Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Mindfulness and Military Training - Reprise

The context

The Iraq war was a unilateral act of aggression by the US and Britain, the so-called "coalition of the willing". The war was apparently a battle in the war on terrorism, this is the lie that had been perpetrated by the Bush administration from the beginning. In fact, Iraq posed no threat to the US and its allies. There were no weapons of mass destruction, this much we know from the UN investigators.

The real reasons for the US attack on Iraq, that began with the first Gulf war, and continued with the embargo that deprived innocent Iraqi children of food and medicine, likely had more to do with US economic and strategic interests in the area than anything else. The US military and its operatives, then, have been belligerents responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. (A 2003 medical survey published in Lancet put the death toll at the hands of coalition forces in Iraq at a conservative estimate of 100,000 non-combatants).

The Ethics

Given this context then, what are the ethics of using mindfulness to train young soldiers in preparation for duty in Iraq? The stated purpose of said training is to help prevent PTSD symptoms in these young men and women, which they are likely to suffer following their tour of duty. On the face of it this seems humane, in a sense treating the trauma before it occurs and saving these young people future suffering.

In the larger context, however, I see a problem. The problem is one of intention. What has been the intention of the military leadership in the Iraq theatre of war? As one of the belligerents the US military's intention has been to kill as many of the "enemy" as possible. And at this they have been very effective, at times killing non-combatants in the bargain. As Thich Nhat Hanh states so clearly this is the intention of any fighting force, and it is the focus of the military training in Iraq. The use of mindfulness in this way, means that it is being co-opted to increase the killing efficiency of soldiers in the battle field. If this was not the case, why would the US military agree to pay researchers, Amishi Jha and her colleagues, $740K (see: Jha's CV to confirm this amount) to conduct studies of mindfulness training?

An argument has been made that since the election of Obama, the role of the US military in Iraq is one of peacekeeping. There can be little doubt that there has been a re-evaluation of the US's involvement in Iraq since Obama took office. However, given the fact that the US and Britain have been belligerents in this war, to suggest that the US can now be peacekeepers is a total misunderstanding of the term peacekeeping. It's like having a bully physically abuse you, take your lunch money and smash your property to bits and tell you that they have now changed their ways and they are going keep others on the school yard from getting into fights. Only it's worse than that, because they have killed members of your family, taken your country's source of revenue and destroyed the infrastructure that you depend on for your livelihood. The victims of coalition aggression might have trouble believing that you now mean no harm.

True peackeeping is a function of the UN. It works when a neutral force is charged with the responsibility of keeping the belligerents apart long enough for a plan for peace to be constructed - it is what should have happened in Rawanda but failed due to a lack of interest by the superpowers (see Romeo Delaire's book "Shake Hands with the Devil"). If the US is serious about its intention of peacekeeping, ways to involve the world community need to be sought, revenue from oil needs to be given back to the Iraqi people and the US and Britain need to find the ways and means to pay for and re-build the infrastructure that doesn't impose massive debt on Iraq. This is a tall order, I agree, but it is the legacy of the last US administration's policy of world domination. (For an excellent discussion of the legacy of the Bush policies on world and America see http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22472)

The conclusion

Mindfulness training, as it is derived from the dharma, has no place in military training in Iraq because in the larger context the intention is still one of aggression on foreign soil. The ignorance of this context is what struck me as "hollow" in Amishi Jha's answer to the queston posed to her.


Michael said...

Here are some flaws in you thinking:

1) You keep referring to "The Military". The U.S. Military is a vast as the U.S. government, the mental health professionals in the V.A. system have no interest/knowledge of how to make a better killer.

2) The military already does a fine job of turning 18 year old boys into the world best killers/snipers/marksmen. Did you ever think that some of the more enlightened leaders in the military would like to find a way to train their soldiers judgment as well as their aim.

3) Even the Dalai Lama is surrounded by armed guards trained in both mindfulness and military techniques.

4) Would you rather we give our soldiers less training in "grounding" themselves and excercising judgment.

Barry said...


It is a complex issue. There is a difference between post-service
trauma and using mindfulness as a preventive measure. I have no
problem with lessening the suffering of returning vets. My point was only that if you are training killers, you are not exercising discernment. (The research data on the effectiveness of mindfulness training with trauma is rather mixed, some studies show an effect,other studies show a heightening of symptoms - so the jury is out on
how effective it is.)

The military in Iraq at the moment is doing a real PR job, trying to
sanitize its image. And Dr. Jha and her colleagues have been easily
taken in. The military in Iraq say that they are trying to have
soldiers on the ground who are more "sensitive" to the needs of the Iraqi people, and this may be happening to some extent. The Iraqi people themselves, however, are saying that they resent what the coalition forces have done to the their families, their lands, their oil revenue and their infrastructure. Indeed they are embittered that the Americans are still an occupying force in their land. The Americans, therefore, are a source of suffering - and to inflict suffering does not fit with the Dharma.

We have had a rather good discussion of the issues online at the mind-life institute list-serve which can be accessed at:
https://lists.wisc.edu/read/all_forums/?forum=&sb=1. Just scroll down until you find meditationlist, click on subscribe and enter your e-mail and password.

All the best,