Stoic Wisdom: Moral Injury and Stoic Resilience by Nancy Sherman

This essay is drawn from Nancy Sherman, Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience (2021) Now available in hardback, electronic, and audio formats at AmazonBarnes & Noble, and Indiebound.

Greco-Roman Stoicism is a natural fit for the military. Yet it’s in tension with what many experts now acknowledge as a pervasive psychological fact of war and after war. And that is moral injury. The leading research and clinical mental health professionals working on war-related moral injury define it as “a syndrome of shame, self-handicapping, anger, and demoralization that occurs when deeply held beliefs and expectations about moral and ethical conduct are transgressed.”[i]  Transgressions can arise from the point of view of the agent (as perpetrator), from the behavior of others (as victim), or by being close-up witnesses, say as immersed war journalist or photographer.

Consider Toronto Star photojournalist Paul Watson who was in Somalia in 1993 and took the Pulitzer-Prize winning photograph of Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland —a bloodied corpse, bound, and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by the Somali rebels. As Watson aimed his camera, what he is sure he heard Cleveland whisper was: “If you do this, I’ll own you forever.”[ii] The photo ended up being instrumental in the pull out of American forces from Somalia under President Clinton. But the guilt of having taken the photo tormented Watson for decades. It was as if Watson’s camera shot was one of the shots that killed Cleveland.                            

Moral injury is a trauma response to a severe moral conflict or challenge. It’s related to post-traumatic stress (PTS) with overlapping symptoms, yet distinct from it in that moral threat, and not overwhelming life threat, is the trigger. The potentially injurious experiences have to do with breaches of morality, not breaches of safety. The emotions that manifest moral injury can burrow deep, like guilt, shame, resentment, and a sense of betraying and being betrayed. They are part of a broader palette of emotions that philosophers call “reactive attitudes”. They are testaments to the fact that we hold ourselves and others to account.

Service members wield the most lethal of weapons in high-stakes situations. Those who are conscientious wrestle with what they do and what they leave undone and what they leave behind. While moral injury may be especially traumatic in the military, it also exists in civilian life, even when lethal weapons aren’t wielded. There are lessons to be learned for everyone in how Stoicism “makes peace” with moral injury.

Take this case of a naval aviator, recounted by New York Times correspondent, C.J. Chivers in his book The Fighters.  Layne McDowell was meant for a cockpit. He had wanted to fly since junior high, and the Naval Academy, unlike the Air Force, took a gamble on a guy that had just had a knee injury. He graduated in 1995 with a 3.84 GPA and soon discovered he also had the physiology to withstand 9-G’s over time in the “spin and puke” centrifuge. He could physically endure and had made peace with willful self-defensive killing of enemy combatants in what he took to be “just war” ways. But one event early in his career unhinged his sense of moral calm. It was a midday strike on a radio-relay site in northern Kosovo in May 1999. Intelligence imagery was grainy. In order not to alert Serbian forces, he had to go south of the target and make a quick turn back. Aircrews now had less time to locate and verify the target. Serbian Air Defense opened up fire and that took McDowell’s attention away from the targeting screen.         

“I felt good about the release. Then clouds obscured the target until about 13 seconds to impact. At that time I began having doubts about the target. It didn’t look right, but in those 13 seconds, I didn’t say anything, and we took out what we were targeting with 2 GBU [guided bomb unit]-12’s.”

Dread started to mount. Back on the carrier, McDowell looked at the strike footage on a big screen. The bomb had struck not the target but a carport next to a house. McDowell saw signs of civilian occupation, and unmistakably, four bikes, two of which were child-sized.

