The Soldiers Using Mindfulness to Manage Stress and Become Better Killers

The UK's Ministry of Defence is rolling out training including breathing techniques and mindfulness tools.
October 30, 2020, 5:16pm
British paratroopers boarding a CH-47 Chinook helicopter at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. Studies show an increased prevalence of PTSD and alcohol abuse among service personnel who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Stocktrek Images, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

A soldier stares down the viewfinder of his rifle in a war-torn country, catching his breath as the sun beats down. As a thousand thoughts whizz through his brain he controls his racing mind with a breathing technique rooted in Buddhism, to ensure that he is focussed on the present.

This could be the future of warfare as the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) is increasingly providing training in mindfulness tools and breathing techniques to manage stress, build resilience, enhance wellbeing and improve combat effectiveness.

Mindfulness is an increasingly popular psychological process where people concentrate on the present moment and calm their thoughts through meditation and breathing as a way to not dwell on the past and improve their health.

Under the auspices of its defence mindfulness steering group, the MoD is turning to the technique as a wellbeing strategy as evidence grows of its effectiveness. A defence mental health network was launched in 2018 to allow people across the defence community to connect and raise awareness around ongoing or new mental health initiatives.

The benefits of mindfulness, meditation and even lucid dreaming are discussed at the MoD’s annual mindfulness symposium, which was first held in 2017. The 2020 event was rescheduled due to Covid and is being planned for the new year.

Service personnel can also access a free eight week mindfulness course, while they have also been provided membership to Headspace, a popular app which seeks to help improve mental wellbeing through guided mindfulness exercises.

Dr Jutta Tobias-Mortlock, the author of a recent report on improving mental fitness in the armed forces who has worked with the MoD on sustaining wellbeing and performance, says, “Mindfulness can transform the culture within militaries to move closer to the 21st century.”

“It can help defence and security services become less command and control, less hierarchical, more agile and respectful of what people need to do within their challenging, complex work.”

Keith McKenzie is a former paratrooper who now serves as a meditation instructor and Buddhist chaplain for the British Armed Forces. “They need to be going into conflict areas knowing techniques on how to deal with that form of trauma and the killing,” he says. “The worst thing a human being can do to another is to kill them and at some point that will come back to haunt them.”

McKenzie, who set up a veterans cafe in Edinburgh after leaving the military following tours of Oman and Belize – where he was shot in the leg in a case of friendly fire – welcomes how attitudes regarding mental health are shifting in the armed services. One study showed an increased prevalence in PTSI and alcohol misuse among those who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan – wars which McKenzie believes were unjust.

Last year McKenzie attended a talk on attention and awareness by Lt Col Mark Hardie, along with around 200 civil servants and military members, which discussed how situational awareness and tactical or combat breathing can help not only help build resilience but also improve combat performance.

“We’re human beings, we’re always going to be warring with each other,” he claims. “So you’ve got to come up with a way of dealing with that, if you train your soldiers to be more fully aware in the combat zone, they are more likely to be prepared.”

McKenzie believes that mindfulness and ethics should be taught at an early stage in military training, since “it would certainly help with reducing civilian casualties.”

The veteran has also been working with Tibetan Buddhist dream teacher Charlie Morley to help former service people be lucid and remain conscious during their dreams as a means to manage and unwind psychological distress.

However, not everyone believes that using mindfulness techniques in the military is without its problems.

Dr Miles Neale, a psychotherapist who coined the term “McMindfulness” – referring to a watered down, commodified version of meditation – doesn’t doubt that mindfulness could have its uses for soldiers.

“If you’re a young lad recruited to be a soldier and you come back from war in an absolute shambles, and if your choice at that point at 21 years old with PTSD is to be overmedicated for the rest of your life, or learn some strategies to help your mind relax and discover you have your own innate resources to overcome intense symptomologies, then wouldn’t you think that’s a good idea?” he asks.

But he laments that western societies have extracted “one bit of a technique from Asia.”

“The Buddha taught a holistic approach with three prongs; wisdom, ethics, and meditation,” he says.

“We have left out interdependence and compassion and just focused on calm, stress reduction. You could make a more precise sniper better at his function, but without any consideration for the damage he is causing himself or others. In other words, you could just have better trained killers.”

Ronald Purser, the author of McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, agrees saying mindfulness should go “beyond self-soothing and personal stress relief”. 

“Had the ethical aspects of mindfulness not been removed, such forms of training [in the armed forces] would not be compatible with the mission of the military, whose soldiers are indoctrinated from boot camp to inflict harm and pain on the enemy,” he says.

However, the usefulness of mindfulness is being realised by militaries across the world. US army soldiers last year began using mindfulness to improve shooting skills, while NATO held a two-day symposium in Berlin to discuss the evidence behind its use in the military.

A student in the journal Progress in Brain Research shows that the soldiers who did daily mindful breathing and focus techniques for a month reported increases in working memory function and made less cognitive errors than comrades who did not use mindfulness. 

Nevertheless, there are fears that not every mindfulness technique will be appropriate for everyone. In her report, Dr Tobias-Mortlock warns: “Mindfulness teachers without formal mental health training may do more harm than good… Sitting in silence for 20 minutes or longer may unearth latent trauma in unexpected ways and military populations might be particularly vulnerable in this regard.”

An MoD spokesperson says: “We take the mental health of our people very seriously, and encourage staff to attend courses to help improve wellbeing and support their teams. The Mindfulness Symposium is an annual event which started in 2017 to raise awareness of the practice and highlight how it can be best used across defence.”

@matthabusby