Drell Lecture at Stanford: Georgetown philosopher says soldiers' guilt deserves more attention

Mixing a philosopher's perspective with a psychoanalyst's diagnostic skills during a talk at Stanford, Georgetown scholar Nancy Sherman examines the emotional and moral wounds of war – a key to understanding and healing troops suffering from mental trauma.

L.A. Cicero Nancy Sherman

Nancy Sherman, a philosophy professor at Georgetown University delivers this year's Drell Lecture.

When combat veterans tell their battle tales, the stories often are laced with themes of heroism, sacrifice and loyalty. But when Nancy Sherman listens to what soldiers and sailors have to say about the wars they've fought in, she often hears something else: Guilt.

Sometimes it seems like an irrational emotion. There are those who beat themselves up over a fluke accident that killed a comrade or the dumb luck of having an assignment that kept them out of harm's way while the rest of their company was caught in an ambush. Then there's the guilt that comes from the killing of civilians, especially children – the "collateral damage" that only increases as warfare moves from traditional battlefields to villages and cities.

But no matter what sparks it, guilt deserves more attention, said Sherman, a philosophy professor at Georgetown University who delivered this year's Drell Lecture at Stanford on Tuesday.

Mixing a philosopher's perspective with a psychoanalyst's diagnostic skills, Sherman has turned her attention to examining the emotional and moral wounds of war – a key to understanding and healing troops suffering from mental trauma.

"What is often missed by psychologists is that psychological anguish is sometimes moral anguish," she said during her lecture. And with that comes guilt – an emotion that Sherman said was rarely named in the dozens of interviews and conversations she's had with veterans.

"Guilt was often the elephant in the room," she said. "It wasn't labeled as such. But it was felt."

Sherman, who is affiliated with the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown, has consulted for the U.S. Armed Forces on issues of ethics, resilience and post-traumatic stress. She's lectured at the Uniformed Services University, Walter Reed Army Medical Center and several military academies and bases.

Her latest book, The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds and Souls of Our Soldiers, outlines the moral, ethical and emotional battles troops are fighting in the face of physical combat.

Her lecture drew on stories told in the book, like the one of an Army commander who watched one of his soldiers get shot by the gun of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The gun accidentally misfired, taking off a third of the private's face.

"It was as if an ice cream scoop just scooped out his face," Sherman recalled the commander saying.

Even though the accident wasn't the commander's fault, he internalized his feelings of responsibility.

"This kind of guilt is sometimes called regret," Sherman said. "But regret doesn't begin to capture what this commander feels. It doesn't capture the weight of self indictment and the empathy he has with the victim."

Sherman's delivery of the Drell Lecture – an annual event sponsored by Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation and named for its co-founder, Sidney Drell – was also part of the ongoing Ethics and War series