The Pentagon’s new spiritual fitness programme


How does the army of a liberal, multi-cultural and often secular society develop in its soldiers the spiritual resilience to cope with war, to face trauma, death and bereavement, and to fight opponents who have the advantage of a strong and common religious faith?

That’s the question the Pentagon has been grappling with, as it tries to cope with the record numbers of veterans returning from the front line of Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder, drug problems and other emotional disorders. In October, it came up with a response, called the ‘Comprehensive Soldier Fitness’ programme, which will aim to strengthen the emotional, psychological and, yes, spiritual resilience of each of the 1.1 million soldiers serving in the US army.

The programme is being organised and rolled out by Brigadier-General Rhonda Cornum, who was kind enough to give me an interview. She told me:

The US Army has never provided training to soldiers for their emotional and psychological strength. We thought that being in the Army, and adhering to the Army’s values of ‘mission first’, ‘never quit’, ‘never leave a fallen comrade’ and so on, would lead to emotional and psychological strength simply emerging. But after eight years of war, with much of the Army going to the front-line every other year, we’re very stressed. So we realised we would probably be better served if we had a preventative programme for psychological and emotional strengthening, rather than a reactive one that only began after someone had developed a problem.

Brigadier-General Cornum is herself an example of emotional resilience. She was captured and tortured during the first Iraq War, but seemed to have come through the experience with her powers of agency strengthened rather than traumatised. She says: “When you’re a POW, your captors control pretty much everything about your life: when you get up, when you go to sleep, what you eat, if you eat. I realised the only thing I had left that I could control was how I thought. I had absolute control over that, and was not going to let them take that too.”

In other words, she approached a situation in which she had minimum control not from the perspective of being a passive victim, but from the perspective that this adverse situation was actually an opportunity to exercise her agency, to assert her autonomy.

She says:

There are people who are just naturally resilient, who look at problems as challenges to be overcome. Some people even see adversity as opportunities to excel. I recognised that I had those skills, and others didn’t. What we have learnt since then, mainly thanks to the work of Penn University’s psychology department, is that these thinking skills that lead to resilience can be taught. And that’s what we’re trying to do with the new programme: teach resilience.

The Penn psychology department’s pioneering work began in the 1950s, when professor Aaron T. Beck developed ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’ – a type of therapy that taught people to become aware of how they interpret events through their ‘self-talk’ , and how their habitual interpretations of the external world lead to their habitual emotional responses.

In other words, our beliefs about ourself and the world lead to our emotional responses. We choose what we believe, so we also choose what we feel – though often our beliefs are unconscious and highly irrational. CBT tries to make the beliefs that colour our world-view more conscious, and more rational.

CBT sounds simple, but it’s based on the 2,000-year-old philosophy of Stoicism, which taught its students that ‘it’s not events, but our interpretation of them, that causes suffering’, in the words of the philosopher Epictetus. Stoics taught their students resilience – the ability to cope with exile, imprisonment, bereavement, torture, death, and all the other occupational hazards of a political career in the Roman Empire, without losing their cool.

Stoics could cope with adversity because they constantly reminded themselves that the world was an unpredictable and often frustrating place, and the only thing truly in our control was our own thoughts and opinions. They took an attitude of indifference to externals – it didn’t matter if you were emperor of Rome or a prisoner in a cell, what mattered was using each situation that came your way as an opportunity to exercise your moral agency, your ability to rise above your circumstances.

Epictetus said:

It is circumstances which show what men are. Therefore when adversity falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man…that you may become an Olympic conqueror; but it is not accomplished without sweat.

Stoic resilience didn’t mean just ‘sucking it up’. It didn’t mean just repressing your emotions behind a ‘stiff upper lip’. It’s far more subtle than that. It’s about learning how your beliefs lead to your emotions, and then learning to challenge and dismantle any beliefs that don’t make sense and are leading to destructive and pointlessly negative emotions.

CBT drew on many of the ideas and techniques of Stoicism. Both Beck and the other founder of CBT, Albert Ellis, were directly influenced by Stoicism, as they’ve told me in interviews. What CBT showed was that the therapeutic techniques of Stoicism could be used even if one didn’t share the religious beliefs of Stoicism. Indeed, Albert Ellis was a rabid atheist. You might not accept the Stoic idea that all externals are morally indifferent and the only thing worth pursuing is the development of your moral agency, but you could still use Stoic techniques to overcome emotional disorders, by becoming aware of how your habitual interpretations of the world lead to your emotional responses, and you could still learn how to change those interpretations when they were irrational or self-defeating.

