Comprehensive Soldier Fitness: A Holistic Approach to Warrior Training


"U.S. Army Spc. Frank Mireles" by the U.S. Army

Comprehensive Soldier Fitness is the Army’s new training program that uses positive psychology to teach soldiers mental resilience strategies to maintain their psychological wellbeing while confronting the challenges of being separated from families, regularly facing conflict, and losing friends and colleagues.

The program, which calls for an army of “balanced, healthy, self-confident soldiers” and “improved soldier fitness and readiness,” sounds like a good plan to take care of our warriors’ mental health and to take a more holistic approach to toughening them up.  But recently, the program has come under some criticism, primarily for its publicly funded price tag ($117 million as reported in the New York Times) and for ethical questions about whether or not soldiers even should be trained to be desensitized to traumatic events.  Psychologist Bruce Levine recently published an article entitled, “How Psychologists Profit from Unending U.S. Wars,” (published elsewhere as “American Soldiers Brainwashed with ‘Positive Thinking’”,) condemning the program and pointing the finger at psychologists who are pocketing their fair share of the money for training 40,000 drill sergeants (who in turn will train 1.1 million U.S. soldiers.)

Some of Levine’s criticisms I agree with: “Psychologists should loudly warn politicians, military brass, and the nation that if soldiers and veterans discover that they have been deceived about the meaningfulness and necessity of their mission, it is only human for them to become more prone to emotional turmoil, which can lead to destructive behaviors for themselves and others.”  In general, I am a believer that there is usually a peaceful resolution to most conflict and that the U.S. policies tend to emphasize war, rather than negotiation, cooperation and collaboration to resolve issues.  So I don’t like the idea of any program designed to make war easier.

I also am not against criticizing the cost of the program, since I think most of the money we spend on our military efforts could probably be put to better use.  But I question whether the blame should be levied against the psychologists rather than the Army itself.  Our whole society is based on the capitalist ideals of creating services that people need and want in exchange for money.  While we understand that people sell computers and cars for profit, we tend to label as greedy anyone who sells loftier services in the domains of psychological or spiritual wellbeing.  I say, “hate the game, not the players.”

I have heard directly from Martin Seligman, the brains behind the program (and behind positive psychology for that matter) and Karen Reivich, the author of The Resilience Factor and one of the lead trainers for the Army workshops, and their intentions are in the right place.  This program is based on the idea that reactions to traumatic events are normally distributed. This means that after experiencing a major traumatic event, a small percentage of people will experience psychological problems such as depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD,) most people will adapt and bounce back, and another percentage of people will actually learn and grow from the experience (“Post Traumatic Growth”—see Washington Post article, “From Wounds, Inner Strength”.)  To me, a program designed to decrease PTSD and increase Post Traumatic Growth in our warriors seems like a worthwhile endeavor.  Especially when you consider the lasting impact of PTSD on a community (see recent study, “’Path of mental illness’ follows path of war, twenty years after conflict ends.”)

In Levine’s critique of the program he asks, “How much sense does it make to teach soldiers who are trying to stay alive in a war zone to put a positive spin on everything?”  Here, Levine makes the same mistake as other critics of positive psychology in that he confounds positive psychology with positive thinking—not the same things.  Does it make sense to teach soldiers to be happy at all times at all costs?  Absolutely not.  But how much sense does it make to teach soldiers how to let go of emotional issues and traps that might be distracting them from the tasks at hand?  Quite a lot actually, according to Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum who heads up the program for the Army.  In a recent interview, she described the difference between a realistic response and a catastrophic response to losing a friend in battle: “Realistically, we expect that people will grieve, that they will feel anger, they will probably feel bitterness and recurring grief . . . but you can’t just stay there and replay that over and over.”  Teaching soldiers techniques for managing the stress and anxiety of warfare may even be saving their lives.  One recent study showed that soldiers’ reactions to stress in dangerous combat actually cause them “to dissociate from threats [in battle] instead of becoming more vigilant.”

Furthermore, the program is not just about helping soldiers deal with the severe emotional traumas they encounter on the battle field.  It helps them to deal with the emotional issues surrounding their relationships, not only with their fellow soldiers, but with their families back home (some parts of the program are even being offered to family members.)  Thanks to cellphones and the internet, soldiers are more connected than ever before to the people back home.  And while I’m sure the soldiers appreciate this connectivity, it makes it harder than ever to remain detached and focused on their difficult job overseas.  Gone are the days of soldiers carrying around a single photograph of their spouse or child, as the only reminder of their life back home.  Today, they are more in touch than ever before, and there are emotional costs associated with that.

At the end of the day General Cornum is a manager of people (in one of the largest organizations in the world) and she is hoping that positive psychology training will improve performance in her workforce.  Other businesses (see my articles on Zappos here and here) are doing the same.  Dan Bowling, former head of HR for Coca Cola and a MAPP colleague of mine, is looking at how similar kinds of training could impact lawyers (another workforce prone to emotional issues).  And I have been working on new training programs applying positive psychology to the hospitality industry (appropriate since relationships and emotional connections are so important in our business.)

