The Nature of the Beast
If the bombardment [of London by V-bombs] really becomes a serious nuisance and great rockets with far-reaching and devastating effect fall on many centres . . . I may certainly have to ask you to support me in using poison gas. We could drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany in such a way that most of the population would be requiring constant medical attention.
Winston Churchill to the Chiefs of Staff Committee, July 1944
The rain of large sparks, blowing down the street, were each as large as a five-mark piece. I struggled to run against the wind but could only reach a house on the corner of the Sorbenstrasse . . . .[We] couldn’t go on across the Eiffestrasse because the asphalt road had melted. There were people on the roadway, some already dead, some still lying alive but stuck in the asphalt. They must have rushed onto the roadway without thinking. Their feet had got stuck and then they had put out their hands to try to get out again. They were on their hands and knees screaming.
Kate Hoffmeister, then nineteen, on the firestorm in Hamburg in 1943(1)
The conclusion was getting hard to avoid even before the advent of nuclear weapons: the game of war is up, and we are going to have to change the rules if we are to survive. The brief, one-sided campaigns of well-armed Western countries against dysfunctional ThirdWorld autocracies kill in the tens of thousands, and the genocidal ethnic conflicts of fragile post-colonial states are local tragedies, but during the last two years of World War II, over one million people were being killed each month. If the great powers were to go to war with one another just once more, using all the weapons they now have, a million people could die each minute. They have no current intention of doing that, but so long as the old structures survive, Big War is not dead. It is just on holiday.
It is technology that has invalidated all our assumptions about the way we run our world but the easiest and worst mistake we could make would be to blame our current dilemma on the mere technology of war. Napalm, nerve gas, and nuclear weapons were not dropped into our laps by some malevolent god; we put a great deal of effort into inventing and producing them because we intended to fight wars with them.
A lot of people know that seventy thousand died at Hiroshima, but few people know that two hundred and twenty-five thousand died in Tokyo, as a result of only two raids with conventional bombs. I was a bomber pilot a long time ago. I bombed Hamburg. Seventy thousand people died there when the air caught fire. Eighty thousand or so died at Dresden. And if you want to talk about numbers, one hundred and twenty-three thousand died at Iwo Jima . . . and so the problem is war, not nuclear war.
Man in the street in Washington, D.C.
The essential soldier remains the same. Whether he was handling a sling-shot weapon on Hadrian’s Wall or whether he’s in a main battle tank today, he is essentially the same.
General Sir John Hackett
The soldier was one of the first inventions of civilization, and he has changed remarkably little over the five thousand years or so that real armies have existed. The teenage Iranian volunteers stumbling across minefields east of Basra in 1984 or the doomed British battalions going over the top in the July Drive on the Somme in 1916 were taking part in the same act of sacrifice and slaughter that destroyed the young men of Rome at Cannae in 216 BC. The emotions, the odds, and the outcome were fundamentally the same. Battle, the central act of civilized warfare, is a unique event in which ordinary men willingly kill and die as though those extraordinary actions were normal and acceptable. Changes in weapons and tactics have not altered those essential elements of its character.
However, the consequences of war can and do change. Force is the ultimate argument, and once it has been invoked, the only effective reply is superior force. The internal logic of war has frequently caused it to grow far bigger in scale than the importance of the issue originally at dispute would justify. In our time, the likely consequences of major war have grown drastically and irreversibly, so that they potentially include the destruction of the entire human habitat. Yet modern soldiers do not behave any more ruthlessly than their ancestors.
The residents of Dresden and Hiroshima in 1945 suffered no worse fate than the citizens of Babylon in 680 BC, when the city fell to Sennacherib of Assyria, who boasted: “I levelled the city and its houses from the foundations to the top, I destroyed them, and I consumed them with fire. I tore down and removed the outer and inner walls, the temples and ziggurats built of brick, and dumped the rubble in the Arahtu canal. And after I destroyed Babylon, smashed its gods and massacred its population, I tore up its soil and threw it into the Euphrates so that it was carried by the river down to the sea.”(2) It was a more labour-intensive method of destruction than nuclear weapons, but the effect (at least for an individual city) was about the same.
