Army’s $125 Million Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program Described as ‘Largest Ever’ Human Psychology Experiment

The Dark Side of “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness”

Mandatory “resilience training” program for all U.S. soldiers raises concerns.

by Roy Eidelson, Ph.D.
Psychology Today, March 25, 2011

NOTE: My thanks to co-authors Marc Pilisuk and Stephen Soldz.

Why is the world’s largest organization of psychologists so aggressively promoting a new, massive, and untested military program? The APA’s enthusiasm for mandatory “resilience training” for all U.S. soldiers is troubling on many counts.

The January 2011 issue of the American Psychologist, the American Psychological Association’s (APA) flagship journal, is devoted entirely to 13 articles that detail and celebrate the virtues of a new U.S. Army-APA collaboration. Built around positive psychology and with key contributions from former APA president Martin Seligman and his colleagues, Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) is a $125 million resilience training initiative designed to reduce and prevent the adverse psychological consequences of combat for our soldiers and veterans.

Soldiers study Comprehensive Soldier Fitness curriculum University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pa., Nov. 16, 2009. The $125 million Army program's critics say it is the largest human psychological experiment ever conducted and soldiers ordered to participate are not given informed consent. Army says the program promotes "post-traumatic growth." (DoD)

While these are undoubtedly worthy aspirations, the special issue is nevertheless troubling in several important respects: the authors of the articles, all of whom are involved in the CSF program, offer very little discussion of conceptual and ethical considerations; the special issue does not provide a forum for any independent critical or cautionary voices whatsoever; and through this format, the APA itself has adopted a jingoistic cheerleading stance toward a research project about which many crucial questions should be posed. We discuss these and related concerns below.

At the outset, we want to be clear that we are not questioning the valuable role that talented and dedicated psychologists play in the military, nor certainly the importance of providing our soldiers and veterans with the best care possible. As long as our country has a military, our soldiers should be prepared to face the hazards and horrors they may experience.

Military service is highly stressful, and psychological challenges and difficulties understandably arise frequently. These issues are created or exacerbated by a wide range of features characteristic of military life, such as separation from family, frequent relocations, and especially deployment to combat zones with ongoing threats of injury and death and exposure to acts of unspeakable violence. The stress of repeated tours of duty, including witnessing the loss of lives of comrades and civilians, can produce extensive emotional and behavioral consequences that persist long after soldiers return home. They include heightened risk of suicide, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and family violence.

Conceptual and Empirical Concerns

Although its advocates prefer to describe Comprehensive Soldier Fitness as a training program (CSF), it is indisputably a research project of enormous size and scope, one in which a million soldiers are required to participate. Reivich, Seligman, and McBride write in one of the special issue articles, “We hypothesize that these skills will enhance soldiers’ ability to handle adversity, prevent depression and anxiety, prevent PTSD, and enhance overall well-being and performance” (p. 26, emphasis added). This is the very core of the entire CSF program, yet it is merely a hypothesis – a tentative explanation or prediction that can only be confirmed through further research.

There seems to be reluctance and inconsistency among the CSF promoters in acknowledging that CSF is “research” and therefore should entail certain protections routinely granted to those who participate in research studies. Seligman explained to the APA’s Monitor on Psychology, “This is the largest study – 1.1 million soldiers – psychology has ever been involved in” (a “study” is a common synonym for “research project”). But when asked during an NPR interview whether CSF would be “the largest-ever experiment,” Brig. Gen. Cornum, who oversees the program, responded, “Well, we’re not describing it as an experiment. We’re describing it as training.”

Despite the fact that CSF is incontrovertibly a research study, standard and important questions about experimental interventions like CSF are neither asked nor answered in the special issue. This neglect is all the more troubling given that the program is so massive and expensive, and the stakes are so high.

Read the rest of this story:

Watch an Army video on Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program:


One Response

  1. The following pretty much sums up just how off base senior military officers who head or manage the tragic psychological and spiritual issues that are playing out in troops lives: “…when asked during an NPR interview whether CSF would be “the largest-ever experiment,” BG Cornum, who oversees the program, responded, “Well, we’re not describing it as an experiment. We’re describing it as training.”

    Throwing valuable resources at supposed “quick one size fits all” solutions in knee jerk fashion is nothing less than confirmation that today’s leaders as well as those who have failed miserably and gone off to retire-but are now marketing themselves as experts simply have ignored the reality that there are human consequences to going to war. There are too many human variables to pin-point one reason, much less one solution to include the one that reminds us of a late night “as seen on TV” commercial i.e., suicide prevention nose spray.

    At the end of the day when leaders assert the ridiculous notion that
    “suicide is 100% preventable” we do a disservice to the very troops and their families who serve-or have served. Who holds these leaders accountable-the ghosts of those they continue to fail.

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