The new movie The Men Who Stare at Goats is a comic take-off on the true story of an Army program to incorporate New Age concepts into the military. In the movie, Jeff Bridges plays an Army Colonel who trains an experimental unit of “Jedi warriors” who bring psychic powers and peacemaking concepts into modern war-fighting. George Clooney plays the most talented soldier trained by this unit, who actually does seem to have psychic powers. Of course, most of the ideas propagated by this so-called New Earth Army, which was based on a real program called the First Earth Battallion, were crazy, did not work, and were scoffed at by the regular Army. Just as you are ready to laugh at and dismiss these wacky ideas, however, the movie provides you a glimpse of how traditional military thinking works. The movie’s two main characters get caught in a skirmish between two sets of military contractors who operate with military precision and go at each other with rifles blazing. The fact that they are both supposed to be on the same side does not seem to deter them from causing serious havoc. The moral I took from this story was: think twice before you laugh too hard at the crazy ideas dreamed up by these hippie soldiers; the way that the regular Army fights wars may be even crazier.
Sometimes people get a bit uncomfortable about the touchy-feely aspects of mediation also. Businesspeople and their attorneys do not necessarily see the utility of discussing their emotional needs, and would often prefer to get down to business and negotiate a deal in an adversarial manner. They may be put off by mediators who sometimes try to incorporate concepts from psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, game theory, religion or what-have-you. Although diplomacy has been around for all of human history, the modern field of conflict resolution is still in its infancy, and still needs to develop a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t work. More fundamentally, participants in negotiating resolution of a dispute are often reluctant to let go of their traditional war-fighting mentality. When confronted by some of the crazy ideas that mediators might suggest, participants would probably do well to consider the shortcomings of the usual modes of solving conflicts. Resolution of disputes in the traditional adversary system is generally more costly, highly unpredictable, and at least equally crazy.