The Latest in Military Strategy: Mindfulness


As commander of the coalition forces in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Walter Piatt juggled ruthless pursuit of enemies and delicate diplomacy with tribal leaders, using a trove of modern weaponry and streams of tech-generated data.

But his best decisions, he said, relied on a tool as ancient as it is powerful. Maj. Gen. Piatt often began daily operations by breathing deliberately, slack-jawed, staring steadily at a palm tree.

Mindfulness — the practice of using breathing techniques, similar to those in meditation, to gain focus and reduce distraction — is inching into the military in the United States and those of a handful of other nations.

This winter, Army infantry soldiers at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii began using mindfulness to improve shooting skills — for instance, focusing on when to pull the trigger amid chaos to avoid unnecessary civilian harm.

The recent study found that service members who train for four weeks experience significant improvement, but those who train for only two weeks do not.

The mindfulness training comes as the military is exploring other options to intensify soldier focus, even the possibility of implanting computer chips into soldiers’ brains. But those potential solutions are expensive and years off.

Widespread adoption of mindfulness has challenges, including creating a staff of trainers, said Commander William MacNulty, a commissioned officer in the United States Public Health Service. He helped train a special forces unit in mindfulness (the precise military branch and location are confidential). The program entailed the soldiers spending about 15 minutes each day performing recorded, guided breathing exercises.

Mr. MacNulty said that about a third of the soldiers readily embraced the idea, a third engaged with curiosity, and a third seemed skeptical.

Mr. MacNulty likened the benefits of practicing mindfulness to those of, say, doing push-ups. “You might not drop and do push-ups when you’re in a gunfight, but you have increased capacity,” he said. That’s true of mindfulness, he added: Mental focus “becomes a transferable skill.”

In the newsmagazine of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, known as the All Blacks, the military explained the rationale behind adopting mindfulness. Referring to its value, the magazine said: “The All Blacks talk about ‘red head/blue head’ — red head means being in a flustered state and blue head means being calm, centred and able to make clearheaded decisions.”

What he means is that mindfulness is often associated with peacefulness. But, he added, the idea is to be as faithful to compassionate and humane ideals as possible given the realities of the job.

Maj. Gen. Piatt underscored that point, describing one delicate diplomatic mission in Iraq that involved meeting with a local tribal leader. Before the session, he said, he meditated in front of a palm tree, and found himself extremely focused when the delicate conversation took place shortly thereafter.

“I was not taking notes. I remember every word she was saying. I wasn’t forming a response, just listening,” he said. When the tribal leader finished, he said, “I talked back to her about every single point, had to concede on some. I remember the expression on her face: This is someone we can work with.”

In the end, he said, mindfulness allowed him to “reduce conflict by better understanding.”

“I’m not saying, be soft,” he added. “I’m saying, understand how compassion and empathy can be used for real advantages.”

“Peace takes a lot of hard work.”



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