Most of the major cities of antiquity sooner or later met a fate similar to Babylon’s – some of them many times – when the fortunes of war eventually left them exposed to their enemies. The difference between ancient military commanders and those who control the ultimate weapons of today (apart from a strikingly different approach to public relations) is more in the technologies and resources at their disposal than in their basic approach to the job. Soldiers often prefer to cloak the harsh realities of their trade in idealism or sentimentality, as much to protect themselves from the truth as to hide it from the rest of us, but at the professional level they have never lost sight of the fact that the key to military success is cost-effective killing. The relentless search for efficiency in killing that ultimately led to the development of nuclear weapons was just as methodical when the only means of introducing lethal bits of metal into an enemy’s body was by muscle power. Consider the following instructions on the use of a sword in a Roman army training manual:
A slash cut rarely kills, however powerfully delivered, because the vitals are protected by the enemy’s weapons, and also by his bones. A thrust going in two inches, however, can be mortal. You must penetrate the vitals to kill a man. Moreover, when a man is slashing, the right arm and side are left exposed. When thrusting, however, the body is covered, and the enemy is wounded before he realises what has happened. So this method of fighting is especially favoured by the Romans.(3)
All surgically precise and clear, and sometimes it does happen like that: the weapons will generally (though not always) perform as predicted. But the men who wield them remain intensely human, and their behaviour on a battlefield, in Roman times or now, is complex and unpredictable. Consider U.S. Marine corporal Anthony Swofford’s first contact with the enemy in the Gulf War of 1991:
Then we hear the voices of the Iraqi soldiers, and the idling diesel engines of their vehicles. Johnny and I low-crawl to the top of the rise while the rest of the team prepares to cover our right flank . . . . And then we hear the engine of their troop carrier move from idle to acceleration, and the slow, deep throaty drawl of the men’s voices is gone, and we know that we’ve been just missed again . . . .
I will never know why those men didn’t attack us over the rise. Perhaps we shared an aura of mutual assured existence, allowing us to slowly approach one another and prepare to engage, but finally when the numbers were crunched, the numbers were bad for both sides, and the engagement thus sensibly aborted. If wars were only fought by the men on the ground, the men facing one another in real battle, most wars would end quickly and sensibly. Men are smart and men are animals, in that they don’t want to die so simply for so little.(4)
It would be nice if it were as simple as that, but it isn’t. A few days later the war is coming to a sudden end, and Corporal Swofford, one of two snipers in a perfect position overlooking an Iraqi airfield, is begging for permission on the radio to open fire. He is ordered not to by his captain, allegedly because that will deter the Iraqis from surrendering. Swofford doesn’t believe it.
I can’t help but assume that certain commanders, at the company level, don’t want to use us because they know that two snipers with two of the finest rifles in the world and a couple of hundred rounds between them will in a short time inflict severe and debilitating havoc on the enemy, causing the entire airfield to surrender. The captains want some war, and they must know that the possibilities are dwindling. And also, same as us, the captains want no war, and here it is, but when you’re a captain and you have a company to command and two snipers want to take a dozen easy shots and try to call it a day, of course you tell them no, because . . . what you need is some war ink spilled on your Service Record Book.(5)
So the whole company assaults the airfield, and people are killed and wounded on both sides, and the two snipers sit up on their ridge raging and forgotten – and Swofford is so frustrated that he spends half an hour aiming his sniper rifle at prisoners in the distance, “hopping from head to head with my crosshairs, yelling, Bang, bang, you’re a dead fucking Iraqi.”
It isn’t simple at all. The human complexities at the level of an infantry company do not get less complicated at the level of the generals. Indeed, they may be even more complex. War is a huge, multi-faceted, ancient human institution that is deeply entrenched in our societies, our history, and our psyches. No matter which angle we approach it from, we will initially be in the position of one of the blind men trying to describe the elephant. But the best place to begin, perhaps, is at the very heart of the matter: the nature of combat.
War is the province of uncertainty; three-fourths of the things on which action in war is based lie hidden in the fog of greater or less uncertainty.
Karl von Clausewitz
Their Majesties lunch with Doris and me, quite simply, at Government House. The King seemed anxious, but he did not . . . really comprehend the uncertainty of the result of all wars between great nations, no matter how well prepared one may think one is.
Gen. Douglas Haig, 11 August 1914(6)
The military is often criticized for its persistent – and persistently unsuccessful – attempts to reduce all action to routines, rules, and regulations. But all it amounts to, in practice, is a desperate and only partially successful attempt to reduce the immense number of variables with which the professional military officer must contend. To a limited extent the wild card represented by the unpredictable behaviour of his own people under stress can be brought under control by the imposition of uniform training and indoctrination, but there is no comparable way to confine the interplay of will, art, and chance between opponents on the battlefield to a predictable pattern.