There were never any legal proceedings or Navy follow-up to determine if and who and how many civilians and children may have been killed in the strike. But he carried the moral burden in a repetitive intrusive dream in which he did his own after-incident investigation. The dream replayed again before he deployed to Iraq in 2005. The building he bombed was somehow still standing but there was thick dust everywhere, insulation and wires dangling, boards littered all over the ground. The smoke was thick and it was hard to make out who, at all, was in the structure. He aches to turn back the clock, to be given time to steer the bomb to an empty field. But he can’t. In the structure, he definitely saw a small boy huddled in the corner, coated in dust, severely injured but still breathing. He knew the face. It was McDowell’s own son, Landon. “He lifted the boy to his chest, tightly for a hug, cupping his hand behind the child’s little head, to hold it. The back of his skull was gone.”

The case I have retold, drawn from American journalist C. J. Chivers’s The Fighters,[iii] is not one of collateral killing of noncombatants, but of accidental killing. Unlike some collateral killings that may be justified as necessary militarily or excused as part of eliminating a serious threat, accidents like these, all too numerous in war, are never justified as necessary or eliminative killings. There is no military good to be achieved: killing the noncombatant is not part of a proportionality calculation.

Still, the accidents may be legally or morally excusable—due to poor intelligence, sudden blinding by enemy air fire, unpredictable shifts in flight patterns or cloud cover. This is the fog of war that McDowell faced. And yet innocents were horribly wronged. As the aviator who dropped the ordnance, McDowell carries the moral burden.

This is a stunning case of military moral injury.  But can a modern military Stoicism rooted in ancient teachings find room for moral injury? Can a Stoic, bent on the calm that comes with discipline and virtue, leave space for the anxiety of perceived or real failure, or anger at those who make sport of war and take innocent civilians as their prey? Can civilians also learn how to forgive themselves for making mistakes or for accidents which have more to do with bad luck than with failures of moral responsibility?

These aren’t rhetorical questions. I pose them as an educator teaching civilians and military who serve and will serve, here and abroad. Some will serve not as public servants, but in private capacities, in their workplace and communities, and in their homes. The answer to these questions has ramifications for all: When we teach Stoic texts, are we reaping the right lessons? Can we construct a healthy modern Stoicism, grounded in ancient wisdom, that recognizes moral injury and the possibility for post-traumatic growth?

The Stoics don’t talk about moral injury, per se, but they do talk about moral distress. And they teach that such distress has no place, at least in the personality profile of the ideal moral person. Here, they embrace a teaching from Socrates:  the only real harm is for you yourself to become unjust, and that is not a possibility for the truly virtuous person. A truly good person, teaches Socrates in the Apology, cannot be harmed in life or death. That is the kind of impregnability that virtue affords. Virtue is sufficient for happiness, as Socrates taught.

So, you might say, the Stoics draw a bright line rule for a sage’s behavior: A sage can do no wrong by definition, for a truly virtuous person cannot do wrong. And so, if you are a sage, and you can’t do wrong, then there is no room for moral anguish or angst. Since it is only the anguish of wrongdoing, of perpetrating wrong, that counts as real moral distress.

But what if you are not a sage? After all, we are told that a sage rises only as often as the phoenix, and that’s only every 500 years. It’s an ideal, and probably an impossible one to apply in our non-ideal, imperfect world. What if you are, like Seneca, the famous Roman Stoic and advisor to Nero, says he always is, just a moral progressor, aspiring to become better but subject to error, misevaluations of what is really worthy, caught in struggles with those in power who compromise moral autonomy and self-rule? For many of us, the compromises may not rise to the level of imperial court intrigue, with execution, poisoning, banishment, imprisonment, and enforced suicide looming in the background or foreground. But the basic condition of not being sin-free and yet aspiring to become better is, in part, what has appealed to readers of Seneca throughout the ages, in the Hellenistic world and the Judeo-Christian period that followed, and now. And it also is part of the implicit appeal of Stoicism for the military. For the military culture is one not only of unbridled can-do-ism, but of constraint and chains of authority that squeeze autonomy and force choices that leave moral detritus in their wake.

So where do we find this thread of moral aspiration in Stoic writings? We first have to go back to Plato where Socrates appears again as a foil against a less noble character. The tale which I am about to retell sets up a challenge posed to the Stoics by a famous expositor/editor of Stoic texts.

