Excerpt: 'The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of Our Soldiers'

by Nancy Sherman


THIS BOOK is not a political tract for or against a war. It is about the inner battles soldiers wage—the moral weight of war that individual soldiers carry on their shoulders and don’t usually talk about. Soldiers go to war to fight external enemies, in Afghanistan and Iraq today, or in Europe and the Pacific in my father’s era. But most, at least the honest among them, fight inner wars as well. They wrestle with the guilt of luck and accident, and the uneasy burden of killing and leaving the killing behind. For some, what weighs heavy is the sense of betrayal that is part of the moral shadowland of wartime interrogation—of building intimate rapport with a detainee only to exploit it. For others, the moral burden comes with killing civilians, as part of the permissible but no less wrenching collateral damage of war. These are feelings felt by the best soldiers. But they are feelings that are often unexposed, borne privately, and sometimes with shame.

That psychological anguish in war is also moral anguish is a fact too often ignored. Studies of war trauma tend to focus on the acute psychological hardship of crossing the borders of peace and war. But what that research typically leaves to the side are the ordinary moral and emotional tensions of that passage. It misses the ubiquity of the inner war and its subtle moral contours. It overlooks the full humanity of soldiering, and the healthy struggle in the best soldier to remain alive to civilian sensibilities without losing the soldier’s steel and resilience.

This book digs deep into the moral conscience of soldiers. It moves beyond the traditional study of war in philosophy, which from Augustine and Aquinas’s time forward has focused narrowly on the justice of going to war and prosecuting it. But it also moves beyond clinical psychological study on trauma to probe the broader issues of moral character in putting on and taking off the uniform.

At the heart of the book are testimonials from soldiers, not only from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but also from the Vietnam War, World War II, and World War I. The story soldiers tell over and over again is about the battle to reclaim personal accountability within the bureaucracies that armies are. Soldiers fight in units, wearing uniforms effacing individual difference in the name of solidarity, for missions meant to rally and unite. And yet soldiering, with its residue, is always about what each individual sees and does on his watch. It is about the individual moral record, etched in emotions, like honor and pride, revenge, guilt, and shame. It is about the things a soldier has seen and done on the battlefield, and the way these things come home with him.

As a professional philosopher whose area of focus is ancient ethics, military ethics, and the emotions, I have listened to soldiers’ stories through the dual perspectives of moral philosophy and psychoanalysis. Philosophy and the history of ethics have long offered a way of analyzing the moral texture of our lives that is unparalleled by other discourses. To make sense of our experiences, it is not enough to tell the story and narrate the events. Philosophy sharpens the distinctions, maps the conceptual terrain, presses us to make more systematic or coherent what confuses or defies sense or seems like one feeling or thought but really is another. It is a way of knowing oneself, as Socrates insisted, and of understanding the world. It is a form of discernment and enlightenment. But like all exercises in reason and argument, traditional philosophy can also obfuscate, rationalize, puff up, push us away from ourselves. It can turn its back on what seems irrational or too steeped in the upheaval of feeling.

Yet the irrational can have its own logic, as Freud taught us. It can be understood and, often, force us to recognize a different and deeper kind of reasonableness and humanity. And this is where my psychoanalytic training comes in. About fifteen years ago, I realized that to probe more deeply the nature of emotions and moral development, I needed the framework of a “deep” moral psychology, and so I sought out research training in psychoanalysis at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute. My view then, and now, is that emotions need to be understood not only in the context of a conceptual, philosophical analysis but also in the lived life and in the stories individuals tell about their families and friends, the conflicts they wrestle with, and their attempts to resolve them. The ancients, whose work I have specialized in during most of my academic life, knew nothing of a sharp boundary between philosophy and psychology. In understanding the full moral psyche, we are at peril if we try to erect one.