On a recent phone call that Martin Seligman had with the MAPP Alumni, I asked him if there were lessons being learned from the Army training that could be applied in other organizations.  “This is the second largest corporation in the world,” he said.  (The first is Walmart.)  “And so a program that involves training for the entire U.S. Army in which its effects on performance are being evaluated should be highly relevant to large corporations.”  When so many organizations today are still not thinking about the holistic welfare of their workforce, I commend the Army for leading us into this new frontier.

References and recommended reading:

Cornum, R. & Copeland, P. (1993).  She Went to War: The Rhonda Cornum Story.  Presidio Press.

Levine, B. E. (2007).  Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy.  Chelsea Green Publishing.

Reivich, K. & Shatte, A. (2003).  The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles.  Broadway Books.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2006).  Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Vintage.

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24 Responses to Comprehensive Soldier Fitness: A Holistic Approach to Warrior Training

  1. Mark A McKenney August 17, 2010 at 11:33 am #

    In one of Dr. Upledger’s books he mentioned how CranioSacral Therapy would work for these situations. I have asked Cloe Couturier (@cloecouturier) who is much more qualified to respond.

    Dallas, TX

  2. Dan Bowling August 17, 2010 at 6:12 pm #

    It doesn’t surprise me there is a backlash against the resilience training taking place with the Army (conflict alert – I have been certified as a facilitator in that training and work for Dr. Seligman). Status quo is always an intellectually safer position or course of action in conservative institutions, such as the military or the law. But with regard to Levine, he completely misrepresents what the training is addressing. Most of the psychological damage being inflicted upon the troops comes from the little things in life that would be minor stressors but for the fact the soldier is thousands of miles from home. Also, most of the role-playing exercises concern routine HR-type issues or family problems,not battle situations (can’t see Karen Reivich instructing sergeants how to respond under enemy fire!). Good post.

  3. Edmund Benson August 20, 2010 at 3:56 pm #

    We at ARISE Foundation have incorporated many aspects of positive psychology in our various training programs for juvenile justice officers. These good people are under a huge amounts of stress locked behind steel doors and razor wire fences with often violent and aggressive youth eight hours a day. They return home to face bill collector’s repo-men and family members living at poverty levels. Their pay is horrible and the stress levels are off the charts not unlike our loved ones serving in the armed forces. And I must say our results have been positively amazing.
    Three cheers for Martin Seligman!

  4. Jeremy McCarthy August 21, 2010 at 11:50 am #

    Thanks Edmund, that sounds like a tough population to work with. I hope people check out your website and see all of the interesting things you are doing!

  5. Jules Evans October 12, 2010 at 2:28 am #

    I wonder whether Positive Psychologists should be so quick to think they know exactly how best to train soldiers’ minds. How much actual experience of the Army does Seligman or Reivich have? How much experience of operating in a war zone? How do they know how a soldier thinks, or how to motivate them?

    Seligman thinks of the Army as a corporation, like Walmart. But Walmart doesn’t ask its employees to risk their lives every day. The employees of Walmart don’t have to make life and death situations. The employees of Walmart are not asked to sacrifice their lives in the service of their country.

    There’s something totally different about the Army. The people who join the Army often do so out of a sense of honour, virtue, duty.

    Positive Psychology, by contrast, is – by Seligman’s own account – a morally neutral science. So it can never talk about how a soldier is motivated and strengthened by moral ideals, let alone promote those ideals. That would be ‘prescriptive’.

    Seligman is so keen to get as much funding as he can, and to spread Positive Psychology as far as he can, that he just wants to roll it out anywhere and everywhere.

  6. Jeremy McCarthy October 12, 2010 at 8:04 am #

    Hi Jules, great comments again! I really do understand all of these criticisms against this program–I just think they are better levied against the Army than against Seligman. You said, “Seligman is so keen to get as much funding as he can, and to spread Positive Psychology as far as he can, that he just wants to roll it out anywhere and everywhere.” and my response is “of course he is!” This is the way our entire capitalist system is based on using money to incentivize progress and to a certain extent PP is just another product and Seligman et al are looking for buyers. If he believes in his product, he should want to spread it far and wide. We seem to accept this as normal when someone is selling cheeseburgers or automobiles, but when someone is selling something that is intended to be beneficial, we hold them to a higher standard. In the case of a program like this, it’s not only economically driven . . . what researcher would not want to receive millions of dollars to test his theories on one of the largest populations in the world? I get the argument that this program is bigger than the research supporting it might warrant, but here’s an opportunity for psychologists to test those things on a larger scale while the government foots the bill.

    I also think you bring up a good point about the unique nature of the army–it is certainly different than Walmart. I do some positive psychology training programs within my own industry (hospitality.) When we try too hard to USE positive psychology to create better hotel employees, it no longer works. To your point, the same is probably true (or more true) of soldiers. But if positive psychology can give people tools that help them to be a better person or to live a better life (and I think it can,) and it is provided with that intention, the benefit could overflow into work performance whether you work at Walmart, the Westin or the war zone. The program they do with the army is not so soldier specific. It is the same kind of resilience training that would be beneficial to Walmart employees or hotel bellmen. And while there are differences between those employees, there are far more things in common.

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