20 May 2011


FALLING MORALE. Pauline Jelinek in the Huffington Post reports that "As fighting and casualties in Afghanistan's war reached an all-time high, U.S. soldiers and Marines there reported plunging morale and the highest rate of mental health problems in five years .... Some 70 to 80 percent of troops surveyed for the report said they had seen a buddy killed, roughly half of soldiers and 56 percent of Marines said they'd killed an enemy fighter, and about two-thirds of troops said that a roadside bomb -- the number one weapon of insurgents -- had gone off within 55 yards of them .... 'There are few stresses on the human psyche as extreme as the exposure to combat and seeing what war can do,' the Army Surgeon General said at a Pentagon news conference."

A spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars said that "War affects everyone .... and most are able to deal with their experiences and move on to stable, productive lives. Key to coping with those experiences is available care, access to care, and knowing that you are not alone."

And that is the looming question. During the Vietnam War, psychological care was all but non-existent. One day you were in a jungle war, and 24 hours later you were released onto the streets of San Francisco .... no decompression, no counseling, no time to talk with your peers. Small wonder that my generation experienced the highest incidence of PTSD in our history, to that point. But we did have one advantage -- once we did return to The World (the U.S.), we were home to stay. Military units serving in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars can be called back for another year-long tour, again and again. The limbo of never knowing must be excruciating.

The difference lies in the manner of obtaining troops. During Vietnam all men over the age of 18 were subject to the military draft. Unless you had a disqualifying medical condition, or a deferment as a student or worker in a trade essential to national defense, you were grist for the mill. The modern, all-volunteer military has erased many of the inequities of the draft, but suffers from failures of its own. If insufficient numbers of qualified citizens choose to volunteer, the military is forced to recycle existing units back into the war zone repeatedly. So each era has its own set of stressors -- some held in common (the wrenching experience of war), and some unique to each era (the theater of operations, available equipment, recidivism).

Allegedly, psychological counseling is more readily available to troops, both in the war zone and at home. But when 50 percent of soldiers believe that getting professional help for their problems makes them appear weak, then the instilling of a warrior mentality which takes place in military basic training is self-defeating. It is no accident that the military prefers recruits who are young and impressionable. Youth, physical vigor, and wanting to feel part of something larger and grander than oneself, all play into the setup. The inevitable reality check comes when you must kill another human being, or see innocent people killed, or watch your buddy die, or endure day after day of extreme violence with little respite, in a harsh and unforgiving environment. The miracle is that troop morale hasn't reached the point of mutiny, especially in Afghanistan, where we've been fighting for ten years with no discernible positive effect.

RISING INTELLIGENCE. One of my favorite science writers, Andrea Kuszewski, has written a compelling and encouraging essay -- You Can Increase Your Intelligence: 5 Ways to Maximize Your Cognitive Potential. Her treatise distinguishes between crystallized intelligence (the volume of facts you've already accumulated) and fluid intelligence (your capacity to learn, retain, and use new information, then use that knowledge as a foundation for solving the next new problem or learn the next new skill). She explains the difference between working memory and intelligence, describes the characteristics of fluid intelligence, and offers five practical elements for increasing fluid intelligence. In summary, they are --

1. Seek Novelty.

2. Challenge Yourself.

3. Think Creatively.

4. Do Things the Hard Way.

5. Network.

I highly recommend the full article for a richer understanding of Kuszewski's premises. She includes lucid explanations of all terms and concepts, in matter-of-fact language that is more easily accessible than most academic papers. Then, see whether her recommendations have application in your own life. Have fun !

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