To Hell and Back

Book cover
The Untold Warby Nancy ShermanW. W. Norton. 338p $27.95

Based on numerous personal interviews, this significant book lays bare the experience of recent and veteran soldiers with the assistance of Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Freud, among others. Nancy Sherman—University Professor at Georgetown University—focuses on “the inner battles soldiers wage.” Privileged conversations with men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan mixed with stories of veterans whose wars reach back decades provide an undeniable breadth and depth of credible testimony.

The Untold War is no ordinary reflection on war. What makes this book unusual is the sometimes grueling encounter with the Stoic and ancient philosophers. Sherman combines her expertise in ancient ethics and military ethics with her more recently acquired skills in psychoanalysis. She does not shirk her responsibility to ask what “the good” is even as she does good for those she encounters.


As I pressed into the book, I often found myself saying, “Please don’t go there.” But go there Sherman does: to the battlefield, the field hospital, to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. The narratives ring true as warriors’ experiences of guilt, grief, torture, death in combat and suicide are presented honestly and without varnish. The author visits the homes of returned soldiers who are scarred physically and psychologically. Early on Sherman explains the soldier’s dilemma. To become an effective soldier a civilian must be transformed into a warrior and taught how to kill with calm, violent efficiency. Her description of “resocialization that begins in boot camp” reminded me of my basic training for Vietnam, when a bigger-than-life staff sergeant taught us that the spirit of the bayonet is to kill. Our sergeant vowed to make us lethal with a bayonet affixed to an M16, as well as in hand-to-hand combat. Training requires proficiency in weapons and communication to coordinate air strikes or artillery bombardment. It intentionally desensitizes a young man or woman in order to make possible the transition from civilian to warrior. But what is going on in the warrior’s mind and psyche? What changes and compromises must a young person make in order to kill?

In a chapter on aspects of guilt, Sherman recounts in poignant (and graphic) detail the harrowing experience of Army Major John Prior, whose guilt over the accidental death of a soldier under his command continues to weigh heavily on him today. And the reader comes to understand the depth of his anguish. We see horror and guilt as he wonders, “What if had I done this and not that?” The truth is hard. Over and over again, the reader winces because Sherman takes us deeply into a soldier’s pain and confusion, seeing firsthand the lingering effects of war experience.

A soldier’s sense of betrayal ranges from being misled and lied to by political and military leaders as happened, for example, in Vietnam with the incident at the Gulf of Tonkin and in Iraq with weapons of mass destruction. Being entrapped in a lie and then being identified as a personification of that lie often drives warriors to stony silence that eats away at them. Vietnam veterans who are moving from the homelessness of the streets to veterans hospitals raise many cautionary flags about the young men and women returning from war today with unresolved issues. What will become of today’s veterans, who after repeated deployments come home to a world so different, in which it is difficult to make sense of what they have seen and done?

A soldier’s reluctance to share the memory of difficult experience is rooted in part in the false notion that any display of mental anguish is inappropriate military demeanor. In a chapter titled “Loosening the Stoic Armor” Sherman claims, “I have argued that Stoic and Stoic-inspired models of perfection by the military can also reinforce the stigmatization of mental illness.” Only recently has the military begun to encourage soldiers to come forward and seek help for the scars of war.

There are additional questions I wish the author had addressed. Where and when does a soldier learn how to re-enter civil society after training and battlefield encounters? How does one shed a lethal persona? What is society’s obligation to these men and women who have carried professed American interests in bloody conflict?

It took me a long time to read this book. I often stopped to ponder unresolved issues in my life that are rooted in war and betrayal by government and superiors. Only veterans are plagued by knowing they have been part of something that doesn’t make sense and is not part of ordinary life. The Untold War will have a lasting effect on readers and should serve as a resource for those responsible for sending others to war. It is a powerful and moving reminder of war’s long-term consequences and the cost to soldiers and society.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Rick Malloy
8 years 7 months ago
Thanks for this thoughtful and thought provoking review Jim.  Knowing several vets and their families, I find your observations right on the mark. 
Pastoral outreach to military personel and their loved ones ought to be high on the church's agenda.  We can be for peace (Popes and the U.S. bishops have opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) and also for those who are sent, often by misguided leaders, into harm's way.  Many are realizing the lasting scars, often invisible, of conflict and combat.  The work of those involved in the Wounded warriors campaign ( and Brother, now Father Rick Curry, S.J. ( deserve our support and prayers.  So too the efforts of those like Fr. John Dear, S.J. who has dedicated his life and work (now some 20 some books and thousands of talks across the globe) to fostering peace and ending war.  Somday we'll realize "where all the flowers have gone" and heed the words of Pope Paul VI: "War no more.  War never again."
Bruce Byrolly
8 years 7 months ago
Thank you, Nancy Sherman, and thank you, Jim Conroy, and thank you, AMERICA.
We blind ourselves to the many horrors of our wars, including the horrors done to our own soldiers, and the strangling of our own consciences.
We are sending our own children off to be slaughtered.
I regret that recently I have come to think of myself and of most of my fellow citizens as complicit war-criminals.
What can we do to gain the political skill that is absolutely necessary to oppose our wars and our Star Spangled militarism?
Bruce Byrolly
Cambridge MD


The latest from america

In her new memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Senator Kamala D. Harris, Democrat of California, positions herself as an underdog, a savvy “top cop” and, most of all, Shyamala Gopalan’s daughter.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 18, 2019

The fascinating premise of Mary Gordon’s lovely little book On Thomas Merton is that, except for his extensive correspondence with Evelyn Waugh and Czeslaw Milosz, Thomas Merton was without literary peers who could perceptively judge, critique and improve his writing.

Ron HansenJanuary 18, 2019
Sagal knows what it is to run away from problems, to need to be needed, and how much can be achieved through stubborn persistence.
Emma Winters January 11, 2019
The simple lessons of Jean Vanier on humility and Christian love always bear repeating.
Colleen DulleJanuary 11, 2019