And so I have listened to soldiers with both a philosopher’s ear and a psychoanalyst’s ear. Soldiers are genuinely torn by the feelings of war—they desire raw revenge at times, though they wish they wanted a nobler justice; they feel pride and patriotism tinged with shame, complicity, betrayal, and guilt. They worry if they have sullied themselves, if they love their war buddies more than their wives or husbands, if they can be honest with the generation of soldiers that follow. They want to feel whole, but they see in the mirror that an arm is missing, or having bagged their buddies’ body parts, they feel guilty for returning home intact. I suspect many have talked to me so openly because they sense they are being listened to by someone who may help them find, in the chaos of war, a small measure of moral clarity.

This book looks at soldiering through the arc of combat, as civilians become warriors, go to war, and return home from war. I was not embedded with a unit and so do not follow the story of one group of soldiers from deployment to the return home. Rather, I have interviewed some forty soldiers at different points in their careers, some as they take their oaths or give them as a commander; others days after their return from the fall of Baghdad; some in their role as therapists counseling soldiers on resilience and trauma on the frontlines; others as patients at military hospitals trying to recover from the shock of war; yet others reunited with families and in their new civilian lives, with visible and invisible wounds, struggling to make sense of what they have seen and done and left unfinished. In one case, I have turned to correspondence and to my friendship with a daughter who tries to reconstruct her father’s service in World War II through a trove of his letters she stumbled upon. In a few cases, I have supplemented interviews with the traditional testimony of war literature.

What I have learned in writing this book is that though soldiers don uniforms and then take them off, the transitions are rarely seamless. For many, soldiering is not just a job or career; it is an identity, it is who they become. Leaving it behind is not easy. Finding a moral self capacious enough for both civilian and warrior sensibilities becomes the pressing challenge.

This book is not just about soldiers. It is also about those who send loved ones to war and live vicariously with them throughout a war and after. And it is about those who do not go to war and cannot see the emotional anguish beneath the stolid demeanor and impeccable uniform. In this sense it is about so many of us who see only pictures of the fallen that preserve the pristine look of a soldier with its reminder of lost potential. But the experience of war is far from pristine, however ennobling it can be for some. If the faces of war don’t convey the moral anguish, then the stories and their analysis should.

I urge that soldiers should not have to bear the moral burdens of war on their own. As a public, we need to understand the moral psyche of the soldier far better than we do. We need to begin to cultivate the kind of empathy that will allow us to support our soldiers properly when they return home to our communities.

I have come to the study of military ethics somewhat serendipitously. In the mid-1990s I was called into the United States Naval Academy to design an ethics program in the wake of a massive cheating scandal. I later was appointed the inaugural Distinguished Chair in Ethics at the Academy, teaching midshipmen a version of what I have taught at Yale and Georgetown for years—what ancient, modern, and contemporary philosophers tell us about how to make good choices in tough situations and how to live well in a way that gives voice to emotions as well as reason.

This association with the military reconnected me with my own past and that of many in my generation and in subsequent generations. After the Vietnam War, for many, the military became split from civilians. The all-volunteer military has widened the gap, despite the increasing roles of the reserves and National Guard in the current wars. My experience at the Naval Academy was a revelation about how close I felt to those who had served yet whose formative years were so different from my own. Some were Marine colonels and Navy captains in Vietnam while I was in graduate school; others served in the first Gulf War as aviators and flew regularly over a place little known to me at the time, the “Basra” road; others came back to the Academy after the fall of Baghdad, having led Marine battalions. Deep friendships with many have continued over the years and have, in part, inspired this work.

The lives of many in this book intersect with my own communities. Bob Steck is a Vietnam veteran in my neighborhood who was a philosophy instructor at the time he was drafted by his Texas draft board. To this day, he struggles with a philosophical problem that is all too personal: how to make sense of a soldier fighting honorably and justly in a war that is unjust. Dereck Vines is a former reservist who served in intelligence in Iraq and Bosnia. He sought me out at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., where I was a fellow and he is on the tech staff. He wanted to talk about the way he felt “suckered” by his service in Iraq, yet still so deeply proud to have served. At Georgetown, I interviewed several students who were going off to war or returned home and were then students. One whom you will meet is Will Quinn, a former interrogator at Abu Ghraib who tells me he crossed a moral line, not because he tortured or used “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but because he exploited trust in a way he would never have done as a civilian. Another is Dawn Halfaker, a former West Point basketball star and a master’s student at Georgetown who lost an arm in Iraq while supervising Iraqi police. In addition, I interviewed soldiers who have been military teachers, such as Lt. Col. Al Gill, an infantry soldier who has prepared students for the transition between civilian and soldier through lessons in Shakespeare.

