Saturday, May 6, 2017

Unit Cohesion

Battle of Chippewa - H. Charles McBarron, Jr. (Source)
Unit cohesion - "the bonding together of soldiers in such a way as to sustain their will and commitment to each other, the unit, and mission accomplishment, despite combat or mission stress" - General Edward C. Meyer, Chief of Staff of the United States Army (22 June 1979 - 21 June 1983)

Many civilians assume that soldiers fight for an ideal, a flag, their nation, their family, or any number of other concepts. While this might be why someone joins up to fight*  it's not what sustains soldiers in combat.

Talk to just about any veteran and they'll tell you why they fought, it was for the guy next to them, their buddies in their unit. If they wax eloquent on God, country, motherhood, and apple pie, walk away, they're probably not a combat veteran.

Perhaps back in the mists of time things were different. Some tribal societies still practice warfare as a rite of passage, a means of proving their manhood (and in tribal societies it's all about the men), and sometimes it is in deadly earnest as one group tries to drive out another. Then it's fight or die.

As time went by, warfare went through many phases, but down at what I like to call the "grunt level," it's always about the guy next to you. From the Roman Legion down to the guys in the mountains of Afghanistan, you fight because you don't want to let your buddies down. (What keeps a person in the military falls outside the scope of this post. I'm only looking at those moments when the bullets are flying, people are dying, and Hell is coming to dinner.)

Being in combat is a pretty frightening thing, over the years lots of folks have looked at ways to keep the troops together and keep them fighting. Back in the days of the Legion fighting was shoulder to shoulder, your shield (always held on the left) protected you, and the guy to your left. If the guy to your right took off or went down and no one stepped up to take his place, the only thing protecting you then was your own sword.

In the Legions discipline and training held the men together. Of course, the penalty for desertion or cowardice in battle was pretty severe, crucifixion is a very painful way to die and was considered quite shameful. (Ordinary Roman citizens could not be crucified, join the Legions and that prohibition didn't hold.) Nevertheless, for most of Rome's history the morale of the Legions was very high and the desire of the individual soldier not to let down his fellow soldiers was a motivator.

With less motivated troops fear is a useful tool. In armies during the time of Frederick the Great, some sergeants and junior officers would march behind the advancing troops with swords drawn, the implication being, "if you advance the enemy might kill you, try to run, and we will kill you." (Which reminds me of the scene in Enemy At The Gates where poorly equipped and trained Russian troops are ordered to advance into German machine gun fire at Stalingrad. When they fall back, routed, their own side - mostly NKVD - open fire on the survivors. Advance or die!)

But driving frightened conscripts into battle is no way to win a war. A battle or two might be won, but the side with superior equipment, training, and morale will usually win out in the end.

So how do you get soldiers to stand and fight?

One way is through unit cohesion. Men who are recruited at the same time, go through training together, and are deployed together are much more likely to fight well than a unit made up of replacements. One lesson the US Army learned (or should have learned) post Vietnam was not to keep a unit in the line and refresh its ranks with replacements. The smart way to do things is to move entire units in and out of combat. It is always necessary to build depleted units back up, but doing it away from combat enhances unit cohesion. Gives the troops time to develop bonds, to build unit cohesion.

Of course, that can sometimes go too far. Witness the cockpit of the Junkers Ju-88 -

Looks great doesn't it? The entire crew is together, cheek by jowl, within easy supporting distance of each other and there is no way any member of the crew can slack off without it being noticed by the others. So this is excellent, right?

Well, that canopy is all glass and wide open. One burst from an enemy aircraft and the only guy who might survive is the ventral gunner (#7). Kind of makes you feel a bit exposed doesn't it?

An extreme example perhaps, after all, even most of the crew of a B-17 as clustered towards the nose with four gunners aft of the bomb bay: two waist gunners, ball turret (belly) gunner and the tail gunner. Those, last two were very, very lonely positions. You were very isolated from the rest of the crew.

Studies were done by S. L. A. Marshall of the U.S. Army during World War II of men in combat. He would interview men shortly after they had been in combat. His studies showed something which at first surprised me.

Most of the troops in line units (that is, non-elite) didn't even fire their weapons during combat. Especially the individual riflemen. If they did fire, it was unaimed fire, think "spray and pray." Why is that do you suppose? Take a look at the trooper in the next photo.

He's all by himself in a foxhole. Odds are pretty good that his buddies will be too busy to see what he's doing and the sergeants and officers are also occupied. So why should he stick his head up to fire? Hell, he might get hit. If you just keep your head down, you might survive anything other than a direct hit by artillery.

Now look at the next two guys. They share a hole and, more importantly, one of them has an automatic weapon. While the M279, Squad Automatic Weapon, or SAW, isn't exactly a crew served weapon, (one man can operate it very effectively) it's representative of earlier machine guns which were normally operated by a crew of at least two men.

Marshall found that during combat, the men operating crew served weapons, especially machine guns, were very good at laying fire upon the enemy. They fired effectively and throughout an engagement. Why? Well, machine guns are, for one, awesome. They are an awful lot of fun to fire and you really have a feeling of raw power when operating one. Two, well there's more than one guy. You can't really shirk your duties, the other guy will notice, and will probably let the sarge know that you were slacking off during the battle.

So having small groups is an excellent thing (though too many in one spot is a bad thing, the old "one grenade gets all of you") having those small groups train together and stay together is another, very excellent thing. You get to know who you can rely on and who you can trust. Those you can't rely on or trust usually don't last long.

It's like Patton said, "An army is a team, it lives, eats, and fights as a team." Yup, individuality in combat is a bunch of nonsense. Hell, even snipers don't operate alone, you always have a sniper and a spotter.

It's all about the team.

