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Military Psychology

The psychology of military organization, The psychology of military life, The psychology of combat

The psychological study of military organization, military life, and combat.

Military psychology, when defined broadly, can include a vast array of activities in psychological research, assessment, and treatment. Military psychologists may be either soldiers or civilians. The field can encompass every aspect of the human mind that interests the military., but researchers focus on the psychology of military organization, military life, and the psychology of combat.

The psychology of military organization

Military psychologists are intimately involved in testing recruits for intelligence and aptitude for military specializations, and helping to find more effective ways of training them. A critical subset of such testing focuses on identifying and optimally training officers and other leaders—a task that many practitioners admit is as much art as science.

A whole field of study revolves around what military psychologists call group cohesion—the difficult-to-quantify spirit of camaraderie, mutual trust, and confidence soldiers have in their unit. Studies have linked high group cohesion to soldiers performing better both as a team and individually; soldiers in units with good group cohesion are less likely to suffer psychological disability after combat.

Another military psychology subspecialty identifies people who might prove emotionally unstable in military life; in the nuclear era, this type of testing is especially crucial. In addition, military personnel who are privy to classified information are screened for psychological conditions that might make them a security risk.

One of the most controversial areas in military psychology concerns the integration of nontraditional groups into the often-conservative military society. Through World War II and Korea, military psychologists helped confirm that African Americans could be integrated into white units successfully. Today, military psychologists are trying to find ways to ease the introduction of women into front-line units; some psychologists consider acceptance of gay troops as a future goal.

The psychology of military life

Military life places unique stresses on individuals and their families. Aside from the possibility of being wounded or killed in combat, military service often involves long hours of work, extended absences from home, and frequent transfer across the globe.

Some military psychologists research the sources of marital discord among military families; interestingly enough, some studies suggest that military life doesn't destabilize families, but it can bring already unstable families to the breaking point. In some respects, clinical military psychology is not very different from civilian family practice, since military psychologists may treat both soldiers and their civilian spouses and children.

The military has traditionally taken a harsh stance with soldiers who risk their own and their comrades' lives by abusing alcohol; but the macho culture has often worked at cross-purpose to that stance. In Vietnam, abuse of other drugs also became far more prevalent among American soldiers. While harsh punishments can still occur, soldiers are now offered treatment for substance abuse as well.

The psychology of combat

Most soldiers never experience combat; but for those who do, a lifetime of learning about the rules of society and morality must be suppressed in the interests of survival. Military psychologists must help soldiers act effectively in combat—and suffer a minimum of emotional fallout afterward.

One facet of the psychology of combat is integrating humans with increasingly sophisticated weapons systems. Military psychologists are researching what display formats can help soldiers make split-second sense out of complex computer-screen images that carry life-or-death importance. Others focus on the effects of harsh environmental effects such as weather on soldiers' performance. Virtual reality has become an important focus for more effective combat training.

Military psychologists also study the emotional aspects of combat. Early military psychologists suspected that combat stress reaction (CRS)—a progressive psychological breakdown in response to combat—was a matter of psychological "weakness." Today, most agree that any human being will break down if exposed for long enough to enough death, fear, and violence.

Modern treatment for CSR stresses short-term desensitizing therapy and a quick return to combat. While this may seem harsh and self-serving on the part of the military, wartime studies indicate that soldiers with CSR who are treated in this fashion are less likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder than those pulled to rear-echelon units for treatment.

Some soldiers who have experienced battle—as well as some victims of disasters or violent crime—suffer from a lingering version of CSR called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A person with PTSD may chronically re-experience traumatic events, in nightmares or even in waking hallucinations. Other PTSD sufferers "close up," refusing to confront their emotional trauma but expressing it in substance abuse, depression, or chronic unemployment. PTSD has proved possible but difficult to treat successfully—hence the military's focus on preventing PTSD through proper CSR treatment.

One somewhat controversial school of thought holds that the inhibition against killing is so strong that the emotional cost of killing—rather than fear of death or loss of comrades—is the most defining aspect of CSR and PTSD. Adherents believe that increasingly realistic weapons training conditions soldiers to kill reflexively—a desired outcome for the military, but one that can contribute to emotional problems among combat veterans in the absence of psychological support that recognizes this problem.

The ethics of military psychology

As both therapists with a duty to their patients and subordinates with a duty to the military command structure, military psychologists must sometimes carry out a tricky ethical balancing act. Patient confidentiality is a particular problem, since commanders have the right to examine their subordinates' medical files when making decisions in assignments, promotion, and punishment.

Military psychologists have been sanctioned by the American Psychological Association for following legal military orders that violated APA ethical rules; they have also been disciplined by the military for following APA rules that violate military regulations. Both the military and the APA are working to establish clear guidelines to help military psychologists avoid the trap of the "company doctor."

See also Television and aggression

Kenneth B. Chiacchia

Further Reading

Cronin, Christopher (ed.) Military Psychology: An Introduction Simon and Schuster, 1998.

Grossman, Dave On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society Little, Brown & Company, 1996.

Jeffrey, Timothy B., Robert J. Rankin, and Louise K. Jeffrey "In Service of Two Masters: The Ethical-Legal Dilemma Faced by Military Psychologists." Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 23 (2): 91-95 (1992).

Schwartz, T. P., and Robert M. Marsh. "The American Soldier Studies of WWII: A 50th Anniversary Commemorative." Journal of Political and Military Sociology 27 (1): 21-37(1999).

Oei, Tian P. S., Bernard Lim, and Brian Hennessy. "Psychological Dysfunction in Battle: Combat Stress Reactions and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder." Clinical Psychology Review 10: 355-388 (1990).

Page, Gary D. "Clinical Psychology in the Military: Developments and Issues." Clinical Psychology Review 16 (5): 383-396 (1996).

Van Breda, Adrian D. "Developing Resilience to Routine Separations: An Occupational Social Work Intervention." Families in Society 80 (6): 597-605 (1999).

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Ibn Bajjah (Abu-Bakr Muhammad ibn-Yahya ibn-al-Saʼigh, c.1106–38) Biography to Perception: cultural differences