Armies try, certainly – there are as many lists of “Principles of War” as there are general staffs, each consisting of ten or a dozen platitudes that are mostly either self-evident or useless to the man who has to take the decision under fire. Combat is an environment that cannot be mastered by set rules. Tactics and strategy must be learned and plans made, but the unpredictable and uncontrollable elements are so large that even the best plans, carried out by the most competent and daring officers, will often fail – and will always change.
Q. Can you tell me how a battle works?
A. Well, in my opinion a battle never works; it never works according to plan . . . . The plan is only a common base for changes. It’s very important that everybody should know the plan, so you can change easily. But the modern battle is very fluid, and you have to make your decisions very fast – and mostly not according to plan.
Q. But at least everybody knows where you’re coming from?
A. And where you’re going to, more or less.
Gen. Dan Laner, Israeli Defense Forces commander, Golan Heights, 1973
Combat at every level is an environment that requires officers to make decisions on inadequate information in a hurry and under great stress, and then inflicts the death penalty on many of those who make the wrong decision – and on some of those who have decided correctly as well. In such an environment, officers must rely on rules of thumb that are no more than rough calculations, distilled from much past experience, of the odds that a given action will succeed. On the whole, officers will cling to these rules even if the laws of chance occasionally betray them.
As we were going into the position, there was a large rice field we had to walk across, and I remember that I had to send somebody else across first. And you think, “Well, who do I send? Do I go myself?” But being the leader you can’t afford that. You had to send somebody across. And if you sat back and thought about it you would say, “Am I sacrificing this individual? Am I sending him out there to draw fire?”
That may be part of it, but it’s better to send an individual than walk out there with your entire force. And I remember pointing to an individual and telling him to go. Now there was one moment of hesitation, when he looked at me: “Do you mean me? Do you really mean it?” And the look I must have given him – he knew that I meant it, and he went across the field.
Everybody was watching that individual. I started sending them across in twos, and it was no problem. Then I took my entire force across. When we were about halfway across, they came up behind us, the VC [Viet Cong], and they were in spiderholes, and they caught most of my unit in the open.
Now tactically I had done everything the way it was supposed to be done, but we lost some soldiers. There was no other way. We could not go around that field; we had to go across it. So did I make a mistake? I don’t know. Would I have done it differently [another time]? I don’t think I would have, because that’s the way I was trained. Did we lose less soldiers by my doing it that way? That’s a question that’ll never be answered.
Maj. Robert Ooley, U.S. Army
The battle drills in which Major Ooley was trained were worked out by experienced professional soldiers, with the aim of minimizing the chance of an unpleasant surprise and limiting the damage done if the surprise happens anyway. Tactical doctrines like these are constantly updated in the light of new experience, and the same process of analysis is applied to operations all the way up the chain of command. An enormous amount of effort now goes into the attempt to create rules that will give modern officers at least some general guidelines on how to combine all the resources under their command successfully on the battlefield; the tactical manuals of today’s armies can run into hundreds of pages.
Yet in the end, the product of all this effort is the same, usually no more than programmed uncertainty and never a reliable guide to success. The official doctrines concentrate on manipulating what can be calculated and rationally planned in war, but the large incalculable elements are at best partly constrained by them – the rest is just hidden by the planning process. On the battlefield, the uncertainties cannot be hidden, and real combat is just as much a gamble for General Yossi Ben-Chanaan, who has fought in a number of short, victorious wars, as for Major Ooley, who fought a long, losing war.
Ben-Chanaan commanded a tank brigade on the Golan Heights during the 1973 war in the Middle East, and on the sixth day of the war, with only eight tanks left, he succeeded in penetrating the Syrian front line.
. . . and once we arrived to the rear we took position, and all their positions were very exposed. We opened fire, and for about twenty minutes we destroyed whoever we could see, because we were in a great position there.
I decided to charge and try to get that hill, but I had to leave a couple of tanks in cover; so I charged with six tanks. [The Syrians] opened fire from the flank with antitank missiles, and in a matter of seconds, three out of the six tanks were blown up. There was a big explosion in my tank. I blew out, and I was left there . . . . And also the whole attack was a mistake, I think.
