Army officials have announced plans to train soldiers in a new form of psychological warfare, hoping to steel them against the emotional and mental fallout from war. The training is based partly on a body of “recent research suggesting that people can manage stress by thinking in terms of their psychological strengths,” according to The New York Times. At first glance, it seems like a noble idea. It is certainly timely: Approximately 300,000 people who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are currently suffering form some form of mental illness, given the overwhelming demands on the VA health care system.
As Larry Scott recently wrote, psychiatrists at a VA hospital in Spokane, Washington, are in “revolt”:
We have an ethical obligation to be available to our patients for timely appointments and communications. We are no longer able to fulfill these obligations to our huge caseload.
Soldiers clearly need help. The problem, however, is that the program is unlikely to succeed. In previous wars, American physicians attempted to reduce the stress that soldiers experience during battle, as a Yale psychiatrist explained to me, by slicing the adrenal glands of the men before they went into combat. Not surprisingly, the medical procedure did not work.
In more recent years, psychiatrists have been researching the subject of resiliency and why some individuals are more likely than others to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder after they return home. Yet mental illness is an inexact science, and the findings about resiliency are not entirely clear. Preventing stress is even more challenging. One troubling aspect of the Army program is that if people go through the training and still experience psychological problems when they return home – as some of them surely will – they may blame themselves for their weaknesses. In this way, the training program can make soldiers even more reluctant to speak out about the suffering they have experienced or to seek help. That is not the intent of the program developers, of course, but it could be one of its outcomes.