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Beware the military-psychological complex: A $125-million program to boost soldiers’ “fitness” raises ethical questions

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Fifty years ago, in the same farewell speech in which he warned about the "unwarranted influence" of the "military-industrial complex" on American politics, President Dwight Eisenhower also deplored the growing dependence of scientists on federal funding. "The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by federal employment, project allocations and the power of money is ever present—and is gravely to be regarded."

Eisenhower’s speech comes to mind as I gravely regard the latest example of the militarization of science, a $125 million collaboration between psychologists and the U.S. Army called "Comprehensive Soldier Fitness," or CSF. The program calls for giving "resilience training" to more than one million Army soldiers and civilian employees to help them cope with the stress of military life. A U.S. Army Web site calls the CSF "a long term strategy that better prepares the Army community—including all soldiers, family members, and the Department of the Army civilian workforce—to not only survive, but also thrive at a cognitive and behavioral level in the face of protracted warfare and everyday challenges of Army life that are common in the 21st century."

The program is the brainchild of one of the most powerful figures in American psychology, Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania. A former president of the American Psychological Association (APA), Seligman is best-known for founding the enormously popular positive psychology, or "happiness," movement, which emphasizes positive rather than negative personality traits and emotions.

The APA’s main journal, American Psychologist, devoted its January 2011 issue, co-edited by Seligman, to explaining and extolling the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program. No articles in the issue questioned the program’s scientific or ethical soundness, but the psychologists Roy Eidelson, Marc Pilisuk and Stephen Soldz did just that in "The Dark Side of  ‘Comprehensive Soldier Fitness,’" a hard-hitting article published in the newsletter Counterpunch. (Scientific American‘s Gary Stix also critiqued the methods underpinning the CSF in this incisive recent article.)

Is it ethical for psychologists to help soldiers to participate in what may be unethical behavior? This is the toughest question raised by Eidelson et al. "Helping people who have already been harmed by trauma is essential," they wrote. "But should we be involved in helping an institution prepare to place more people in harm’s way without careful and ongoing questioning and review of the rationale for doing so?"

The trio also charged that the CSF is based on "resiliency techniques," developed by Seligman and others, that have been shown to be "only modestly and inconsistently effective" in studies of civilians. Indeed, according to Eidelson et al., the techniques are still so experimental that the CSF may violate the Nuremberg Code of ethics, which prohibits research on people without their consent. Eidelson et al. noted that soldiers "apparently have no informed consent protections—they are required to participate." According to TIME blogger Mark Benjamin, the Army dismisses the issue of informed consent as an "academic tiff"—or, as an Army spokesman put it, "an academic discussion and debate between the psychologist and behavioral health communities." The spokesman said the CSF "continues to move forward" despite these concerns.

The Army’s own description of the CSF sounds like psychobabble: "Conceptually, while CSF is largely focused on training skill sets, it also delves into root causes of emotion, thought and action—what psychologists refer to as ‘meta-cognition’. With this in mind, CSF serves as a programmatic first step towards training members of the Army community to understand how and why they think a certain way. Once people begin to understand this, they are best postured to change their thoughts and actions to strategies that are positive, adaptive and desirable for both the person and the Army."

Even in the face of declines in non-military funding, some scientific fields have resisted militarization. In 2009 the American Anthropological Association declared that a program to embed anthropologists with troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and other war zones violated the profession’s code of ethics, which one article described as "a sort of Hippocratic oath in which anthropologists vow to do no harm."

But as I pointed out in a column last year, neuroscience is chasing after defense dollars. In 2009 the National Academy of Sciences published a 136-page report, "Opportunities in Neuroscience for Future Army Applications," that advised brain scientists on how to get on board the military gravy train. The authors included two leading brain scientists: Floyd Bloom of the Scripps Research Institute and Michael Gazzaniga of the University of California, Santa Barbara, both former members of The President’s Council on Bioethics. Potential applications of neuroscience include drugs and electromagnetic devices that can boost or degrade soldiers’ capacities.

