Morale: What Goes Around, Comes Around


May 11, 2007: A recent Department of Defense survey of soldiers and marines found that about half of them would not report the killing or wounding of an innocent civilian. About 40 percent report they would use torture if life and death information were needed immediately. Another ten percent admitted they had abused civilians. To that end, only 47 percent of soldiers and 38 percent of marines believed that civilians should be treated with respect. Some 64 percent of the troops surveyed knew someone who was killed or seriously wounded in combat. What's interesting about these responses is that they are remarkably similar to those given by soldiers during opinion surveys conducted by the military during World War II. The surveys were conducted by the Research Branch of the Information and Education Division of the U.S. Army. Those pioneering surveys established, for those who hadn't already figured it out already, the importance of the formation of small groups of soldiers who knew and trusted each other well. It was also made clear that the combat troops were fighting mainly to get it over with, and to not let their buddies down. Mom, the American flag and apple pie had nothing to do with it, nor did speeches and exhortations from big shots back home. It was all about survival.

World War II was a unique war, but in different ways than twenty years earlier during World War I. The earlier war featured most troops spending months in muddy trenches, then getting slaughtered in set piece battles featuring headlong advances into machine-gun and artillery fire. World War II was more mobile, and added tanks and air attacks to the mix. There were more troops involved in World War II, and the casualty rate, at least for American troops, was lower than in World War I. But this brought out another problem; combat fatigue. Research Branch surveys showed the growing presence, and impact of soldiers who had spent too much time in combat. This condition was first noted during World War I, and called "shell shock" (because it was thought to arise from men being pounded for too long by artillery.) Before World War I was over, many doctors realized that "combat fatigue" was a more appropriate term than shell shock; it was the result of the stress of modern combat. Subsequent research into the historical record showed that some forms of "combat fatigue" had long existed. But 20th century warfare placed a lot more troops under a lot more stress, thus producing a lot more combat fatigue casualties Those affected acted disoriented and uninterested in their surroundings, a condition similar to a nervous breakdown.

American commanders during World War II never figured out how to deal with combat fatigue during the war, but the surveys left a vivid record of its impact. Basically, after a few months of combat, more and more troops adopted a "don't give a damn" attitude. Desertions increased, even though the men were sure to get caught. But the attitude of the combat fatigued soldiers was; "what can you do it me that's worse than more combat?" After World War II, the Research Branch work provided a foundation for dealing with combat fatigue.

That work has reached the point today where most troops will admit they have stress problems, and that has resulted in a declining suicide rate (from 19.9 per 100,000 in 2005 to 17.3 per 100,000 soldiers in 2006).

Many of those Research Branch surveys were published after the war in "The American Soldier (ISBN-13: 978-0891260356).


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