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Beware the military-psychological complex: A $125-million program to boost soldiers' "fitness" raises ethical questions


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

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

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