Hippies and Soldiers
Strozzi’s method for adapting aikido as a tool for leadership training was not developed in the serenity of rural California, but in the sweaty and harsh environment of a military base. It started in the spring of 1985, when Strozzi was a practicing psychologist and aikido teacher in Mill Valley. His partner in the Tamalpais Aikido Dojo was George Leonard, a well-known figure in the West Coast human potential movement and author of the books The Ultimate Athlete, Mastery, and The Way of Aikido.
Leonard had been approached by Chris Mejer, the owner of the Seattle-based training company SportsMind, which had developed a physical conditioning course for basic trainees in the army. A group of senior officers had invited Mejer to create a classified pilot program that would deliver six months of full-time training in martial arts, meditation, biofeedback, guided relaxation, and mind–body psychology to two Special Forces A-teams –– Green Berets –– stationed at Fort Devon, Mass. The pilot was code-named the Trojan Warrior Project.
At Leonard’s suggestion, Richard Strozzi was asked to teach daily aikido classes to the participants and to help with the design and delivery of the entire program. He would also lead an unprecedented monthlong silent meditation retreat for soldiers at a remote former Boy Scout camp in rural New Hampshire.
The army’s rather startling goal for the project was to explore an approach to military training that would draw in part from cutting-edge “human technologies” seeking to integrate mind, body, and spirit, and in part from ancient warrior traditions from different cultures. The idea was to take what the base commander described as a holistic approach to enhancing the fitness, alertness, capacity to withstand stress, team cohesion, and potential for in-the-moment thinking among elite frontline units. The senior officers who commissioned the program also hoped that these Special Forces teams might, like the Greek warriors secreted in the belly of that famous wooden horse, prove a transformative force within the huge and highly bureaucratic belly of the U.S. armed services, serving as a template for developing the kinds of skills that would be required in 21st-century warfare.
Military training in the West has traditionally emphasized a strict chain-of-command structure that vests strategic decision making in those at the top and tactical implementation in those on the front lines. But by the mid-1980s, this hierarchical model was breaking down. The development of smart technologies — tanks, scopes, reconnaissance tools, and weaponry — was putting real-time information into the hands of frontline troops, requiring soldiers to make immediate decisions instead of awaiting instructions from headquarters. This change was eroding both the chain of command and the divide between planning and execution. To adapt, the military needed to train soldiers at every level to become more thoughtful, resourceful, and intuitive. According to Colonel Herbert Harback, former leadership instructor at the U.S. Army War College, “Advanced training used to be reserved for generals and colonels. That no longer works. Technology is forcing soldiers to make major real-time decisions. Training them to do so will transform the entire military.”
The army was also exploring new approaches to training as a result of the failures of Vietnam, where small-unit maneuvers, simplicity, and commitment had trumped the U.S. military’s vastly superior firepower. Strategists in every service branch had begun to recognize that unconventional challenges and threats would be their chief concern in the years ahead. Fighting guerrilla actions and insurgent networks while winning the hearts and minds of locals would require soldiers who were flexible and sensitive and who could inspire trust — qualities often at odds with military doctrines based on the application of overwhelming force. Nowhere was this paradox more pressing than in the Special Forces, who were first on the front lines but whose training fetishized the exercise of brute power.