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The Dark Side of "Comprehensive Soldier Fitness"

By Roy Eidelson, Marc Pilisuk, and Stephen Soldz  Posted by Stephen Soldz (about the submitter)       (Page 3 of 4 pages)   No comments
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"The balance of good done by building the physical and mental fitness of our soldiers far outweighs any harm that might be done" (p. 86).

It is disappointing that researchers who have emphasized the purported empirical underpinnings of the CSF program would here abandon all semblance of scholarly rigor. The authors offer their cost-benefit claim as transparently true (i.e., the good outweighing the harm). But they offer no evidence in support of this crucial claim. For example, in their calculation how much weight do they give to the tragic numbers of civilian casualties in Iraq (minimally estimated in the hundreds of thousands) and Afghanistan -- the dead, the injured, and the displaced? Does this harm matter at all to those promoting CSF? Have we reached the point where "do no harm," the fundamental principle underlying the psychology profession's ethics, has become "do no harm to Americans, unless it serves the interests of the state"? These issues deserve careful consideration, not evasion.

We should also keep in mind that every effort to support military operations is billed as "support for our troops." Whether it is the use of drones that kill from a continent away or tapping into a soldier's capacity to kill without a serious hangover, all are justified as for the brave troops. But the decisions to use military force are not made with the well-being of military personnel in mind, nor are they made by soldiers or even influenced by their desires. Master resilience trainers in the Army will not be urging soldiers to report violations of the rules of engagement by their superiors. They will not encourage soldiers to empathize with the humanity of the adults and children whom they may have killed as collateral damage, nor to use forms of restorative justice for apology and reconciliation that have a potential for deeper healing. And they will not encourage troops to build supportive ties with those critical of the wars they are fighting or the tactics required of them.

"We are proud to aid our military in defending and protecting our nation right now, and we will be proud to help our soldiers and their families into the peace that will follow" (p. 86).

The blind embrace of overly simple notions of "patriotism" is inappropriate for professional psychologists dedicated to the promotion of universal human health and well-being. Ideological convictions based upon mythologies of American exceptionalism are no substitute for an examination of their verity. If it is not true that the U.S. is defending its democratic foundations against ruthless adversaries, then the balance shifts dramatically toward averting the alleged harm of making healthier killers. By tying the CSF program to claims of the rightness of American military goals and actions, Seligman and Fowler are, unrecognized by them, requiring that an ethical evaluation include a comprehensive empirical evaluation of the justification for those policies.

Such an evaluation likely will find that the view of U.S. military history as being primarily "defensive" in nature, rather than one of imperial control, is false. Rather, the U.S. has a long history of intervening in other countries and overthrowing their governments when they act in ways considered to be against U.S. national interests. Where does the "defending and protecting" reality lie in regard to the war in Iraq, or the invasion of Guyana, or the support for the Venezuelan coup, or the bombing of Serbia, or military aid to dictators around the world? Sadly, history (and scholars such as retired U.S. Col. Andrew Bacevich, among many others) has shown how remarkably war-prone the United States has been in the non-defensive pursuit of its foreign policy and "national interest." The U.S. is, in fact, at best only inconsistently a defender of democracy. Our empire-building behavior has caused great harm to our own safety and well-being -- and to the principles our country purports to value. Meanwhile, the promise of peace following military victories has surely not materialized, while the case for the extent of U.S. engagement in wars that were unneeded is extensive and compelling. It is not professionally responsible to ignore these facts.


In addition to our deep concerns about Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, the American Psychological Association's unrestrained enthusiasm for the program is especially worrisome for what it says about the APA, the largest organization of psychologists in the country, indeed the world. As we have demonstrated, there are many complex issues regarding the CSF program's empirical foundations, its promotion as a massive research project absent informed consent, and the basis on which its psychologist developers justify the program. We would therefore expect a special issue of the American Psychologist, a journal edited by the APA's CEO Norman Anderson, to encourage an extended discussion of these matters.

In contrast, guest editors Seligman and Matthews have assembled 13 articles that include no independent evaluation of the empirical claims underlying CSF. They contain no unbiased discussion of ethical issues raised by the program. They do nothing to enlighten psychologists about ethical challenges posed by consulting and research work with the military. And they most certainly offer no encouragement for questioning the foreign policy context in which our soldiers are sent into combat, to face physical and moral hazards for which even the best program can never adequately prepare them. Unfortunately, the APA's uncritical promotion of the CSF program reveals much about the current moral challenges facing the psychology profession itself.

Psychology should maintain an ethical and critical stance distinct from and resistant to the lure of patriotic calls, which are part of each and every military undertaking -- by all nations -- regardless of the legitimacy of the cause. As psychologists we should tread carefully when our efforts are solely directed toward sending soldiers back into combat rather than counseling them away from participating in misguided wars. In a similar way, assessing soldiers for their potential to withstand such horrors of war and building their resilience through teaching mental toughness skills are not necessarily healthy alternatives compared to affirming and assisting them in their expressions of doubt and dissent.

Ultimately, there is a paradox that should be foremost in the minds of professional psychologists. Helping people who have already been harmed by trauma is essential. But should we be involved in helping an institution prepare to place more people in harm's way without careful and ongoing questioning and review of the rationale for doing so? Whatever the needs for a military for national defense, or the benefits of team building, loyalty, camaraderie, and a positive outlook, militaries are, among other things, authoritarian institutions that kill, maim, deceive, and actively reduce an individual's sense of independent agency.

The enormous toll that armed conflict exacts on soldiers, veterans, families, and communities is a key reason why we should send young men and women to war only as an absolute last resort -- and we should bring them home as quickly as possible, rather than sending them back again and again. If the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program is truly about enhancing well-being, then we should also question whether these soldiers might be helped more effectively by finding non-military ways to resolve the conflicts and concerns for which they carry such heavy burdens.


Roy Eidelson is a clinical psychologist and the president of Eidelson Consulting, where he studies, writes about, and consults on the role of psychological issues in political, organizational, and group conflict settings. He is past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, associate director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College, and a member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology

Marc Pilisuk is Professor Emeritus, the University of California, and Professor, Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center. He is the author (with Jennifer Achord Rountree) of Who Benefits from Global Violence and War: Uncovering a Destructive System (Greenwood/Praeger, 2008), and the co-editor (with Michael Nagler) of Peace Movements Worldwide (Praeger/ABC-CLIO, 2011).

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Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. He was a psychological consultant on two of (more...)
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