Many of you may be familiar with the recent trial of Steven Dale Green, a 24 year-old Iraq veteran who was convicted in a civilian trial of raping and murdering a 14 year-old Iraqi girl and her family in 2005. The death penalty has been taken off the table because the jury could not unanimously agree on the sentence. He is therefore going to be sentenced to life in prison in September.
The story is mainly being highlighted for its exemplification of the effects of combat stress on our young men and women. The Army is being criticized for not discharging him when he expressed homocidal thoughts and for putting his unit through in inordinate amount of strife without supervision. The story is also conjuring up mostly-forgotten images of the horrors of Abu Ghraib.
Which brings me to the purpose of writing this post. I am a major advocate of blurring the lines that exist between the branches of psychology. In the case of combat psychology, the primary blend that needs to occur is between social and clinical psychology. To my knowledge, the military does not recruit or train social psychologists for the purpose of caring for the troops. They do, however, actively and aggressively recruit clinical psychologists with attractive signing bonuses and salaries and fantastic internships, even when the psychologist remains a civilian employee of the military. I think this is great.
But the problem is that clinical psychology largely focuses on issues that arise within a soldier after the fact. Clinical psychologists are great for diagnosing and treating post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illness issues that may affect soldiers. But they only have a minimal working knowledge of the types of circumstances that create these conditions and the mechanisms that underly them in terms of social climate.
It is my belief that we cannot improve conditions for our military personnel until social psychology becomes a valuable core component of our service branches. As many of you know, Phil Zimbardo is one of my heroes. Many people find this odd given the egregious ethical breaches of his most famous research. But he discovered something incredibly important about human nature - there are social circumstances that can easily and quickly cause a normally "good" person to act in "evil" ways. The Stanford Prison Experiment is the backbone and essence of social psychology - person x situation.
The Green case perfectly illustrates the person x situation equation. Not every soldier will commit the atrocities that this young man did. In fact, most soldiers won't. But some of the things he experienced in Iraq created a fissure in his moral core, and arguably PTSD. We cannot examine one of these components without the other. If somehow social psychologists could consistently consult with the military regarding the social conditions under which soldiers like Green operate, we could likely prevent many heinous war crimes. The clinical psychologist who treated Green and was aware of his confessed homocidal urges is quoted as saying "I had no reason to believe that he would act on them." Perhaps if she had consulted with a social psychologist, that person would have said "Given the social history of this soldier in combat and given what we know what about possible effects of this type of social history, it is my strongest recommendation that he be discharged before it escalates."
I have mixed feelings about Green's story. I'm glad that he was sentenced to life rather than given the death penalty. It is difficult to discover where who he was initially begins and when it becomes who we created. Though I would never discount societal factors that influence murderous behavior, the military is a particularly complex case. The entire purpose of their training is murder, just framed in a different way. The military culture is a culture of violence. Without the violence, it's just the boy scouts with better uniforms and fancier patches.
We cannot continue to ask our young men and women to sacrifice so much on our behalf without in turn giving them the best we have to offer. It is my belief that the combined resources of social and clinical psychology is something we should offer to them. Let's not continue the cycle of creating and punishing criminals.