Friday, May 08, 2009


The debate over whether psychologists should help the military in pursuing aggressive actions has rekindled, following the newly published emails between several psychologists serving in the military who were assigned to the ‘interrogation’ programs. The article is here. The documents have been posted on the independent website ProPublica.

Once again, I’ll say this.

A ‘professional’ (classically defined as the ‘helping’ professions: doctors, lawyers, psychologists, and clergy) serving in the military is in a potentially treacherous position. As a professional the individual is committed to provide the services that the profession provides, specifically in this case to military personnel. But in order to gain ‘access’ to the highly-closed military ‘world’ and to operate efficiently in it, that professional is also a duly-sworn and commissioned officer in a branch of the Armed Services.

The possibilities for doing good are clear: military members, even in remote locations or locations otherwise inaccessible to civilian professionals can still receive assistance. Further, the professional is to some extent familiar with the problems specific to the military milieu and has the ‘credibility’ (the theory goes) of being in the military and thus ‘one of us’.

But the possibilities for serious complications are also there. As a sworn officer in an organization which is by its very definition and essence hierarchical and command-driven, the professional has to follow orders given by superior authority. The military, after all, is built around command-and-control of all its members by authority ‘higher up the chain’.

You can see where things might well lead, even in the best of times. A professional could be given an order which as a military officer s/he must obey, even if as a professional s/he might feel that the order was not in the best interests of the helping service that is theoretically being provided.

And We are now past the best of times. From now on, wars will be resource wars for an acceptable slice (however 'acceptable' is determined) of an expanding world's shrinking resources - oil, grain, even fresh water. Our military will be under a unique type of pressure and involved in non-traditional forms of warfare, where the boundaries of 'is' and 'isn't' war will blur greatly. And that will create even more sinister complications for professionals as well as far more wrenching 'problems' among military personnel.

Nor is the ‘order’ the only way that command-and-control is exercised. Indeed, the order is pretty much the least frequent form of comamnd-and-control. Dependent on the military for pay, for the essential promotion to higher rank, and for all the benefits upon which a professional might rely for job and financial security and to provide for the professional’s own family, it becomes very difficult to risk all that – plus perhaps even courtmartial - for disobeying an order. And even more cogently, military personnel pride themselves on being ‘team players’; so much so that it is a highly-valued military trait that one is ‘ahead of the wave’ , figuring out beforehand what ‘the command’ will want and doing it without even being told.

And – humans being social animals – even professionals want to be ‘accepted’ in the world in which they work; you don’t want to lose caste or status (or promotability or even – the horror! – retainability) by getting a reputation as somebody who ‘isn’t with the program’, who isn’t a ‘team-player’, or who is even – more horror! – a troublemaker. To get such a ‘reputation’ in a Service which, though it spans the entire globe, has a rumor-tree that operates almost instantaneously … is the mark of military death.

Nor, these days, is the job market really great out there in ‘civilian life’.

So professionals operating in the military service have built their house over two sides of an abyss. It’s sort of like having built a house over the San Andreas fault: great scenery, great location, but every once in a while, very baaaad things are going to happen. And you will have to decide.

As you can imagine, the decision is not often to risk all and stand up against military authority as a matter of principle.* Rather, you will try to go along to get along. Which, in many ways, is the rule of thumb that lubricated the continued and efficient operations of militaries such as the Wehrmacht and the Red Army that were in the service of some very baaaad things.

I wrote not long ago about a dust-up that had developed over military chaplains. (Also, in November of '06, here.) Defending the idea of uniformed chaplains (thus also commissioned officers), a Catholic military sub-bishop named Joseph Estabrook had written a deceptively ‘nice’ and ‘upbeat’ piece in a national journal.

For access to do the ministry, uniformed chaplains were the best solution, he said. And chaplains give good advice, he said, recounting a tale about one ‘Father Bill’ who apparently convinced a Marine general in Iraq to change an entire operational plan and hand out goodies instead of going in with guns drawn. Clearly, if the story is true, it didn’t happen nearly often enough. Nor did the bishop mention whether there were any uniformed chaplains assigned to do ministry at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, where such advice was either never given or not heeded. Nor did any chaplain then feel duty-bound or conscience-bound to speak out.

And given the Fundamentalist Ascendancy in the various chaplain corps in the past two decades, with that Fundy melding of God and Government, and the cocky assurance that America is specially commissioned and authorized to administer God’s world-whacking Will … well, you can see from the ingredients just what type of hash or stew is going to come out of the bubbling pot or ‘hot’ war.

Now in this present case, psychologists in the American Psychological Association – the nation’s premier professional body for psychologists – are upset that some of their number were actively engaged in ‘advising’ about torture methods. And they are right to be professionally concerned.

