Integrating Preventive Stress Management into SSR Processes

17 July 2018   ·   Ulrike Schmid

For soldiers to be able to limit their own potential for violence to the necessary level when under extreme strain, psychological stability and, to use the Bundeswehr’s term, "mental fitness" are indispensable. Thus, the Federal Government’s SSR strategy should incorporate capacity building for preventive stress management.

Soldiers are confronted with destructive violence. Handling this requires psychological stability. Only then can they respond effectively, with as much force as required to stop the attackers’ violence, and with as little force as possible to avoid that their own actions lead to counterproductive results due to disproportionate or excessive use of violence that threatens the mission’s legitimacy.

A look at two recent UN reports illustrates the tension between using not enough and using too much force. Firstly, Improving Security of UN Peacekeepers calls for a „change of mindset“ from UN headquarters and the troop contributing countries down to the level of the troops on the subject of risk awareness in peacekeeping missions. Deployed soldiers must be enabled to overwhelm and deter armed groups more effectively. This requires a conscious and professional approach to the risks of a mission, which is too often lacking.

Secondly, the report Journey to Extremism in Africa warns that excesses of violence on the part of the state’s defence and security forces against its own population contribute to the recruitment successes of extremist groups. According to the report, the tipping point for an individual’s decision to join such groups is often the killing or arrest of a family member or friend by the state – thus by soldiers and policemen.

To be precise: this does not apply to the majority of, let alone all defence and security forces. Generalizations entail serious consequences: They impede a useful analysis of the factors leading to violent excesses and undermine the work of many, in the best sense of the word professional soldiers and policemen of those fragile countries, who work under extremely challenging conditions. In addition, such generalizations put additional strain on the often already tense civil-military relations in those countries, since they are picked up in local discourse.

Continuous stress of soldiers has serious consequences

The human factor is essential for the establishment of a well-performing and controllable military. As a West African officer with long-standing operational experience in civil wars put it during an exploratory mission, “there have been wars without weapons, yet no wars without men”. Such exploratory missions have shown that local actors are conscious of the challenge and the need for preventive stress management.

Germany offers its soldiers a comparatively wide range of support when it comes to stress management and psychosocial strain – and continues to develop this support. We have learned from missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan that when soldiers are continuously (over)strained, their performance suffers, they become sick more often or, when they lack support, even unfit for service. Those who never learned to deal with the destructive effects of experiencing violence might become e.g. depressed or react with aggression or substance abuse. In addition, on a mission, overstrained soldiers become a risk to their colleagues and the mission as a whole.

All this points to another important, though rarely mentioned aspect: the human rights of soldiers. The concept Innere Führung of the Bundeswehr, including the ‘duty of care’ and related measures, takes account of these challenges and its duty as employer towards its soldiers. While a lot remains to be done in Germany – expanding the personnel pool and building structures takes time – useful efforts are underway.

However, no comparable support is offered to soldiers from fragile and conflict affected states who experience overstrain under the additionally difficult conditions of fragility and conflict. In most cases, in fact, they receive no support at all (except on paper). If this does not change, the destructive process of recycling violence – as has gained momentum in Afghanistan, the Sahel but also in Indonesia or Mexico – will be impossible to stop.  

Soldiers’ psychological strain is neglected

The wider international community neglects this challenge: The 2015 Medical Support Manual for UN Field Missions describes the challenges and indicates what troop contributing countries should integrate into the training of soldiers to be deployed. However, the UN is unable to enforce that demand, since this concerns the sovereignty of member states. They can reject troops offered to it or – as was the case in the mission in the Central African Republic – send them back in case of continued misconduct.

Even SSR processes that are coordinated by the UN or other international partners, do not place preventive stress management on their agenda. The focus is on law-and-order approaches. Only recently has a multilateral programme in Nigeria started supporting the construction of a centre for soldiers affected by post-traumatic stress disorder.

Such a rehabilitative approach should be welcomed and yet, prevention is required: before and during a mission, as well as after – thus supporting soldiers immediately after a mission and with low threshold offers in the following years. Repressed strain sometimes only breaks through years later, e.g. in form of suicide or violence against others.

Germany should establish preventive stress management as standard

Prevention through the strengthening of a people-centred approach should be a priority of the German SSR strategy. In this way, it could do groundwork for the UN regarding its prevention priority.

The German initiative Enable & Enhance has so far been limited to more technical training and equipment. It should integrate capacity building for stress management into its portfolio. The initiative offers an already established framework, within which Germany could present preventive measures and support the introduction of locally adapted measures and structures. This should happen via process facilitation, since the differing contexts mean cut-and-pasting the Bundeswehr’s concept is not advisable. However, within the context of limited modules, the Bundeswehr could put its concepts and measures up for discussion (without others copying them), stimulating important local reflections.

Preventive stress management should be more than a complementary component of the Enable & Enhance initiative. A retired officer of the Bundeswehr emphasized that this kind of preventive approach must be a mandatory part (as a standard) of responsible training support for foreign defence forces by the EU or NATO states.

Preventive stress management should be integrated as standard – not only for the military, but also for the police, the prison system etc. This would give prominence to human security in a fundamental and inclusive manner. And yet the military should have priority, since deficits within the military affect the whole security sector in a systemic way – especially in fragile and conflict affected states.

Capacity building can also be promoted by supporting civilian actors: The Federal Government could strengthen the capacities of local civil society through projects that enable civilian actors to help develop the design of stress management. First and foremost, the Federal Government could support local civil-military working groups through external process facilitation. This would encourage a constructive cooperation between local civilian and military actors against the background of often tense relations.

Integrating preventive stress management into the German SSR strategy would address the risk that capacity development without reforms could increase the danger of repression. This is true both for approaches within the military and for those dealing only with actors from civil society. The support of civil-military working groups would be especially sustainable. Yet, in the end, each of these options contributes to the stabilization of the human factor within the military. They strengthen the position of those in the best sense of the word professional forces within the military capable of making law-and-order measures and institution building a living reality. Reforms need people who live such reforms.

Germany should help build up capacities in stress management

There are several reasons why Germany should contribute to such capacity development:

  • Experience from civil-military dialogues in projects of the Civil Peace Service offers insights into the dynamic and challenges of communication in tense civil-military relations;
  • The psychosocial approach of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), which was drawn up by German experts, promotes a better understanding of the psychosocial dynamics and challenges of stress and trauma in society;
  • With its comparatively strong focus on social aspects, the Medical-Psychological Stress Concept of the Bundeswehr emphasizes the importance of social elements in dealing with stress and trauma – including within the military.

The expertise from these approaches should be brought together. In addition, it is necessary to engage both quickly and thoroughly. A working approach to capacity building for preventive stress management should be elaborated in a way to guide eventual process facilitation. This could be done by conducting a study that deals with essential challenges like fragility, cultural perceptions of stress and trauma and intercultural communication as well as civil-military cooperation as they will arise in such process facilitation. German and international experts and actors from the military, civil society and international cooperation – particularly from fragile contexts – should contribute in expert discussions. Such formats allow the pooling of expertise.

Finally, this way of proceeding makes it possible to build up the human resource pool of those international partners aiming to offer process facilitation. Strategies and working approaches need people capable of implementing them – also in Germany.

Friedenseinsätze Zivil-militärische Zusammenarbeit Security Sector Reform English Verteidigung

Ulrike Schmid

Dr. Ulrike Schmid is a freelancer working on peacebuilding in West Africa. In recent years she worked – inter alia – on dialogue and reconciliation (UNICEF/PBF) as well as exploratory missions on the topic of building capacities for stress management within the military with an interface to SSR (Swiss cooperation).