Does the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program Violate the Nuremberg Code?

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There is new criticism of the Army’s high-profile effort to train mental toughness into soldiers so they can better handle the stress of repeated combat tours. This time, the critique comes from a group of psychologists who say the program appears to be scientific research without consent.

The Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program is a $125 million effort to teach mental resiliency to troops. The program is a pet project of Army Chief of Staff George Casey, who retired this week, and is run largely by famed psychologist Martin Seligman through the University of Pennsylvania.

“This is a mandatory program for a million soldiers with no pilot testing,” says psychologist Roy Eidelson. “We don’t know if it is no use, harmful, or potentially helpful.”

Rather than simply screening soldiers for potential problems after combat, the Army says it is trying to provide troops with mental tools to help them handle the rigors of battlefield stress when they deploy and the impact it can have on a soldier and his family when troops return home. The program combines individual assessments, virtual training and classroom instruction.

Critics say the program’s aims are valiant, but its efficacy is far from clear. Eidelson and two colleagues, Marc Pilisuk and Stephen Soldz, wrote a critical essay about Seligman’s program in Counterpunch late last month.

The psychologists note that there is little scientific evidence to show that this kind of training works. “It is highly unusual for the effectiveness of such a huge and consequential intervention program not be convincingly demonstrated first in carefully conducted randomized trials,” they wrote. They argue that other well-meaning intervention programs to prevent delinquency, for example, have only been “modestly and inconsistently effective.”

Rather than a program based on experiments that prove it works for soldiers, the psychologists argue that the training itself may be the experiment. Seligman has referred to the program as “the largest study – 1.1 million soldiers – psychology has ever been involved in.” If that is the case, the Nuremberg Code, developed in response to Nazi doctors’ experiments during World War II, requires that soldiers give their consent to any kind of research for which they are subjects. “The soldiers apparently have no informed consent protections – they are required to participate,” the psychologists wrote.

The Army is dismissing this latest controversy as an academic tiff. “The Army is aware of this ongoing discussion and views it as an academic discussion and debate between the psychologist and behavioral health communities,” Army spokesman Gary Tallman says. “The Army’s CSF program continues to move forward to help soldiers and families.”

It is not the first scrutiny the program has attracted. Writing in Salon late last year, I explained how Seligman received a $31 million no-competition contract to begin the work, despite similar programs and research going on at other institutions around the country. Seligman is known for his close ties to the military and intelligence communities, and my article explored how his early work appears to have informed psychological interrogation tactics during the Bush era.

The Army has promoted the program hard, unveiling a website complete with flashy videos. Seligman scored a nice rollout article in the New York Times and the January 2011 issue of American Psychologist, the magazine of the American Psychological Association, published some glowing reviews of Seligman’s work. Seligman is a former president of the APA.