We have to go back to the very conclusion of Plato’s Symposium,a banquet in honor of the god Eros.  Alcibiades, the morally flawed and disastrous military leader who betrayed Athens to the Spartans, bursts into the drinking party and addresses his love encomium directly to Socrates, his idealized and beloved moral tutor. Socrates, he confesses, is the only one who can really hold up a mirror to Alcibiades’s own errant ways and bring on the tears of shame. The anguish and shame are often excruciating, especially when Alcibidades is in Socrates’s presence. For at those moments, confesses Alcibiades, he shows me my flaws.   “Ah—,” he says knowing his audience, “you didn’t think I had it in me, did you? Yes, he makes me feel ashamed.”[iv]

The “tears of Alcibiades” becomes a famous challenge for Stoic thought: Shouldn’t we allow in moral distress as a launching pad for moral improvement? It is Cicero who poses the challenge. Not himself a Stoic but a Roman redactor, that is an editor and most important preserver of the texts, often attracted to Stoic ways, Cicero insists in the Tusculan Disputations that Cleanthes, the second of the three Greek patriarchs of the Stoic school—they are: Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus—doesn’t take the problem seriously enough: “It seems to me that Cleanthes does not take sufficiently into account the possibility that a person might be distressed over the very thing which Cleanthes himself counts as the worst of evils.” And then Cicero reminds his readers of this Symposium passage and Alcibiades’ distress before Socrates and his desire to be more virtuous: “What are we to say about this, Cleanthes? Surely you would not claim that the circumstances which occasioned Alcibiades’ distress was not really a bad thing?” (Cicero, 2002, 3.77, 34–35).

Cicero zeroes in on the same point later in the Tusculans: “Suppose a person is upset about his own lack of virtue—his lack of courage, say, or of responsibility or integrity. The cause of his anxiety is indeed an evil!” But the anguish, the guilt or shame, is an “impulse toward virtue itself,” he says. (Cicero, 2002, 4.61–62).

In a really insightful moment, Cicero admits that it can be an “all too vigorous impulse” that can lay us low. His therapeutic counsel is not to dismiss the cause of distress, but to control what we show, at least when and where we show it—very Roman advice about decorum, and military counsel as well. But if the core cause and object of distress is our own wrongdoing, then we should seize the moment as an occasion for moral aspiration. It is a first step and impulse toward moral growth and repair.

Now let’s return to our aviator case in Kosovo. Maybe there is some degree of culpability in this horrible accident. Whether or not there is, what we know is that Lane McDowell holds himself responsible. So, too, do so many service members that I have interviewed and written about over the years, who come home from war when their battle buddies do not. They hold themselves morally responsible—for being on leave the day when improvised explosive device (IED) blasts ripped through the Army vehicle of a best friend; for having squatted rather than stood on the roof the second the insurgents took aim; for having given permission to a squad mate to get out of the Humvee to relieve himself in a spot that ended up being booby-trapped with mines; for having permissive rules of engagement that allow to put some risk on civilians for the sake of a high-stake mission, but then the civilians ends up being totally innocent children; for having restrictive rules of engagement that transfer risk onto troops, and then seeing your buddies killed when you are not at all sure if the civilians you saved were really noncombatants.

Survivors’ guilt, accident guilt, holding yourself morally responsible for events in which you may not even be causally responsible, for thinking you should have omniscience, or at least be less fallible, about who was who and what was what on that day, is how service members carry the burden of care for each other. The guilt may be fitting of good character and care. You don’t just feel grief; you feel you could have done something differently. Agency steps in to fill the horrible void. I write a lot about this moral landscape and its interface with Stoic grit in my new book, Stoic Wisdom and also in earlier books, Stoic Warriors, as well as in Afterwar and the The Untold War.  Still, the self-blame can be too harsh and unfair. The right therapy in these cases involves redrawing the lines around agency and accountability. It’s a case where letting go is understanding the limits of control. It’s also a case where compassion and mercy may have to come from others so you can learn to show it toward yourself.

