J. Glenn Gray

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
5 min readMay 28


J. Glenn Gray (27 May 1913–30 October 1977)

Today is the 110th anniversary of the birth of J. Glenn Gray (27 May 1913–30 October 1977), who was born in rural Mifflintown, Pennsylvania, on this date in 1913. Gray was drafted into the US military and served as an counter-intelligence officer — an experience that shaped his life and resulted in his writing The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle.

There is a profile of Gray by Martin Woessner, “J. Glenn Gray: Philosopher, Translator (Of Heidegger), and Warrior,” that is well worth reading. Woessner calls Gray “a reluctant Heideggerian,” despite Gray’s many translations of Heidegger, and he focuses on the Heideggerian influence on Gray, writing of Gray’s most famous booki:

“…The Warriors contains at least one substantial Heideggerian residue of which we should take note. It is Gray’s examination of what he calls the ‘technological mentality,’ which comes near the very end of the book. This comportment, which has brought forth the ‘separation of man from nature,’ leads directly, Gray thinks, ‘to the exploitation of things and people.’ In this sense, the technological mentality goes hand in hand with an ‘exploitative mentality,’ one which seemingly affords man control of all things in this world. The impulse to destruction in war is also, in this sense, a symptom of a much broader phenomenon, one rooted in the very core of Western civilization itself. In the foreword that Gray penned for the 1970 reprint of the book, he even went so far as to offer a subtle critique of American military action in Southeast Asia along these lines. Specifically, he explained the events in Vietnam as a product of ‘modern culture, which has increasingly become godless.’ Returning to all those themes he had by now been teasing out of Heidegger’s works for years, Gray let loose on ‘the monstrous present’ and all that it represented.”

The remark about the “monstrous present” occurs at the end of the 1970 Foreward to The Warriors:

“I am confident that the struggle to comprehend my experience as a soldier in World War II provides a perspective on past and future that helps to reduce the discontinuities of the monstrous present.”

Gray, however, alludes to these themes earlier, as in the following:

“At the University of Hawaii I heard a Japanese philosopher speak of ‘the monstrous character’ of modern civilization. He was referring to Japan’s adoption of Western science and technology, which has resulted in one of the highest gross national products in the world. At the same time Japan has become, according to him, the most godless nation of all, with no real motivations other than impulses for material goods and sex. His words were for me more impressive because I learned to know him, in a week’s association, as no Cassandra bemoaning the loss of religious faith and indulging in reactionary nostalgia. Though a serious man, he was anything but gloomy. His lecture and discussion centered on the issue of whether men of the East or West can survive without any god or gods. And his answer to explicit questions about this was an unyielding No.”

Throughout The Warriors, Gray repeatedly invokes both the present and monstrousness. For example, concerning the present:

“Millions of men in our day — like millions before us — have learned to live in war’s strange element and have discovered in it a powerful fascination. The emotional environment of warfare has always been compelling; it has drawn most men under its spell. Reflection and calm reasoning are alien to it. I wrote in my war journal that I was obsessed with ‘the tyranny of the present’; the past and the future did not concern me. It was hard for me to think, to be alone. When the signs of peace were visible, I wrote, in some regret: ‘The purgative force of danger which makes men coarser but perhaps more human will soon be lost and the first months of peace will make some of us yearn for the old days of conflict’.”

And concerning the monstrous, he quotes Ernst Jünger:

“The monstrous desire for annihilation, which hovered over the battlefield, thickened the brains of the men and submerged them in a red fog. We called to each other in sobs and stammered disconnected sentences. A neutral observer might have perhaps believed that we were seized by an excess of happiness.”

Since Gray’s theme was war and men in battle, it is not surprising that he should write of the monstrous, nor is it surprising that he would quote Jünger, who, like Gray, made his literary reputation by writing plainly about the experience of battle. Of the experience of battle Gray makes an interesting observation in “The Soldier’s Relation to Death”:

“In mortal danger, numerous soldiers enter into a dazed condition in which all sharpness of consciousness is lost. When in this state, they can be caught up into the fire of communal ecstasy and forget about death by losing their individuality, or they can function like cells in a military organism, doing what is expected of them because it has become automatic. It is astonishing how much of the business of warfare can still be carried on by men who act as automatons, behaving almost as mechanically as the machines they operate.”

I have remarked many times that philosophy of war is the close cousin of philosophy of history, and Gray took up the war side of this relationship. To war and history we can also add civilization and religion, with the four standing in relationships of mutual implication. It is worth reflecting on how altered states of consciousness play a prominent role in war and religion, and these are principal shapers of history, so that much of human history is the product not of our ordinary state of mind, not a product of tranquility and calm contemplation, but rather a product of extreme experiences in which human beings do things, say things, and believe things that would strike them as absurd in more composed moments of life.



Nick Nielsen