Nancy Sherman

Dr Nancy Sherman – ‘Afterwar’

With the recent announcements that special forces will be deployed to combat ISIS and large scale American troop presence in Afghanistan has been extended again after almost 15 years in the country, the question of how to support veterans returning from war has never been more prescient. To commemorate Veterans Day GPPR was able to sit down with Dr Nancy Sherman, Georgetown professor and author of a new book ‘Afterwar’. The book takes a look at the moral cost borne by service men and women returning from battle. During our discussion we were able to talk about how the changing dynamic of war, from up close conflict to distant cyber and drone warfare, has not changed the psychological and moral impact on soldiers. We were able to also touch on what more can be done by society as a whole to help combat veterans re-enter society.

Dr Sherman will be speaking on Monday 16th November at 5pm in the Lohrfink Auditorium of the Georgetown McDonough Business School to discuss her new book ‘Afterwar’ with CJ Chivers, New York Times Pulitzer Prize-Winning War Correspondent and Former Marine, and James Fallows, Writer and National Correspondent for The Atlantic .

Patrick Spencer: Can you explain to us what ‘moral injury’ is, specifically how it may differ from the more commonly understood term PTSD?

Dr Nancy Sherman: Moral injury is actually an old term, with the phenomena even older, and it refers to the moral dimensions of psychological injury. The diagnosis of PTSD whether that is appreciated in the popular media or not, was a fear based response, a conditioning to fear and in particular overwhelming life threats. It is a survivor’s response to overwhelming fear manifest in being hyper-vigilant, aroused, flash-backs , dissociation and numbing from emotions when they get overwhelming. War especially, but many other walks of life, if you are assaulted or a rape victim, can have a moral dimension. In war the moral dimension can be ‘Is this the right war I am fighting’, any thinking soldier is going to be asking that question… ‘Is the cause just’, ‘was the cause just initially but not now’, ‘am I complicit in war crimes’, ‘while I am indiscriminate, and my weapon is indiscriminate, there are collateral killings in this war which are legal but which are morally awful ’. Luck guilt, or as we call it survivor guilt, where I make it out alive but my buddies don’t. My motivation into going to war especially when I don’t endorse the cause is to bring my troops home. Given the perfectionist goals and ideals of the military, it brings about an annihilating feeling of failure when this can’t be done. There are lots of moral quandaries, moral questions and moral reactions to war that can have this powerful crippling effect as fear can.


PS: Have policy makers whether they are at the federal level of politicians overlooked this problem.

NS: To some degree, I think that many have an image of the military forces as following orders and getting dehumanised a bit through training, loosing their social and, to some degree moral identity, and they have forgotten the costs of transitioning back, where you can let down some of your stoic armour and begin to feel and think again. And the result is that the policy aspects of both training and transitioning get overlooked, those that are essential for moral consideration of this sort. Of course it is the public and not just the policy makers. You don’t often hear people talking about the costs on the consciences of those people that have gone to war.


PS: Do you think as a philosopher and an American that the Government need to revisit the framework by which they  look at putting boots on the ground.

NS: I think that boots on the ground is a complicated question and a complicated phrase. We are often not putting boots on the ground, conducting small footprint engagements through remotely controlled aircraft, drones, and special advisors attached to local troops. Those are the ways we are avoiding boots on the ground because of  lack of popularity and almost 15 years of war with the smallest contingent of American society ever going to those wars. Half of 1% serve. So the DoD is not only involved in boots on the ground, it is involved in cyber-warfare, drone-warfare, non-traditional state on state conflicts as well as these small engagement ‘tip of the spear’ conflicts that will involve more special forces. I think the DoD budget is complicated and anyone who thinks war is like it used to be has got it wrong. A lot of world leaders and computer folks are meeting currently to talk about cyber warfare in Washington. I should stress the moral stress and anguish is not isolated to boots on the ground, those who are watching screen with intimate killing, mediated by a screen but intimate none the less and far more enduring than what a sniper sees, suffer moral injury. They watch someone before, they watch the kill, they go to a funeral, they collect intelligence and they know the situation in a very intimate way. We have to expand our notion of what it means to engage troops when we are involved in these complicated irregular wars.


PS: What role do you think negative stereotypes have played in enhancing the problem of moral injury.

NS: I think these wars have been characterized by ‘thank you for your service’, a bit of paid patriotism from the DoD to major sporting teams and events, and so there is this Vietnam hangover where you separate the war from the warrior, and you engage in a very minimal interaction that is supposed to be polite, respectful, maybe even honorific and then you walk away…. and this does not satisfy anyone and that is the counter to the negativity, it leaves the service member resentful, that it was hollow and questioning ‘what burden did they ever have to carry’. And it leaves the person who says it a little self-satisfied that they have done something but more likely to be feeling some social embarrassment, guilt, unsure of what to say and willing to move on. So I think there has been an attempt to treat the service people differently, but my book ‘Afterwar’ is about how you begin the conversation in a substantive way. PTSD for all its incredible importance for putting the cause of the stressor outside the individual in the sense that it is a life threat situation, as opposed to it being a moral failure, character failure, cowardice or weak fiber. Anything to do with mental health care is stigmatized in this country. So we are still fighting that and we need to talke the battle to a one-on-one engagement with all of us. We need to destigmatize mental health but we also need to talk about war, up close and intimate. I got a letter this weekend from one of the academies that I gave a talk at recently. He was a mid-level officer teaching other officer cadets. He read ‘Afterwar’ this weekend and he could not put it down and cried all weekend. His wife suggested he stop reading it and he said he was feeling things that he never felt before. He compartmentalized and put away so carefully like high school memento’s in an attic and I am seeing what I ordered and what I did. He was having a conversation with himself about his moral injuries and how to move forward and how to include his wife in that conversation. That’s the kind of conversation we can have in classrooms.


PS: You spoke in the book about resiliency training and efforts by the DoD to prevent moral injury. Can you give us some idea on how successful these have been, and also how much more can be done by policy makers?

NS: In 2009 and 2010, the army were becoming increasingly anxious that it was bringing home people with injuries at rates never heard of before, 1 in 9 people surviving their war wounds, but they were coming home rattled by traumatic brain injury caused by multiple deployments  and messy conditions of warfare in population centric areas. So they set up a program with Marty Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania, who had done some work on positive psychology, called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness. A resilience program for everyone  with some mandatory training, a train the trainer session for many. It involved a mandatory two hour training, a fitness test, and an online private survey. A lot of data was collected.It’s hard to stand up a program in a bureaucratic organisation. I would suggest that more openly minded conversations from the top down in a command climate is what is needed. It could take place at West Point, or the Naval Academy, Air Force, ROTC programs, in classrooms like they have at Georgetown. We want people to be thinking, why do soldiers feel guilt for surviving, what could you do to inspire or invest hope in soldiers when they come home. One thing that is not talked about but we have discussed in my classroom, is the hypermasculine environment within the military that partially depends on homophobia and denigration of women to build itself up. When the worst possible thing is to be a women, how do you get troops to coming home and asking for help. Changing some of that discourse in training, would change the transition home where there are women in your environment and where you are not womanly by seeking help, will go a long long way.

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