This very lesson about Stoic social grit is most profound, even if disturbing, in another Roman Stoic text, and that is Seneca’s play Hercules Rages. Hercules, blinded and crazed by a spell cast by a jealous and vengeful stepmother, Juno, has just finished his labors and pierced through Hades to rejoin his family. But at the moment of that long-awaited reunion, Hercules unwittingly murders his family. His self-blame is unremitting and suicidal. He did the deed. He could’ve and should’ve done otherwise. Hindsight bias—as psychologists call it—torments him.

Fast forward and listen carefully and you can hear our own servicemembers struggling with the accidents of war, bad intelligence, the forced choices, and blinding that lead to horrific tragedies. The struggle may have to do with conduct in war, but also cause, that at first seemed just but not so any more.  Or achievable, but no longer. Or their service honorable or patriotic, but less so as missions seem futile and war partners whom they are supporting feckless and led by corrupt political leaders.

In this Stoic play, it is a father and a buddy who intervene to help Hercules find self-compassion: “The grief is yours. The guilt your stepmother’s. Bad luck is not your fault,” says his father.  Hercules’s closest friend is far more direct: “Use your heroic courage” to show yourself mercy.  

You might say this is a surprising Stoic lesson. It’s not about what we we’ve been taught to associate with Stoic resilience—namely, go-it-alone tough, macho grit. Rather, it is about a different kind of grit—of learning to accept the trust and love of others in order to rebuild inner strength.   I see this as a critical Stoic lesson for service members I’ve worked with over many decades, some returning to my classes, unraveled by the horrors of war, trying to make moral sense of their role in what they’ve done, seen, and suffered.  Some are looking for answers as they sit in my classes. Others end up writing about their wars, as journalists, who return to where they deployed as young Marines or soldiers, with a new perspective on their wars and if the fight was worth it.

As I’ve said and we know, the emotions that travel with moral injury—shame, guilt, moral despair, and sometimes, a shattered sense of moral identity may be all too apt—the sign of a soldier’s humanity.  But the self-punishment may nonetheless be profoundly unfair—not just because it doesn’t always track real or precise culpability, but because the moral burdens are shouldered disproportionately by the too few who serve in the military in this country.

Heroic courage, in Seneca’s play, requires letting others in to help vanquish the self-rage—in Hercules’s case, a caring father and a wise and benevolent friend.

The role of a benevolent buddy in self-forgiveness is, in fact, part of a protocol used by leading VA clinical and research psychologists Brett Litz (of the Boston VA and BU) in treating veterans for moral injury.    At a critical juncture in the therapy, patients are asked to imagine an “empty chair” in the room, a place and space for a trusted and benevolent friend, someone with moral authority, who might help you reclaim a sense of lost goodness. The hope is that you might begin to see a glimmer of yourself through their eyes. Or you might be asked to reverse the stance: imagine yourself as the compassionate friend to whom a buddy can turn when he’s “stuck” in the way you are, wracked with guilt and the self-harm that often follows. Would you be merciless in your blame? Would he be merciless in his toward you?

The Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, Adam Smith, himself influenced by the Stoics, dubbed this kind of exercise “changing places in fancy.” Smith saw it as a way of building empathy, the connective tissue that allows us to share our humanity.

Service members are good at sharing humanity—up close and personal. A fighting force depends on it. March and drill depend upon it. But warriors often view the inner war as not needing the same social capital.  That is a mistake. And it’s not one that modern Stoics should make.

Marcus Aurelius is prescient on just this point. He jots his meditations as notes to himself at nightfall during the Germanic campaigns along the Danube. The intimate killing of the battlefield is likely on his mind: Picture a dismembered hand and head lying apart from the rest of the human trunk, he writes. That’s what “man makes of himself . . . when he cuts himself off” from others with whom he is connected.  The image is graphic. It’s one modern warriors know all too well.

