The Best Defense

Military resilience, suicide, and post-traumatic stress: What's behind it all?

By Dr. Frank J. Tortorello, Jr. and Dr. William M. Marcellino

Best Defense guest respondents

What's causing rises and falls in suicide, PTSD, and other socially negative outcomes for U.S. service members? We recently completed a research project in the Marine Corps sponsored by the Training and Education Command and the Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning aimed at understanding how Marines understand stress and resilience. The results we reported suggest that the issue is not so much medical as social, cultural, and personal. Typical explanations of stress from a medical perspective suggest broken biology (defective genes or an IED blast) or compromised psychology (a psychological disposition or traumatic event). But this study found instead crises of meaning: "How can I be a good Marine and be a good parent?" or "How can I be a good Marine if I have let another Marine die?" This is a single study, and we didn't talk to every Marine. But we think this central insight has broad explanatory power for some problems Marines and other servicemembers face.

When we asked, Marines in the study told us in great detail what stress and distress are for them, and how they deal (or don't) with it. At one end of the scale are Marines equipped to do resilience work -- actively getting themselves back to a good state after distress. They can, for example, forgive themselves for battlefield errors. At the other end are ones who do not know how to (or choose not to) forgive themselves for real or imagined failures, standing in judgment of themselves. And in the middle are those Marines who are making it, but nagged by doubts about their worth or standing.

As these Marines told it, stress is variable and contextual, and what is debilitating for one Marine isn't noteworthy for another. According to them, there's nothing inherently traumatizing about seeing or inflicting death; instead, these -- like all human action -- present an interpretive choice: "I did what I had to do," vs. "I'm a murderer." Which meaning is made depends on the Marine and their context.

All of this hinges on a fundamental question about the role of our biology: Is it an important resource for making meaning, or is it a mechanism that causes us to make certain meanings? The answer dictates what legitimately constitutes data, and methods of data collection and analysis in research. Typically we see researchers who work from a medical perspective, even when claiming not to reduce humans to their biology, writing as if biology causes certain social meanings. Only with this assumption does it make sense to ignore whole persons in favor of parts of their biology or psychology.

On what scientific basis, we ask, are quantifiable bio-phenomena substituted for what a Marine says in explaining his or her stress? How are urinary free-cortisol levels more relevant for explaining and understanding PTSD than a Marine's explanation that he's accountable for another's death, and so doesn't deserve to live? That those with PTSD might have altered catecholamine and cortisol levels is not in question, but rather why researchers accord this primary focus or decisive weight in explaining what otherwise appear to be issues of personal meaning.

Just as important are this question's implications for interventions. If military members are only biomechanical creatures, then currently funded research in areas like anti-depressant nasal sprays or omega-3 fatty acid levels, and proposed funding for research in stellate ganglion blocks, are all good investments of public tax dollars. If instead military members are whole persons living in socio-cultural contexts that actively try to make sense of their lives, then we are better off researching how to train, equip, and prepare them for likely challenges to their values and worth, as they understand them. Our research tells us that there is a lot of preparation already going on: Parents, coaches, good mentors and peers all help Marines come up with strategies to avoid becoming dis-stressed, and ways to re-balance if they do. Resilient Marines can articulate where they learned such strategies, and how they employ them. But all this is ad hoc and private. The services do a good job consistently and publically preparing military members for combat and operational stress, but members are more than simply their duties. The services could do just as much to prepare and support them in the wider scope of living.

Dr. Frank J. Tortorello, Jr. is a contracted socio-cultural anthropologist who develops and researches foundational issues that impact the Marine Corps's global deployment and war fighting capabilities. Dr. Tortorello focuses on Marine Corps culture and how the Corps replicates its values through training and everyday work. His research examines how Marine Corps culture both enhances and detracts from its ability to deploy globally across the spectrum of missions from conventional warfare to humanitarian relief. He has a special interest in resilience training, defined as managing value conflicts and ethics in warfare, and in the assessment of the impact of cultural training on Marine Corps operations.