General Ben-Chanaan is a very competent officer, but his attack failed and some of his men died. Yet if there had not been Syrian antitank missiles off on his flank (which he could not possibly have known), his attack would probably have succeeded, and a vital hill would have been taken by the Israelis at the critical time. Many Israelis who died in the subsequent fighting might now be alive, and the armistice line might be a good deal closer to Damascus. At the time, the gamble seemed worth it to Ben-Chanaan; he took a chance, and he was wrong. There are so many variables in combat that a commander cannot control, and so many things that he simply does not know.
Military officers, to be successful in combat, need a very high tolerance for uncertainty. This may seem one of the attributes least likely to be present in the armed forces, with their identical uniforms and rigid system of ranks, their bureaucratic standardizations (of everything from “Swords, Ceremonial, Officers, for the Use of” to the format in which a commander must compose his operational orders), and their apparently generalized intolerance for deviations from the norm of any sort. Yet in fact these are two sides of the same coin.
It is not necessary for Acme Carpet Sales or the Department of Motor Vehicles to regiment their employees and rigidly routinize every aspect of their work, for they operate in an essentially secure and predictable environment. The mail will be delivered each morning, the sales representatives will not be ambushed and killed on the way to their afternoon appointments, and the accounts department will not be driven to mass panic and flight by mortar rounds landing in the parking lot. Armies in peacetime look preposterously over-organized, but peace is not their real working environment.
In battle, the apparent lunacies of orders given and acknowledged in standard forms, of rank formalized to an extent almost unknown elsewhere, of training that ensures that every officer will report his observations of enemy movements in this format rather than some other when there seems no particular virtue in doing it one way rather than another, all find their justification by bringing some predictability and order to an essentially chaotic situation. Even the most bizarre aspect of military organization, the officer-enlisted man distinction, makes a kind of sense in this strange environment.
The rigid division of all military organizations into officers and enlisted men, two entirely separate hierarchies of people covering roughly the same span of age and often, at the more junior levels, doing much the same kind of job, is so universal that it is rarely considered remarkable. Yet armed forces have the most meticulously stratified system of rank to be found anywhere, and they positively flaunt it.
Among all the intricate distinctions of rank, it is the gulf between the officers and the other ranks that is most important. Army lieutenants at the age of twenty or twenty-one will normally be placed in charge of a body of enlisted men who are older and more experienced than themselves. The army will expect them to rely heavily on the judgment of their NCOs, but the final decision and the ultimate responsibility are theirs. Indeed, the twenty-year-old lieutenant is legally of a higher rank than the most experienced and trusted noncommissioned officer in the army (though he would be wise not to exercise his authority without careful consideration). Moreover, in all armies it is deliberately made difficult to transfer from the enlisted ranks to the officer caste.
The historical origins of the officer/man distinction are political and social, but it is striking that even the most formally egalitarian states like revolutionary France or Bolshevik Russia never abolished it. The fundamental reason is that officers must use their men’s lives up in order to accomplish the purposes of the state.
You’ve got to keep distant from [your soldiers]. The officer-enlisted man distance helps. This is one of the most painful things, having to withhold sometimes your affection for them, because you know you’re going to have to destroy them on occasion. And you do. You use them up: they’re material. And part of being a good officer is knowing how much of them you can use up and still get the job done.
Paul Fussell, infantry officer, World War II
Officers play a very large role in battles, and their casualties are usually higher proportionally than those of the enlisted men. The brief life expectancy of infantry lieutenants on the Western Front in World War I is legendary, but the figures were actually just as bad in World War II.
It occurred to me to count the number of officers who had served in the Battalion since D-Day. Up to March 27th, the end of the Rhine crossing [less than ten months] . . . I found that we had had 55 officers commanding the twelve rifle platoons, and that their average service with the Battalion was 38 days . . . . Of these 53% were wounded, 24% killed or died of wounds, 15% invalided, and 5% survived.
Col. M. Lindsay, 1st Gordon Highlanders(7)
In general, officer casualties in the British and American armies in World War II in the rifle battalions that did most of the fighting, were twice as high proportionally as the casualties among enlisted men. Similar figures seem to apply for most other armies that have seen major combat in the past several centuries. (Suspiciously, the officer casualty rate for American forces in the Vietnam War was slightly below the enlisted rate.)(8) Nevertheless, there is a fundamental difference in the officer’s experience of battle. He feels as much fear and is exposed to as much danger as his men, but except in the most extreme circumstances, he will not be using a weapon himself. His role is to direct those who do and make them go on doing it. The task officers must perform and the circumstances in which they must do it have instilled in them a very special view of the world and how it works.
