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.

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Parliament: more global, less local (part 1)

Over the weekend, the Conservative Party held an open primary in Bracknell – the second time (I think) they have selected a candidate for the general election in this way.

The final three candidates were:

Iain Dale – doyen of the Conservative blogosphere.

Rory Stewart – an ex-diplomat who wrote a book about walking across Afghanistan in 2002 and the governed part of occupied Iraq .

Phillip Lee – a local GP.

I would have voted for either Dale or Stewart. Parliament badly needs people like Dale, who understand social media. Prospective MPs with direct experience of the two wars we’re fighting (especially the much-neglected civilian dimension) are at even more of a premium.

Bracknell, however, chose Lee, who ran on the platform “Local,  Local, Local”. Primary voters were, I imagine, won over by his commitment to “making both the town and the surrounding villages better places to live in the future.” No coincidence, I think, that a local GP also won the Totnes open primary in August.

Let’s be clear – I am absolutely ignorant of Phillip Lee’s qualities. He may end up a fine Foreign Secretary, or a future Prime Minister, as well as being a dedicated constituency MP. But I am worried by the incentives that led him to stand on, and triumph with, such as local platform.

Look at his policy ideas presented to the primary and and you’ll find impressive, almost obsessive, detail on acute healthcare in East Berkshire. In contrast, on those ‘national issues that I know concern constituents’, there’s nothing more than a few bromides.

Lee wants the UK to pay off its national debt; reduce public spending; cut the state down to size; and get tough on Europe; while also delivering better education and health, and spending more on kit for the armed forces.

This is the wrong way round, I think. He’s running for a national parliament, not a local one. And if elected, he will arrive in Westminster at a time when the British political agenda is increasingly dominated not by local events, but by a morass of complex, interlocking global risks (discussed in more detail here).

In the first decade of this century, his prospective constituents have seen their lives shaped largely by global events, with three international emergencies (9/11 and the wars that followed, the energy and food price spike of 2008, and the worst economic crisis since the thirties) shredding cosy assumptions about the stability of contemporary globalization.

The next decade will be no different. Whether or not Bracknell is a ‘better place to live’ in 2020 will be influenced by what happens in Karachi, Lagos or Washington, as much if not more than it is by what happens in Berkshire itself.

So how do we increase the chance that MPs with global vision and experience will compete for, and win, Parliamentary seats? How do we select more politicians like Vince Cable (immensely popular less for what he does in Twickenham than for his grip on the world’s economic woes)?

Some thoughts on this in part two, tomorrow.

Party like it’s 1999 (posts)!

This is the 1,999th post ever on Global Dashboard.  We’ll leave #2,000 to David and Alex to mess up with some tedious factoid about how we’re all about to die thanks to scarcity or climate or blah-di-blah.  But at least a few of us multilateralist nerds still believe in good, old-fashioned values and icons.  Like religion.  Or the UN Charter.  Or both.  So here’s a suitably millenarian image of Our Lord at the UN to celebrate the anniversary…

(Hat tip: Gawker.)

The EU’s cowboy (state)builders

This morning, ECFR published a new report by Daniel and me on the EU’s efforts at civilian state-building from the Balkans to Afghanistan.  This non-military stuff is what Europeans are meant to do well.  We’re not so sure…

A disturbing lack of capacity in EU state building projects risks becoming a key security challenge, while many fragile states threaten to turn into failed states. If Yemen descends into full blown civil-war, al Qaeda gains new basis in Africa, or large-scale civilian deployments are required in the Palestinian territories, the EU will be ill-equipped to offer the strategic and development assistance likely to be needed.

Despite their importance for global security, most EU missions remain small, lacking in ambition and strategically irrelevant. If the EU is to deliver on its potential, then it will need to rethink its entire approach to foreign interventions.

The EU has world’s largest diplomatic network and development budget, and touts the importance of civilian reconstruction. Despite this, EU member states lack properly trained civilian experts – from police officers and economic advisors to sanitation and irrigation specialists – that can bring stability to the world’s trouble spots.

Read more (and admire the hot pink cover!) here.

Defending the UK’s most successful industry

You have to love the Bruges Group, whose response to the financial crisis seems to be to pretend it never happened. I’ve just been invited to one of their events where:

Professor Tim Congdon will warn of the dangers posed by the EU’s unwarranted interference in the City of London, Britain’s most successful industry; which is under threat from the EU. He will discuss the EU’s latest power grab where Brussels is aiming to complete its project to take full control over financial services.

Congdon, whose loathing of David Cameron prompted him to jump ship to UKIP, must be using a different definition of success to most of the rest of us…

Interoperability – NATO style

Another object lesson from NATO on how not to work together:

When ten French soldiers were killed last year in an ambush by Afghan insurgents in what had seemed a relatively peaceful area, the French public were horrified.

Their revulsion increased with the news that many of the dead soldiers had been mutilated — and with the publication of photographs showing the militants triumphantly sporting their victims’ flak jackets and weapons. The French had been in charge of the Sarobi area, east of Kabul, for only a month, taking over from the Italians; it was one of the biggest single losses of life by Nato forces in Afghanistan.

What the grieving nation did not know was that in the months before the French soldiers arrived in mid-2008, the Italian secret service had been paying tens of thousands of dollars to Taleban commanders and local warlords to keep the area quiet, The Times has learnt. The clandestine payments, whose existence was hidden from the incoming French forces, were disclosed by Western military officials.

Even more bizarrely, it seems that the Italians’ behaviour only came to light because US intelligence was listening in on its calls. Farcical.

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