How Military Veterans Contribute to Academic Philosophy (guest post)


Before becoming a philosopher, Descartes studied and then taught military engineering as a soldier. Wittgenstein penned the Tractatus as an artilleryman in World War I and sent out his manuscript while confined at a prisoner of war camp in Italy. Quine was a codebreaker during World War II, while Davidson trained spotters to distinguish Allied planes from Axis planes. Rorty, Marcuse, Carnap, Heidegger, Feyerabend, and Dummett all served in the armed forces before beginning their careers in philosophy.

In the following guest post*, Jesse Hamilton, a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, recounts his journey from Fallujah to philosophy and suggests that military veterans have much to contribute to academic philosophy.

Tomorrow is Veterans Day in the United States.


[Photo of self-portrait of PFC Archie Sweetman, carved into the wall of the WWI soldier’s underground living space while at war in France. Copyright © Jeffrey Gusky, All Rights Reserved.]

How Military Veterans Contribute to Academic Philosophy
by Jesse Hamilton

It was 2005, and I was an embedded advisor to the newly-formed Iraqi Army in Fallujah, Iraq. Fallujah was terribly violent, which made the urban battlefield a morally treacherous place. There was a potential moral dilemma waiting behind every door and lurking around every corner. I discovered late one night that our Iraqi counterparts had detained a journalist for criticizing the government. I was forced to choose between upholding my liberal values and maintaining a strong relationship with the Iraqi soldiers that our team had to trust with our lives. I spent lonely nights contemplating the things I saw and did. It wasn’t long before I started to feel my humanity slip away.

While I was home on mid-tour leave, I took refuge at a local bookstore. I wandered into the philosophy section, searching for something that might help ground my morality. Knowing little about philosophy, I chose a book based solely on its title. The book was Practical Ethics by Peter Singer. Reading Singer’s book at night in my room in downtown Fallujah sparked a deep interest in philosophy that I hadn’t known was there.

I arrived at the Academy fifteen years after that trip to the bookstore. Despite my passion for philosophy, I suspected that my military training might hinder my academic pursuits. Unlike philosophers, soldiers aren’t trained to think critically. Instead, we’re trained to execute lawful orders swiftly and without question. We tackled problems with “eighty percent solutions” because perfection was the enemy of progress. While eighty percent solutions are effective in time-sensitive environments like training and combat, eighty percent valid arguments don’t pass muster. I feared that the way the Army conditioned me to think and solve problems was a dealbreaker. However, I came to learn that my military experience contained key insights that have proven valuable in studying philosophy.

Military veterans have much to contribute to philosophy at all levels of the discipline. As students, veterans can bring an additional layer of experience and further tools for exploring topics like authority, use of force, moral dilemmas, political violence, and how to address human rights abuses. Similarly, we can illuminate the power of nationalism and propaganda to influence personal decisions and mobilize collective action. As teachers, veterans bring unique and useful leadership experience. Motivating others is a core competency in the military. Lessons learned leading soldiers through a deployment overseas can be adapted to the classroom. Veterans skilled in the military’s methods of instruction and knowledge transfer can diversify philosophy’s pedagogy.

Soldiers in combat often contemplate some of life’s most pressing questions. Our discipline benefits from people who have done the kind of life-examination that Socrates, a veteran of the Peloponnesian War, thought philosophy was all about. War also motivates some soldiers to ask questions they hadn’t yet considered. And those might be important questions in philosophy. As John Rawls explains:

From the beginning of my study of philosophy in my late teens I have been concerned with moral questions and the religious and philosophical basis on which they might be answered. Three years spent in the US Army in World War II led me to be also concerned with political questions. Around 1950 I started to write a book on justice, which I eventually completed.

During the Vietnam War, Rawls argued that the draft exposed structural racial injustice because it disproportionately burdened black Americans in a way that violated the norms of fair cooperation in a society. Middle-class Americans and children of military veterans disproportionately fought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While many in our discipline rightly object to how our military has been used over the last twenty years, it’s crucial to separate the soldiers from the wars our country sent us to fight.

The path to college wasn’t easy for many undergraduate student veterans. High school graduates from low-income families often enlist out of necessity. Few held a college acceptance letter in one hand and enlistment papers in the other and chose the latter. It’s safe to assume that many veterans aren’t inclined towards majoring in philosophy. Many front-line military leaders steer service members towards majors like finance and computer science because that’s where the money is. This message resonates with soldiers from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Soldiers trust their leaders and make life decisions based on the guidance they receive. Talking to student veterans about majoring or minoring in philosophy may help them recognize the richness philosophy can add to their lives and the contributions that they can bring to the discipline.