The APA is capable of taking a stand. In 2007, after reports that psychologists were helping the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency refine their interrogation techniques, the APA condemned the involvement of its members in "planning, designing, assisting in or participating in any activities including interrogations which involve the use of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." But the APA leadership should be ashamed by its uncritical promotion of the CSF program. The association should encourage a debate among its members over whether the CSF represents a genuinely beneficial, ethical program or just another sordid example of what Eisenhower called the "the power of money."

Logo for the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program from U.S. Army via Aaronwayneodonahue/Wikimedia Commons

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  1. 1. Accountable 6:12 pm 04/18/2011

    The purpose of the Army’s endeavor to embed (which means to take into a unit, house and feed, as well as permitting access to the battlefield) anthropologists is to allow them to help the Army better protect anthropological resources by accurately identifying them and informing commanders and Soldiers of their presence and importance. Too often in the past valuable resources have been unrecognized and accidentally damaged or destroyed. I don’t think it violates ethics to seek advice on proper conduct to better guarantee the long trerm viability of cultural resources. In addition, I fail to see the "wrong" in better equipping Soldiers and families to better endure the rigors of combat and long deployments. I am rather certain Horgan has not served a day in the military.

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  2. 2. Archimedes 6:31 pm 04/18/2011

    I served as an Infantryman with the U.S. Army in Vietnam. The idea that "the ends justifies the means" should NOT be embedded into the socio-cultural-political-military framework of the American military. Nor should a psychiatrist or any other psychiatric professional have the military-political power, as a tyrant, to arbitrarily and capriciously determine those ethical, cultural, political, and social norms for American fighting men. Rather traditional objective standards of conduct, military courtesy, and character and propriety should determine the same. The same will provide that "consensual validation" (reward for correct and appropriate behavior) which is so important for the discipline, morale, and mental health of a soldier especially in the combat arena.

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  3. 3. bmeucci 7:07 pm 04/18/2011

    So this is how we’re going to progress into the psychological kevlar act? If you remember a few short years ago there was an attempt to start drugging our troops "for their protection" and this program will eventually go back to that plan. The flip side that people don’t seem to consider is that a traumatic and conflicted reaction to one’s own actions, and the subsequent shutdown a person goes through, are some of the only things still protecting innocents on both sides of the barrel.

    Making sure people don’t have an adverse reaction to killing and loss is only a great idea upon the most surface of examinations. Blunting and training out those reactions is tantamount to stripping humans of their very humanity.

    While a machine, corporation, or government -which seeks only greater efficiency and accomplishment of goals- may find endless use to making better cogs which carry out orders perfectly and on time, we must recognize the horror of a future in which human soldiers have their conscience altered or blunted entirely.

    Do not think that the government is unaware of the experiments in which we have been able to alter the moral judgments of individuals with a simple focused electromagnetic field in the right areas of the brain.

    There is no single boogey-man in the government wanting to create mindless kill-droids, there are only many individuals attempting to meet their personal goals which are efficiency and effectiveness. The individuals work together like separate areas of a brain to create their own simple group consciousness with goals but no conscience.

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  4. 4. Accountable 6:15 am 04/19/2011

    Archimedes — Very well said. I agree that the existing moral and conduct guidance is strong. As a career military person who saw families ignored to a great extent, as well as the then much smaller number of civilians, I feel that this code and help should extend to them to a greater extent. I was an enlisted man when they said, "If the Navy wanted you to have a wife they’d have put on in your sea bag." I also later went to iraq as a civilian employee of the Army, and my 30 years in the military served me very well when we were shot at, mortared and in general, in risky situations. Military life is tough. I’m not tellnig you anything. Helping a wider family to endure and even flourish in it is good. Unfortunately, in this age of fewer and fewer people serving, this is becoming more of a misunderstood group of people.

