Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Forging Steel, Part 1: Forging Superheroes Versus Forging Soldiers

I had the opportunity to speak with some former and current Special Forces soldiers about their training and experience; these are real-life heroes (though they wouldn't necessarily use that term to describe themselves). Their missions and actions rival those of fully human superheroes such as Batman, Black Canary, Batgirl, Oracle, Robin/Nightwing, and Avengers Iron Man, Hawkey, some versions of Black Widow, and Nick Fury, among others. But unlike these characters, our real-life military folks are mortal and may not survive a given battle. When killed in action they, and police officers and fire fighters, can't be brought back to life, unlike human superheroes. (One of the soldiers I spoke with, Fernando Lujan, noted that it doesn't take the same type of courage to go into battle if you know that you can't die, as is the case for relatively invulnerable superheroes such as Superman and Wolverine. For more about Special Forces Officer Lujan, click here.)

The soldiers that I spoke with shared some (nonclassified) information about their training. To get a sense of what a soldier must undergo to be picked to be in elite units, click here for an overview; for more detailed information, watch this video (it is the first of six parts; if you are at all interested, I highly recommend that you watch all six parts). In addition to the grueling physical demands of the training, psychological training is a big part of what the soldiers experience.

For instance, the military psychologists who are part of the evaluatingteam help identify each soldier's psychological vulnerabilities. Not as a rationale to send the soldiers home, but to increase each soldier's self-awareness. So that they can know when they are nearing the limit (of pain tolerance, hopelessness, fear, shame, cockiness, to name several dimensions) of being able to maintain and function adequately. In learning where the limit is, they can then learn how to push through that barrier or mentally regroup to be able to go forward and complete the mission. How to withstand interrogation. Not just the physical aspects of interrogation. The mental aspects. How to become stronger and moreresilient. How to regulate their emotions when their buttons get pushed.

Most superheroes do not undergo this type of training. (There is a sense of which it seems ridiculous to compare soldiers and superheroes. I do so here to emphasize the ways in which superheroes are different and arefictional. Nonetheless, we can learn from those differences.) Christopher Nolan's brilliant film, Batman Begins, showed us the ways that Bruce Wayne received some military-like training from Henri Ducard (Ra's al Ghul) and the League of Shadows. It is through this training that Wayne becomes a master at self-control and emotional self-regulation. By self-control, I mean the ability to control one's actions. To act in planned, intentional ways, not impulsively. By emotional self-regulation, I mean the ability to shift one's emotional states. (For more on the definition of self-regulation in general, click here.

From descriptions of the first step of any military training, the discipline and control for some soldiers may come from-and are enforced by-external forces, such as the challenging training schedule imposed on the soldiers, the rigid rules they must follow, the drill sergeant's enforcement of those rules.

Over time and with field experience, the discipline and control of behavior become internal, to a degree that wasn't true before. Self-discipline. Self-control. Moreover, soldiers don't want to put their team members' lives at risk. Self-discipline benefits not just the individual soldier, but the entire unit. They must all depend on one another.As part of the training process, soldiers face their fears, learn to put aside their grief when they need to, to bite their tongue when angry (because it is counterproductive to the mission). Like Batman, then, soldiers acquire the "superpower" of emotional regulation.

More about emotional regulation and resilience in the next post.

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