Marcus draws a moral and psychological lesson from it, embedded deep in the foundations of Greco-Roman Stoicism. We are “at home in the world,” a stock Stoic phrase, when we recognize our mutual dependence. When we bring others close in, closer into ourselves—as a lesser known Hierocles put it, describing how we should bring outer circles of friends closer to the center point—the self.

Still the idea of Stoic social grit and mutual interdependence is a counterpoint to an image many service members conjure up of Marcus, a gilded and grand solo horseman, astride his glorious steed. The equestrian sculpture, still in Rome, may befit the honor due an emperor. But the emperor himself, writing his own breviary after a long day’s campaign, knows he is no lone horseman.  “We have come into the world to work together.” 

 With these words in mind, now look again at Marcus’s outstretched right hand in that very monumental statue. Maybe he is reaching out to others, holding out a hand. When I teach to the executive leadership of the military, 4-star admirals and generals—I stress that military leaders must acknowledge the real moral anguish suffered by many who go to war (including themselves) and that showing compassion is a way to teach self-compassion. This could not have been more painful when I was at the Pentagon observing the suicide review boards run by then Army Vice-Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli at the height of the suicide epidemic within the military.

Finally, are there other critical Stoic texts that address the themes of forgiveness and mercy? The idea of having erred and finding a way forward as moral aspirant is nowhere more evident than in Seneca’s essay On Mercy, addressed to Nero.In writing it, Seneca says he holds up “a mirror” for Nero to better see his ways. But the mirror is one Seneca holds up to himself, as well. As public spokesperson for the court, Seneca is also expressing the hope of the greater public that the tyrant will somehow show restraint, especially in the wake of having just murdered his half-brother Britannicus (at age 14) to thwart his claim to the throne. The essay’s shadow twin is Seneca’s play, the Trojan Women. In the essay, we see the promise of mercy. In the play, we see the wasteland of an after-war world bereft of it.

Mercy makes good on the gentler side of Stoicism, lost on critics, protests Seneca, who see only Stoicism’s sturdy austerity. Mercy is Andromache’s plea to Ulysses in the concluding scenes of Trojan Women. The Greeks, despite their victory, find themselves once again stuck without the right winds to set sail. And following a familiar script, Calchas, the Greek priest, recommends Hector and Andromache’s young baby son, Astyanax, be sacrificed and, too, that Polyxena, the young daughter of Priam and Hecuba, be slaughtered as a war bride on Achilles’s tomb by his proxy, his son Pyrrhus. The children must bear the crimes of their forefathers. The ghost of Achilles kills his young bride and a baby boy is thwarted from becoming a warrior who can reignite another cycle of the Trojan war.

The future Trojan warrior boy must face his fate. But his mother, Andromache, is in a mortal battle with Ulysses to protect her innocent child. She has hidden him in her husband Hector’s tomb, a place safe from enemy destruction. She begs Ulysses for mercy, for kindness, for herself as a hostage of war and as a mother whose child is her only comfort. The boy is no threat, she pleads, too young and without any power or backing to rearm a city. The boy may be a royal, but he is as good as a slave now: just put a yoke on his “royal neck.” (Seneca, 2010b, 748).

To kill the little boy is a crime of war, protests Andromache, and the atrocity will be pinned not on the gods but on you, Ulysses. But a Greek warrior, set on vengeance, cannot stay the impulse. Anger, as Seneca once again teaches, can’t be stopped, once set in motion: “I wish I could be merciful. I cannot,” answers Ulysses. (Seneca, 2010b, 764). The transmission of war, across generations, will go on, in violation of war’s permissions. Once the appetite for warrior anger is whet, it knows no bounds. Innocent children, killed by mistake or vengeance, are war’s pawns. Ulysses, the wily warrior, cunning strategist, cannot find a strategy for showing mercy, once the warrior mode grabs hold.

