Air University Review, January-February 1981
Major Frederick J. Manning, USA
The barrage of charges, countercharges, and general finger pointing that followed the ill-fated rescue attempt in Iran unfortunately brought to center stage a major concern for the U.S. Armed Forces in the eighties: group morale or group cohesion.
As an Army officer writing primarily for an Air Force audience, perhaps I should explain my feeling that I have something of interest to relate on this subject. My own training and experience have been as an experimental psychologist. About two years ago, I joined forces with another psychologist whose research on "The Boys in the Barracks" kept the Army Times in demand for several weeks during 1979.1 We and four very capable noncommissioned officers (NCOs) form a small unit in Heidelberg, Germany, with the imposing name of the United States Army Medical Research Unit, Europe. As a special foreign activity of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, we represent a deliberate attempt by the Army’s Medical Research and Development Command to leave the laboratory and acquire firsthand knowledge of the medical problems besetting a deployed army. As it turned out, it does not take much imagination to see that many of these problems beset deployed navies and air forces as well. Of course, the fact that the only two scientists in our unit are psychologists has had more than a little bearing on which medical problems have received attention over the past eighteen months. This was, of course, not unforeseen; our official mission is to analyze the factors influencing the incidence and spread of psychiatric casualties, performance breakdown in combat.
As a mission statement, this is all quite clear. Still, as numerous nonscientists have pointed (JUL to us, often with some amusement, one might view the peacetime study of combat breakdown as very difficult work at best, and downright silly at worst. We disagree, naturally, but perhaps our reasons for disagreeing will be much clearer with a little historical perspective.
Neuropsychiatric, or NP, casualties do not have a very long history, but they have had many different names. The Surgeon General of the Union Army during the Civil War described a condition he termed ‘‘nostalgia,’’ but it was not until World War I and ‘‘shell shock that the symptoms or behavior indicating inability rather than unwillingness to function came to be seen as a legitimate medical concern. World War II brought us combat exhaustion and combat fatigue and brought them in great quantity, despite preinduction screening that resulted in the rejection of almost two million men for emotional and mental reasons. The services still separated nearly one-half million men for psychiatric problems during the course of the war. A good rule of thumb seems to be that psychiatric casualties will occur in a ratio of about one to every four wounded in action. That is not infallible, however, as certain types of combat tend to produce more such casualties than others. Of particular relevance to us in Europe is the fact that heavy artillery or aerial bombardment and protracted defensive operations seem to be conditions particularly conducive to these NP casualties.
On the other side of the ledger, it became clear during World War II that interpersonal relationships—call it group cohesiveness, group identification, or group support—were of overwhelming importance in the prevention and cure of these casualties. I cannot say it any better than General S. L A. Marshall said it:
I hold it to be one of the simplest truths of war that the thing which enables an infantry soldier to keep going with his weapons is the near presence or presumed presence of a comrade. He … is sustained by his fellows primarily and by his weapons secondarily.2
As a research unit charged with investigating performance breakdown in combat, our approach should have been obvious. To be honest, though, we did not start our work in Europe with a conscious bias toward assessing group support, unit cohesion, and interpersonal relations. However, we have been practically forced to address this topic in each of the projects we have undertaken. The result is our view that most serious problems in the command climate today are the implicit and unspoken division of command versus all others (barracks-dwellers, dependents, and often NCOs) and the total absence in all of these groups of a wider community of shared interests, beliefs, values, and commitments to anything other than the self. In fact, I believe the term unit is currently a misnomer in all but the most superficial sense.
The observations and situations that have led me to this conclusion came from three major and quite different areas we have investigated since I have been in the United States Army Europe (USAREUR): attrition, drug overdoses, and continuous operations by field artillery. Much of the artillery project is reported elsewhere,3 although the observations we made in literally living with a battalion for six months contributed greatly to my thinking. Let me therefore concentrate on the other two projects, involving as they do what might be called peacetime psychiatric casualties.