So CBT adapted Stoic therapy to the needs and requirements of a multi-faith society. It used the techniques of Stoicism, but without Stoicism’s moral dogma – although it still retained some of the vestiges of Stoic ethics, in the idea that our emotions are our responsibility, and that the ‘good life’ is ultimately a life of Socratic self-knowledge and Stoic moral autonomy.

But most of the people who use CBT, and most of the people who teach CBT, have little or no idea of the connection of CBT to Stoicism. It’s been kept quiet, because Stoicism is a religious philosophy, and anything that smacks of religion wouldn’t go down well in the public sector. So CBT’s Stoic roots had to be kept slightly quiet for the psychotherapy to gain widespread acceptance.

A colleague of Beck’s at Penn University, Martin Seligman, then took the ideas and techniques of CBT and showed how they could be taken from the hospital or psychiatric ward, and taught to healthy individuals, such as children in schools, in order to strengthen their health and resilience before they ever developed an emotional disorder. So he made what was originally a therapy into an educational course. This, of course, is what Stoicism always was: an educational course, for young leaders.

Both CBT and positive psychology managed to gather a large body of evidence that showed that CBT was the most successful therapy at combating depression, social anxiety, PTSD and other emotional disorders; and that positive psychology, if taught in schools, reduced the likelihood of children developing depression in their teens.

The results started to impress government officials, and to make an impact on public policy. The UK’s government developed a particular enthusiasm in the last few years, thanks to the public support of government advisor Lord Layard for all things CBT. He was sufficiently impressed by CBT’s success at treating survivors of the Omagh bombing, that he successfully lobbied for the government to ear-mark around £150 million to train over 1,000 new CBT therapists to work in the NHS.

Layard also campaigned to get Seligman’s team to create a pilot ‘resilience programme’ in UK state schools. Some aspects of CBT are already included in the new curriculum subject, Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning.

Meanwhile, in the last couple of years, the Pentagon has, independently, become interested in the work of Penn, and its possible uses in helping it cope with the stress of eight years of war. It had already, controversially, used Martin Seligman’s theory of ‘learned helplessness’ to inform its interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay. Now, General George Casey, Chief of Staff of the US Army, decided to contract Seligman and his team to teach the entire army ‘learned optimism’. The Pentagon began working on the programme in August 2008, and launched it in October 2009.

The $125 million programme will mean that every American soldier has to take a questionnaire, every two years, which will assess his or her cognitive skills in five domains: physical, social, family, emotional and spiritual. The results are only shown to the soldier. If the soldier is below optimum in a domain, he or she is encouraged to take classes to strengthen their cognitive skills in that domain. The junior soldiers will be “required” to do the training. Most of the classes are online – they use hand-outs and videos to show different ways of thinking about and approaching difficult situations.

So how can a publicly-funded programme improve the ‘spiritual’ strength of an army, without conflicting with the pluralist ethos of a multi-faith society in which the government is supposed to be secular?

Brigadier-General Cornum says: “The spiritual strength domain is not related to religiosity, at least not in terms of how we measure it. It measures a person’s core values and beliefs concerning their meaning and purpose in life. We assess their self-awareness, their sense of ownership and responsibility, their self-regulation of thoughts and feelings which they can control, that those things don’t randomly appear, that self-motivation is important, and social awareness is important. It’s not religious, although a person’s religion can still affect those things.”

She adds: “Spiritual training is entirely optional, unlike the other domains. Every time you say the S-P-I-R word you’re going to get sued. So that part is not mandatory. The assessment is mandatory though, and junior soldiers will be required to take exercises to strengthen their other four domains. Because there’s no question that the most vulnerable populations are the younger people, whether we’re looking at stress or drug use. That’s partly because they’re ‘emerging adults’, with all the problems that go along with that. And it’s also because they’re the people we’re asking to do the most difficult things.”

So the spiritual training is not mandatory, but the other aspects of the course will still teach the country’s soldiers the techniques and ideas of CBT and Stoicism, and so are, in a sense, spiritual training (or what the Greeks called askesis).

