Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind

Article excerpt

Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind, by Nancy Sherman (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 242 pp., $26.00.

A steady rain was falling but among a group of soldiers crossing a large open field not a single umbrella sprouted forth. Many observers would dismiss this incident as an ancient relic of the Macho Age. In doing so, these same witnesses neglect an opportunity to reach a treasure chest full of rich cultural symbolism.

In modern America, the U.S. Military occupies ambivalent ground. The vast majority of Americans respect the military and appreciate its power in times of need. A smaller, perhaps more vocal segment splinters into several subgroups, most of whom tend to fear and denigrate America's Armed Forces. The entertainment industry, by and large, resides in this latter segment. The entertainment industry revels in the profits made through all sorts of action movies, many of which focus on some aspect of America's military. Film makers typically portray a caricature of America's fighting men and women as rigid, rules-bound automatons bent on angry destruction of variously sympathetic enemies. While this makes for a good story, and good profits for the entertainment industry, it does little to alter perceptions in line with reality. In fact, an honest expose of the complexities of military life would reduce the value of this worn out stereotype, which is endlessly used as a scripted foil.

The U.S. Military unquestionably stands as a unique subculture in America, invoking a wide range of passions ranging from reverence to reprehension. Students of culture have authored innumerable tracts "explaining" the sociology of military life. Many times, these studies are tainted by the authors' bias, again ranging from reverence to reprehension. Finding an unvarnished expose, not painted by pride or prejudice, is the singular strength of Nancy Sherman's Stoic Warriors: the Ancient Philosophy behind the Military Mind.

Sherman achieves her objective by undertaking a study based on established tenants advanced thousands of years ago by the stoic philosophers. The author chooses this path based on the superficial observation that military personnel are rigid, unemotional, and-stoical. The author breathes literary life into the ancient thinkers such as Socrates, Epictetus, and Seneca, all of whom advanced "the stoic" philosophy. Before a comparison between the stoic philosophy and the military lifestyles can be made, "Stoic warriors" prepares the reader with a concise review of this influential belief system. One of the more important themes revolves around "the questions of how we are to live with the fragility of our bodies, what efforts we are to put into their adornment and sculpture, and what attitudes we are to take when our bodies fail us" (page IS). Stoic philosophers would insist that happiness is a derivative of a principled, virtuous life-not the pursuit of physical attributes.

The casual image of stoicism reveals an individual devoid of emotions. Such a person seems "cold, rigid, and rules bound" - all at the expense of a socially prized display of emotions. As a consequence, anyone simulating stoic "indifference" is considered odd and lacking empathy. In some respects these are the same perceptions held of the military.

The stoic philosophy praises the virtues of self-reflection, discipline, a recognition that emotions are voluntary and subject to control, and a relentless effort to achieve moral independence. As the author notes, "The contest of life has as its prize our own individual happiness. …