The military ethic emphasizes the permanence of irrationality, weakness and evil in human affairs. It stresses the supremacy of society over the individual and the importance of order, hierarchy and division of function.
It accepts the nation state as the highest form of political organization and recognizes the continuing likelihood of war among nation states . . . . It exalts obedience as the highest virtue of military men . . . . It is, in brief, realistic and conservative.
Much of Huntington’s classic definition of the “military mind” would have applied to long-serving military officers of the distant past, but there is an added dimension to it now, for it represents the outlook of a separate and specialized profession. Although there have always been full-time specialists in the military art at the lower levels of army command structures, it is only in the past few centuries that there has come into existence in every country an autonomous body of people – the professional military officers – whose sole task is to maintain the armed forces in peacetime and lead them in war.
Profession is the correct word for the calling of the career military officer today, in much the same sense that the word is applied to older professions like medicine or the law. The officer corps is a self-regulating body of men and women with expert knowledge of a complex intellectual discipline. It has a monopoly of the exercise of its function, and the exclusive right to select and train those new members who will be admitted to the discipline. Its client is society as a whole (through the mediation of the government, its sole employer), and it enjoys special privileges in compensation for its grave responsibilities. Like any other profession, it also has a wide range of corporate interests and views to defend and advance. But there is one key respect in which the military is very different from its civilian counterparts: what soldiers call the “unlimited liability” of their contract to serve. Few other contracts oblige the employee to lay down his life when the employer demands it.
Politicians may . . . pretend that the soldier is ethically in no different position than any other professional. He is. He serves under an unlimited liability, and it is the unlimited liability which lends dignity to the military profession . . . . There’s also the fact that military action is group action, particularly in armies . . . . The success of armies depends to a very high degree on the coherence of the group, and the coherence of the group depends on the degree of trust and confidence of its members in each other.
Now what Arnold Toynbee used to call the military virtues – fortitude, endurance, loyalty, courage, and so on – these are good qualities in any collection of men and enrich the society in which they are prominent. But in the military society, they are functional necessities, which is something quite, quite different. I mean a man can be false, fleeting, perjured, in every way corrupt, and be a brilliant mathematician or one of the world’s greatest painters. But there’s one thing he can’t be, and that is a good soldier, sailor or airman. Now it’s this group coherence and the unlimited liability which, between them, set the military professional apart, and I think will continue to do so.
Gen. Sir John Hackett
There are bad officers, of course, of whom none of this is true, but General Hackett is right: the lack of those virtues is what makes them bad officers. In a way, he is simply offering a general and somewhat romanticized formulation of the state of grace amid evil that does prevail, by necessity, among front-line soldiers. It is the same phenomenon that a private soldier described in talking of “the friendly helpfulness and almost gaiety that increases until it is an almost unbelievably tangible and incongruous thing as you get nearer to the front. A cousin writing to me recently . . . said, ‘Men are never so loving or so lovable as they are in action.’ That is not only true, it is the beginning and end of the matter.”(10)
But this, too, is not the whole of the truth.
I went where I was told to go and did what I was told to do, but no more. I was scared shitless just about all the time.
James Jones, infantry private, World War II
If blood was brown, we’d all have medals.
Canadian sergeant, northwest Europe, 1944–45
Fear is not just a state of mind; it is a physical thing. With its useful mania for questionnaires, the U.S. Army set out during World War II to find out just how much fear affected the ability of soldiers to perform on the battlefield. In one infantry division in France in August 1944, 65 percent of the soldiers admitted that they had been unable to do their jobs properly because of extreme fear on at least one occasion, and over two-fifths said it had happened repeatedly.
In another U.S. infantry division in the South Pacific, over two thousand soldiers were asked about the physical symptoms of fear: 84 percent said they had a violent pounding of the heart, and over three-fifths said they shook or trembled all over. Around half admitted to feeling faint, breaking out in a cold sweat, and feeling sick to their stomachs. Over a quarter said they had vomited, and 21 percent said they had lost control of their bowels.(11) These figures are based only on voluntary admissions, of course, and the true ones are probably higher in all categories, especially the more embarrassing ones. James Jones’s remark about being “scared shitless” was not just a colourful expression.
