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Programs for Troubled Vets Don’t Work, So How about Ending War?

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


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There is a shamefully broad gap between the lip service that we Americans give soldiers—or “heroes,” as we love to call them—and our actual treatment of them.

$125 million "Comprehensive Soldier Fitness" and other mental-health programs for U.S. troops have not been shown to work.

Case in point: In 2009 the U.S. Army, with great fanfare, initiated a $125 million program for improving the mental health of its troops and their families. The so-called Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness program was designed with the help of prominent members of the American Psychological Association, notably Martin Seligman, former head of the APA.

The Defense Department has touted Soldier Fitness as a great success, but it offers little beyond anecdotes and testimonials to back up that assertion, according to a new study by the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. The study, commissioned by the Defense Department, examined Soldier Fitness and other counseling programs instituted by the U.S. armed forces and found scant evidence of benefits.

“While DOD has adopted these numerous resilience and prevention programs, gaps exist in the evidence supporting their effectiveness,” states an Institute of Medicine press release. “For example, based on internal research data that show only very small effects, DOD concluded that Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness–a broadly implemented program intended to foster resilience and enhance performance–is effective, despite external evaluations that dispute that conclusion.” (See also coverage of the new Institute of Medicine report by the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, NBC News and TIME.)

As I reported three years ago, some psychologists have sharply criticized the APA’s involvement in Soldier Fitness. Three critics raised the larger question of whether psychologists should serve as enablers of unethical U.S. policies. (One of this trio, Roy Eidelson, has recently knocked the American Psychological Association for failing to censure members involved in alleged torture of U.S. terror suspects.)

“Helping people who have already been harmed by trauma is essential,” Eidelson and two colleagues wrote in “The Dark Side of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness.” “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?”

Good question. If we really cared about our troops, wouldn’t we keep them out of wars in the first place? According to the Institute of Medicine report, between 2000 and 2011, “936,283 current or former service members have been diagnosed with a psychological condition; such diagnoses increased by about 62 percent among active-duty service members during approximately the same time frame.” Disorders include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

Credit U.S. Army, http://armymedicine.mil/Documents/MHAT_9_OEF_Report.pdf.

Of course, that’s far from the only harm suffered by U.S. troops. According to a report by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, more than 6,500 American soldiers have been killed and more than 50,000 wounded since 9/11. More than 1,700 soldiers have lost one or more limbs, and more than 250,000 have suffered a brain injury. Post-9/11 U.S. wars cost as much as $6 trillion so far, money that could have helped improve health care, education and transportation in this country. And let’s not forget the hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis killed or maimed under U.S. occupation.

The psychological suffering of U.S. veterans is just one symptom of a terrible disease afflicting our culture, the disease of militarism. The goal of psychologists—and all of us–should be to eradicate this scourge, not merely to treat its symptoms.

About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

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





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  1. 1. Chryses 6:54 am 02/23/2014

    In the fullness of time, there may be a time when there is no more war, but this time is not that time.

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  2. 2. Percival 7:15 am 02/24/2014

    Great idea but how to implement it? Humans have been addicted to warfare for… well, forever. It’s been claimed that violence is “in our blood” but I don’t think that’s true. From ancient times the only kind of governance was that exercised by the strong over the weak in the sole interest of the strong (and supported by cultural acceptance of ideas like the “divine right of kings”), yet we’ve managed to make democracy the norm today, in which the interests of the governed are primary regardless of individuals’ strengths or weaknesses. Yes, it’s still a work in progress but it proves we can all have what we want and need without having to take it by force, at least in principle.

    Armies are not the brains or heart of a nation- they’re the fists and chins. Sadly nations resemble individuals in many ways, specifically in that some are more prone to violence than others, and survival dictates that we maintain the willingness and ability to fight back against aggressors. Until the leaders of all nations are chosen for their wisdom rather than for their aggression, war will not end. Unfortunately *that* won’t happen until the idea that the ancient cultural meme of violence as the default means of settling disputes is just no longer viable becomes deeply rooted in the minds of those who select leaders, or support those who force their way into leadership.