Another community, just minutes from my home, remains sequestered from most visitors. And that is the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Army’s flagship military hospital. There I came to know Tony DeStefano, an Army reservist and communication specialist, who was traumatized by a near missile attack in Kuwait and has been in and out of military hospitals since. At Walter Reed I also interviewed Rob Kislow, a twenty-one-year-old at the time, who had been a sniper in Afghanistan, and killed the guy who was trying to kill him, but who came home from war badly injured and dogged by shame that he could not continue to wear the uniform and make the Army his longed-for career.

In San Diego, while giving a lecture honoring the late Vice Adm. Jim Stockdale, I met Alysha Haran, a former ballerina and advertiser in Los Angeles who had something of a conversion experience when, after 9/11, she saw a picture of her late grandmother in a military uniform. At that moment, she knew she had to serve. Her glamorous life suddenly seemed drained of all its meaning.

For an acquaintance and colleague, Ted Westhusing, the warrior life required reflective engagement with ancient Greek notions of virtue and honor. Westhusing was a top-ranked West Point graduate and elite Army ranger who went on to earn a doctorate in philosophy at Emory University. His interests and mine overlapped; we chatted at conferences and he sent me drafts of his thesis chapters for comment. I interviewed him for my last book. I was stunned when I heard on the news in the summer of 2005 that he had taken his life in Iraq with his own service weapon. I will tell Ted’s story later, but one way of summing it up is to say that his moral idealism collided with the reality of the war in Iraq and the corruption of contractors whom it was his job to oversee. He went to war seeking adventure and proof of his warrior virtue. In the end, he was sullied, morally undone, morally stripped. The tragedy is complex, as most suicides are. But I mention Ted now because his death hit hard and it forced the question, all too profoundly, that I have asked myself while writing this book, of just how moral philosophy can best prepare a soldier for war and for coming home after war. Ted was the best of the best, but somehow war was able to undo him.

There is another person whom I have learned about in the course of writing this book. My father, Seymour Sherman, is a World War II veteran, and of a famous generation of laconic men who buried war deep within. Often, in the past few years, I talked to my dad about war experiences that he could never tell me about when I was younger. His war, like that of many World War II vets, was a private matter. What he saw and did must not burden the family. My ardent hope is that soldiers in the current generation do not view their war as a private burden banned from their families and communities.

This book is a philosophical ethnography of sorts, and the insights of philosophers—Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne, Kant, Nietzsche, and Freud among others—permeate its pages. Not only do these thinkers help to analyze soldiers’ voices, but in turn, soldiers’ voices bring to life these thinkers’ ideas. The illustration goes both ways. What emerges over and over again in the course of the book is a theme many of the soldiers I interviewed voiced: Though they do no wrong by war’s best standards, they often feel wracked by guilt, betrayal, and a need to make reparations. The questions I wrestle with in this book are, How do we make sense of the reasonableness of those feelings? How does philosophy joined with psychoanalysis give us a framework for understanding this inner war?

The topic is sober. But many of the soldiers and families I have talked to are filled with courage and hope and resilience, though, to be sure, others struggle to find meaning and purpose after seeing war’s horrors. However, all have wanted to talk and bear witness. For that, I have been deeply humbled and honored.

