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.
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.