Anyway, that's the way I understand it. The best outfits I was in during my Air Force career were teams, first, last, and always. We worked together, we partied together. The one thing I missed when I was assigned stateside was that last bit. We'd go our separate ways after work, we didn't spend much time together off duty. Maybe that's why I loved my overseas assignments.

When you're plunked down in some foreign land, you tend to stick together.

Russ knows, Shaun knows, Juvat knows, Tuna knows. If you're on a good team, you can do anything.


* Unless they were conscripted, then it's go to war or go to jail, or worse.


  1. I will agree that the very best results come from teams that have worked together and know each other well enough to inspire trust and loyalty within the team.
    Problems arise when the teams are at odds with each other or when the goals of the organization that oversees the teams are not well explained to the teams.
    With the Air Wing embarked Forrestal headed for the Med with more than five thousand sailors. Viewed from the top, the mission of Forrestal is to project American military might and that means launching and recovering a variety of Naval aircraft. To accomplish this the entire ship’s company has to work towards that one goal.

    But immediately you have created two very separate teams. The first team is entirely about the aviation side, and the Navy has gone to great lengths to set them aside as special and better than the other team. Leather jackets, flight deck jerseys in a rainbow of colors, more money for flying and for working the flight deck, and squadron ballcaps instead of ship’s ballcaps. The only team that got congratulated on the 1MC was the aviation team. I heard the announcements about Century traps, and safety milestones, and Bravo Zulus to only one team.
    The other team makes the job of the first team possible but works literally out of sight, and out of mind and gets little support from the command. No coveralls on the Mess Decks springs to mind, but dungarees soiled with arresting wire grease are fine on the Mess Decks as long as those wearing those dungarees are wearing colored jerseys. That recipe does not yield teams working towards a common goal, it yields hatred and jealousy.

    That sums up my first year on Forrestal. And then we got a change of command. Captain Clark reports aboard and takes over as Commanding Officer. Change began to ripple out from the start. We heard less about the airdales over the 1MC and more about what was important to the ship, do you understand that? It is the ship that is important. Each of us has a part in the machine that is the Forrestal and the machine’s goal is to launch and recover aircraft. And each part of the machine has to work well to make that happen. I guess we all knew that, but what a world of difference when the Captain tells you that.

    Sea story alert. I was on watch in the forward auxiliary room and I looked up to see a sailor coming down the ladder with a box of candy bars. Every once in a while the junk machines on Forrestal would jackpot and keep giving you candy after you put the first coin in. I figured the guy was an electrician and headed for the switchboard to have his candy pigout in the relative quiet and coolness of the switchboard. Instead this sailor starts passing the candy bars out to everyone in the space and says, “Captain Clark wants to thank all of you for what you do down here.” I was a smart aleck even then and I told him to tell the old man thanks. The candy bar guy says, “Call him and tell him thanks yourself,” and he gives me a phone number. I go to the sound insulated booth and call the number. I am expecting to hear, “Captain’s office, Yeoman So and So, how can I help you?” or maybe “Corporal So and So, how can I help you?” But instead I hear a voice say, “This is the Captain.” And I experience that very rare moment where I am at at complete loss for words. I collect myself and babble out a thank you, we exchange pleasantries and I hang up the phone. The Captain of the aircraft carrier found time in his schedule to have a brief chat with a lowly snipe from the bowels of the ship.

    We would have sailed the Forrestal to Hell and back for that guy.

    1. Take a team, give it an excellent leader and you get what you describe.

      Brilliant addition to the post John, thanks.

    2. Good on you, Tom! I was part of Forrestal's air wing in 90-91, but I had previously been ship's company on the JFK. We had one skipper on CV-67 who didn't seem to care much about the crew, and one who was great. You could tell the difference aboard. Squids don't expect much, and usually get it, but we like to know somebody knows we're there & doing our jobs.
      --Tennessee Budd

    3. You can always tell the difference in COs. Morale is better with a good one.

  2. Thanks for this. It really explains the last 2 managers I've had at work. Anymore, it seems my team is a series of loners, doing what they can to make it to retirement. It's tough to have a team without leadership. It never seems to work from the inside out, only top down. Good point, John.

    I was just watching this last night: GHWB talking about being an Avenger pilot. It all boiled down to teamwork. I miss that.

    1. That is the one thing from my military service I really miss. Most civilian employees don't get it, not at all.

  3. One of the best aspects of serving is serving. I think you have to experience it to understand. The US military was very good at pointing you in the right direction and inculcating a culture of putting other things before yourself. Ship, shipmate, self. It took time to figure that out, time and experience. None of us are inclined to put mission and shipmates ahead of ourselves. But you have to do it to be able to survive, let alone function, in that environment. When you saddle up with three or four other guys to go stick your collective richards in the pencil sharpener any you realize that they'll die for you and you'll die for them, then you know.

    1. Yup. If you haven't been there, you won't get it.

  4. I think this says it pretty well. Dang Dust!

  5. Agreed... first duty station out of "A" School I reprted with three others from my same class. We were the first of an entirely new radar gang on the ship. In two years we went from being pretty inept to winning the Green E (operations efficiency).

  6. The bar keeps going higher and higher. This post and comments joins those at the top. Thank you. Coming to this site is one of the high points of my day.

    Paul L. Quandt

  7. Light Fire TEAM! When you're concerned about what your crew/wingman/flight of slicks you're escorting will think of you, you won't let them down. On the surface, that may sound shallow, it's not. regards, Alemaster

  8. One of the saddest situations was the experiences of replacement soldiers in the WWII European theater. They went from the replacement depots straight into units one the line. No one knew them or wanted to know them. An uncle went through that process and remained bitter years later.

    1. The Repple-Depples were an inherently bad idea.


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