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  5. 5. in_situ 11:46 am 04/19/2011

    The significant and contentious debate in the field of Anthropology has been primarily about observation-with-influence as opposed to observation-without-influence, the latter being a hallmark of that branch of scholarship. The helping professions (including but not limited to Clinical Psychology) are first and foremost about influence, thus the deliberations within and about their involvement with military populations cannot meaningfully be compared to those in the field of Anthropology. The experimental branches of the behavioral and social sciences lie somewhere in between, and their struggle with research on military populations is mostly about threats to validity of observations and interpretations. All these branches of science are associated with diverse communities of practice that, as such, have a spectrum of individual existential commitments and socio-political beliefs about the implications of the constitutional role of a military. While not easily separable at the level of individuals, socio-political beliefs and existential commitments should not be confused with debates over scientific or clinical methodology at the level of diverse communities of practice.

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  6. 6. in_situ 11:47 am 04/19/2011

    The initiative in Comprehensive Soldier Fitness reflects a much broader and historically more significant body of work to examine the effects of a profession of arms on individuals, their families, and their communities. See, for example, the Supplement to the August 2010 issue of Military Medicine (Volume 175, No 8), a journal of AMSUS (The Society of Federal Health Agencies). The community involved in this work includes more than just clinical psychologists. It includes a range of scholars in medicine, the behavioral and social sciences, and the humanities (including Chaplains). The breadth of this network of communities should be appreciated, and their efforts to bring unprecedented visibility to the individual and social effects of a profession of arms should be celebrated. The work is historically significant in bringing inescapable accountability to the Nation for its investment in and commitment to a military. To be sure, many of the people (although certainly not all) involved in this work believe that there is a valuable existential impact of engagement in military operations. But this is not journalism. There will be plenty of opportunity for an evidence-based dialectic and for re-examination and replication of the findings on which any given opinion is based.

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  7. 7. in_situ 11:47 am 04/19/2011

    As with science in general, science in the military is not limited to large research programs created by significant sources of Federal funding or to the hegemonic group-think they imply. There are and will continue to be a variety of investigations, and initiative by small groups of investigators, to examine the behavioral and experiential effects of the profession of arms on individuals and the nested social groups with which they are meaningfully engaged. It is true that significant involvement of scientists with military populations and issues will have an impact on their disciplines, even on "basic" research. An evidence-based consideration of this potential is possible by looking back, for example, at the effects of World War II on behavioral and social science. Many influential scholars served in the military, as scientists, during World War II. Given that historical context, the current engagement of behavioral and scientists outside the office and the laboratory is not so new as one might think. If we are to gain a better scientific understanding of what it means to be human, it is critically important that behavioral and social scientists study the most existentially consequential undertakings of individuals and societies, whatever one thinks about them outside the context of science.

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  8. 8. gesimsek 1:02 pm 04/19/2011

    May be the real issue is not that the money is involved in better training of soldiers but that it is involved whether we should go to war or not. When you let some people to buy their war from Congress, it is unethical all the way down after that.

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  9. 9. ruspert 5:12 pm 04/19/2011

    Why does the word "Brainwashing" come to mind?

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  10. 10. Lestrad 10:51 am 04/20/2011

    As James Carroll points out in his book _House of War_, the United States is on a wartime economy and has been since emergence from the Depression. In 1942, it was easy to justify the country’s involvement in foreign wars. Today it is impossible to justify. Yet we remain on that wartime economy. What this means is that all of us, in one way or another, are promoting the continuance of that war economy, with the justification that "our way of life" will collapse if we withdraw from it. Whether or not one scientific or academic community is drawn into the nightmare web is only a matter of time. And it is irrelevant, because we are all already a part of it.

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  11. 11. bmeucci 9:05 pm 04/20/2011

    Well said Lestrad… Unfortunately, even a blade of grass steals sunlight from its neighbor. We just have to try to eliminate more suffering than we cause instead of throwing up hands. …Hence this conversation to attempt to keep the overall suffering we are causing from increasing -at the very least.

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  12. 12. Quinn the Eskimo 9:34 pm 04/21/2011

    Dear John Horgan;

    Have you (I mean you, not some relative or friend) ever served?

    Might have given you some real perspective, eh?

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  13. 13. rwstutler 6:24 pm 04/24/2011

    The goal of the program is not to benefit service members, their families or civilians. It is to benefit the chain of command. Brainwashing? Well duhh …

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