To people interested in group cohesion and interpersonal bonds, the loss of a battalion a month from Europe on administrative discharge alone seemed like an obvious area for investigation, and a year ago last April, we sent three members of our team to Rhein-Main Air Base to find out who made up this battalion and how it was that they could not make it in the Army.4 To make a long story short, it turned out that they were not the flower of American youth; what has been surprising to us, though, was that they were not so very different from the rest of the Army either, in their backgrounds, their opinions about the Army, or their complaints. Almost all had enlisted assuming that they would return to the civilian job market with coveted skills. Some had no concept at all of what to expect in the Army and are now leaving, angry with the Army but happy to go. A much larger group was disappointed both with the Army and with being discharged. They had enlisted with far fewer illusions, expecting discipline and hard work, but it just had not worked out. Basic training was cited almost across the board as the highlight of their service. They liked the structure (knowing what was expected of them every minute), the obvious good planning, and the feelings of accomplishment and camaraderie they had felt there. Now our subjects presented themselves as alone and scared, though none used those terms. Few reported any positive feelings toward their units at all, and the constantly recurring theme in talking to these soldiers or ex-soldiers was that of an uncaring leadership, insensitive to human problems, and concerned only with mission completion.
I am not so naïve as to take these contentions at face value in view of their source, but I have kept them in mind over the past year as hypotheses to be checked and evaluated. On that score, I would say that they were batting .333. Company commanders are not uncaring and insensitive to human problems, but they are concerned almost exclusively with mission completion, which they view as totally incompatible with what they call ‘‘troop welfare programs." Here, of course, is where I differ with them. General Marshall has said it well: "The good company has no place for an officer who would rather be right than loved, for the time will quickly come when he walks alone, and in battle no man may succeed in solitude." Do I want company commanders to spend more time ‘‘counseling’’ their problem children? Maybe; in some cases, yes. But I would rather see them do some things that might eventually stem the flow of such problem children into their offices.
However, before I spell those things out, let me discuss a second study. We are working on another research project, which investigates much different symptoms but is basically studying the same disease. The project involves drug overdoses. We want to know if there are personalities or social environments that put people at high risk; and, by implication, what can be done about it.
Our procedure is a simple one. We are notified as soon as any active duty soldier is put on the seriously ill list in any medical facility in USAREUR with a diagnosis of suspected drug overdose. We then interview friends, associates, co-workers, and leaders of the casualty, screen medical and personnel records, and perhaps talk to the casualty himself, if he lives. Results to date have surprised us a little with their consistency. The typical casualty has been a good to excellent soldier, more often outstanding than a dud, a specialist 4, but a little older than his peers in the barracks. He is not an addict, but it is not his first use of heroin; he is not a "barracks rat," has a car and a girl friend, and is well thought of by both his peers and chain of command. His leaders, from squad leader to company commander, are surprised and shocked, often insisting to us that there has either been some mistake or that somebody surely put something in his beer.
Our unit profile, on the other hand, has been a model of inconsistency. We have visited a dozen different kinds of units, from isolated air defense artillery sites to a finance company downtown in a major city. Commanders and their policies have been just as varied, ranging from those who have gone to extraordinary efforts to provide for the comfort and recreation of their men to those who saw their major job as busting people. Perhaps the most obvious point to all this is that drug use, even the use of hard drugs, is not the exclusive province of a perverted minority. It is, as Ingraham5 puts it, a way for soldiers—perfectly normal soldiers—to achieve a feeling of group membership and belonging. The vast majority of our first-term soldiers—young high school graduates or not-quite grads, lower or lower-middle class, working at their first real job—would never take a regular nine-to-five industrial job in a city 500 (much less 5000) miles away, where they have no friends or relatives and do not know anything about the local residents.
