#METC: The Stoic Warrior

This session is titled “The Stoic Warrior,” though its view is somewhat broader. Here we will be discussing Stoicism as it used to anchor a particular approach to character development popularized by Admiral James B. Stockdale in his reflections on his time as a POW in Vietnam. If you haven’t read his Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot, I commend it to you. The individual chapters can be read independently, which makes them useful for those whose schedules necessitate reading shorter pieces. It also makes selections convenient to share with friends and colleagues in small doses. If you’re in uniform, read a couple of chapters. Chances are, you’ll think of a buddy or two who could use this sort of encouragement.

For this course, we’re reading The Stoic Warrior’s Triad, an address Admiral Stockdale gave to the Amphibious Warfare School at Marine Corps University in 1995. I imagine some of you may only be familiar with his 1992 Vice Presidential run. I’m glad #METC can provide an opportunity to learn more about a man who has inspired and influenced countless Sailors and Marines. It’s hard to put in writing the effect he has had on many of our students, but his thinking has been an important touchstone for a number of the officers we teach.

Two points are important about Stockdale’s writings:

  1. His view of Stoicism, while hardly superficial, is not one shared by all philosophers. Admiral Stockdale is taking philosophy and making it meaningful for the warrior. This is an essential task (claims the military ethicist!), but one that necessarily results in imprecision that may rankle trained philosophers. Neither he – nor I – care. His desire is to better prepare service members for the moral challenges of war. Admiral Stockdale uses Stoicism to inspire, prepare, and heal. He should be evaluated on those grounds. @queenofthinair has prepared a readings list on Stoicism that I’ll post and link here on Friday for folks who would like a more academic treatment.
  2. Admiral Stockdale is influenced heavily by his strong appreciation of Epictetus, one of the Greek Stoics. That limits Admiral Stockdale’s scope, but does so in a way that is helpful for you. It’s always good to reference the source text. For Epictetus, that is predominantly his work, The Enchiridion. You can read it on-line, or download it free to your Kindle. FWIW, I first ‘read’ the Enchiridion as an audiobook. It’s pretty easy to digest on your daily commute (a fact that was suggested to me by an infantry officer who has made a habit of doing just that every time he returned from deployments. I share that to suggest that Epictetus isn’t too ‘smart’ for you, so quit whining about how boring you find Greek philosophy).

In addition to Admiral Stockdale, we’ll discuss a speech delivered by (then) BG H.R. McMaster at the US Naval War College in 2010. You may know MG McMaster for his PhD thesis published as Dereliction of Duty. While not a representation of Stoicism, MG McMaster’s speech centers on the importance of adhering to core values in times of great stress; it is a complementary means of preparing service members for the personally morally and emotionally challenging stress they will face in combat.

The final element in this section of the course is the leader’s ability – and professional responsibility – to cultivate their service members’ character and resilience. We will be reading from Dr. Paul Bartone’s work on hardiness to see the positive (or negative) effect leaders can have on the individuals in their units. While I’m moving into new research areas now, this has been the focus of my own research for the last few years, and I’m happy to talk more with anyone who’s interested.

For instance, leaders talking their units through Restrepo can be a very effective way of preparing junior infantry to confront the moral and emotional challenges of combat. It can also help supporting elements to understand the sorts of stress their comrades face. (I remember a very sobering discussion I had with a group of CH-53 pilots who transport troops just like the ones in Restrepo to and from their missions).

For the civilians participating in #METC: We ask men and women to shoulder incredibly difficult and painful responsibilities in defense of our country. Their service comes at a very real emotional and sometimes moral cost to them and their families. It’s easy to focus on MRAPs, better acute trauma care, and body armor, but the issues we’ll engage in this section of the course are what enable our service members to look their fathers in the eye when they shake their hands coming home from a deployment and feel pride when they think about how their babies could grow up to be just like them. We ask our service members to give their lives in defense of our country; we ought not ask them to give their souls. This is what Admiral Stockdale, MG McMaster, and Dr. Bartone are writing about.


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