Morale: Team Trauma


August 16,2008:  Team building exercises are increasingly popular in the military, as they have been for decades in the corporate world. The idea is to get everyone in a team to know, and trust one another. This has long been known as a critical factor in sports, or combat. But now, many non-combat units have to expect encountering fire fights and ambushes. Team building can be a matter of life or death.

The critical aspect of the "team" in combat is a relatively recent phenomenon. Since the development of gunpowder infantry weapons five centuries ago, the team-work was mostly drills. It wasn't until World War I that there again developed a need for the traditional combat team. Right after World War II, social scientists discovered the importance of what they called, the "primary group." That was a fancy word for "team," but research showed that some armies were better at developing team spirit, and team efficiency, than others.

It took several decades, and several more wars, before enough additional research, and generals willing to act on it, brought about an intense interest in cultivating these teams. One major obstacle was the U.S. "individual replacement" system. This World War II concept, replaced combat casualties by just sending the replacement to his new unit. This often happened while the battle was still going on, and the new guy was often dead or wounded before the other guys in his squad could even get to know his name.  

The solution to that was to pull a unit out of combat before bringing in replacements, and training the new guys with the unit until everyone was confident that the unit could do the job. American generals also had a hard time just keeping units together long enough, before being shipped overseas, to develop the trust and teamwork that makes such a big difference in combat.  The wisdom of  deliberate team building efforts have been seen in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the troops have been noted to be much more efficient and effective than others, on average, in the previous century.

The big effort now is to try and cultivate a team spirit, and efficiency, in the non-combat units that are likely to get involved in combat. That's not easy, as the combat support troops have lots of work to do that does not require the kind of tight-knit teamwork that is so essential to an infantry squad, or a football team.





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