The Army, Navy, and Air Force do precisely this: they pick them up willy-nilly and drop them into a very transient environment in which they are called on to manage large blocks of time away from their homes, families, and friends. That time needs to be filled in the company of other people, and if a young soldier is to find a social support group for himself, it will have to be created by generating conversation and activities with the same limited and diverse group of other transients who comprise his work group. He does not have much time, thanks to constant transfers and rotations, and he does not generally possess elaborate social skills or leisure time habits. Drug and alcohol use fit the bill perfectly here, offering a variety of distinct shared activities and a unique group history that can create a sense of comradeship literally overnight, and effortlessly. Furthermore, periodic efforts to suppress use by search-and-seizure, health and welfare inspections, and urinalysis provide a real, well-defined threat that results in increased cohesion and solidarity among the persecuted.
Is drug use good for morale? In one sense, I am saying that it is, but only if we limit ourselves to individual morale. The social networks formed around drugs, unfortunately, almost never include all members of a work group; and they seldom include any significant mixture of rank. In fact, drug use literally splinters the social organization of the unit, setting off users from nonusers, sowing distrust, and not-so-subtly undermining respect for and confidence in the chain of command.
I do not have to go any further in defining the problem, but what can be done about it? If my analysis of the positive aspects of drug abuse is correct, then it follows that a successful prevention program would seek to provide alternatives for group identity and the sense of belonging now provided by drug use. It would focus on destroying the present we-versus-they structure and creating strong group loyalties in the small work groups of which each soldier is a member. This will of necessity include young and old, single and married, barracks-dwellers and their leaders, NCOs and officers. It cannot be done by orders and directives. One cannot buy it, and it cannot be given away. It must be built, as a by-product of activities that fill large blocks of time and involve minimal skill, so that anyone can participate, and specify some more or less well-defined outsiders or, even better, opposition. If we are serious, we would see for example, that individual physical fitness requirements deferred to unit fitness requirements; soldier-of-the-month awards deferred to unit-of-the month recognition; individual and group travel programs would defer to unit travel. We could go so far as to make some efforts to rearrange family housing to maintain unit integrity. We certainly consider it worthwhile investing time—even duty time—in some form of competitive group activity where the basic unit is the work group. A comprehensive sport program is one possibility, though only’ one. If the program were comprehensive enough so that everyone could find something to do reasonably well, and if everyone participated—single and married soldiers, senior NCOs, and maybe even dependents—large periods of time would be used in activities that could generate conversation and camaraderie among members of the unit and provide alternative social alliances in turn. It is one thing to tell squad leaders and platoon sergeants to visit their men in the barracks—but they have to have something to say when they get there, something that does not immediately put them in the role of night watchman or cop.
This program must not be seen as a troop welfare effort but rather as an essential part of the unit’s mission, a part that will not only improve readiness by cutting into attrition and drug and alcohol use but will also provide the unit with the strongest weapon against the stress of combat: loyalty, trust, and commitment to one another.
U.S. Army Medical Research Unit, Europe
1. L. H. Ingraham, "The Boys in the Barracks," Army Times, May 1979.
2. S. L. A. Marshall, Men Against Fire (New York: William Morrow, 1947), pp. 42-43.
3. Frederick J. Manning, "Continuous Operations in Europe: Feasibility and the Effects of Leadership and Training," Parameters, September 1979, pp. 8-17.
4. F. J., Manning and L. H. Ingraham, "Personnel Attrition in the United States Army, Europe," Armed Forces and Society, March-April 1981.
5. L. H. Ingraham, "Sense and Nonsense in the Army Drug Abuse Prevention Effort,’’ Parameters, March 1981.
Major Frederick J. Manning, USA (B.A., College of the Holy Cross; Ph.D., Harvard), is Deputy Director of the U.S. Army Medical Research Unit, Europe. He has been Chief of the Department of Experimental Psychology and Chief of the Physiology and Behavior Branch of the Division of Neuropsychiatry at Walter Reed Institute of Research. Major Manning published reports on his research on the effects of stress on physiological and psychological functions and serves frequently as guest editor for associated journals.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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