Worse, though, is that the then-president of that Association, one Gerald Koocher, currently a dean of the School of Health Sciences at Simmons College, had commissioned a task-force to ‘report’ on the matter, and then quietly assigned several serving military psychologists to sit on the panel. By a remarkable coincidence, the panel ‘reported’ that everything was fine and that there was nothing to see here.

Koocher defends himself by saying that it was “important to hear from military psychologists who faced the ethical dilemmas”. Nice, and even true. But they could have been called as witnesses rather than been given voting power over the final ‘report’.

He then goes on to declare plaintively that “working for the military is a legitimate occupation for people”. And so it pretty much is. For ‘people’. But We are talking about professionals here, and professionals are not just ‘people’. Either Koocher is not really an acute thinker or else he is not being completely upfront. Neither possibility impresses.

Koocher’s situation also reveals the potential exposure that all of the national professional Associations face: if you take a stand for your profession’s principles, then you are going to close off a lot of really nice-paying jobs and perks for your membership, including perks and bennies which extend beyond the term of military service.

This is especially the case of the lawyers, whose retired ‘JAGs’ have gone on to be law school Deans, heads of legal think-tanks, court personnel (including civilian judges at various levels and even one who was Clerk of the US Supreme Court). One went on to the US Senate, where he sits even now, keeping an eye on JAG interests and standing tall for the reprehensible Military Commissions Act of 2006, granting immunity from prosecution preemptively to everybody who was only ‘following orders’ in the matter of torture. Nice efficiency. Ja! The Vice-President’s son himself, in addition to his day-job as Attorney General of the Great State of Delaware, is also a Reserve JAG. This is one verrrry entrenched union, one verrrry well-oiled and well-connected ‘machine’. (And still very much a 'player'; see here.) The American Bar Association has so far managed to squelch any serious public consideration of the whole thing.

At this point, the cat being , as aforementioned, out of the bag, a number of senior military psychologists have come forward to the prayer-rail and declared themselves agin’ torture. But of course.

“First do no harm” is the Prime Directive of the medical and psychological professions and in one way or another it’s in the Oath they take upon entering their profession. That’s going to be a bit of a job, given that they have committed themselves, by a second Oath, to doing the bidding of an organization (and for some years now a nation) that believes that anything done in the ‘good’ cause of God’s Will – as interpreted by the Command Authority and blessed with the grape juice of Fundamentalist ritual – is pretty much OK, and further that any doubt about that is a form of sin-treason second to none.

Bush and Cheney had no such problem with the Oaths that they took. They simply declared themselves to be the sole deciders of what was OK in their pursuit of preserving, protecting, and defending the Constitution (as the Oath ‘quaintly’ puts it). After much prayer and deliberation, they decided that they would rather wage war. As far as ‘seeing that the laws be faithfully executed’, Mr. Bush simultaneously absolved himself of the responsibility and authorized the wholesale breaking of ‘the laws’. And to think that they used to make fun of the Pope, not so long ago, imagining that he frequently absolved himself beforehand of any sins he might commit, went to an orgy, and then came back and went to confession to himself. **

Maybe We might consider the Bush presidency as the ‘Renaissance papacy’ of American history.

*Yes, I know that in 2006 the military chief lawyers ‘stood tall’ against ‘torture’. This was after years of torture, when the cat was already out of the bag, and there were ugly possibilities of prosecution – potentially even for war-crimes (more horror!) - that had to be preemptively squelched. Hence the well-rehearsed kabuki of the most senior military attorneys ‘standing tall’. And even of the system allowing a couple of hardy souls to try to provide a substantive defense of the accused. Such genuinely committed professionals are expendable; once the heat is off they will find themselves in the same position as those Red Army officers who were detailed to do liaison work with the Allied armies: once the war was over, Stalin treated all such personnel as potentially traitorous for having spent so much time ‘among the West’ – and to Siberia, or a wall, they went. Which in military terms nowadays here would mean no promotion and the resulting release from the Service; after the rumor-mill had already made you an ‘untouchable’ in many of the daily rituals of military life.

**You can’t, by the way, ‘go to confession to yourself’, even if you’re the Pope. Catholic theology always had some senses of checks-and-balances in the face of the stubborn reality of human sinfulness. An insight that America has lost recently, to be replaced with a Fundamentalist assurance that if you’ve decided that you’re doing God’s will, then nothing you can do is going to be a sin anyway. It’s a treacherous take on Augustine’s ancient and complex advice: Ama Deum et fac quod vis – Love God and do what you will. The hardest part of the advice is unpacking that ‘Ama Deum’: where far too often the average, over-eager believer will simply say Yeah, I really do love God – and then go and do whatever s/he wants. Religion is not for kids; it’s even hard for adults, because even though their frontal lobes are fully formed they may not have been well-developed; and then there’s always the ‘stubbornness of sin thing’.

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