarkably good cook. 


Handbook of Epictetus 1, White translation.  (Hackett: 1983).