Pentagon's Advice to Traumatized Veterans: Think Happy Thoughts!

Tired of hearing about all those military suicides? It just keeps getting worse and no one seems to have a clue how to stop the horror.  Are you feeling news fatigue coming on, with compassion exhaustion and depression close behind? Want to change the channel, scroll down, turn the page?  

That, says Martin Seligman, is because you, like too many American soldiers, are leading with negativity.  You could  instead be using “learned optimism” to dispute your catastrophic interpretation of the events that trouble your soul, the source of your PTSD.  

It’s really quite simple. “The idea here is to give people a new vocabulary,” Seligman says. 

Seligman chairs the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and he has managed to convince Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen “that it (is) possible to teach soldiers how to properly respond to distress, and help them emerge emotionally stronger” (italics mine).

Seligman calls that “posttraumatic growth.”   

Barbara Ehrenreich calls it “pseudoscience and flapadoodle.”

It's hardly surprising that the author of Bait and Switch and Nickel and Dimed, and one of the most imaginative chroniclers of class injustice in America, would take issue with positive psychology. 

The suggestion that “learned optimism” (also the title of Seligman’s first best seller) could bring about success in a world where so many lives are determined by forces beyond their control was bound to push her buttons.

In her latest book, Bright-Sided, Ehrenreich frames her dispute with positive psychology in general, and Seligman in particular, in very personal terms—her own experience with breast cancer.  

She takes obvious pleasure in skewering the “kitschy positivity of American breast-cancer culture,” with its smiley face mantras, pink pride paraphernalia, and all the hype about “spiritual upward mobility.”      

But she is deadly serious when she takes on positive psychology’s insidious promise that it's possible to learn “to be happier — to feel more satisfied, to be more engaged with life, find more meaning, have higher hopes, and probably even laugh and smile more, regardless of one’s circumstances” (italics mine).

Hey, all you quitters and whiners: If it’s bad and it hurts, even as it keeps getting worse, you have to try harder, have faith, and above all, think positive!  

But the core of Ehrenreich’s argument against the positivists is their belief that, “If optimism is the key to material success, and if you can achieve an optimistic outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure.”

The message that individual initiative and a positive attitude can trump any unfortunate pop quiz the universe tosses your way has saturated every aspect of our culture, from the popular to the corporate, from the intellectual and medical to the spiritual, Ehrenreich argues. And it is used by those on top to justify their success, their privilege, their health--and their budgetary priorities.   After all, why throw money at failure?  

Though Ehrenreich doesn’t specifically apply her analysis to the military, its implications for traumatized soldiers are apparent.   

“The Army is discovering that most Soldiers endure the stress of combat and emerge from those experiences stronger and more resilient,” Brig. Gen. Ed Cardon, deputy commandant of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, optimistically proclaimed when he formally announced the new Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program in October.  

“CSF is a means to inculcate this idea of positive growth across the force.” 

In fact, the first group of Master Resiliency Trainers has already graduated from Seligman’s Positive Psychology Center.  By next year, the Army plans to have a trainer assigned to every battalion, and eventually to require that all 1.1 million of its soldiers undergo the training. 

The training helps soldiers “look at more optimistic and realistic choices, rather than falling into negative thought processes,” says CSF director Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum.

The example Seligman frequently uses to illustrate how his training helps training soldiers avoid falling into negativity goes like this:

So you’re in Iraq, for example, and you call your wife at home,…and she doesn't answer, you might think the most catastrophic thing possible: She's walked out on me.

So one of the things you teach people to do is, well, just wait a minute. That's the most catastrophic possibility. Now, what's the best possible scenario? Well, it might be that she's just taken the kids out for a walk…

So resilience begins by teaching soldiers, just as we have taught thousands of people, to recognize the most catastrophic things they say to themselves when bad events occur and to dispute them, to find the realistic causes of the bad events.

Oh, now wait just a minute, Doc. There are real unpleasant realities out there, and some of them are really dangerous to ignore. And they couldn’t care less if you are an optimist or a pessimist.  

Like the Taliban. Or Katrina. Or the housing bubble.  Or the wisdom of Wall Street. Or cancer.  

And try to imagine how useful a habit of sunny optimism might be to a soldier doing house checks in Kandahar.

“See it positively, as a ‘growth opportunity,’" snarls Ehrenriech at the directive.  “And hopefully not just for the tumor.”

Or as Dr. Richard Tedeschi, a UNC psychologist and also a consultant on the CFS project, told a gathering at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in September, even those who had lost limbs or incurred other severe physical injuries found the changes in their lives to be so intensely meaningful that “they were glad the events had happened to them.” 

Ehrenreich experienced no such epiphany. Breast cancer did not, she reports, make her “prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual.   

“What it gave me, if you want to call this a “gift,” was a very personal and agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture…that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.”

That’s what Seligman sold the Army.  He's going to teach soldiers to use their psychic injuries as opportunities for growth, not as excuses for a disability claim.  And especially not as a motive for suicide.

But according to David Rosenthal, Director of Behavioral Science at Columbia University, “As with any approach, there is always the danger that if people don’t do well, someone in power will say that they are not utilizing the skills provided them and they are to blame.” 

So read between the lines.

Gen. George W. Casey Jr., Army chief of staff, complains that soldiers are "not coming into the service with the coping skills they need.”  (Never mind who is at fault for letting them in.)

And whose fault is it if they fail to learn?  What if it can’t be taught?  What if the contents of the tool kit are no more than a cruel hoax? 

Seligman’s colleague at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Dr. James Coyne, is only one among many experts who say positive psychology is “an emotionally charged belief that is pretty resistant to science.   

"There is little new about the training that is effective, and little effective that is new,” Coyne wrote in a personal e-mail. “The core of the program is basic stress management techniques that are used in other settings with modest effects. 

“Positive psychology programs show only modest effects in school settings and military situations pose considerably more challenge.  

There's a long tradition in the military of searching for the elusive “bullet-proof mind,” or “psychological Kevlar.”  When those efforts have failed, as they consistently have, there's an equally long tradition of finding ways to make sure it is the individual soldier, and not the system, who takes the blame.

This new magic the Army has bought comes in a very pretty package. Some people obviously do grow through challenging experiences, and a positive attitude, optimism even, can affect the way individuals care for themselves, their families and friends, their careers and their communities.  

But the effect can also go the other way. Rightly or wrongly, traumatic experiences leave many people devastated and enraged. Telling them to exorcize their real feeling and substitute positive or optimistic feelings about what they are enduring or have endured feeds what Ehrenreich calls a “mindless triumphalism of ‘survivorhood’ that “denigrates the dead and the dying."

And who can really defend -- and on what grounds -- teaching anyone to feel good about the horror they have experienced in combat. What has happened to our traumatized soldiers is NOT OKAY. They have been seriously, often lethally, injured.

“It’s a mistake to try to turn your anger and resentment and sadness or grief into something else,” Ehrenriech told Amy Goodman in October. “It’s very bad to try to just plaster on a smiley face. 

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