I must add here a few words about terms. I use the word “soldier” to include all military personnel from the different services—soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen. I have done this for ease of reading, though I am well aware the term “soldier” neither captures the distinct nomenclature within the services nor the interservice rivalries. I have also struggled with gender use. In English, we have to select a gender for a pronoun, especially if we use the singular. Sometimes I use “he,” “him,” and “his,” at other times, “she” and “her.” The contexts often dictate the choice. But the point to keep in mind is that though the military profession has traditionally been male, women are an integral part of the current military, and women’s voices are a critical part of my account.

Soldiers, both men and women, often keep their deepest struggles in waging war to themselves. But as a public we, too, need to know how war feels, for war’s residue should not just be a soldier’s private burden. It ought to be something that we, who do not don the uniform, recognize and understand as well.


Not all soldiers come home. Some fight their internal insurgents while still on the battlefield. And some lose the battle. Army Col. Ted West¬husing is one who fought that hard battle but ultimately succumbed. His story has been with me, quietly but pressing, throughout the writing of this book. For he was a fellow traveler, of sorts: a philosopher, a lover of the ancients, and a teacher of military ethics. But unlike myself, he was above all else a warrior, a warrior who mixed the ancient and the Homeric with the modern in what turned out to be a tragic combination—he cared about virtue and honor and its public face. But he cared about excellence in a war, in the war in Iraq, in which compromise and moral ambiguity all too easily sully.

Ted was, by nature, a rigorist. At Emory University he wrote his dissertation, on the ancient virtues and their relation to the warrior, in a record six months. “He had it all worked out in advance,” his adviser, Nick Fotion, told me. Even on campus, as an older student, he was the competitive warrior/athlete and could be rigid philosophically. “You never wanted to argue with him because he didn’t budge an inch. He had his mind made up and wasn’t going to change,” commented one faculty member. Ted went on to teach at West Point, holding a prestigious tenured military professorship.

Though trained as an elite ranger, Ted missed the first Gulf War because he was working on his master’s degree. He had served in Kosovo and Korea, but the wars of the post-9/11 world had reawakened his warrior spirit. The notion of justly fighting wanton terrorism resonated with the values he held dear. When the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, he had already started his path on a teaching career at West Point. But he itched for the battlefield. So when the opportunity came to go to Iraq, he volunteered. He had written about military honor; now he wanted to test it against a new kind of enemy. He hoped to come back a better teacher. Perhaps, too, he wanted some glory. Ted deployed in January 2005, filled with excitement. “Yippie!” was what he told his old professor, Fotion.

His mission would be a critical one for the war effort—to train Iraqi officers to take over security duties from U.S. troops. His specific job was to oversee the Virginia-based private security firm USIS, which supplied many of the trainers. USIS had contracts with the Department of Defense worth $79 million to train the elite of Iraqi police (the Emergency Response Unit) in special operations. Though Ted had little experience in military policing or contractor oversight, he formed friendships with the young Iraqi cadets and contractors. He wrote to friends at home saying Iraq was “high adventure.” In March, Gen. David Petraeus, then commanding officer of the training mission, praised Ted’s performance in an email: “You have already exceeded the lofty expectations all had for you.” Ted replied, “Thanks much sir, but we can do much better and will.”

But by April, Ted’s mood began to change. He clashed with contractors who seemed more interested in money than the mission; he was irritated by the Iraqis’ lack of professionalism at work. He wrote home to his father that he had failed. He complained to another officer about how hard it was all becoming; the officer told him to just buck it up and, essentially, truck on.

In May Ted received an anonymous four-page letter saying that USIS contractors had been involved in corruption and human rights violations. It alleged that they had deliberately shorted the government of a number of trainers in order to push up profits. The writer went on to detail an incident in which a USIS contractor out on a raid with Iraqi police later bragged about the insurgents he had killed, although contractors are explicitly prohibited from carrying out offensive operations. In a second incident, the letter alleged, a contractor witnessed an Iraqi police trainee killing two innocent Iraqi civilians. The letter also suggested that Ted had become too cozy with the contractors who were exploiting ambiguities in contracting rules.