What we next see is the stunning consequence of the rage: a little boy forced to step off the steep embankment that was once the site of his grandfather Priam’s watchtower. The boy’s body shatters with the impact of the plunge. His corpse is mangled, his skull cracks open, brains spurt out, a little boy pulverized as if by a high impact bomb. Pleas of leniency, entreaties to restrain a victor’s revenge, reminders that these children are victims, not contributors to war, the impotency of a ghost warrior groom—all reminders that though the aggression of the war is over, none of this stays the hand of ruthless rage.  This is an ancient play, but it is replayed in the mind of our naval aviator, Lane McDowell, in the wake of his own accidental bombing of what he believes were young children.

Still, this is a strange play, we might think, for a Stoic moralist of calm. Or maybe not, for it’s a cautionary tale about excessive punishment and the difficulty of staying the impulse of raging revenge in war. But it is also about leniency in the face of overzealous punishment, whether directed at an external enemy or the enemy within. We hope Ulysses might hear the plea for mercy, for the sake of a mother and a child. But also, for the sake of himself and his troops. For maybe he will come to feel guilt, and his soldiers, too, for what they have done to an innocent. Maybe the guilt will wrack them for years to come and be the next feared Trojan War, but this one an inner war, that is fought over and over and over.

Mercy is, of course, far more elusive than anger. It requires discipline: first you have to vanquish anger, so there is space to heal. Guilt is self-anger. Self-mercy may be its therapy. And it may come from others. Even in death, as Rubens depicts, in a famous portrait of Seneca’s forced suicide, where Seneca, with bulging veins, is gathered at his side by friends. But so, too, was another Stoic icon, Socrates, famously depicted in Plato’s Apology as surrounded by friends in his final moments just before he drinks the poisonous hemlock.  Each is facing the ultimate challenge. And their Stoic grit is bolstered by others who sustain them in life, and in death.


[i] (B. Litz, and Leslie Lebowitz, Matt. J. Gray, and William Nash, 2016) 21.

[ii]  The story is retold in “The Body of an American,” a play by Dan O’Brien. I saw the play at Theater J in Washington in March 2016.

[iii] Chivers (2018, pp. 6–24, 119–121). I am grateful for correspondence and conversation with Chris Chivers about this account in the The Fighters.

[iv] Plato (1989, 216a–b). See the insightful study of Graver (2007, pp. 191–211).

References

  • Chivers, C. J. (2018). The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. NY: Simon & Schuster.
  • Cicero. (2002). Cicero on the Emotions: Tusculan Disputations 3 and 4 (Graver, M. ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Graver, M. (2007). Stoicism and Emotion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Litz, B., and Leslie Lebowitz, Matt. J. Gray, and William Nash. (2016). Adaptive Disclosure: A new Treatment for Military Trauma, Loss, and Moral Injury. New York and London: Guilford
  • Plato. (1989). Symposium. Indianapolis: Hackett.
  • Seneca. (2010). Hercules Furens. In E. Wilson (Ed.), Seneca: Six Tragedies. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Sherman, N. (2021). Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Sherman, N. (2015). Afterwar: Healing the Moral Injuries of Our Soldiers. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Sherman, N. (2010). The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of our Soldiers.New York, NY: W.W. Norton Press.
  • Sherman, N. (2005). Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Nancy Sherman is University Professor and Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University. A New York Times Notable Author, her most recent book is Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience. Other books include Afterwar, The Untold War (a NYT editors’ pick), Stoic WarriorsMaking a Necessity of Virtue, and The Fabric of Character. In the mid-nineties, she served as the inaugural Distinguished Chair in Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy. She has written for the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times and contributes frequently to many other media outlets in the U.S. and abroad.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today, president of ReasonIO, adjunct professor at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design | Sadler's Lectures podcast - https://soundcloud.com/gregorybsadler | YouTube channel with 1700+ philosophy videos - https://www.youtube.com/c/GregoryBSadler

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