Letters in Response to “Mindfulness and the Military

Several articles in the “War and Peace" issue of Inquiring Mind (“The Militarization of Mindfulness” by Ronald Purser, “The Thousand-Year View: An Interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn”, “Cultivating the Mind of a Warrior” by Elizabeth Stanley and “Mental Armor: An Interview with Amishi Jha”) explored the ethics of teaching mindfulness meditation to combat soldiers. Here are some of the letters we received in response.

Letter from U.S. Army Physician Col. Michael R. Brumage
Letter from MMFT Instructor Tuere Sala
Letter from Psychologist John Dyckman
Letter from Sam Langberg
Letter from Prisoner Benjamin McCarter


Dear Inquiring Mind,

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”—Sun Tzu, The Art of War

In response to “The Militarization of Mindfulness”(Spring 2014), I’d like to offer some mindful insights into the military and the suffering of war. Before embarking on a discussion about mindfulness in the military, before we can make judgments as to whether implementing mindfulness in this context is beneficial, harmful or something in between, we need to understand what the military and its mission really is.

The American military, an all-volunteer force, is comprised of people from every background and every conceivable life perspective. To see “The Military” as a monolithic structure whose only purpose is to break things and kill people is a gross misunderstanding of the institution and the people in it.

From the Department of Defense website, “The mission of the Department of Defense is to provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country.” The implied mission is to defeat enemies of the United States should war become unavoidable. Accomplishing this mission requires a narrowly focused, intentional application of extreme violence in order to impose our political will upon an enemy. That’s one reality.

A widely ignored and co-existent reality is that the military is also frequently used as an extension of the U.S. Government to provide assistance around the globe. The military possesses unique land, sea and air capabilities, along with superior logistics and an organizational structure that makes it an indispensable partner in many humanitarian relief causes. The list of humanitarian relief missions is long and impressive; what follows is but one example. In 1991, Lt. General H.C. (Hank) Stackpole III, USMC (Ret), commanded a Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) with the Amphibious Group Three and the Fifth Marine Expeditionary Brigade in response to Cyclone Marian, a category-four storm which slammed into Bangladesh. Cyclone Marian killed 140,000 people, one million animals, and left over five million people homeless. It destroyed Bangladesh’s internal infrastructure—making it nearly impossible to deliver humanitarian aid. In what became a textbook example of how a military could render support in a complex humanitarian emergency, General Stackpole decided to keep his support ships and 7600 personnel of the CJTF literally over the horizon, ferrying relief supplies to the disaster sites by aircraft. Only five hundred personnel would remain ashore at night. Bangladeshi children called the helicopters and other aircraft and vessels that delivered much-needed relief supplies “angels from the sea,” and so the operation was aptly named “Operation Sea Angel.” The flawless concept and execution of the mission, combined with General Stackpole’s political savvy, saved an estimated 200,000 lives.

The application of military force may also not so cleanly be considered a universal evil when one considers the ending of the Holocaust or the NATO interventions that stopped ethnic killings in the Balkans. This is not to create some moral equivalence between all wars, but to offer how military force or its credible threat can actually preserve life, terminate killing or prevent greater violence in specific circumstances.

The root of every war lies in the failure of politics and the embedded, societal violence structures that support our elected representatives, who alone hold the power to exercise the military. Every act of violence, individual or collective, reflects a breakdown of the inhibitions to exercise that act, whether willfully or by ignorance. Our entire society bears the responsibility for war and its aftermath. The most concrete and obvious manifestation is the man or woman in uniform who pulls the trigger. But they are supported by those who provide logistics, medical support, and so on—down to the farmer, miner or white collar worker who pays taxes and who votes or fails to do so. It is a collective responsibility to ensure the ethical and responsible behavior of our nation in all endeavors, including the military.

At a more personal level, the decision to squeeze a trigger, pull a lanyard or push a button is driven by a number of factors in any one individual at any particular time. It may be from a detached perspective without the full reality of what they are doing, or it may be a desire to kill out of a morbid, naive curiosity, or it may be out of fear and panic. Most often it is the execution of a trained script, a battle drill, to react in extreme situations. The underlying motivation is frequently not the dehumanization of the enemy but a desire to protect themselves or their “battle buddies,” the soldiers they have learned to love. In that circumstance, the application of attention and awareness can create a greater discernment.

