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Teaching “Positive Thinking” to the Troops; How Psychologists Profit on Unending U.S. Wars

While U.S. military psychiatrists are prescribing increasing amounts of chill pills, America’s psychologists are teaching soldiers how to think more positively about their tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and wherever else they are next ordered to kill the bad guys and win the hearts and minds of everyone else.

The U.S. Army is planning to require that all 1.1 million of its soldiers take intensive training in positive psychology and emotional resiliency. Army Research Psychologist Capt. Paul Lester, who leads the assessment of the program, told the National Psychologist (“Army to Train its Own in Positive Psychology,” July/August 2010), “As far as I can tell this is the largest, deliberate, psychological intervention in human history. . . . We don’t know when the global war on terrorism is going to end so we’re preparing to have to be engaged for a long period of time.”

Lester said the program would develop “communication skills, cognitive reforming skills and help soldiers not to catastrophize — don’t think of the worse case scenario about every potential problem.” The program also teaches soldiers to focus on “expressing appreciation” and “correcting negative views of ambiguous events.”

In August 2009, the New York Times reported that Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army’s chief of staff, said the total cost of this program would be $117 million. The New York Times was alerted to the program by psychologist Martin Seligman, director of the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center, who has been consulting with the Pentagon. Seligman’s particular program at Penn is costing the U.S. Army $25 to $30 million, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, which in its profile of Seligman (May 30, 2010) noted that he “confidently walked the line between grand and grandiose”; and it quoted him asserting, “We’re after creating an indomitable Army.”

Seligman initially thought that training the entire Army would be nearly an impossible chore because of the enormous number of teachers required. However, Gen. Casey informed him that the Army had 40,000 teachers. “You do?” Seligman said. “Yes,” Casey retorted, they’re called drill sergeants.” Now 150 sergeants come to Penn each month to take a course in positive psychology.

At one training session given at a hotel near Penn, according to the New York Times, 48 sergeants in full fatigues sat at desks, took notes, and role played. In one exercise, Sgt. First Class James Cole of Fort Riley, Kansas and his classmate transformed Sgt. Cole’s negative thinking about an order late in the day to have Sgt. Cole’s exhausted men do one last difficult assignment.

“Why is he tasking us again for this job?” the classmate asked, pretending to be Sgt. Cole. “It’s not fair.”

Sergeant Cole gave the “correct” positive-thinking response, “Maybe he’s hitting us because he knows we’re more reliable.”

While positive psychology makes some sense for teenagers who are catastrophizing their first relationship breakup to the point of becoming suicidal, how much sense does it make to teach soldiers who are trying to stay alive in a war zone to put a positive spin on everything? Moreover, wouldn’t soldiers like their officers to consider worst-case scenarios before ordering them into combat? And wouldn’t soldiers like politicians to take seriously worst-case scenarios before embarking on a war? The healthy option to negative thinking is not positive thinking but critical thinking. Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Bright-sided and astute critic of the dark side of positive thinking and positive psychology, points out:

It’s easy to see positive thinking as a uniquely American form of naïveté, but it is neither uniquely American nor endearingly naïve. In vastly different settings, positive thinking has been a tool of political repression worldwide. . . . In the Soviet Union, as in the Eastern European states and North Korea, the censors required upbeat art, books, and films, meaning upbeat heroes, plots about fulfilling production quotas, and endings promising a glorious revolutionary future. . . .The penalties for negative thinking were real. Not to be positive and optimistic was to be ‘defeatist’. . . . Accusing someone of spreading defeatism condemned him to several years in Stalinist camps.

While the U.S. military has only recently become excited about positive psychology techniques, it has, for the last decade, increasingly used psychiatric drugs to keep soldiers going. One in six service members is now taking at least one psychiatric drug, according to the Navy Times (“Medicating the Military,” March 17, 2010), with many soldiers taking “drug cocktail” combinations. Soldiers and military healthcare providers reportthat psychiatric drugs are “being prescribed, consumed, shared and traded in combat zones.” While soldiers’ increasing use of antidepressants is troubling enough (as the Food and Drug Administration now requires warnings on antidepressants about their increasing the risk of “suicidality” in children, teenagers, and young adults), what’s as or even more worrisome is the increase of other psychiatric drugs. In the last decade, antipsychotic drug use in the U.S. military has increased more than 200 percent, and anti-anxiety drugs and sleeping pills have increased 170 percent. These kinds of drugs impair motor skills, reduce reaction times, and generally make one more sluggish — or what soldiers call “stupid,” as the Navy Times notes.

While pushing drugs and teaching positive thinking earns mental health professionals money and brownie points with the elite, there is another path for mental health professionals working with U.S. soldiers. First, offer soldiers respect for their critical thinking, even if such critical thinking brings them to conclusions unwanted by their superiors. Second, if soldiers are anxious or angry because they believe that an ego-tripping commanding officer is going to get them killed, do NOT tell them to stop “catastrophizing”; instead take what they say seriously. And if soldiers are depressed because they have seen too much death, instead of directing them to “express appreciation,” try offering genuine compassion. But don’t stop with only compassion. Speak truth to power. Tell politicians who are maintaining America’s wars and planning still others: Don’t kid yourself into thinking positive psychology and chill pills are the answers, especially if soldiers and veterans discover that you deceived them about the necessity and the meaningfulness of their mission. Psychologists should loudly warn politicians, military brass, and the nation that if soldiers and veterans discover that they have been deceived about the meaningfulness and necessity of their mission, it is only human for them to become more prone to emotional turmoil, which can lead to destructive behaviors for themselves and others.

Bruce E. Levine is a clinical psychologist and his latest book is Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007). His Web site is

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