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Silencing Our Veterans: a Bridge Too Far

Photograph Source: Carolmooredc – Public Domain

It has now been four years since the “Hoffman Report” presented extensive evidence of secret collaboration between leaders of the American Psychological Association (APA) and psychologists working for the Department of Defense (DOD). According to that independent review, the goal of collaboration was to ensure that APA ethics policies would not prevent psychologists from participating in war-on-terror detention and interrogation operations at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere—operations that the International Committee of the Red Cross once described as “tantamount to torture.”

The report’s findings led to long-overdue reforms within APA, but they also produced an intense backlash from military-intelligence psychologists implicated in the report—and their supporters—who insist that their activities make our country safer. To be clear, this is the realm of “operational psychology” and it is entirely different from the work of many dedicated psychologists who—as either practitioners or researchers—play vital roles in addressing the healthcare needs of our country’s soldiers, veterans, and their families. In contrast, operational psychology in national security settings often involves ethically fraught activities in which individuals and groups are often targeted for harm; informed consent is rarely obtained; and outside ethical oversight by professional bodies is obstructed.

In their attempt to rebut the Hoffman Report, some operational psychologists—including leaders of the APA’s military psychology division—have constructed a highly sanitized narrative, one that claims all of the following to be true: (1) APA’s consistent support for DOD operations is entirely unproblematic; (2) no DOD psychologists were ever involved in detainee abuse; (3) the rare instances of DOD abuse occurred only during the early years after 9/11; and (4) once discovered, the DOD quickly instituted policies that brought abuses to an end.

This is a flawed account, and it has been debunked on multiple fronts (perhaps most obviously, by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, who has stated that ongoing indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay itself constitutes “a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment”). But the proponents of this narrative continue to engage in efforts aimed at discrediting, silencing, and intimidating critics whose knowledge or experience casts doubt on their story. Indeed, they have already pursued defamation lawsuits and at least one formal ethics complaint, while also calling for suppression of the Hoffman Report and offering continuing education credits to those who attend sessions in which their claims are presented as gospel.

And now we have their latest salvo. In recent days, a group of military operational psychologists has sent a letter to APA authorities expressing outrage over a panelist who was scheduled to participate in a symposium at last month’s annual convention. The session was titled “From Aspirational to Actionable—Changing APA Ethical Practices in the Post-Hoffman Report Era” and the target of their upset is a member of Veterans For Peace (VFP). Although ultimately unable to attend the event, he had provided this advance summary of his background and perspective:

While my time at Abu Ghraib took place after the infamous events of 2003 and 04 were revealed and operationally halted, at least in the tent camps, I was a witness of and participant in unethical and inhumane treatment of detainees. During my assignment to Abu Ghraib, I witnessed detainees killed and maimed due to insufficient protection from indirect fire, detainee suicide, detainee abuse at each other’s hands as members of opposing factions were knowingly housed together. I placed cuffed and shackled children in un-air conditioned cages in tents for punishment purposes and was forced by the nature of my duty to contribute to their general mistreatment.

It’s my hope that through sharing my experiences I’m able to generate awareness of the inhumanity of war and detention and that awareness of such inhumanity will impact our national dialogue, decision making and moral compass.

In their letter to APA representatives, these operational psychologists suggest that this VFP member is likely a war criminal, and they call for changes to APA’s programming policies to make sure that similar participants never appear at future conventions. These are over-the-top tactics. But they suit a group that has seemingly taken to heart the informal motto of the CIA: “Admit nothing. Deny everything. Make counteraccusations.”

Unsurprisingly, VFP’s own stance—shared by other organizations like Vietnam Veterans Against the War and About Face: Veterans Against the War—offers a sharp contrast. With members in over 100 chapters across the United States, for decades VFP has sought to reveal war’s ugly realities to an American public that is too often shielded from the widespread pain, trauma, and destruction of military “solutions.” Beyond doggedly advocating for an end to war and the horror it brings, VFP members—informed by their own personal combat experiences—have been outspoken in opposing a broad range of injustices, including the invasion of Iraq; the use of weaponized drones; the fomenting of Islamophobia; the commercial exploitation of sacred Native American lands; and the current militarization of our southern border.

It is also worth noting that VFP has challenged the agenda of military operational psychologists before. At the APA convention last year, these psychologists brought forward an unsuccessful resolution that sought to overturn hard-fought APA reforms and allow military psychologists to return to Guantanamo. VFP issued this statement in advance of the vote:

Veterans For Peace strongly encourages the American Psychological Association’s Council of Representatives to stay true to its commitment to culture change, transparency, and a much-needed focus on human rights. We hope that our opposition to these proposed resolutions gives military psychologists pause. Many of us have been in the position of losing our humanity in “service” to the interests of the U.S. government. We understand how military culture, coupled with the horrors of making war, can overpower benign intentions and diminish empathy for others, bringing people to follow unlawful orders and ultimately to commit various atrocities—all in the belief that they are doing the right thing. We wonder what will happen when the ethical and/or moral integrity of a military psychologist is challenged by the various toxicities in military culture? Such a policy not only puts the people in care at risk of psychological injury, it puts military psychologists at risk of committing morally injurious acts.

Fortunately, in recent years this phenomenon of “moral injury” has received increasing attention from healthcare professionals. These experts recognize that “current wars may be creating an additional risk for exposure to morally questionable or ethically ambiguous situations” and that “perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations may be deleterious in the long-term, emotionally, psychologically, behaviorally, spiritually, and socially.” The consequences of moral injury are profound, ranging from shame, guilt, and anger to alienation, depression, and suicidality. So it is worth asking who actually benefits—and who is harmed—if the inner struggles that moral injury engenders are hidden from public awareness, or if such violations of conscience are discounted as the rarest of exceptions to a soldier’s routine combat experience.

In sum, it is distressing that these military operational psychologists now want to deny a public platform to veterans whose disturbing firsthand accounts may be heresy to their self-protecting dogma. But even more, their censorship demands undermine the open discussion and debate that are hallmarks of both scientific inquiry and democracy. We must not succumb to this bullying. If we do, it will further encourage a destructive culture of surveillance, one that can chill public discourse and imperil whistleblowers with critical knowledge to share. These dire prospects become all the more sobering in a military context, where it has long been known that truth is the first casualty of war.

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Roy Eidelson, PhD, is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, a member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, and the author of POLITICAL MIND GAMES: How the 1% Manipulate Our Understanding of What’s Happening, What’s Right, and What’s Possible. Roy’s website is www.royeidelson.com and he is on Twitter at @royeidelson.

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