US military’s new resilience course

by | Sep 7, 2009


Just watched a rather depressing Dispatches programme about post-traumatic stress disorder in UK troops – guys coming home and expecting to be attacked at any moment. One guy slept with a machete next to his bed and could still only get to sleep after drinking a bottle of vodka. Apparently the UK military will only give PTSD counselling if the soldiers ask for it. And none of them ask for it.

Meanwhile, the US military has just launched something called the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme, which has been developed by Penn University’s psychology department. Every two years, each US soldier will take some questionnaire to test their aptitudes in five areas: physical, emotional, social, family and spiritual. If they are not doing well in a particular area, they’re encouraged to take courses to up their score in that area (I don’t know what this involves…’your homework today: go out and find God’).

Anyway, supposedly it teaches the soldiers resilience, making them less likely to develop PTSD in the first place. As Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum (one tough old soldier, who was captured and abused during the first Iraq War, and said her abuse was “discomforting, nothing more”) puts it:

“It was developed because we recognized that we really did not have a good preventive and strengthening model for psychological health. It’s just a recognition that we spend an enormous amount of energy and resources on people after they’ve had some negative outcome, but we’re not doing anything deliberately as a preventive measure.”

This means more kudos for Martin Seligman of Penn Uni, who invented the resilience training programme and has already persuaded the UK government to try it in our state schools (hey if it can work there, it can work in Afghanistan). He was the pioneer of the idea of ‘learned optimism’, having previously pioneered the idea of ‘learned helplessness’, when he showed that if you electrocute a dog for long enough, they will be unhappy.

The US military liked that idea too – they used it to develop interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay, much to Seligman’s annoyance.

Anyway, I’m all for this Comprehesive Soldier Fitness course, but I bet you one thing – nowhere in the course do they mention Stoicism. And that’s what it is – it’s teaching you to change your perspective on things, to get a ‘philosophical angle’ on traumatic events. Seligman took his ideas from another Penn psychologist, Aaron Beck, who took them directly from Stoicism – as he’s said to me in an interview.

But then, I guess if you admitted your ideas were directly lifted from a 2,000-year-old philosophy, you wouldn’t get such a fat cheque from the Pentagon…

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    <strong><a href="http://www.globaldashboard.org/author/jules-evans/">Jules Evans</a> </strong> is a freelance journalist and writer, who covers two main areas: philosophy and psychology (for publications including The Times, Psychologies, New Statesman and his website, <a href="http://philosophyforlife.org">Philosophy for Life</a>), and emerging markets (for publications including The Spectator, Economist, Times, Euromoney and Financial News).


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