Sunday, March 29, 2009

Mindfulness in the Military

At the research symposium prior to the annual MBSR science conference, Amishi Jha presented some rather impressive data showing the prophylactic benefits of mindfulness training in reducing stress among recruits heading for the Iraq theatre of war. Following the presentation, Jha faced a question from a woman concerning the ethics of using mindfulness to train soldiers. While not germane to the science of the project per se., the question was one that many participants likely were entertaining in their own minds.

In discussing the topic below, I stated that I judged Jha's answers to be "hollow", perhaps not the best choice of words. I'd like to explain what I meant more clearly.

As a clinician and an educator I laud Jha's intention to reduce suffering in people who are likely to suffer, or who have suffered trauma. I do not in the least doubt her sincerity in this. Those of us, who are clinicians, are charged with the ethic of doing no harm and in using our skill to promote healing.

In other words, the ethics of doing the research are sound and the work stands on its own merit. Hypothesizing, that "mind training" (a term Jha uses to justify the work within the military) might help prevent trauma fits within acceptable clinical and research ethics limits. (Although a group of research subjects that would have allowed Jha to test this hypothesis without questions about her ethics would have been emergency first responders.)

The point at which Jha's answer disturbed me, was when she told an anecdote related to her by someone in the military. In the story, an Iraqi combatant had taken a group of children as a human shield. Apparently, a soldier trained in Jha's program fired a round above the perpetrator's head, whereby the children fell to the ground allowing the soldier to make the kill. While the story may demonstrate good soldiering, it fails as a justification of the ethics of doing this research and it does not address the question about whether a trained sniper can in fact be mindful. (An excellent discourse on this issue was presented by John Dunne in his keynote address entitled "Mindfulness and Buddhist Contemplative Theory" at the 2007 MBSR conference.)

Jha's argument in presenting this anecdote was that by training soldiers in this practice, her work was helping to decrease suffering in the larger context, that of the theatre of war. This line of reasoning fails for two reasons; a) it is an empirical question to which she has collected no data (the collection of anecdotes is not science), and b) questions about the dharma in relation to non-violence are beyond the scope of what she presented.

One final comment. Like many, I do feel that the Iraq war is unjustifiable and has perpetrated much suffering within Iraq and American society. Because of this position, I may have been somewhat sensitive to the way Jha chose to defend her decision to work with the military. All this, however, has little to do with the ethics of the doing the research.


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