Yesterday I talked about the military funding yoga as a PTSD “treatment”. Today, it’s military funding for studies on transcendental meditation. I don’t have anything against yoga or TM; in fact, I practice TM because it makes me feel more relaxed, and yoga is great for stretching. But that doesn’t mean it’s a “treatment” for people with posttraumatic stress. According to Iraq war veteran David George, “Veterans spend a few hours learning how to meditate with certified TM instructors and can work on the skill independently after that. Veterans never have to take a pill or go through Veterans Affairs for health care.” I guess not having to go through the VA and endure its notably lousy treatment of soldiers and vets with PTSD is a plus, whether TM works or not, but reporter Megan Cloherty of WTOP is not real strong on the science. The treatment is being pushed by Sarina Grosswald of the David Lynch Foundation. The Lynch Foundation runs Operation Warrior Wellness, and claims on their website that “More than 340 peer-reviewed studies, including research funded by $26 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health, document the effectiveness of the TM technique for relieving stress and stress-related disorders.” 340 peer-reviewed studies? Really? A pubmed search gives me only 44 studies that include the very broad keywords of “meditation + post + traumatic” in any field. I’m not sure where the other 296 studies are hiding, and the site doesn’t say. My guess is that they don’t exist. The only study on TM and PTS that was actually listed in the promo material for the Operation Warrior Wellness program includes Ms. Grosswald as an author, was uncontrolled (meaning that it was impossible to measure the effects of TM against a group of people who did not engage in the practice) and included only five veterans. (The authors claimed that the vets showed “significant improvement”, but I’m not sure how they measured that, since significance testing on a group of 5, with no control, is pretty much impossible. That this passed peer review in Military Medicine simply underlines the journal’s low standards, and you don’t get much lower than an impact factor of 1). But, hey, that was enough for the DOD to dump $2.4 million dollars into studying TM among vets at the San Diego VA Hospital. Maybe it’s the inanity of the reporter, but I’m not impressed by Greenwald’s assurance that TM works because “in brain scans taken during TM, the prefrontal cortex of patients’ brains lit up.” Sheesh.
And though the DOD and the VA can throw hundreds of millions at “foundations” that push pseudoscience, and pharmaceutical companies that push expensive drugs, they can’t seem to do much for guys like Howard Berry, whose son, Josh, committed suicide after battling PTSD for years. Josh had been wounded eight years before by Nadal Hassan, the Fort Hood shooter. Berry believes that soldiers with PTSD “need more” than the government is giving them. He’s right, of course. Unless militaries admit that the psychological cost of war and violence are ongoing, and last lifetimes after combat has ended, they will never provide adequate services to soldiers and veterans. Iraq war veteran Sgt. Mike Bergman might agree. A Colorado 9 news article says of Berman: “Looking back, he knows he changed forever when he saw the faces of the first three people he killed. His message to the politicians and military leaders: thousands more like me are coming home.” The article also mentions Curtis Bean, “a sniper, who also attributes his PTSD to his decisions to kill.” It’s clear enough to the soldiers that killing people is bad for you, even if extenuating circumstances (like a declared war) make it necessary. But the military is so invested in the notion that “war makes men” that they’ll never admit that war breaks men, and especially not that it breaks strong, normal men who were perfectly healthy and psychologically well-adjusted before they got into the military.
Veteran Curtis Bean, mentioned above, turned to art as a method for handling his pain. He founded an organization called the Art of War Project, which held a show in May of this year. I dropped by his website to see his paintings and was impressed by his work: he paints with bright, bold colors, and captures monstrous and beautiful images with a combination of comic art and graffiti on canvas and wood. Photojournalist Ashley Gilbertson also practices a kind of art therapy. In the process of working through his own PTSD and guilt over the death of a soldier in Iraq who preceded him into danger and paid the cost, he began photographing the rooms of the young American soldiers who had been killed in the war. The series, “Bedrooms of the Fallen,” is powerful because it evokes the memory of fallen soldiers as they were when they lived in the civilian world. The rooms are untouched, and they evoke a loneliness that’s without solace. On the one hand, each room looks as if its owner has stepped out for a moment, and on the other hand there’s a sense of frozen stillness—one can almost see the dust settling deeper by the day.
And to sum it up today, we can consider the inhumanity and downright creepiness of Thomas Donnelly’s war-loving editorial in that bastion of ethical rectitude, The Wall Street Journal. Donnelly waxes nostalgic; he wants to bring back the days when soldiers were seen as “models of self-control, courage and patriotism.” He also makes absurd claims: “It is possible to identify those who are most prone to stress problems, and that has more to do with nonmilitary issues—again, substance abuse, money and family problems are the culprits—than with the experience of combat or deployment to a war zone.” His lip curl when he states firmly that military commanders have “long known” this, is almost visible. We just have to keep out those pesky undesirables, and war will turn back into a manly game for manly men. After all, as humans, we have an “underlying, primal instinct for violence.” As if all this dick waving wasn’t enough, he then insinuates that the claims of rampant sexual harassment and abuse put forward by military women are baseless since (he quotes a woman here), “there is no evidence that the military has a higher rate of sexual assault than, say, colleges and universities). Finally, he invokes the myth of the “civilian weakling” who prevents the manly soldier from doing his job: “By regarding soldiers… as victims and patients, we are in danger of foisting our very own, very civilian and very modern, therapeutic pathologies on people who don’t need them and whose ability to do their jobs—that is, keep us safe—is likely to be diminished.”
If you haven’t already puked on your shoes from the above Rambo redux, you may wonder where he draws his evidence for the claim that we’re creating “epidemics that aren’t.” On August 7, JAMA published a longitudinal study called “Risk Factors Associated with Suicide in Current and Former U.S. Military Personnel,” by LeardMann, Powell, et al. The study, which took place over almost 8 years, found that “suicide risk was independently associated with male sex and mental disorders but not with military-specific variables.” So this is a suicide study, although Donnelly uses it as if it debunks any link between PTSD and military service. I’ll talk about the study later, and what it really does or doesn’t show, in a separate essay, but I wanted to point out this pretty sneaky dodge on Donnelly’s part. His other piece of “evidence” that real manly man soldiers are being maligned by women who serve in the military comes from Gail Heriot, who claimed in an article for the Weekly Standard (July 8, 2013) that “there is no sexual assault crisis” in the military, and that it is the military itself that is being “harassed.” Heriot’s conjecture that sexual assault is simply over-reported is taken by Donnelly as a fact. Others have critiqued Heriot, including attorney Roger Canaff. Given that Heriot has crusaded against anti-harassment courses, calling them “propaganda,” and a “rather blatant form of racial and sexual harassment,” and that she sees anti-discrimination laws as a form of harassment against employers, I think her agenda is pretty clear. Of course, agendas don’t matter if you have the facts to support your arguments, but Heriot doesn’t.