Drell Lecture: The Moral Wounds of War

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War takes place in a different time and space. But I know I’m the same person who was doing those things, and that’s what tears at your soul. - Will Quinn, student of Nancy Sherman and former interrogator at Abu Ghraib
How do soldiers make moral sense of what they have seen and done in combat? Nancy Sherman, distinguished professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of The Untold War and Stoic Warriors, explored the question on Feb. 22 during the 2010-2011 Drell Lecture, sponsored by the Center for International Security and Cooperation. In light of her years of research into the psyche of the American soldier, which have included hundreds of hours of interviews, Sherman has concluded that neither philosophy nor psychology alone can sufficiently answer the weighty question. Instead, the various forms of guilt a soldier may feel can span his or her entire ethos and must be examined more closely in order to identify ways in which soldiers can ease the moral burden of war. To Sherman, to merely accept a soldier’s guilt as the scourge, or “the tragedy of war,” is unacceptable.

Sherman’s introduction to the psyche of the soldier was personal: Her father, a World War II veteran, carried his dog tags on his keychain with him for 65 years before passing away just over a year ago. Sherman perceived her father’s choice to carry his dog tags not as one of honor, but instead as an obligation he felt to carry the moral load of his war. “He was a medic; he never fired an arm. But he carried the war, and what he saw in the war, with him.” 

To understand the moral psyche of the soldier, Sherman studies three forms of guilt: accident guilt, “luck” guilt and collateral-damage guilt. Accident guilt occurs when soldiers blame themselves for an accident that occurred under their watch. Sherman told the story of Capt. John Prior, who came to speak to her after the gun on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle accidentally fired, blowing off the face of a private under Prior’s watch. “It was as if an ice-cream scoop scooped out his face in front of me,” Prior told Sherman. “It was one of the few times in my life I’ve really cried.” Objectively, Sherman explained, one would not place blame on Prior because he was simply part of a causal chain and not the culpable link. But this fails to explain the despair, the self-indictment and the empathy that still invade Prior’s mind. “I’m the one who placed the vehicles. I’m the one who set the security. And as with most accidents, I’m not in jail right now,” he told Sherman. “Probably not a day goes by that I don’t think about it, even fleetingly.” In the case of Prior, Sherman says a deep moral accountability is at the heart of the soldier’s guilt, similar to the philosopher Nietzsche’s concept of “bad conscience.”

Luck guilt occurs when soldiers feel that by remaining alive following a catastrophic event of war, they betray those who gave their lives to battle, or feel, if they are not on the field of battle, that they are not sharing the burden shouldered by their comrades. Sherman told of when she visited the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis and spoke to marines who felt that they did not deserve to be surrounded by green scenery while their brothers fought in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan. The same was the case at the Army’s Walter Reed Medical Center, Sherman said. Even a student of Sherman’s at Georgetown spoke to her of the “dereliction of duty” he felt when insurgents in the Iraqi city of Tal Afar attacked a unit he formerly led, killing his friend. Sherman’s student yearned to have shielded his unit, even from thousands of miles away, and only after waging a moral battle within himself did he come to the reasonable conclusion that he could not, in fact, re-assimilate at home while also still protecting his friends on the war front.

Collateral-damage guilt affects soldiers whose actions result in the death of civilians. Sherman told the story of Col. Bob Durkin, who led a battalion in Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom 2. Durkin told Sherman that his unit was “emotionally devastated” when children were killed in attacks on vehicle checkpoints. Soldiers would often go out of their way to order a medical evacuation for children, even when their own lives were still at risk. One might speculate that these soldiers rationally feel guilty, but Sherman believes that a deeper, moral intuition is at play: The soldiers internalize that they are not fighters at checkpoints; they are police, social developers – and healers. Their job is to remove children from the chaos that war has become, not watch as they are killed by a bomb meant for the soldiers.

Studying soldier guilt is especially pertinent to the current war in Afghanistan because the U.S. strategy there is grounded in population-centric, counterinsurgency warfare. Such operations require soldiers to restrain themselves from all-out battle and instead win the hearts and minds of the population they aim to protect from insurgent forces. Sherman argues that soldiers should be better trained and prepared to exercise restraint, thereby reducing the moral burden they carry in and after war. At the same time, she acknowledges the difficulty: When a soldier returns from war, the uniform does not come off so easily. As Will Quinn, a student of Sherman’s who once interrogated prisoners at Abu Ghraib, told her: “War takes place in a different time and space. But I know I’m the same person who was doing those things, and that’s what tears at your soul.”

The Drell Lecture series is an annual public event sponsored by CISAC. It is named for Sidney Drell, CISAC’s founding co-director.