The US defence establishment seems to believe that The Psychological Kevlar Act of 2007 and use of the drug proprnalol could serve to stem the growing psychological problems of its soldiers.
But many question the wisdom of desensitizing the soldiers altogether to the horrors of war in the name of saving them from possible post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The Psychological Kevlar Act "directs the secretary of defense to develop and implement a plan to incorporate preventive and early-intervention measures" to combat PTSD and other stress-related psychopathologies, including substance use conditions.
Kevlar, a DuPont fiber, is an essential component of U.S. military helmets and bullet-proof vests advertised to be "five times stronger than steel."
Obviously the idea is to make the mind of the soldier stronger than steel, impervious to the horrors they witness or participate in.
Perhaps as part of such an attempt to numb the soldier, the drug Propranalol, is sought to be used in a big way in the army.
Even otherwise soldiers are conditioned to act without considering the moral repercussions of their actions; they are enabled to kill without making the conscious decision to do so.
If they are unable to justify to themselves the fact that they killed another human being, they will likely -- and understandably -- suffer enormous guilt. This guilt manifests itself as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and it has damaged the lives of thousands of men who performed their duty in combat.
When soldiers are witness to overwhelming horror, or because of a reflexive accident, an illegitimate order, or because multiple deployments have thoroughly distorted their perceptions, or simply because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time -- those are the moments that will continue to haunt them, the memories they will not be able to forgive or forget, and the stuff of post-traumatic stress injuries.
Proprnalol, dubbed "the mourning after pill," if taken immediately following a traumatic event, can subdue a victim's stress response and so soften his or her perception of the memory. That does not mean the memory has been erased, but proponents claim that the drug can render it emotionally toothless.
I have thought a lot about the implications of "psychological Kevlar" -- what kind of "preventive and early-intervention measures, practices or procedures" might be developed that would "reduce the likelihood that personnel in combat will develop post-traumatic stress disorder." How would a soldier with a shield against moral response "five times stronger than steel" behave? wonders Penny Coleman, the widow of a Vietnam veteran who took his own life after coming home. She has also authored a book titled, Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide and the Lessons of War
Also Leon Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, object to propranolol's use on the grounds that it medicates away one's conscience. "It's the morning-after pill for just about anything that produces regret, remorse, pain or guilt," he says.
Barry Romo, a national coordinator for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, is blunt. "That's the devil pill," he says. "That's the monster pill, the anti-morality pill. That's the pill that can make men and women do anything and think they can get away with it. Even if it doesn't work, what's scary is that a young soldier could believe it will."
Coleman goes to the extent of remarking bitterly, "I cannot convince myself that what is really being promoted isn't a form of moral lobotomy."
But then the Pentagon has a major problem on its hands. In June last year, the Department of Defense Task Force on Mental Health revealed that nearly 40 percent of soldiers, a third of Marines and half of National Guard members were presenting with serious mental health issues. They also reported "fundamental weaknesses" in the U.S. military's approach to psychological health.
That report was followed in August by the Army Suicide Event Report (ASER), which reported that 2006 saw the highest rate of military suicides in 26 years. And recently the CBS News reported that, based on its own extensive research, over 6,250 American veterans took their own lives in 2005 alone -- that works out to a little more than 17 suicides every day.
Thus, on the face of it, the Kevlar act sounds logical and even compassionate. After all, the soldiers are supplied with physical armor -- at least in theory. So why not mental?
The Big Pharma too could be licking its chops at the thought of mass procurement of drugs like Propranalol.
But look at the dangers of attempts to make the soldier indifferent to human suffering.
Already with such programmes that make them impervious to sounds of women being raped, the rates of domestic violence are on the rise in the military, it is five times higher than what obtains among the civilian population
Besides there were 2,374 reported cases of sexual assault in the military in 2005, a 40 percent increase over 2004. But that figure represents only reported cases, and, as Air Force Brig. Gen. K.C. McClain, commander of DoD's Joint Task Force for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response pointed out
, "Studies indicate that only 5 percent of sexual assaults are reported."
A soldier who has lost an arm can be welcomed home because he or she still shares fundamental societal values.
But the soldier who sees her friend reduced to a pulp by a bomb, or who is ordered to run over children in the road rather than slow down the convoy, or who realizes too late that the woman was carrying a baby, not a bomb -- if that soldier's ability to feel terror and horror has been amputated, if he or she can no longer be appalled or haunted, something far more precious has been lost, warns Coleman.
I am afraid that the training or conditioning or drug that will be developed to protect soldiers from such injuries will leave an indifference to violence that will make them unrecognizable to themselves and to those who love them. They will be alienated and isolated, and finally unable to come home, she apprehends.
Any attempt to guard against PTSD should take into account the flip side then and ensure that robots are not turned out to serve the needs of the ruling elite, only to be discarded when they outlive their purpose.