Ted was distraught. He reported the allegations up the chain of command, but told one superior that he believed USIS was compliant with its contractual obligations. To colleagues he complained about “his dislike of the contractors” and their high salaries. Meetings with them became contentious. He was blunt to his wife, Michelle: “The contractors were corrupt, the Iraqis were not trustworthy... The Iraqi treatment of the insurgents was deplorable.” He told her he was thinking of quitting.

He became increasingly depressed, fell physically ill, and began losing weight. “That illness took the fight out of him,” Fotion said. He started staring off in space and “would examine his gun at lunch.” He wrote to his brother, Tim, “Nothing is easy in Iraq, nothing, and everything is important. Couple that with the corruption, evil, etc. etc. and it is tough, but [I’m] persevering.” His wife detected a dramatic change: “I heard something in his voice. There was fear. He did not like the nighttime and being alone.”

On June 4, 2005, Ted gave a briefing to Gen. David Petraeus at the USIS headquarters, Camp Dublin, near the Baghdad airport. The briefing was received well. He had a meeting early the next morning, and so decided to spend the night in a cabin at the headquarters rather than returning to his office in the Green Zone. He returned to the cabin after the meeting. At about 1 p.m., Ted was found by a USIS manager lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

At the time, Ted was the highest-ranking officer to die in Iraq. Three months later, Army criminal investigators concluded their report: “Cause of Death was perforating gunshot wound of the head and Manner of Death was suicide.” He had killed himself with his service weapon. There was a note. His isolation and suffering at the end were excruciating. His world utterly collapsed:

I cannot support a msn [mission] that leads to corruption, human rights abuse, and liars. I am sullied... I came to serve honorably and [I] feel dishonored... Death before being dishonored anymore. Trust is essential. I don’t know whom to trust anymore. Why serve when you cannot accomplish the msn, when you no longer believe in the cause, when your every effort and breath to succeed meets with lies, lack of support and selfishness. No more. Life needs trust. Trust is no more for me here in Iraq.

Ted Westhusing’s suicide is a tragic story of the war within. He went to war, as many soldiers do, filled with moral idealism. In his case, he wrote about it as well as lived it. But his idealism collided with the reality of a corrosive war. Like the ancient Greeks he studied, he believed passionately in the self-sufficiency of virtue. Yet he had to partner with those for whom war was about profit, not honor. Their values were not his values, he found them repugnant, but he felt implicated, complicit, and unable to fight for what he did stand for. He felt isolated, an intellectual who was without intellectual companions. He felt sullied, and in a tradition that the Stoics made famous, he took his life to preserve his honor. Of course, we can’t rule out the possibility of some organic component in this suicide. But it seems clear that the suicide was triggered by a corruption of ideals. His devotion to ancient ethics couldn’t help him. They couldn’t pull him out of his profound grief and the sense that his virtue had been polluted by collective evil.

It is easy to point to a tragic character flaw here. Ted’s virtue undid him. That same lofty idealism that served him so well at West Point as captain of the honor board, as an inspiring officer and professor, tore him to bits in Iraq. The honor he so wanted to test in Iraq wasn’t so much “bewitched” by false honor—the theme he wrote about in his dissertation—but assaulted by it, and it could not endure the attack. The Stoic picture of self-sufficiency, and an idealization of a persistent theme in the Greek view that many in the military have embraced—that one can always retreat to a pure part of self and remain untainted—was shattered.

But it would be a terrible mistake to think that this is the full story and that the simple lesson to learn is that it is impossible to be a high-minded warrior. War is rarely morally clean. There are often shady alliances, dirty hands, mixed motives, and mercenaries. Mercenary soldiering is “an extremely ancient pastime,” as one classical scholar has put it, perhaps as old as organized warfare. Fourth-century Greece (the period Westhusing studied) relied on recruitment of foreigners and “men for pay” to amass the kind of army needed to fight the Peloponnesian War. Hellenistic states of the Stoic period amplified the use of mercenaries from the earlier classical period, entering an era of “gigantism,” with large professional mercenary armies, “greater specialization of arms and armor, terrifying machines of war, and huge ships.” As ancient historian Glenn Bugh continues, “War was still settled ‘the old-fashioned way’—by men on the battlefield, but it was no longer the exclusive province of the citizen army of the Classical polis. Warfare in the Hellenistic period belonged primarily to the professionals and to the technical experts.” Whatever we may think of paid professional soldiers, nationals or otherwise, warfare even in the ancient world that Westhusing so revered was not the exclusive province of citizen-soldiers.

