Morale: Troops You Can't Trust

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May 10, 2011: The last few months of uprisings in Arab nations has taught dictators everywhere the importance of controlling who has guns, or access to guns. It's not enough to have lots of loyal secret police, who are armed at all times. It's the much (usually five times as many) larger number of soldiers that are a problem. While the troops are not armed most of the time (weapons are kept locked up except when troops are training with them, or out doing crowd control), when they are, they can be a problem. This was the case in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, where the soldiers would not kill for the cause of prolonging the dictatorship. The same thing is starting to happen in Syria, and the Libyan dictator was smart enough to keep the army really small and poorly trained.

During the Cold War, Russia (the Soviet Union) was the main source of military equipment and advice for Arab armies. The Soviet style of leadership was designed for dictators. That is, sergeants had much less authority and responsibility than they do in Western forces. The Soviet style of military leadership stressed the use of carefully selected (and well taken care of) officers for everything, including supervisory tasks performed by sergeants in the West. To take the place of Western sergeants "keeping in touch with what the troops were thinking", each Soviet company sized (100-200 troops) unit had a political officer (Zampolit) who recruited informers among the troops, and reported directly to the secret police, not the company commander. Most Arab dictators adopted a system of spies and informers in the ranks, and troops that said the wrong thing were either beaten up, or disappeared, never to be seen again. But when the population gets unruly all at once, all the soldier spies can do is report is that the troops are restless and ask for a transfer.

Old habits are hard to break. Eleven years ago, newly elected Russia president Putin, perhaps nostalgic for the way things were run during his long career as a KGB secret agent, reintroduced secret police units into the army. This was the same method used by the communists during the Soviet period. Back then, the secret police (KGB) was responsible for insuring the loyalty of the troops. The new FSB (the KGB's successor) units will not, however, use a communist era "Zampolit" (political officer.) In Soviet times, every unit commander had a deputy who represented the communist party and could veto any of the commander's decisions. The Zampolit was responsible for troop loyalty and political correctness. Sort of a communist chaplain. What the Russian army did do in the last decade was reintroduce chaplains, something that the communists did away with in the 1920s. The new chaplains are, however, expected to report on the loyalty of the troops, to church and state.

In Soviet style armies, and that includes a lot of Arab armies, officers tend to be out of touch with their troops. That can have a serious negative impact on the effectiveness of those troops in combat, even when the "enemy" is unarmed civilians. Even the U.S. had some experience with this. During the American Revolution (1775-83) and the Civil War (1861-64), there were some serious morale and discipline problems in some units. Many units fell apart in the early stages of the Korean War (1950-53) and the Vietnam War (1964-72) witnessed the largest ever outbreak of assaults by troops on their officers and NCOs. These were the "fragging" incidents, so called because they were often carried out by tossing a fragmentation grenade into the tent of a sleeping officer. There were 239 fragging attempts 1969, 386 in 1970, 333 in 1971, and 58 in 1972, nearly all in Vietnam. This was one reason why the army got rid of the draft, and by the 1980s, the risk of fragging was nearly gone (although there have been a few incidents in the last two decades.) But Arab armies still have to worry about fragging, as do the dictators that depend on these troops for protection.

 

 


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