$toicism, Broicism, and stoicisM — Part III: Stoicism and the Military

(the Roman Army in battle formation)

Here comes the last installment in a series of three essays concerning what I perceive to be internal problems of the modern Stoic movement — as distinct from criticisms coming from the outside, a phenomenon that has been going on for almost two and a half millennia.

In the first round, I have discussed the notion that Stoicism is a conduit toward becoming rich and famous, a distortion of the philosophy popular in Silicon Valley and among sports coaches. In the second installment I tackled what I termed “Broicism,” an attitude that seeks in Stoicism the philosophical foundations — or at least some high-powered philosophical help — for the jumble of ideas popular within the so-called Manosphere.

Now is the turn of the complicated relationship between Stoicism and the Military. There is no question that there is a — superficial, I argue — affinity between Stoicism and military life. Certainly the standard stereotypes of Stoics as people who endure hardship, suppress emotional reactions, and go through life with a stiff upper lip resonate with soldiers and officers alike, and have done so at least since the time of Cato the Younger, the archenemy of Julius Caesar.

Cato was famous was sharing field conditions with his troops, who in turn had an enormous respect for their commander. Many centuries later, George Washington adopted the same approach during the American Revolutionary War, and it is not by chance that in a dire moment — at Valley Forge — he read to his troops excerpts from a play featuring a speech by Cato (incidentally, the play in question — Joseph Addison’s Cato: A Tragedy — was a British production, so Washington was in direct violation of the American embargo against British goods…). Allegedly, Frederick the Great never went on a campaign without a copy of the Enchiridion in his kit. And of course Marcus Aurelius was not just a philosopher-emperor, he also conducted two frontier wars, being the commander in chief of the Roman Army.

And the ancient Stoics themselves sometimes used military metaphors to get the point across. Here is Epictetus:

“Is that what you’ve heard from the philosophers, is that what you’ve learned? Don’t you know that this life is like a campaign? One man must keep guard, another go out on reconnaissance, and another go into battle. It isn’t possible for all to remain in the same place, nor would it be better that they should. But you neglect to perform the duties assigned to you by your general, and complain when you’re given an order that’s at all hard, and fail to realize to what state you’re reducing the army, so far as you can; because if everyone follows your example, no one will dig a trench, or build a palisade, or keep watch at night, or expose himself to danger, but everyone will show himself useless as a soldier.” (Discourses, III.24.31-32)

Arguably the most famous modern link between Stoicism and the Military is provided by the experiences of James Bond Stockdale, a US Navy fighter pilot (and later Vice Presidential candidate) who was shot over Vietnam and spent years of prison, solitary confinement, and torture in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.”

In his Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior, Stockdale recounts that he was introduced to Epictetus by his philosophy teacher at Stanford, Philip Rhinelander, who — at the end of the semester — pulled down his copy of the Manual and told Stockdale: “I think you’ll be interested in this.”

He most certainly was, and in fact Stockdale credits Epictetus for his survival in the harsh conditions of the Hanoi Hilton. Here is how he describes the dramatic moment it became clear to him that Stoicism was going to be his lifeline:

“On September 9, 1965, I flew at 500 knots right into a flak trap, at tree-top level, in a little A-4 airplane––the cockpit walls not even three feet apart––which I couldn’t steer after it was on fire, its control system shot out. After ejection I had about thirty seconds to make my last statement in freedom before I landed in the main street of a little village right ahead. And so help me, I whispered to myself: ‘Five years down there, at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.’” 

Five years turned out to be an optimistic prediction. He remained a prisoner of war for seven years. Right at the beginning, his leg was broken in a way that would never completely heal, making him lame in the same way as Epictetus was.

There is no question that Stoic techniques helped Stockdale, and many others, immensely. But — as I have already stressed in the first installment of this series — there is a big difference between the techniques and the philosophy. Just because you meditate, it doesn’t mean you are a Buddhist. To be the latter you have to buy into the philosophy, beginning with the Four Noble Truths and the consequent Noble Eightfold Path.

I will submit that Stockdale used Epictetus’ techniques, but did not internalize his philosophy. The best piece of evidence for this claim is what happened on August 4, 1964 and thereafter. Here is how Stockdale’s Wiki page aptly summarizes the episode:

“On 4 August 1964, Stockdale was overhead during the second reported attack in the Tonkin Gulf. Unlike the first event, which was an actual sea battle, no Vietnamese forces were, however, believed to have been involved in the second engagement. In the early 1990s, he recounted: ‘[I] had the best seat in the house to watch that event, and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there. ... There was nothing there but black water and American fire power.’ The next morning, on 5 August 1964, President Johnson ordered bombing raids on North Vietnamese military targets, which he announced were retaliation for the alleged incident of 4 August. When Stockdale was awoken in the early morning and was told he was to lead these attacks he responded: ‘Retaliation for what?’ Later, while a prisoner of war, he was concerned that he would be forced to reveal this secret about the Vietnam War.