Still, perhaps the war in Iraq, and Afghanistan too, is dirtier than most. Private contractors operate without clear chains of command, oversight, and sanctions for abuse. The military’s legal jurisdiction over civilians is limited. The fact that contractor salaries are sometimes four times as high as those of uniformed soldiers doing the same job can arouse deep envy and enmity on the part of troops. That many contractors are former soldiers and marines often deepens the sense of betrayal.

Training alliances with the Iraqis are equally morally perilous. Col. Tony Pfaff is also a military philosopher who was a senior adviser to the American commander training Iraqi security forces in the Ministry of Interior in 2006. His career track and training paralleled Ted’s, and at times they competed for the same academic plums. He served during the first Gulf War and has had two deployments during the war in Iraq. He is a foreign area officer with a focus on Iraq, fairly familiar with local culture. But he was still shocked during his last deployment in Iraq by the sheer level of bribery, coercive threats, abuse, and lying. Firings for incompetence could lead to death threats and murders. Hirings that crossed sectarian lines could result in the same. Iraqi police chiefs who could keep roads safe often did so by methods that involved gross humanitarian violations. “The corrupt can come from outside, sideways, laterally,” he told me. “But most of it really is someone from outside, a militia commander outside the organization making contact with a midlevel [Iraqi] major, colonel, commander and co-opting them.”

I ask if that is something you learn to tolerate. “You don’t tolerate any of it and you force them to do something,” Tony says. “But that something may not be terribly satisfactory.” Firing someone is viewed as an injury not just against the individual, “but against your tribe, your family, your clan. When you are telling them that they’ve got to do this, you’re putting them in a box, you’re trapping them... You’ve got to be culturally astute here.” The pressure of group honor and shame that our own troops have expressed acutely with revenge raids, such as at Haditha, reemerges in even sharper form for allies who come to the fight as tribal militias.

Still, for all his cultural savvy and moral realism, Tony Pfaff returned from his command vexed and morally perplexed. “Iraq is the abyss, it really is,” he told me, strained by the tour. Later, he put it to me in terms of these comparisons: “You feel like a doctor or engineer with extremely complex, time-sensitive problems” or “like the inner-city social worker.” “You’re surrounded by corruption and crime, but you keep fighting it. You don’t walk away even if that means dealing with some unsavory characters.”

To be sure, there are stark personality contrasts here. These are two very different individuals working in the same corrupt environment. But Tony Pfaff’s account is a corroboration of how corrosive the external circumstances were. Each in their own way struggled for honor and virtue. In Ted’s case, the struggle proved overwhelming.

The Army lost one of its best from Ted Westhusing’s suicide. He believed in the transformative power of soldiering to give birth to a special kind of virtue that is noble but often challenges ordinary civilian morality; he fought with fire in his belly, with a recognition that a leader’s “soulful anger” can motivate troops, get an “entire unit over the top,” as he put it while describing the challenges of Ranger school, but that it also can turn to fury and self-destructive rage. He struggled with guilt and shame, guilt that his attempts to fight justly got foiled by the accidents and luck of the war that was his to fight, shame that his honor couldn’t stand up to the test. The complexities of reclaiming personal moral accountability in messy wars fought with partners in institutions that seemed corrupt or unjust, or at very least, at odds with civilian conscience, bewitched him. Not all soldiers suffer the same tragedy. But the honest ones wage battles inside on many of these fronts.

Excerpted from "The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of Our Soldiers," by Nancy Sherman (c)2010. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


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