Academic journal article Military Review

The Darker Side of the Force: The Negative Influence of Cohesion

Academic journal article Military Review

The Darker Side of the Force: The Negative Influence of Cohesion

Article excerpt

Group pressures to conform are substantial, and failure to conform results in group sanction. If the group members embrace Army Values, they will conform and act appropriately. However, if the group's values are even slightly different, there is the potential for problems.

THE MY LAI MASSACRE is an emotional topic because it represents professional failure. Chronicled discussions do not cover the breadth and depth of what actually occurred in that small hamlet on 16 March 1968. Arguably, many factors contributed to the massacre; however, a rarely discussed primary cause is the importance of values in cohesion.

A popular misconception is that the unit involved at My Lai was some kind of rogue outfit operating outside the bounds of the rest of the US Army. Unfortunately, a catastrophe like this could occur in any unit if all the elements are present. Even Lieutenant General E.R. Peers who headed up the inquiry into the massacre concluded that what happened at My Lai could conceivably happen again.1 The unit involved at My Lai, Charlie Company, Ist Battalion, 20th Infantry, was a normal unit. According to the investigation conducted after the massacre, the remarkable thing about the company was just how typical it was.

The battalion was formed during 1966 in Hawaii and trained for nine months before deploying to combat. The soldiers had been in Vietnam for about three months when the massacre took place.2 The Army investigation "revealed that 87 percent of Charlie Company's noncommissioned officers (NCOs) were high school graduates, nearly 20 percent above the Army's norm. The figure for other ranks was 70 percent, again slightly higher than the average. In the areas of intelligence, trainability and aptitude, Charlie Company differed little from the US Army as a whole."3 The company commander, Ernest Medina, was a former NCO who had a good record and was, as Peers recalls, "a strong, effective leader who took care of his men."4 Medina was known as a disciplinarian. He was respected by his men, who agreed that he was an outstanding leader.5 Although Medina was a strong leader, his platoon leaders were not. The inquiry concluded that like many of the other platoon leaders who were young and inexperienced, they failed to take immediate, positive corrective action to correct wrongdoings.6 Peers further explains: "Although contributing to the tragic events of My Lai, the lack of leadership at platoon and squad levels cannot be accepted as an excuse. Every other US forces unit in South Vietnam had to make do with inexperienced junior officers and NCOs, yet they did not engage in manifestly illegal operations."7

As a unit, Charlie Company won accolades and awards and was recognized as the best company in the battalion.8 Although some would argue the company had training deficiencies, they were no more serious than those in any unit in the division. Moreover, because the men had trained together nine months for combat, deployed to Vietnam and then participated together in combat, the company had become very cohesive.9 During January 1967, this best company in the battalion was selected, along with the best companies from other battalions, to form an ad hoc battalion called Task Force Barker.10

On the outside Charlie Company looked like a unit any captain would be proud to command. It was well-trained, disciplined and had developed through the months of cohesive training necessary to withstand the stress and horrors of combat and retain the will to fight. But something went wrong with the unit's cohesion-the very thing we value in combat.

A soldier assigned to Charlie Company described the situation: "When you are in an infantry company, in an isolated environment like this, the rules of that company are foremost. They are the things that really count. The laws back home do not make any difference. What people think of you does not matter. What matters is what people here and now think about what you are doing. …

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