Stockdale’s resilience is legendary in the military. And it remains a living example, too, for philosophers, of how you might put into practice ancient Stoic consolations. But for many in the military, taking up Stoic armor comes at a heavy cost.In the military, even those who have never laid eyes on a page of Epictetus, still live as if they have. To suck it up is to move beyond grieving and keep fighting.
The Stoic doctrine is essentially about reducing vulnerability. And it starts off where Aristotle leaves off. Aristotle insists that happiness depends to some degree on chance and prosperity. Though the primary component of happiness is virtue — and that, a matter of one’s own discipline and effort — realizing virtue in the world goes beyond one’s effort. Actions that succeed and relationships that endure and are reciprocal depend upon more than one’s own goodness. For the Stoics, this makes happiness far too dicey a matter. And so in their revision, virtue, and virtue alone, is sufficient for happiness. Virtue itself becomes purified, based on reason only, and shorn of ordinary emotions, like fear and grief that cling to objects beyond our control.
In the military, even those who have never laid eyes on a page of Epictetus, still live as if they have. To suck it up is to move beyond grieving and keep fighting; it is to stare death down in a death-saturated place; it is to face one more deployment after two or three or four already. It is hard to imagine a popular philosophy better suited to deprivation and constant subjection to stressors.
And yet in the more than 30 interviews I conducted with soldiers who have returned from the long current wars, what I heard was the wish to let go of the Stoic armor. They wanted to feel and process the loss. They wanted to register the complex inner moral landscape of war by finding some measure of empathy with their own emotions. One retired Army major put it flatly to me, “I’ve been sucking it up for 25 years, and I’m tired of it.” For some, like this officer, the war after the war is unrelenting. It is about psychological trauma and multiple suicide attempts, exacerbated by his own sense of shame in not being the Stoic warrior that he thought he could and should be.
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