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The Dark Side of "Comprehensive Soldier Fitness"

By Roy Eidelson, Marc Pilisuk, and Stephen Soldz  Posted by Stephen Soldz (about the submitter)     Permalink
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Similarly, by increasing perseverance in the face of adversity, might the CSF training lead soldiers to engage in actions that may later cause regret (e.g., the shooting of civilians at a roadblock in an ambiguous situation), thereby increasing the potential for PTSD or other post-combat psychological difficulties? Or, might the resilience training lead some to overcome, for the time, the disabling effects of traumatic episodes and thereby increase the likelihood of their redeployment to situations with further risk of serious disability? The likelihood of these eventualities, or other negative effects, is unknown. But certainly they are sufficiently plausible -- as plausible as McCord's unexpected findings, noted earlier, of intensive counseling and summer camp leading to increased crime, mental illness diagnosis, and early death among participating youth -- that they cannot legitimately be ruled out a priori. These possibilities increase the ethical responsibility of those promoting CSF to conduct pilot studies, carefully monitor them for possible negative effects upon soldiers or others, submit the program to careful ethical review, and seek informed consent.

It is also important to note here two controversial aspects of the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program that have already received attention from investigative journalists. First, Mark Benjamin has raised provocative questions, not yet fully answered, about the circumstances surrounding the huge, $31 million no-bid contract awarded to Seligman ("whose work formed the psychological underpinnings of the Bush administration's torture program") by the Department of Defense for his team's CSF involvement. Benjamin notes that the government allows sole-source contracts only under very limited conditions. The Army contract documents note that "there is only one responsible source due to a unique capability provided, and no other supplies or services will satisfy agency requirements." But as we have detailed above, public claims about the effectiveness of the Penn Resiliency Program and its superiority to alternative prevention programs are significantly overstated, casting doubt upon the rationale for awarding the sole-source contract.

Second, Jason Leopold and others have raised serious questions about the "spiritual fitness" component of the CSF program, which appears to inappropriately promote a religious worldview as an important path to greater resilience and purpose. The special issue article by Pargament and Sweeney confirms the legitimacy of this concern. It includes a range of theologically oriented terms and references, and it specifically identifies the Army's chaplain corps as a resource "to assist individuals in their quests to develop their spirits" (p. 61).

The Limits of Positive Psychology

Comprehensive Soldier Fitness draws heavily on "positive psychology" in aiming to reduce the incidence of psychological harm resulting from combat and post-combat stress. The field of positive psychology has grown dramatically over the past decade and has many exuberant supporters and evangelists. Rather than focusing on distress and pathology, they emphasize human strengths and virtues, happiness, and the potential to derive positive meaning from stressful circumstances. Few would dispute the benefits of broadening psychology's purview in this way. But writers such as Barbara HeldBarbara EhrenreichEugene Taylor and James Coyne have offered compelling critiques of positive psychology, including its failure to sufficiently recognize the valuable functions played by "negative" emotions like anger, sorrow, and fear; its slick marketing and disregard for harsh and unforgiving societal realities like poverty; its failure to examine the depth and richness of human experience; and its growing tendency to promote claims without sufficient scientific support (e.g., the relationship between positive psychological states and health outcomes, or the mechanisms underlying "posttraumatic growth").

These and related concerns are directly relevant to Comprehensive Soldier Fitness. As described by Cornum, Matthews, and Seligman in the special issue, the CSF program aspires "to increase the number of soldiers who derive meaning and personal growth from their combat experience" (p. 6). But in many ways the technocratic language of military training programs and the positive psychology strategies that characterize the CSF program appear inadequate for the task. Activities such as the "three blessings exercise" in which the individual reflects on what went well that day and why seem ill-suited for encouraging and supporting the deep questioning and open exploration of existential issues that often arise for soldiers facing extreme circumstances. By all indications, the program's positive psychology orientation also fails to scrutinize those very institutions that subject recruits to potential trauma in order to create people sufficiently hardy to engage in death-defying and death-inflicting experiences.

In this regard, it is worth noting how special issue authors Peterson, Park, and Castro briefly discuss the lower trust scores of female soldiers on the CSF program's Global Assessment Tool (GAT), which measures psychological fitness in four domains (social, emotional, spiritual, and family). They interpret these results as suggesting "Female soldiers do not feel as fully at ease in the Army as do male soldiers," and they recommend further research to "understand the needs and challenges of female soldiers and to help them attain the same morale as male soldiers, which perhaps would reduce attrition among them" (p. 15-16). What goes unmentioned is that the extremely high rates of sexual assault on women soldiers, condoned or covered up by others higher in rank, is clearly a source of distrust and trauma -- and it calls less for building a positive, resilient outlook among the victims than for recognition of how the commonplace victimization of women in war should be vociferously prevented.