This is the raw material with which officers must conduct their battles: men whose training and self-respect and loyalty to their close friends around them are very nearly outweighed by extreme physical terror and a desperate desire not to die. Soldiers in battle, however steady they may appear, are always a potential mob capable of panic and flight, and armies must expend an enormous amount of effort to keep them in action, beginning in basic training and continuing on the battlefield.
The officer’s task has grown even more difficult over time, for he no longer has all his men lined up in ranks under the eagle eyes of his NCOs in a situation in which as long as they continue to go through the mechanical motions of loading and firing, they are being militarily effective. Modern ground forces fight in circumstances of extreme dispersion in which it is impossible for the officer to exercise direct supervision and control over his men’s actions. Though the structure of command, compulsion, and punishment for poor performance remains in place, the officer must now rely much more on persuasion and manipulation of his men.
You lead by example. I don’t think it was unknown that I was afraid to be shot at. I didn’t like it, I don’t think anybody does; but I did what had to be done, given the situation at any given time, and I think that’s a contagious-type thing. When the shooting starts and things start happening, you do what has to be done, and other people start doing what has to be done, and it’s a team effort.
Lt. Col. Michael Petty, U.S. Army, Vietnam, 1969–71
If too many soldiers in a unit fail to do their jobs, nobody is likely to survive. This approach to leadership, therefore, often produces acceptable results, especially in small wars like Vietnam, in which casualties are relatively low (only about one in fifty of the U.S. soldiers who served in Vietnam was killed), and episodes of intensive combat are generally brief and intermittent. It was the collapse of morale, not the attrition of combat, that destroyed the U.S. Army’s fighting capability in Vietnam.
But in large-scale warfare between regular armies, things are different, and have been for at least the past two generations. In any big battle down to the latter part of the nineteenth century, the dead and wounded on a single day of fighting could amount to up to 40 or 50 percent of the men engaged, and the average figure was rarely less than 20 percent. Given a couple of battles a year, the infantryman stood an even chance of being killed or wounded for each year the war continued – a very discouraging prospect. But for 363 days of the year, it was merely a hypothetical prospect, for he was not in battle or even in close contact with the enemy on those days. He might be cold, wet, tired, and hungry much of the time – if it was the campaigning season and the army was manoeuvring around the countryside – but for a good part of the year he was probably billeted somewhere indoors at night. In such circumstances the high probability that he would be dead or wounded within the year could be dealt with in the same sort of way that everybody deals with the eventual certainty of death.
The navies and air forces of today fight a kind of war that is still recognizably the same in its psychological effects. On a warship there is the constant psychological strain of being below deck knowing that a torpedo could hit at any time, but actual close contact with an enemy rarely averages more than a few hours a month. Even the bomber crews of World War II, whose life expectancy was measured in months, were still fighting that kind of war, although in an extreme form: in between the brief moments of stark terror when the flak or the fighters came too close, they slept between clean sheets and might even get to the pub some evenings. But for armies, things have changed irreversibly.
There is no such thing as “getting used to combat.” . . . Each moment of combat imposes a strain so great that men will break down in direct relation to the intensity and duration of their exposure.
U.S. Army psychological investigation into the effects of combat(12)
The most striking visible sign of the change that has made ground warfare so much harder on the soldiers, paradoxically, is a steep drop in the casualty toll in a day of battle. Unlucky small units can still be virtually exterminated in an hour when something goes badly wrong, but the average daily loss for a division-sized force in intensive combat in World War II was about 2 percent of its personnel. For entire armies, the casualties even on the first day of a great offensive rarely amounted to 1 percent. The lethality of weapons has increased several thousandfold over the past two hundred years, but the extent to which the potential targets of those weapons have spread out is even greater, and it is certainly far safer to be a soldier on any given day of battle today than it was a hundred or a thousand years ago. The problem for the soldiers is that battles can now continue for weeks, with individual units being sent back in at frequent intervals, and the battles may follow each other in quick succession.
In terms of overall casualties per year, the loss rate in major wars is cumulatively about the same as it was in earlier times, with combat infantrymen facing at best an even chance of death or a serious wound within a year. But the psychological effect is very different. Being in contact with the enemy and exposed to the elements most of the time, being shelled every day, and living amid constant death gradually erode men’s desperate faith in their own hope of survival and eventually destroy everybody’s courage and will. Anyone can be brave once, but nobody can go on forever: “Your courage flows at its outset with the fullest force and thereafter diminishes; perhaps if you are very brave it diminishes imperceptibly; but it does diminish . . . and it can never behave otherwise,” wrote a British soldier who had been through too much.(13)
The U.S. Army concluded during World War II that almost every soldier, if he escaped death or wounds, would break down after two hundred to two hundred and forty “combat days”; the British, who rotated their troops out of the front line more often, reckoned four hundred days, but they agreed that breakdown was inevitable. The reason that only about one-sixth of the casualties were psychiatric was that most combat troops did not survive long enough to go to pieces.
