Friday, May 22, 2009

Combat Psychology

The timing of this post happens to coincide with a weekend during which I am spending a lot of time on a major military base. This, to some extent, has made this issue very personal for me. 

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.


Becca said...

First, I'm very much inclined to agree that the military would benefit from more consultation with social psychologists. I'm not sure this particular case involved a clinical psychologist operating with blinders on due to their clinical training, or simply a not-very-adept psychologist.

I believe there are cycles in human societies over very long time scales. Yet I still believe humanity is "progressing" toward a more "civilized" state, on the whole.
In that context, I firmly believe that someday we will get to the point where the social psychologists will tell us that there is no possible way to engage in a war and remain fully sane.
The difference between "war crimes" and "normal combat" is huge from a legal perspective. But I'm not sure it's huge from an internal-moral-values perspective. And even if it is, I'm not sure it 'should' be (that is, even if we view some lives as more valuable than others I'm not sure we should).

JLK said...

Very well said, Becca.

"that is, even if we view some lives as more valuable than others I'm not sure we should"

This is one of the major issues that social psych takes into account and clinical psych does not - dehumanization and depersonalization. Particularly in the case of Iraq and Vietnam, where there is no clearly defined enemy or purpose, a "perfect storm" is created where things like village massacres and Abu Ghraib occur in the blink of an eye.

War is never a good thing, but when something like World War II goes down, our soldiers know exactly who the enemy is. We were going after German and Japanese soldiers who were doing terrible things to innocent people. They were in uniforms. Their purpose was clearly defined. But as the soldiers in Iraq will tell you, they're being shot at by 10 year-olds with guns. Anyone they come across is potentially dangerous. No one can live like that.

Whitecoat Tales said...

Wow. Great minds think alike - I was just watching Zimbardo's TEDtalk on the Lucifer effect.

I don't know a ton about social psychology, just a few classes here or their in undergrad. Of course I see the applications related to medical students/doctors.

I'm interested in what you think of Zimbardo's ideas about the psychology of heroism. Any thoughts?

Whitecoat Tales said...

That came off pretty arrogant, it was more kind of a tongue in cheek "great minds" at least when referring to myself.

JLK said...

@Whitecoat - It's been awhile since I've looked at Zimbardo's work on the psychology of heroism because it's not one of his topics that interests me the most, so I'll have to review it and get back to you on that.

And as far as "That came off pretty arrogant, it was more kind of a tongue in cheek "great minds" at least when referring to myself."

You're a doctor, after all. We expect that from you. :P j/k

leigh said...

i find this curious- i would think there is already a lot of social psych input into developing the training programs. throw a bunch of recruits into boot camp, have them recite oaths of violence and solidarity while achieving intense physical conditioning, etc- you've got your first crop of privates.

i've got a dear friend who made it up through the ranks, is up for his promotion to ssg. we've talked quite a bit about the social conditioning that occurs to make soldiers, soldiers.

it seems to me they need a "deconditioning" process, if you will, for when these young men and women return home from all the training and especially the war zones that they're trained for. my friends who recently returned home from afghanistan have told me the military has stepped up on programs for ptsd (which at this point is extremely prevalent in veterans) but the social implications of relying upon another for help (especially for something perceived as a weakness) is still in direct contrast to the conditioning they received to become soldiers.

JLK said...

@ Leigh - In terms of basic training and all that, social psychology came after the fact to explain why it works. To my knowledge it has nothing to do with how they train soldiers now with the exception of teaching them how to conduct interrogations and the like. The field of social psych is too new to have had any real influence on military training.

There are currently deconditioning programs for soldiers with PTSD, but their effectiveness is debatable. I think the clinical psychologists, though, have PTSD under control. The problems I am concerned about are not the problems these men and women face when they come home, but the ones they face while in combat.

But I vehemently disagree that soldiers are taught not to rely on others. They are taught exactly the opposite. The problem is that they have difficulty translating this to civilian relationships. But more than that, we have not had adequate resources available to them when they return from a tour of duty.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...