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As salutatorian of her 1969 high-school class, Nancy Sherman announced in her graduation speech, “We are the children of the 1960s, and in that lies all the difference.” During college, she bused from Philadelphia to the District for anti-war rallies. Her long brown hair, dangling earrings, and woven Guatemalan belts completed the picture of an era archetype.
Her youthful sense of outrage lingered long after bell-bottoms gave way to tapered jeans. But Sherman, who became a Georgetown University philosophy professor, found an unlikely antidote to her enduring Vietnam hangover.
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In 1995, she began lecturing about military ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Sherman didn’t particularly expect ancient philosophers to stir the midshipmen, but the ideas of the Stoic Epictetus profoundly hit home. Sherman then realized that the military she’d criticized for so long has deep roots in Stoic thought. Her latest book, Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind, explores this ideological connection.
“Ancient Stoicism is about learning to draw a bright stripe between what is within your power and what isn’t. You try to strengthen your will, and other things you let go,” the 54-year-old Kensington resident says. “In the military, they have to give up a lot of liberty and do lots of stuff that’s unpleasant. They live and breathe a suck-it-up mentality.”
The book delves into the psychology of our military, including troops’ motivations for their involvement. Sherman is concerned that government contractors are ultimately more dedicated to their monetary reward than to their comrades. But she is more concerned by those who enlist to exact revenge on an enemy—which she posits can lead to cases of abuse such as those seen at Abu Ghraib.
In Stoic Warriors, Sherman suggests that our military is best served by troops who fight for a cause—and for each other. She cites the late retired Navy Vice Adm. James Stockdale, a former senior POW in North Vietnam. He constantly defied his captors, once by smashing his face into a stool until it was too bloodied for the North Vietnamese to show on television. Stockdale’s resistance was inspired by Epictetus quotes he’d committed to memory, including: “Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion….Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office….If it concerns anything beyond our power, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.”
Sherman’s accomplishments in the field of philosophy, from prominent fellowships to a doctorate from Harvard, are impressive. But the honor she may treasure most is not quantifiable—the opportunity to experience the military universe, which turned what she now calls the misconceptions of her youth into an honor and respect for the service.
“I wanted to write a book that was a gift back to the community that so nurtured me. They took me back 30 years and made me whole,” she says. —Hope Cristol