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Alfred MacDonald
18 days ago

if vastly more combat veterans had philosophy PhDs, how might this change the literature on ethics? metaethics?

put differently — one exercise I like doing is “if (category of person) had a sizeable number of philosophy PhDs and was producing scholarship, would we get unique insights out of it?”

the answer is almost always yes.Report

Jeff
18 days ago

Here we might also think about Nancy Sherman’s recent work with the military. Her new book on Stoicism is fantastic because it is a great bridge from the enthusiasm that many in the military have for Stoicism to more complicated and interesting philosophical depths of Stoic thought. She does this in a respectful and engaging way, one that could be a model for bridge building to and from philosophy to the military.

And, to add to Justin’s list, Stuart Hampshire’s work interrogating Nazis was formative in the development of his work in moral philosophy.Report

Preston Stovall
18 days ago

Jesse (if I may) — thank you for this, and for your service. I was talking with some colleagues a few weeks ago, and questions of diversity came up. It occurred to me then, maybe for the first time, that despite all of the job applications I’ve filled in that ask about my identity as a veteran, as well as my gender and ethnic identity, I’ve never had a conversation about diversity in the profession where veterans came up. That’s surprising, as I don’t think I’ve participated in organizing anything from graduate school onward that didn’t involve explicit avowals to balance gender and ethnic representation (which I’m in favor of, for what it’s worth). And U.S. discrimination law treats veteran status as a protected class. It’s an odd way for the profession to view diversity, it seems to me.

Thanks again, and I hope you’re able to spend tomorrow with friends and loved ones.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Preston Stovall
18 days ago

Seconding the thanks, and also want to flag for anyone who might not be aware that this diversity and inclusion report from a couple of years ago provides empirical evidence veterans are underrepresented in philosophy: https://philarchive.org/rec/JENAPD-4Report

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
18 days ago

Thanks Kathryn, and Jesse for launching this conversation. This year’s survey had the same finding, which will be published in Metaphilosophy in January (likely earlier online). https://philpapers.org/rec/JENAS

I like the way this post is framed: we don’t know the cause of the underrepresentation yet, but here are some reasons we should value trying to change it. I hope to see more thoughtful pieces like this.Report

Jesse Hamilton
Jesse Hamilton
Reply to  Carolyn Dicey Jennings
18 days ago

Thanks for the kind words, Carolyn. I’ll check out the recent report.Report

Jesse Hamilton
Jesse Hamilton
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
18 days ago

Thanks Kathryn for posting the report with the empirical evidence. I look forward to reading it.Report

mmm
mmm
18 days ago

There are vets in philosophy departments. I worked with one. But given the excessive moralizing that people on the left indulge in, some of these people do not speak up.
My former colleague was one of the most compassionate people I have ever worked with.Report

Jen
Jen
18 days ago

Semper!Report

Fritz Allhoff
18 days ago

Thanks for your service! There’s a large group working in the International Society for Military Ethics (ISME), which has been around for 30+ years (formerly JSCOPE). ISME then spawned Euro-ISME and Apac-ISME as well, with maybe some other regional chapters in development. These groups have been a lot more fun to interact with than the more “philosophical” academics (e.g., Oxford’s ELAC group, the Just War Theory FB page) precisely because they have strong representation from practitioners and don’t treat everything like a trolley problem. And obviously the service academies (West Point, USNA) have strong programs as well, plus NPS for graduates. There’s a lot of exciting stuff going on in these areas that many people don’t know about, anyone interested, feel free to join in!Report

Jesse Hamilton
Jesse Hamilton
Reply to  Fritz Allhoff
18 days ago

Thanks, Fritz. I wasn’t aware of these groups and will definitely check them out and pass them along to friends who may be interested.Report

Mark Alfano
18 days ago

Thanks for these reflections, Jesse. Do you happen to be familiar with Jonathan Shay’s _Achilles in Vietnam_? I’ve found that book and related work on moral injury to be very philosophically interesting when thinking about issues like trust, betrayal, and social hierarchies. I’d be curious whether you think it’s still relevant decades later. Your story about the moral dilemma with the Iraqi journalist reminded me of those themes.Report

Alastair Norcross
18 days ago

There is quite a large population of military vets and currently serving military at CU Boulder. I have supervised the dissertations of two serving officers, who then went back to their respective academies (West Point, and the Air Force Academy), and been on Ph.D and MA committees of vets. I have also had many vets in my undergraduate classes. The Boulder Faculty Assembly recently (last week) had a presentation from our office of Veteran and Military Affairs. One interesting thing they (three faculty, of whom two were vets) told us was that many vets don’t like to be told “thank you for your service”. I think they said it sounded insincere. I’m not sure how widespread this feeling is among vets, but they made it sound like it was the majority view of the vets they had contact with here.Report