It is difficult to imagine how greater discernment would result in greater harm in the extreme situation where someone is faced with a mortal and immediate threat. The reality is that we are creating situations in which we enable more focused, more discriminate violence, but violence nonetheless. At the same time, are we not also trying to address the root cause of violence through mindfulness? Discernment may also promote destroying an enemy, not by bullets and bombs but by dialogue and understanding. To use a Lincoln quote, “Am I not destroying an enemy when I make friends of them?” The decision between applying military force and or using nonviolent influence is often completely overlooked. Yet it is critical to military tactical, operational and strategic objectives on the modern battlefield.

Our soldiers will one day become citizens again, citizens who have lived through the horrors of war. Will they also perhaps see a pathway to end it or prevent it? Will they apply what they have learned in voting booths and through discussion with nonserving citizens? Are we also addressing not only individual suffering, but also the mass suffering from which war originates? This is a paradox that should be considered both by those who use mindfulness in this context and those who oppose it. Who decides which people are not worthy of something that may teach compassion and awareness? By considering military members as “others,” disconnected from the larger society that sent them into harm’s way in the first place, aren’t we then establishing an artificial duality which begets violence and suffering? If, as Purser states, “ethical decision-making is based on intentions of nonharming, noninjuriousness and universal metta and compassion for all sentient beings,” wouldn’t withholding mindfulness training from anyone be itself unethical?

Beyond this basic understanding, it is also important to consider the intention and application of mindfulness in this context. We need the courage and honesty to say what our intention really is. My purpose in investigating mindfulness in this context was to confront and reduce the suffering of soldiers and their families. We need to be vigilant that our understanding of this powerful tool is not misused in some way and that we do not become deluded as to how it is used. We also must see mindfulness as a path of compassion, and not try to remove that component in fear of looking “soft.” A compassionate warrior is also a strong warrior—a concept embedded in many warrior traditions.

Those of us teaching mindfulness to the military need to be vigilant that our messages and intentions are not diverted or perverted in some manner. Opponents of using mindfulness in this context should see the use of mindfulness in the military in the broader context of soldiers and their families as an extension of the society from which they originate. The application of mindfulness should be, in my opinion, offered to all members of society as a pathway to realizing the long-term goal of reducing war and other forms of violence, and the consequent suffering, even in the midst of that violence. Many opponents of teaching mindfulness in military contexts base their opinions on a biased and polarizing view of the military, often misinformed by popular media. It exemplifies a fundamental misunderstanding of the military as a whole, the people in the military, their connection to broader society, and the intentions of those of us doing this work.

Michael R. Brumage
Camp Zama, Japan

Michael R. Brumage studies and teaches mindfulness in a military community. He is a physician and officer in the United States Army. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

[Back to Top]



Dear Inquiring Mind,

I feel compelled to respond to Ronald Purser’s article, “The Militarization of Mindfulness” (Inquiring Mind Spring 2014). I am training to be a trainer in the Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT) program he wrote about. When I initially read the article, I felt extremely reactive. I took offense to nearly everything that was said. I have, however, had sufficient time to clear my thoughts and settle into a more communicative state.

First, Mr. Purser speaks as if MMFT is somehow separating mindfulness from Buddhism and/or perverting the sacredness of the precepts. For good or bad, the West separated mindfulness from Buddhism years ago. I have been practicing insight meditation for nearly twenty-five years and a minute few of the practitioners I have sat with in meditation centers and retreat centers consider themselves Buddhist. Many have never even heard of the Eightfold Path, Four Noble Truths and precepts. It troubles me how secular and compartmentalized mindfulness has become in the West—but MMFT did not do that. For many years, government leaders, the academic community, and meditation teachers and practitioners have intentionally described mindfulness as a secular practice completely detached from Buddhism (including its ethics) so that it could be taught in schools, prisons, hospitals, online, etc., as a relaxation, stress reduction or happiness practice. I am told that even the Seattle Seahawks practice mindfulness as a way to enhance their game performance and it is credited with their winning season. In fact, the number of scientific studies in this decade alone regarding the specific effects, benefits and mental processes associated with mindfulness is mind-blowing. I say all this because the only reason that MMFT can be taught in a military context is precisely because mindfulness is NOT considered Buddhist or religious in any manner. For Mr. Purser to complain about the detachment of mindfulness from Buddhism in the context of MMFT does not seem congruent to me. MMFT did not create the detachment. Accept it or not, we have been living with that detachment for years.