Stockdale did not act Stoically or honorably, in this particular instance. The above amounts to say that he knew that Johnson had started Vietnam on false pretenses. Not only he said nothing, he went along with the charade, and was in fact fearful of giving up this embarrassing piece of intelligence during his captivity. Do we really think that Epictetus would have acted in such fashion?

At the most recent international Stoicon in Athens, one of the talks was given by Thomas Jarrett, retired combat stress control officer and creator of Stoic & Warrior Resilience Training programs in the Iraq War. Jarrett gave a fascinating talk, which will soon be available here. It was also highly disturbing, because Jarrett recounted story after story of wounded soldiers who had been helped by Stoic techniques (which are very similar to cognitive behavioral therapy approaches), but not once did he stop to contemplate the bigger picture and question the morality of the Iraq War itself.

The Stoics most certainly did question the morality of war. Here is Seneca, for instance:

“We are mad, not only individually, but nationally. We check manslaughter and isolated murders; but what of war and the much-vaunted crime of slaughtering whole peoples? There are no limits to our greed, none to our cruelty.” (Letters XCV.30)

Stoicism is a cosmopolitan philosophy, and there is a fundamental opposition between cosmopolitanism and war: one can’t seriously believe that all the world is a brotherhood and sisterhood of human beings at the same time as he sets out to slaughter thousands of such brothers and sisters, at least not under false or clearly imperialist pretexts.

This doesn’t mean that Stoics cannot be concerned with their own country, as Marcus Aurelius explained:

“My city and country, so far as I am Antoninus, is Rome; but so far as I am a man, it is the world.” (Meditations VI.44)

In his role ethics, Epictetus clarified that we all play a number of roles in life, some chosen, some given by fate. But the most important role, the one that ought to trump all others, is as a member of the human cosmopolis:

“All our efforts must be directed towards an end, or we will act in vain. If it is not the right end, we will fail utterly. … There is, besides, a common and a specific standard. First of all, in order that I [act] as a human being. What is included in this? Not [to act] as a sheep, gently but at random; nor destructively, like a wild beast. The specific [standard] applies to each person’s pursuit and volition. The cithara-player is to act as a cithara-player, the carpenter as a carpenter, the philosopher as a philosopher, the rhetor as a rhetor.” (Discourses III, 23.3-5)

You can find more about this in Brian Johnson’s The Role Ethics of Epictetus, but the basic message should be clear enough: the general role of human being overrides any specific role, including those of soldier or citizen of a given nation.

This problem has long been recognized by different cultures, which independently came up with the notion of “just war” (jus bellum justum). I am not a pacifist, but I do subscribe to the strict articulation of just war, which we find in cultures as disparate as ancient Egypt, Confucian China, ancient India, the Ancient Roman tradition, and medieval Christianity.

Just war theory — theoretically a centerpiece of military ethics (not an oxymoron) — is divided into two parts: jus ad bellum, regulating the reasons to enter into a conflict in the first place, and jus in bello, regulating one’s conduct once the war has began.

Briefly, jus ad bellum (jab) includes the following criteria:

jab-I: There has to be a just cause in order to declare war

jab-II: The injustices suffered by one side have to be of highly significant import before war can be declared

jab-III: Only a competent authority can declare war

jab-IV: There has to be right intention in declaring war — no excuses to further one’s own imperialism

jab-V: The estimate has to be that there is a comparatively high probability of success in the war effort

jab-VI: The use of force has to be the last resort

jab-VII: The expected benefits of waging war have to be proportionate (and outweigh) to the expected harm

Jus in bello (jib) has to satisfy the following criteria:

jib-I: Acts of war should be directed toward enemy combatants, not against non-combatants

jib-II: There has to be proportionality between the advantage of achieving military objectives and the likelihood of unavoidable civilian casualties resulting from the pursuit of such objectives (again, according to jib-I, civilians can never be targeted directly)

jib-III: Every attack has to be justified on the basis of military necessity and not, for instance, as retaliation

jib-IV: Prisoners of war ought to be treated fairly

jib-V: Combatants are prohibited from using certain methods of warfare, including mass rape and the use of weapons the effects of which cannot be controlled

Now, it seems to me that just war is exceedingly rare, if it actually ever happened, despite the fact that the above criteria are rather commonsensical. Certainly the Vietnam and Iraq-II (or, for that matter, Iraqi-I) wars miserably failed several of these tests, both of the jab and jib type. Indeed, even WWII, the one war that is almost universally agreed to have been just, presents serious problems, such as the carpet bombing of Dresden, a pure act of retaliation against the civilian population, or the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, all three episodes being at odds with jib-I, II, and III.

The bottom line is not that Stoicism is incompatible with the Military — as it is, by contrast, incompatible with both the $toicism and Broicism discussed in my previous two essays. But it is not compatible with how the Military, including the American one, has been operating most of the time, and keeps operating to this day. Talk of ethics is cheap, and talk of military Stoicism is appealingly tough. I’ll welcome both only once soldiers and officers will be taught actual Stoic philosophy and the cosmopolitanism that it implies, instead of just a set of useful techniques to survive situations in which they shouldn’t find themselves in the first place.

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