    Ending war requires a worldwide cultural revolution and that takes time. The tradition of violence isn’t just about getting what you want, it’s also about seeing the other as less than you. This is all too common- it’s the root of the tribalist/nationalist ideology that “they’re our inferiors so it’s OK to do whatever you want to them”. You can’t harm someone you see as your equal (if you’re sane), but the concept of equality is still not an integral part of many peoples’ worldview. Yes, I’m saying that there are some cultures that can not be tolerated in diversity. If we as a species are to survive we must of necessity use violence to cull the willfully violent- that’s why we’ve had two “world wars”. I hope we don’t need another one. I also hope that if it does come to another one, *our* leaders will have read less of von Clausewitz and more of Sun Tzu…

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  3. 3. tuned 10:20 am 02/24/2014

    They can’t even end their hedonistic pollution.
    So many millennia say humanity is the problem, not the solution.

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  4. 4. z34aa 6:29 pm 02/24/2014

    @ tuned

    They? Don’t you mean we? Or are you not human?

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  5. 5. rshoff2 11:52 am 02/26/2014

    It’s true. Civilians give lip service to the Vets’ ‘service’ to the country, yet they go along gobbling up the riches like the greedy little piggies they are only to leave the physically and psychologically mangled vets in the dust. Yes, I am from a military family. Born and raised. Interestingly, a military upbringing is somewhat of a socialist experience as compared to that of my civilian counterparts.

    Having said that, it’s a complicated issue. GI’s join the military with baggage. They are not dropping out of prestgious colleges to ‘serve’. Most of them just need jobs, skills, or both. Some are doing joining out of desparation, while others out of misplaced passion with religious ferver. Some do it to be a man, and some to escape a crappy life. Some are thugs, some just lost.

    So it’s hard for the spoiled civilian masses to appreciate heroes that behave like lower socio-economic cretins, some with border-line criminal behavior and many with personality disorders. The Vets simply can’t live up to the expectations, and no one wants to help a loser. Even when their own greed created, or contributed to, the delinquency.

    Soldiers are nurtured from birth. We live off the pain and agony of the lower class. Then blame them because they ain’t pretty.

    Beyond that, you have to ask about the military machine. Is it self-perpetuating? Does it require war to justify it’s own existence? What role does the military play in your life, directly and indirectly? Are your hands clean, really?

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  6. 6. rshoff2 12:05 pm 02/26/2014

    And keep in mind that the commissioned officers and the enlisted are entirely different populations and their lives and the lives of their families are that of a two tiered caste system.

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  7. 7. rshoff2 12:24 pm 02/26/2014

    btw, John, my questions are not directed at you, I know that you are part of the solution. They are rhetorical, but I do wish people would reflect upon their role in this mess.

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  8. 8. rshoff2 1:46 pm 02/26/2014

    And finally, for the record, I do believe that without a military over the last 100 years, there would be no USA, or at least not one that we would recognize as a place of potential freedom and potential opportunity. I support our military, but not an overinflated military used by politicians to make points in the polls or one that abuses citizens for seemingly vague and peripheral successes in an untenable world arena.

    If you want to know the weak point of my argument, this would be it.

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  9. 9. Chryses 5:44 am 02/27/2014

    I’ve brought up this property of the “no more war” plea before, but have yet to receive a satisfactory response.

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  10. 10. rshoff2 11:51 am 02/27/2014

    Chryses, If now is not the time, then when? What is your premise on the process that takes us to a warless state? Do you think that peaceful genes will win out when war is no longer necessary? Do you think we will educate our way to peace? If you think it’s possible to be a peaceful species, then how do we make that leap between war torn and peace loving people? Do we take baby steps? Giant steps? Is war a reality based on evolution or is it simply a human construct that can evaporate in a moment of time as we reach enlightenment?

    Our independent thinking tells me we cannot truly be in harmony with each other. Our sense of survival tells me we cannot blindly trust our environment to manifest in our best interest. But what is “war”? Is it really the culmination of the myriad of differences between us and our wariness of our environment? Or is it a made up game that has no meaning and really does not need to exist.

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  11. 11. rshoff2 11:59 am 02/27/2014

    As to the dichotomy of living in a war mongering reality while embracing a war free civilization, one can consider other aspect of live where we work on many fronts in expectations that they will come together at a future time. War-torn and a mindfulness for peace can coexist as long as we have a strategy to move forward. See things for what they are and develop ways for change. Step #1: Help people believe that it is possible that war is a human construct that has nothing to do with survival.

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  12. 12. rshoff2 3:42 pm 02/27/2014

    “aspects of life”…

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