Confronting the Tiger: Small Unit Cohesion in Battle

By Rielly, Robert J. | Military Review, November/December 2000 | Go to article overview

Confronting the Tiger: Small Unit Cohesion in Battle


Rielly, Robert J., Military Review


The Army has tended to ignore many behaviors associated with prolonged combat and concentrate on the first stage in which soldiers have the illusion of immortality. However, lessons on why sod fight drawn from recent experiences may not necessarily be the ones we need for prolonged combat

BEFORE WORLD WAR 11, observers thought technology would dominate warfare with little emphasis on the human element. They reasoned that the new, deadly machinery developed during World War I and the interwar years would win the battles and end the war-soldiers would be needed merely to mop up.1 This mentality left US soldiers unprepared for direct combat, and they suffered accordingly. The US Army was harshly reminded of technology's limits; ultimately combat involves closing with the enemy. For those gruesome tasks, soldiers must have the will to fight. Early in the 21 st century, the Army again seeks to leverage technology, knowing that ultimately soldiers will have to carry the fight to the enemy. To assess the Army's readiness for combat, this article examines two questions: What provides the will to fight? Does current Army training forge and sustain soldiers' will to fight, especially in prolonged combat?

Author Paul Fussell describes three stages soldiers transition through that affect how they behave in combat:

Stage One, "It can't happen to me," occurs most often among new troops first experiencing combat. For them combat is an adventure. They feel invincible and believe things such as their youth and training will not only keep them alive but prevent them from being injured.

Stage Two, "It can happen to me," takes over as soldiers gain confidence through combat experience and see more of what battle actually is and what can happen. Soldiers believe that even though they can be injured or killed, it is a remote possibility because experience, training and luck will keep them out of harm's way.

Stage Three, "It will happen to me," settles in when soldiers realize that death or injury eventually finds everyone. A feeling of inevitability overtakes soldiers as they see more and more of their comrades die despite youth, training, experience and perceived luck.

Recent US battles have all been short. Accordingly, many soldiers never moved beyond the "it can't happen to me" stage, and the Army has tended to ignore many behaviors associated with prolonged combat and concentrate on the first stage in which soldiers have the illusion of immortality. However, lessons on why soldiers fight drawn from recent experiences may not necessarily be the ones we need for prolonged combat.

Why Soldiers Fight

Different things motivate different individuals to fight. However, researchers generally believe that five factors kindle and sustain a fighting spirit: group cohesion, unit allegiance and pride, ideology and patriotism, lack of alternatives, self-preservation and leadership. However, all these motivating factors tend to deteriorate after prolonged exposure to combat except one: small unit cohesion.3

The strongest motivation for enduring combat, especially for US soldiers, is the bond formed among members of a squad or platoon. This cohesion is the single most important sustaining and motivating force for combat soldiers.4 Simply put, soldiers fight because of the other members of their small unit. Most soldiers value honor and reputation more than their lives because life among comrades whom a soldier has failed seems lonely and worthless.' Although cases of strong company-level cohesion exist, research has shown that in combat, as soldiers draw closer to the squad, they identify with the company less.6 Higher headquarters become even more abstract as soldiers concern themselves with their personal survival in their small world of combat.

Small-unit cohesion provides shelter from battlefield horrors and enables soldiers to persevere in combat. The group provides soldiers with security, the belief that the threat can be overcome, a coping mechanism to deal with the trauma of death and killing and a sense that their contribution has meaning. …

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