This sort of spiritual training isn’t totally new to the US Army. The military elite have already been trained in this way for some time. West Point’s Cadet Leader Development System, for example, trains its students in six domains – intellectual, military, physical, social, moral-ethical and the domain of the human spirit’, the latter of which models itself on Plato’s education of the elite Guardian class. It regularly invites top philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum to come and lecture to the cadets on Aristotle, the Stoics and other ancient ethicists.

The US Navy has also used ideas and techniques from ancient Greek philosophy in its officer training programme – indeed, the inaugural holder of the Distinguished Chair in Ethics at the United States Naval Academy, Nancy Sherman, went on to write a book called Stoic Warriors, discussing how Stoicism continues to inform the ethos of the American military.

She paid particular attention to the example of Vice-Admiral James Stockdale, who famously used his knowledge of Stoicism to survive seven years of imprisonment and torture during the Vietnam War. Stockdale learnt first hand, as a POW, the value of the Stoic idea that most things are not in our control, but one thing is in our control – our thinking, our moral purpose – and no one can take this from us, even if they kill us.

Stockdale’s experience, and his use of Epictetus, is still taught to US Special Forces cadets at the Green Berets’ survival school in Fort Bragg. Michael, a 47-year-old major in US Army Special Forces, tells me:

We were taught how to survive prisoner-of-war experience, and one of the things we were taught was James Stockdale’s experience in Vietnam. Afterwards, I found out more about him online, and gradually became more and more interested in Stoicism. Eventually, I thought we should change our Special Forces training to simply a course in Hellenic philosophy – because so much of Stoicism is about understanding humans and why they make the decisions they do, which is a crucial part of Special Forces operations.

So the elite of the US military have often drawn on the ideas and traditions of ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Stoicism, to train and develop themselves. But this is the first time such ideas and therapeutic techniques have been rolled out to the entire army, from the bottom to the top.

Of course, other armies, which have the benefit of a common religion, can draw on that to teach their own recruits resilience. Take the example of the Lebanese guerrilla movement Hesballah’s training of its soldiers. I’m quoting from Alaister Crooke’s recent book, Resistance:

Hesballah’s strengthening of the individual comes from contemplation within him or her of the concept of God’s attribute of ‘power’, and through a personal ‘drawing’ of this attribute, the acquisition of an inner mental ‘strength’, a Hesballah Sheikh explained. This quality enables a person to contrive the willpower and spirit with which to confront and overcome disproportionate force used against him or her…From this same attribute of ‘mental strengthening’, the Sheikh suggested, it was possible to cultivate a steadfastness and resilience that ‘will drive a superior adversary to despair at being able to inflict a psychological defeat’.

At times, indeed, the Hesballah resilience training programme sounds positively touchy-feely: “Building individual self-esteem is seen as an element of developing resilience…one activist described is as ‘a process of personal coaching of individuals’.”

But of course Hesballah has the advantage of a common religious faith. In a liberal, democratic, multi-faith society, in which the government is secular, it is a thorny question as to how far the state can go in the development of character and virtue, before it steps over the line and is interfering in an individual’s personal moral choices.

I personally think CBT has done our society a great service by allowing us to draw on the spiritual traditions of western culture, particularly Stoicism, without getting into dogmatic debates over metaphysical beliefs in the after-life, providence, the existence of God and so on.

This, to me, is what Richard Dawkins and others miss in the debate over the value or vice of religion. Religion isn’t just dogma, though of course millions of people have been killed over disagreements about religious dogma. But at its most useful, religions are the ancient storehouses of knowledge of the human mind, the human spirit, and knowledge of the techniques one can use to strengthen the mind and spirit. Many of these techniques can be used even if one doesn’t believe in God. This is what CBT has discovered through its debt to Stoicism.

At the same time, I think the public sector (whether schools, armies, prisons or the NHS) have to be careful not to be too prescriptive in their assertion of what makes one ‘happy’ or ‘resilient’ or any of the other virtues and character-traits that positive psychology teaches. There is no one scientifically-proven path to happiness and virtue. All the great spiritual traditions – Stoicism, Buddhism, Islam, and also secular traditions like Epicureanism – have important points of disagreement. I don’t think positive psychology should paper over those disagreements and pretend that ‘science’ can arrive at some perfect and unarguable path to happiness and resilience. We can’t escape that we live in a pluralist society, and we always will.

And you can never force people to be free, or happy, or resilient. You can lead the soldiers to the revitalising water of ancient philosophy. But, unlike the theocratic states of the Middle East, you can’t force them to drink.