Dr. William M. Marcellino is a contracted researcher in sociolinguistics and discourse analysis, who provides research support for the USMC's Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning. His research focus is in resilience and cohesion issues, and he is a former U.S. Marine Corps officer and enlisted. The views presented in this work are the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, or ProSol, LLC.


The Best Defense

To fix critical thinking within PME, start at the ground floor with the basic stuff

By Nicholas Murray

Best Defense department of restoring standards to PME

The Army has a critical thinking problem. To fix it, most focus on the need to change the culture of the organization and the curricula of the staff schools and higher. Fixing this will help, but only from the mid-career point onward. If we really want to change the way the officer corps thinks, we need to start from the ground up. That is, if we are truly going to fix Professional Military Education, we must begin with a potential officer's undergraduate education.

Having recently written an article for the Small Wars Journal examining Professional Military Education through the lens of history, I was struck by the number of other articles dealing with the general subject area. Almost all of them, however, including mine, were focused on the staff officer schools or higher. This got me thinking.

Perhaps the problem starts much earlier in our system of commissioning. Here at the CGSC I see a number of perfectly capable and bright officers who lack fairly basic knowledge of their own history. Additionally, I've noticed that many of them have never heard of the Treaty of Westphalia, and some have only the vaguest awareness of international politics. Lacking such a foundation means that they often flounder in classes where such issues are discussed, and I have read many complaints about how this affects their ability to understand the broader context of their role around the world. Additionally, the lack of educational breadth means it is more difficult for them to grasp how things fit together. Both Max Boot's and Harun Dogo's recent guest posts address some of these issues and look at some of the consequent problems; they also gave me food for thought.

What, then, can we do to address some of these issues before officers reach the middle stage of their career? An email from a cadet at the USMA pushed me further in contemplating an answer (in it he reminded me of a guest post he wrote for Best Defense outlining some thoughts on his experience). I thus came to the question: Why not do something more radical than simply tweak what we do at the staff schools and above? Why not start from the ground up? If all officers in the U.S. Army had to take courses in U.S. history as a requirement of their being commissioned -- along with one or two classes in Western civilization (or indeed world civilization), geography, and international relations -- we might go some way to providing the background of knowledge that many will need for much of their career. Being an immigrant myself, I think it is a good idea, especially when considering the number of serving soldiers who were born overseas. These classes would also facilitate the broadening of knowledge that is so essential to effective critical thinking. Of course, to become an officer a candidate needs to have completed a four-year college degree. That surely solves the problem, right? Well, maybe not, but it does suggest a solution.

With that in mind I looked at the ROTC and OCS websites for guidance as to which of the above classes are required as a part of the program. Disappointingly, these courses were nowhere mentioned, at least, not that I could find. Furthermore, simply requiring a four-year degree does not guarantee that an incoming officer has taken even one of these classes let alone all of them -- it really depends upon which school they attended and what that particular school's academic requirements for a degree were. This is important because a solid base in these subjects would provide much needed context for classes discussing strategy -- which they will need later in their careers. It would also provide a greater number of people who know something about the next piece of ground over which we have to fight. That would be no bad thing. In its defense, the Army does require that potential officers take a course in American military history, but that is largely driven by the learning of facts (no bad thing) without the broader analysis and context of what those facts mean (not a good thing). Thus, it does not really address the central issue.

We need to change the way we educate officers before they start their careers. This is a solution to the Army's critical thinking problem. Additionally, fixing it this way would at least mean that when officers show up for their education at the staff schools and above they already have the grounding necessary for them to focus on the essential. That is, preparing themselves intellectually for the next ten years. That is, after all, our mission.

Dr. Nicholas Murray is an associate professor in the Department of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and Staff College. His book The Rocky Road to the Great War (Potomac Books) is due out this year, along with an edited book titled Pacification: The Lesser Known French Campaigns (CSI). He recently published "Officer Education: What Lessons Does the French Defeat in 1871 Have for the US Army Today?" in the Small Wars Journal. His views are his own. They are not yours.