Using Ethics to Navigate Moral Injury, for Veterans and Civilians

November 10, 2022

Dr. Nancy Sherman, a 1981 recipient of the Newcombe Fellowship granted by Citizens & Scholars, is a Distinguished University Professor and Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University.

In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first Armistice Day. A national holiday meant to reflect on the end of World War II, the “war to end all wars,” it became a national holiday in 1938. Armistice Day formally became Veterans Day in 1978. 

Much has changed about war and civilian life since the holiday was established. Those changes and the implications they have on veterans returning home after war have been a focus of research for Nancy Sherman, a 1981 recipient of the Charlotte W. Newcombe Fellowship granted by Citizens & Scholars. 

Dr. Sherman, a trained philosopher and psychoanalyst, has spent much of her career examining military ethics and the moral injuries of civilian soldiers. Moral injury, writes Dr. Sherman, is a trauma response to a severe moral conflict or challenge. These injuries occur when one breaches their morality, making choices that run counter to their understanding of right and wrong. 

“Service members wield the most lethal of weapons in high-stakes situations,” notes Dr. Sherman. “Those who are conscientious wrestle with what they do and what they leave undone and what they leave behind. While moral injury may be especially traumatic in the military, it also exists in civilian life, even when lethal weapons aren’t wielded.” 

Related: Meet the 2022 Newcombe Fellows


Contending with these moral injuries becomes exacerbated as the boundaries between the front line and home life have blurred. Wars today stretch out and many soldiers are deployed multiple times, with short stints home with family in between. Email and instant messaging keep soldiers and families connected even when they are apart, leaving some soldiers having to navigate learning of a sick child back home before heading into battle. 

“Men and women keep their civilian sensibility, in some sense it’s the only way they can remain human, but they come home and they can’t make those transitions easily, it is not seamless,” said Dr. Sherman in an interview with the HuffingtonPost. “I really do believe that we have to understand that as public because we have to allow soldiers to open up to talk about it.” 

Dr. Sherman is committed to maintaining a public-facing aspect of her work. This is clear in the numerous books, articles, and lectures she’s given throughout her career. Her initial interest in the military stretches back to her childhood: “My dad was a WW II vet who never talked about ‘his’ war, though he carried his dog tags on his keychain for 65 years,” she writes on her website. “His war wasn’t something he could share. It was a private burden. I came to think that I needed to share that burden, or at least, understand his military service better.” 

She began her journey working with military professionals when she was appointed the inaugural Distinguished Chair in Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy in the mid-nineties. Dr. Sherman took this experience and, coupled with interactions with her Georgetown students returning from conflict, turned it into three books exploring the moral challenges of going to war and returning home: Stoic Warriors, The Untold War, and Afterwar. She has written eight books.  

Her most recent book, Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience, offers broader lessons for people cultivating character and managing life’s ups and downs using the ancient philosophy and ethics of the stoics.  

“Issues of moral injury, affect all of us,” says Dr. Sherman, “whether we’re in the military or not, and whether we’re coming home from war or not.” 

Stoic Wisdom also offers lessons for citizens taking part in both community and democracy today. As she writes in the book:  

The Greco-Roman Stoics insist that we are citizens of the world—cosmopolitans.  They are the first to really develop the notion. To be “at home” in the world, a stock Stoic phrase, requires engaging with others in cooperative pursuits of goodwill and benevolence.  The Roman Emperor and Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, writing to himself at nightfall on the battlefield during the Germanic campaigns, puts it this way in what becomes his Meditations: ‘We have to work together ‘like feet or hands or eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth.’” 

His images are at times visceral, with the detritus of the battlefield fresh in his mind:  When we cut ourselves off from each other, we are like dismembered body parts, a head lying apart from the rest of the human body.  That’s what “man makes of himself…when he cuts himself off from society.” Body parts can’t function cut off from the organic whole to which they belong. So, too, we can’t thrive cut off from the political and social whole of which we are a part. 

Dr. Sherman is now a Distinguished University Professor and Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University. She also holds affiliate appointments with Georgetown Law’s Center on National Security and the Law and the Kennedy Institute of Ethics. She continues to teach undergraduate and graduate-level courses and has given over 60 named or endowed lectures and keynote or plenary addresses. 

This long and illustrative career began, in part, with the completion of her dissertation, which was supported by a Charlotte W. Newcombe Fellowship, administered by the Institute for Citizens & Scholars. “The Newcombe Fellowship was absolutely essential to my completing my dissertation,” says Dr. Sherman. “That Fellowship later led to a book, which would’ve been impossible had I not finished the dissertation so promptly.” 

The Newcombe Fellowship, funded by the Charlotte W. Newcombe Foundation, provides monetary support to graduate students completing their dissertations on topics related to ethical and religious values. Fellows go on to be teachers, mentors, and leaders in their fields, much like Dr. Sherman.  

“I could not have really started my career and been as accomplished and effective in my career as I have been without the support of the Newcomb Fellowship,” says Dr. Sherman. “I think supporting dissertations for promising young scholars interested in engagement with the public in public-facing ways and issues of ethics and religion are just essential.” 

More Newcombe stories: Dr. Andrew Perrin on making democracy work

Stay Engaged

Get More News

Join our mailing list to get more news like this to your mailbox.

Support Our Work

Help us invest in the talent, ideas, and networks that will develop young people as effective, lifelong citizens.

Ways to Support Us