"We must also reach the soul"
Thinking about values and virtues and discussing them is a necessary part of ethical education - but is it enough? How can their significance be made tangible? What can the military chaplaincy contribute here? The editors of “Ethics and Armed Forces” talked to adult educator Heinrich Dickerhoff, who has many years of practical experience in this area. A conversation about chivalry, swordplay and myths and their significance (not only) for soldiers.
Mr. Dickerhoff, you’ve been conducting workshops for many years, including for the military chaplaincy and zebis, about “chivalry” and behavior in conflicts. Before we get to the methods, first some theory: you refer to “formative” ethics as opposed to “normative” ethics, i.e. a system that gives us rules. Could you explain that in more detail?
First of all, the two don’t have to be contradictory. Rules are necessary. But if I’m told to do something and I don't know why, I have a strong inclination not to do it – or for only as long as my actions are being controlled. Formative ethics works through role models. These can be tales of chivalry, but also certain behaviors or people. For example: I was a boy scout in my youth, and there you learn specific rules, but these were connected with a sense of self-esteem. It was a point of honor to follow them.
But it’s not about blind obedience; rather it works on the basis of sympathy and trust. For me, that’s a good kind of authority. We also need this formative element, we need to encourage people to perceive their own dignity and act from that.
When we refer specifically to “chivalry” and the virtues associated with it, such as consideration for weaker people, fairness, honesty: isn’t that a myth?
It’s a myth, for sure. The historical knights were highly specialized armored cavalrymen. But within this caste, this idea developed through dealing with Christianity. Very few were able to embrace it consistently, but it had an effect beyond the nobility even in the Middle Ages. It’s about humility and helpfulness, about serving a higher cause. Transferred to the Bundeswehr: I really like the phrase “We serve Germany” or the fundamental stance “We serve a democratic state, we are not mercenaries or employees”.
But high ideals can also fail. Think of the soldiers who would like to help on missions but cannot or are not allowed to, that’s very stressful.
Knowing that one could fail is integral to many tales of chivalry. They don’t represent fantasies of omnipotence like many of today’s superheroes. I think ideals that are not broken are dangerous – because they either overburden you or make people arrogant. Humility also means not slavishly following ideals, but recognizing your own limits and fallibility. Nevertheless, I can understand it when soldiers who were in Afghanistan tell me now that they’ve been withdrawn, they feel as if they’d fought like Don Quixote against windmills.
Let’s get to the “how”. In your workshops, people practice wielding blunt swords or shooting with the longbow. How do you explain why this evidently receives such a positive response?
For me it’s clear: you don’t just learn with your mind, but with all your senses, even if you don’t learn consciously – and that doesn’t just apply to soldiers. I’ve worked in educational institutions for 40 years, and of course we have to address the mind. But we also have to reach the soul, for example through fairy tales or art. And we also learn with the body, in my courses, for example, with longbow shooting and sword fighting. These activities are gladly accepted, probably also because both are considered masculine; and in the armed forces male patterns of behavior still dominate, while in school and church things are predominantly female.
And what does the sword reveal to oneself that doesn’t reveal itself to the mind to the same extent?
First of all, we don’t do sword fighting, that would be far too dangerous. It’s more like partner exercises. But just lifting a sword that weighs about two kilos does something to people. I remember an old lady, over eighty, who could no longer do those exercises, who said: “I can feel my strength again.” That’s because the sword forces you to adopt an upright posture. But you can’t explain that with words.
But where exactly is the transcendent here, i.e. the point at which this bodily experience points beyond itself?
The sword and the bow are no longer perceived as weapons. The transfer takes place more through the association with a fantastic past or the role reversal. I start by learning with the sword: I have to control myself, I must not let myself be carried away by it. That involves the whole body. So the first experience is: I have power, power is all right, but I have to control it – I think that’s a very important experience.
Are people sometimes frightened by the possibilities that the sword gives them?
It’s not just about the power of weapons; parents, for example, also have power. Power is not evil, but power is a temptation. In my experience, if you’re aware of it, the willingness to deal with it very responsibly also grows. For it’s not only an abuse of power to use the entrusted power in an uncontrolled way, but also not to use it. This creates a power vacuum and ultimately chaos.
How important is it to reflect on such experiences with the participants?
Depending on the timeframe, sometimes you can only provide impetus. It’s important to focus on where you are learning in life, consciously or unconsciously. For example: You can tell mourners a hundred times that they need to let go – that’s almost, of course, a banality. But at my grief seminars with the longbow, participants have told me: For the first time I felt something about letting go.
And whether with the sword, archery or horseback riding, it’s precisely the freedom of purpose that gives me the chance to distance myself from everyday constraints. For me, that’s also the task of religion: to show that life could be different instead of just repeating things that are taken for granted. Incidentally, this is also an important task for the military chaplaincy, when people are not only in physical danger during a mission, but separated from everything familiar.
And if it simply doesn’t mean anything for somebody?
You can only accept that. I’m not a missionary for the use of the sword! Interestingly, however, I’ve never experienced this with soldiers, neither with weapons nor with fairy tales, simply because they were always curious. By the way, medieval and Norse stories in particular are very male-compatible. For me it was a highlight every time the sergeant said: Come on, Heinrich, tell us another fairy tale!
A nice conclusion, thank you very much for this interview, Mr. Dickerhoff!
Questions by Rüdiger Frank.
Dr. Heinrich Dickerhoff, born in 1953, studied Catholic theology, history and Jewish studies. From 1978 to 2016 he worked at the Catholic Academy Stapelfeld near Cloppenburg, Germany, and became its Educational Director in 2006. His main areas of work include experiential theology and occidental cultural history. Since he retired in 2018, he has been working as a freelance/volunteer storyteller and experiential educator (e.g. traditional archery, sword fencing), including in bereavement and end-of-life care.