Although I recognize I am biased in my views, my second complaint about Mr. Purser’s article has to do with the way he relates to the military. The military is made up of thousands of men and women with families and kids. Most enter the military at high school/college age, stay a few years and get out. They come primarily from poor and middle-class backgrounds. They look to the military for educational opportunities, employment opportunities and an avenue to a better life. We don’t like to admit it but for many in this country, the military is the only employer who’s hiring. Mr. Purser writes as if combat life is just about killing. Killing is a part of combat but it is not the whole of it. Combat soldiers are equally expected to represent Americans in worlds and situations most of us will never see. Moreover, they may be combat soldiers but they are also Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists or have a variety of other spiritual affiliations. The sacred has always been a big part of military life. MMFT has in no way diminished this tradition—but it may create the conditions that will enable combat soldiers to remain grounded in their faith when faced with difficult split-second choices.

According to Mr. Purser “nearly 30% of soldiers suffer stress, trauma and unimaginable pain from repeated tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. I believe every effort should be made to ensure that our soldiers, reservists and veterans receive the best medical and psychological treatments for PTSD.” He then goes on to challenge the efficacy of the very program designed to prevent the high instances of PTSD in soldiers. I don’t understand. If we know there is a high chance a soldier will develop PTSD, would Mr. Purser have us wait until the damage is done? Is he really saying that we can teach mindfulness to blue-collar workers, white-collar workers, nonworkers, kids, prisoners and even football players—but not soldiers? We can use mindfulness to relax, to find happiness, to help us live with chronic pain and manage our ordinary lives (with no mention of precepts)—but we can’t use it to help a soldier develop the skills to stay present to his or her inner wisdom and courage when faced with intense fear in a combat situation, at a check point, on patrol in a local village or after he or she returns home.

The course that Liz Stanley has developed is not about creating some magical shield that will hide or block soldiers from the pain of war. On the contrary, it helps them stay close and up front with it because that is the nature of mindfulness. The actual course, however, is about a lot more than just mindfulness. I don’t know Mr. Purser but I think he should actually attend an MMFT weeklong intensive and then review the course.

Tuere Sala
via email

[Back to Top]



Dear Inquiring Mind,

Regarding the “War and Peace” issue (Spring 2014): I was surprised Inquiring Mind’s interviewers did not press Jon Kabat-Zinn or Amishi Jha more deeply on the embedded ethical issues in militarizing meditation practices, but accepted their glosses of the complex problems that their participation poses.

In April 2012, at the invitation of the U.S. Army, I participated in a dialogue about the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program mentioned in Ronald Purser’s article. CSF teaches a number of emotional self-regulation skills, including mindfulness. An excellent summary and critique of this program is “The Dark Side of ‘Comprehensive Soldier Fitness’” by Roy Eidelson, Marc Pilisuk and Stephen Solz, available at the website of Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

The soldiers and civilian employees that met with us were intelligent, socially skilled and very competent people. However, as a ground rule for our discussion, they insisted that we not engage in any discussion of the ethics of the “missions”—i.e. the wars of dubious morality—that they were sent to. They correctly pointed out that under our constitution, the armed services are directed by the civilian government. It is with the government—and the people who elect it—that the moral burden lies.

I was immediately reminded of the words of Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Before the war he argued forcefully against war. Once the decision was reached, he planned and executed a brilliant attack, saying, “I am my Emperor’s sword.” Herein lies the unspoken problem: when a person becomes a soldier, they relinquish almost all of their humanity and moral authority to the chain of command. They must obey orders to kill regardless of their personal feelings—or face dishonor and punishment. The military pays lip service to the notion that a soldier may disobey an illegal order (say to shoot civilians or wounded combatants), but the socialization to obey and to preserve one’s place in the camaraderie of one’s unit is incredibly strong. One can even argue that this “unit cohesion” is crucial to effectiveness and personal survival.

Once enlisted, a soldier has no choice about their deployment. Their desire to “defend” their country can find itself expressed in knocking down doors in Bagdad in the middle of the night, terrorizing families in the search for “insurgents”— a sad irony, as many Iraqis could easily see themselves as defending their own country. Perhaps if we took seriously the notion that we were a democracy, we would let soldiers vote about which expeditions they were going to take. But armies don’t work that way, and that is part of the problem.

