On January 2-6, 1983, I attended the Third International Conference on Psychological Stress and Adjustment in Time of War and Peace, sponsored by Tel Aviv University. The first two conferences in the series, convened in 1975 and 1978, were also held in Tel Aviv. According to the organizers, the conferences were designed to 1) facilitate the exchange of knowledge within the international scientific and professional community on topics of war-related stress and adjustment, and 2) enable Israeli scientists and professionals to exchange ideas and insights about various programs initiated during and after the October war of 1973.
Although billed as “international,” 95 percent of the participants were from Israel and the United States. The chairperson of the organizing committee was Norman Milgram, an American psychologist who has emigrated to Israel and now teaches at Tel Aviv University. The American participants were mainly from a handful of universities here; several were US military officers affiliated with the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and the US Army Medical Research Unit-Europe. The audience for the conference sessions was primarily Israeli civilian and military psychologists, and major Israeli media reported extensively on the proceedings. The most publicized aspect of the conference was a predictable stress on “terrorism,” identified solely as “Palestinian.” Specialized information on combat stress was confined to the conference participants.
Yehuda Ben-Meir, deputy foreign minister for foreign affairs and a US-trained social psychologist, addressed the opening session with a spirited justification of the military policies of the Begin government. Both the conference itself and the accompanying social program provided extensive endorsements of the invasion of Lebanon. In response to the remarks of Knesset Speaker Menachem Savidor at a conference reception, one Professor Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania responded “on behalf of the American delegation,” although certainly no one had authorized him to do so. “I thank the Israeli government for the events of the last few months,” he said. “It has confirmed for me once again that Israel is a nation of heroes.” Seligman is an experimental psychologist primarily known for his concept of “learned helplessness”: When organisms learn there is no connection between behavior and consequences, they subsequently behave as if they are helpless. It is easy to see why the Israelis appreciate Seligman’s contribution to the world of science, since it lends a quasi-scientific rationalization to Israel’s consistent brutalization of the Palestinians of Lebanon and the occupied territories.
The major theme of the military panels centered on overcoming combat stress in order to return a soldier rapidly to the front lines. An IDF panel on diverse approaches to combat stress reactions in Lebanon discussed the virtues of “forward treatment.” A panel on “Factors Affecting Combat Stress Relations” sought to develop predictive tools for coping effectively in combat. Military psychologists made presentations on morale and unit cohesiveness, the role of the commander and the advantages of a front-line psychologist in battle zones. US Army personnel were prominent on panels on behavioral patterns in crisis situations and combat stress reactions.