Reaching the Limit

President Bush stressed in his June 28 speech at Fort Bragg, N.C., that America supports the military: “In this time of testing, our troops can know: The American people are behind you.”

In the face of mounting opposition to the war in Iraq and his sagging approval ratings, the speech was a rallying call to the troops and nation: “We will stay in the fight until the fight is won.” The plea was for continued service for those already in the armed forces, and for more recruits to join the cause.

The underlying message was that the best way to honor those who have fallen is to complete the mission _ a mission now officially redefined not as routing out weapons of mass destruction, but as a global war on terror.

The president sent heartfelt prayers to grieving families and the wounded. But the real costs of the war for those who fight and the families who send their loved ones to fight was not the point of the speech.

It is assumed by this commander in chief that warriors are stoic. They tough it out, endure and soldier on, because soldiering is, at bottom, about deprivation and hardship. Boot camp and military academies offer hard lessons in stoicism, both in its practice and, in some cases, in the actual philosophy.

At the U.S. Naval Academy, where for two years I was Distinguished Chair in Ethics, midshipmen typically read the First Century Stoic Epictetus and on occasion his student the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Epictetus’s message is that we must detach from what is outside our control at the same time that we take greater hold of what is within our power. Learn well, Epictetus teaches, that “some things are up to us, and some are not up to us.” Of the things that are not up to us, be ready to say, “It is nothing to me.”

One thing that soldiers, sailors, Marines and aviators know is not up to them is the length of their deployments. Or whether they will be among the lucky ones to return to their families once those deployments end. To be resigned to this fact can be a kind of empowerment.

A colleague at the Naval Academy put it this way to me: It was about March 1987. His ship had been deployed for 5-1/2 months in the Mediterranean and was scheduled to turn home soon. He was due back for his wedding, but it now looked as though he wouldn’t get there in time.

In a near state of apoplexy, he realized that his return date was out of his control. What was a matter of his control was his commission: that he had signed up, as he put it, “to do somebody’s bidding” (within the limits of just orders), and that somebody else was going to tell him when he could go home. The “epiphany,” he said, was in that moment of knowing what was and wasn’t his to choose.

If one follows Epictetus strictly, what matters for our happiness is only what we choose. For warriors, this may be a way of trying to become bulletproof, though few succeed. No soldier is invincible. The maimed and traumatized now returning from war are testimony to this.

Bush is right to urge that they deserve our deepest support. But we give it to them not by insisting that others stay on so that their losses will not be in vain. It is one thing to support the troops; it is another to insist that staying the course is the way to do so.

With four to 10 suicide bombings a day in Iraq, and an insurgency that won’t die down, it is far from clear that staying the course is the way to protect our troops.

What many would like to have heard from the president was that he was honoring the troops by ensuring that those who return home wounded would be given state-of-the-art care and increased medical benefits. They want to know that those traumatized from having seen too much killing can seek psychiatric help without fear of being stigmatized by the military. Families who have sent loved ones to war want the president’s prayers but also the most honest assessment of how long the troops will remain in Iraq, and what will constitute “mission accomplished.”

A pep talk that avoids the hard questions of how long and at what cost war is to be fought takes too lightly the price that many have already paid. The president may ask his troops to be stoic; but he needs to know that their stoicism, and that of their families, is not limitless.

(Nancy Sherman, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, is the author of “Stoic Warriors” (Oxford University Press).)