Wars inevitably result in unethical behavior. Helping soldiers be more “efficient,” it is argued, reduces the collateral casualties. This is the hope, but Jon Kabat-Zinn, Amishi Jha and Elizabeth Stanley produce no evidence of this. They do claim that the mindfulness brain training makes calmer, more efficient soldiers (read killers) and reduces soldiers’ suffering—and by hopeful extension, the suffering of those unlucky enough to be in their presence.

If we are in fact going to create soldiers who are both “monk and killer,” as Stanley suggests, do we intend to segregate them in special military monasteries? Professional armed forces—as opposed to the traditionally civilian-stocked armies levied by draft up through the Vietnam War—might provide such a model, but it would have serious implications for the future of our democracy. The army has done some good work (see especially the “Battle Mind” project) to attempt to address the emotional transitions necessary to return killer-monks to civilian life. But Timothy McVeigh got his explosives training in the army and went on to dispassionately murder hundreds in Oklahoma City. He went to his own execution bravely and calmly, asserting that he was a “soldier.” Is this the model that we want?

Bhikkhu Bodhi presents the ethical dilemmas we face in situations when deadly force might be justified, referring to Hitler (the “just war” argument) and civilian killers (the “justified homicide” by police example). These situations do not have easy answers. The answers may lie in looking, as Ann Wright suggests, at the antecedents of the violence (the treaty of Versailles and the collapse of the German economy in Hitler’s case, and the root causes of crime and violence in the civilian/police divide). It is better, as the Zen saying suggests, not to discuss the man hanging from the tree, but the moment before he got there.

Still the problem exists of how to cope with overtly violent behavior—whether by nations or by individuals. I wish that the UN had authorized their small force in Rwanda to shoot. But I wish even more that the world had mobilized an airlift of force large enough to dissuade anyone from violence. The display of power is sometimes enough, though it certainly is not a guarantee.

Michael Nagler’s article offers at least a window in to an alternative response. While he does not mention it, the entire nation of Sweden has experimented with a model of nonviolent, noncooperation with invaders and selective sabotage as a national defense strategy. It comes the closest to a truly Buddhist approach to this problem, though it should be noted that Swedish police do carry (but rarely use) firearms.

Zen Buddhism in Japan is still suffering from its enthusiastic collaboration with Japanese imperial militarism during WWII. We need to be very careful in separating the “techniques” of Buddhist practice from the context of nonviolence lest we repeat the same shameful history.

John Dyckman
Albany, CA

[Back to Top]



Dear Inquiring Mind,

When the Dalai Lama was asked about how the message of the Buddha could be effective in remedying the ills of the world, he said that each person has to work on himself. Having the military practice “mindfulness” (more to the point, “bare attention”) can reduce stress by way of not feeding the usual route of thinking about everything (which leads to imagining possibilities and becoming afraid of all kinds of things, including the way others may think of one and so on.) By “barely” having the khandas lightly and momentarily arise, the usual conceptual world is crowded out, so that a nonconceptual appropriateness of response results. This may seem to demonstrate “greater efficiency” but ultimately, a greater good has been served. The burden of PTSD may be averted. That’s the immediate good. Were this simple approach of bare attention not used, the effects on combatants would assuredly contribute to yet more war born out of the insanity engendered by war.

Sam Langberg
New York, NY 10023

[Back to Top]



Dear Inquiring Mind,

We should be wary of those who seek to “decontextualize the Dharma,” as Jon Kabat-Zinn put it. The Dharma is not changeable to fit our needs. Though things are in constant motion and all things change, the Dharma is eternal and thus not open to interpretations to meet our ends.

I do not doubt that Elizabeth Stanley and Dr. Amishi Jha have mostly good intentions with their mindfulness training. But consider their education into war-cultured society. Stanley is eighth-generation military. This mindset has been indoctrinated into her “reality” from birth, just as a preacher's kid is indoctrinated into religious belief from birth. Until she can learn to revolt against that education, her perspective will always be tainted by its limited paradigm and justifications.

Stanley writes that “a warrior must … access compassion for … her adversary. … And yet when the moment demands, she must have the capacity to kill, cleanly, without hesitation and without remorse.” I'm not sure how compassion and remorseless killing can be reconciled without a certain level of self-deception. Too often, we seek to justify instead of seeking the truth of what is.

Benjamin McCarter
Brickeys, AR

[Back to Top]



© 2014 Inquiring Mind