Henry Lara
Henry Lara
Reply to  Alastair Norcross
16 days ago

I happen to have a friend that served with me in the US Army who did his philosophy MA thesis on the idea that we should not say “Thank for your service,” to veterans. Personally, it bothers me a bit, but I still reply “Thank you for saying that,”.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Henry Lara
16 days ago

Hi Henry. I wasn’t aware that this was found bothersome by some veterans (so thanks to Alastair for pointing it out). Any chance that thesis is publicly available?Report

Henry Lara
Henry Lara
Reply to  Preston Stovall
15 days ago

Hi. Not sure; it was at The University of Oregon, so it may be on their site. Feel free to email me and I try to get you in contact with him.Report

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Henry Lara
13 days ago

Thanks Henry, I think I found the dissertation. Just to be sure, would you mind emailing me? I can be reached at preston.stovall [at] uhk.cz. I tried to find contact information for you, but I’m not on linkedin or academia.edu so I hit a dead end.Report

Sergeant Undergrad
Reply to  Alastair Norcross
14 days ago

There’s a great line at the end of the movie Argo (2012) where Bryan Cranston’s character, a CIA agent, says: “If we wanted applause, we would have joined the circus”.

That is typically the mindset of a dedicated public servant with an internal locus of motivation who commits themselves totally to their job without the expectation of praise or reward. To lots of those folks, hearing “thank you for your service” is like nails on a chalkboard. These kinds of vets are usually the ones who struggle to give a wan smile and grunt when thanked thusly, usually thinking: “you don’t have to thank me, I don’t have time to be thanked, I have work to do, excuse me”.

It is also an open question as to what the proper response is to someone who has just thanked me for my service. Should I say “thank you”? How preposterous is it to thank some one for thanking you? How about “you’re welcome”? Speaking solely for myself, when I entertained the notion of saying “you’re welcome” to someone who thanked me for my service, I would find myself in the grip of nausea, self-doubt, and anxiety all at once.Report

Hunter
17 days ago

As a current Philosophy Instructor at USMA, a heartfelt thanks for this post. There aren’t many of us Active Duty folks (our side of the department only has 13 faculty). We definitely need to have more veterans in the philosophical space (not just mil ethics) and we need to encourage more dialogue between the field and the military. Take care!Report

Lisa S
17 days ago

Thanks Jesse for this thoughtful post.Report

Bryan Cwik
17 days ago

This is a wonderful and thoughtful reflection and argument – thanks for this Jesse and thanks for the your service; academic philosophy is lucky to have youReport

Garret Merriam
17 days ago

“The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting by fools.” — ThucydidesReport

Spencer Case
17 days ago

Thank you for writing this, Jesse. I am going to write my own essay about my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan fairly soon, but nothing compares to the intensity of what you’re describing. I’m glad you made it out ok.

Here’s one thing I’ll say now. There was one time when I was asked to sit in for my superior at a two-star command center-level military public affairs briefing in Bagram, Afghanistan. The higher ups were talking nervously about an article by (I think) the BBC alleging that, according to the Red Cross, there was a “black box” prison on the base that was used for, um, interrogating detainees. (You know, the kind of interrogation that might look bad to delicate civilian eyes, and that you don’t want pesky human rights groups getting in the way of). I remember they mentioned how this story was going to be bad for our objectives, but they couldn’t dissuade the BBC from running it. So “get ready for some interesting reading tomorrow.” But was this true? Oddly, I don’t remember that coming up. The people in the room must have known. But the only question seemed to be: “Is this in our interests?”

Josh Rushing, another vet who went on to work for Al Jazeera, had a great quote in his book Mission Al Jazeera. I can’t quote it exactly, but it was something like: “It wasn’t that anyone lied, it’s just that truth never came up. It was would have been as out of place as an Abrams tank in a philosophy classroom.”

Good thing we have universities to be devoted to the unfettered pursuit of truth, right?Report

Henry Lara
Henry Lara
16 days ago

Thanks for this post. One of my friends I served with in the US Army went on to get a terminal MA in philosophy and now works at the VA office of a major university. I did a second BA and then a master’s in philosophy, and I am currently doing the PhD in Philosophy of Education.Report

Nicholas Denyer
16 days ago

John Austin’s philosphical style has been compared to his work in military intelligence. See:
https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/publishing/memoirs/austin-john-langshaw-1911-1960/Report