In important ways, key lessons of humanistic psychology are also regrettably overlooked in the CSF program. For many soldiers, combat awakens questions regarding the meaning of life and of its worth, which can become more persistent after returning home. Too often, our veterans face anomie, lack of community, and the replacement of caring ties with the competitive values of marketability when their military service is over. Humanistic and related perspectives more directly and fully attend to this void, the emptiness of contemporary society that increases the difficulties in recovery from trauma, than does positive psychology. Because of the limitations of quantitative psychology to date, the data for phenomena of this type are more frequently found in stories than in self-report inventories such as the GAT. Limited data encourage a limited view of the phenomenon of PTSD and of any resilience that is based upon denial. In contrast, it is through revelations such as the Winter Soldier testimonies of U.S. veterans and active duty soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq, through studies of the phenomenology of returning soldiers by Daryl Paulson and Stanley Krippner, or accounts of soldier participants in U.S. torture as relayed by journalists Joshua Phillips and Justine Sharrock, that we are able to see how much distress comes from abuses soldiers commit either as a result of commands from superiors or due to the morally disorienting effects of ambiguous combat situations.

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Indeed, among the most traumatic psychological scars that soldiers sustain are those resulting from what they have done to others. Some of the particularly intense characteristics of PTSD are found among perpetrators. As Col. Dave Grossman and others have described, human beings have an inherent resistance to killing other human beings. As a result, waging war almost always relies upon propaganda and training designed to dehumanize the enemy and elevate one's own cause. Psychology and psychologists have contributed to training programs aimed at increasing soldiers' willingness to kill. Now this newest positive psychology program for resilience promises to shield soldiers from some of the debilitating consequences of their actions and, as Reivich, Seligman and McBride note, it aims to better enable soldiers to "live the Warrior Ethos -- "I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade'" (p. 27).

Missing, it would seem, is any meaningful CSF component devoted to helping soldiers grapple with the profound ethical dilemmas involved in their duties, including killing others in furtherance of state policy. Brett Litz and his colleagues have used the term "moral injury" to describe the exceedingly difficult challenges and consequences that soldiers face in response to "perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations" (p. 700). These are especially troubling omissions from the CSF program when we also consider the regrettable reality that many recruits, often drawn to the military by economic necessity and deceptive marketing strategies, are never told about the types of injuries to which they will be exposed or the level of slaughter in which some of them will take part.

The U.S. Military and American Psychology

In the closing article of the special issue, Seligman and Fowler (former CEO of the APA) attempt to counter the objections they anticipate from readers who have concerns about how closely the American Psychological Association and the profession of psychology should align themselves with the agenda of the U.S. military. Certainly, such reader concerns are not entirely unfounded, especially given the tragic repercussions of the APA's decisions post-9/11 to shape its ethics code, policies, and pronouncements to meet the perceived needs of an administration that viewed torture and other detainee abuse as legitimate components of national security practice. Unfortunately, however, Seligman and Fowler's arguments serve only to instill greater concern about the foundations of the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program and the role of institutional psychology in advancing it, as we explain below by responding to three statements from their article.

"It is not the military that sets the nation's policies on war and peace. The military carries out the policies that emerge from our democratic form of government. Withholding professional and scientific support for the people who provide the nation's defense is, we believe, simply wrong" (p. 85)

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No one recommends withholding services from anyone in need. Indeed, health professionals deserve to be commended for providing such support to our soldiers and veterans.  But when acting ethically, health professionals address the needs of their clients before the wishes of the institutions that hire them. Therefore, if those institutions constrain the options available for the well-being of the practitioners' clients, these professionals have an obligation to consider remedies beyond the narrow institutionally defined interests. For example, the CSF program does not include a component whereby participants are invited to listen to fellow soldiers and veterans who have enhanced their own safety, well-being, and sense of purpose by refusing to comply with illicit orders, or by deciding, as have so many other American citizens, that the war they are fighting is unjust and immoral.

In addition, whether the U.S. military plays a role in establishing policies is not a matter to be determined by recitation of formal rules. Scholarship involves an obligation to look at the actual evidence. Generals routinely make political statements in which they advocate for the latest war. Major military contractors work closely with military officials to sell both weapons of war and war itself. Retired military officers are then often hired as lobbyists for these same corporations, and some appear as military "experts" in the media without revealing their conflicts of interest. The exorbitant budget for "perception management" services paid to professional propaganda organizations is also used by the military to spin news and promote war to government officials and the public alike. And, as recently reported by Rolling Stone, psychological operations ("psyops") techniques were used by the military on visiting U.S. Senators to strengthen their support of the increasingly unpopular Afghan war effort.

"The balance of good done by building the physical and mental fitness of our soldiers far outweighs any harm that might be done" (p. 86).

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