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

the lonely soldierby Nancy Sherman
review by Stephen Smith

This book provides a nuanced, insightful, and emotionally powerful account of the experience, feelings, thoughts, and, especially, moral burdens of U.S. soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the book also omits and obscures some key issues.

First, the book’s laudable qualities: For openers, its intellectual purview is impressive. Sherman is a professor of philosophy who has been trained in psychoanalysis. The book sometimes struts her philosophical and psychoanalytic chops irrelevantly and pretentiously. But that’s a small price to pay for how more frequently she relates the contemporary U.S. military experience to what Homer, Aristotle, Kant, Freud, the Stoics, and other titans of Western intellectual history have said about the immensely weighty and morality-laden issues that war inevitably raises.

Even without this panoramic intellectual sweep, the book’s discussion of the war within the hearts, minds and souls of the approximately 40 soldiers interviewed for the book would be astute and evocative. Most of the discussion occurs in nine chapters beginning with the transition from civilian to soldier and ending with the transition from soldier to civilian. Sandwiched between discussion of these two transitions are chapters dealing with how, among other things, her interviewees have experienced and thought about killing and their feelings of guilt, desires for revenge, ambivalence about certain interrogation techniques, amputations, PTSD and the extent to which they were fighting as the chapter title puts it, “For Cause or Comrade?”

Richly crafted as these chapters are, the book’s most powerful part is the epilogue “In Memoriam: Ted Westhusing. An acquaintance and colleague of Westhusing, Sherman notes in the book’s prologue that he committed suicide when his moral idealism conflicted with the reality of the war in Iraq. But she saves the full story for the epilogue. Westhusing was a philosopher and tenured professor at West Point who volunteered to go to Iraq because the idea of justly fighting terrorism jibed with his deeply-held values. In Iraq, however, the excitement he felt upon deploying soon gave away to dismay at the corruption of the private contractors, the untrustworthiness of the Iraqis with whom he was working, and the deplorable way in which he thought the Iraqis were treating the insurgents. A half-year after arriving in Iraq and a day after a briefing with General David Petraeus, Westhusing committed suicide, leaving a note that said in part, “I cannot support a msn [mission] that leads to corruption, human rights abuses, and liars. I am sullied . . . I came to serve honorably and [I] feel dishonored . . . Death before being dishonored any more.”

Sherman begins the book by saying that it is “not a political tract for or against a war.” But her account of the reality that Westhusing encountered in Iraq will provide little comfort to those who have tried to justify the war. Nor will the war’s supporters find comfort in most of her accounts of the toll the war has taken on the bodies, minds and souls of her interviewees; her discussion of the use of torture; and her account of the abuse and mistreatment soldiers received at Walter Reed Hospital, an account that packs a punch even though these outrages were exposed many years ago. The book may not be a tract against the Iraq war, but it provides ample evidence of how disastrous it has been for so many of the U.S. soldiers who fought it.

Sherman’s awareness of this evidence makes the book’s two omissions all the more unfortunate. She pays little attention to how disastrous the war has been for the people of Iraq. Perhaps this omission can be forgiven since the book is about U.S. soldiers not Iraqis, but it is much harder to forgive the second omission, one to which Ted Westhusing’s death calls attention. The death of her acquaintance and fellow-philosopher hit Sherman hard and forced the question that she asked herself while writing this book “of just how moral philosophy can best prepare a soldier for war and for coming home after war.” But phrasing the question this way ignores another one, “How can moral philosophy—and the people, organizations, and governments whom moral philosophy aspires to influence—best prepare a soldier for not fighting and/or resisting a war that s/he believes is unjust?” I don’t know if raising that question is taboo for someone who, like Sherman, once served as a distinguished professor of ethics at the Naval Academy and who apparently values her ties with the military establishment. But so much of what Sherman writes—not the least of which is her tribute to Westhusing—cries for more attention to this question than the book provides.

The book makes clear the importance of resources to help soldiers and veterans deal with all the untold wars that Sherman effectively chronicles. But where is the call for the resources that might have helped soldiers, such as Westhusing, who adhere most firmly to their ideals, address the conflict between cause and comrade (and career) by taking actions similar to those of Camilo Mejia, Bradley Manning, Pablo Paredes, and Katherine Jashinski? Of course, one cannot expect the government to supply those resources. But that’s all the more reason for Sherman to emphasize the importance of organizations (such as Citizen Soldier) that do provide these resources.

There’s also a problem with the book’s title, specifically the our in our soldiers. In the context of discussing the war in Iraq, our functions as what those who study language often call a keyword: a word that carries unspoken meanings and assumptions that, in turn, create commonsense beliefs that shape people’s understanding of reality in a way that avoids critical examination. And that’s exactly what our in our soldiers does. It helps constitute a way of thinking in which the people of the United States have interests, goals, and values that are the same as those of Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld and their fellow-travelers who ordered the war and manipulated large portions of the U.S. population into initially supporting it. In other words, the use of our in the title suggests that what all of us have in common is what’s greater than what divides us, and that, in particular, the war in Iraq has been waged in our mutually-shared interest. But as events of the past decade make clear, the war has not been in the interest of the people of the United States (to say nothing of the people of Iraq or the world). Had Sherman substituted United States Soldiers for our soldiers in the title, all these problems would have been avoided.

It may seem petty to focus on Sherman’s use of this one word, especially because even antiwar activists frequently couple our with troops or soldiers, as in the slogan “Support Our Troops. Bring Them Home.” But Sherman is a professional philosopher, a discipline that pays special attention to the meanings of words. It thus behooves her to pay such attention to the words in her title, especially because so many of the untold wars recounted in the book make clear that the Iraq War was not in the interests of many of the U.S. soldiers who fought it or of the people of the U.S., Iraq, and the world.