The pattern was universal, in all units of every nationality on all fronts. After the first few days of combat, in which the members of a fresh unit would show signs of constant fear and apprehension, they would learn to distinguish the truly dangerous phenomena of combat from the merely frightening, and their confidence and performance steadily improved. After three weeks they were at their peak – and then the long deterioration began. By the sixth week of continuous combat, two Army psychiatrists who accompanied a U.S. infantry battalion in 1944 reported, most soldiers had become convinced of the inevitability of their own death and had stopped believing that their own skill or courage could make any difference. They would continue to function with gradually diminishing effectiveness for some months, but in the end, if they were not killed, wounded, or withdrawn from battle, the result was the same: “As far as they were concerned the situation was one of absolute hopelessness . . . . The soldier was slow-witted . . . . Mental defects became so extreme that he could not be counted on to relay a verbal order . . . . He remained almost constantly in or near his slit trench, and during acute actions took little or no part, trembling constantly.” At this point the “two thousand-year stare” appeared (in Vietnam it was known as the “thousand-yard stare”), and the next stage was catatonia or total disorientation and breakdown.(14)
The amount of time it took soldiers to reach this point varied from individual to individual and could be greatly extended if they had some periods of relief from combat. The principal reason that relatively few entire units collapsed was that the same combat environment that produced these symptoms also caused so many casualties that there was a constant flow of replacements. (The Soviet army’s casualties in 1943, for example, were 80 percent of the forces engaged, and the same in 1944.) Most units in prolonged combat in modern war, therefore, consist of an uneasy mixture of some utterly green and unsure replacements, some surviving veterans of many months of combat, most of whom are nearing collapse, and a proportion of soldiers – the larger the better, from the unit’s point of view – who are still in transition from the former stage to the latter.
This is the reality that an officer must deal with (if he is not yet too far gone himself to cope with it). Except in the very first experiences of a unit in combat, he must reckon at best with the state of mind described by Brigadier Geneneral S.L.A. Marshall:
Wherever one surveys the forces of the battlefield, it is to see that fear is general among men, but to observe further that men commonly are loath that their fear will be expressed in specific acts which their comrades will recognize as cowardice. The majority are unwilling to take extraordinary risks and do not aspire to a hero’s role, but they are equally unwilling that they should be considered the least worthy among those present . . . .
The seeds of panic are always present in troops so long as they are in the midst of physical danger. The retention of self-discipline . . . depends upon the maintaining of an appearance of discipline within the unit . . . . When other men flee, the social pressure is lifted and the average soldier will respond as if he had been given a release from duty, for he knows that his personal failure is made inconspicuous by the general dissolution.(15)
The experienced professional officer takes an unromantic view of men’s behaviour under stress and believes that all his efforts in war amount to no more than trying to build shaky bridges across chaos with highly volatile human material. A young American infantry officer was strikingly frank about these realities to the survivors of his company in a post-combat debriefing that Marshall attended after the company had assaulted a small German fort outside Brest in 1944. The men had made a remarkable seven hundred-yard charge across an open field, causing most of the German garrison to flee, and reached the cover of a hedgerow only fifteen yards from the fort. But they could not then be persuaded to get up and cross the scant remaining distance for seven hours, although only a handful of German defenders remained.
You have a plan. You have an objective. Your men get started with the objective in mind. But in the course of getting to the objective and taking up fire positions disorganization sets in. The men look for cover and that scatters them. Fire comes against them and that scatters their thoughts. They no longer think as a group but as individuals. Each man wants to stay where he is. To get them going again as a group, an officer must expose himself to the point of suicide. The men are in a mental slump; they always get that way when they have taken a great risk . . . . It is harder to get men to mop up after a charge than to get them to charge.
Lt. Robert W. Rideout, Brest, 1944(16)
Marshall offers dozens of instances of the “lightning emotional changes” of men in combat, which will cause “the same group of soldiers [to] act like lions and then like scared hares within the passage of a few minutes.” He is also acutely aware of how easily the apparent authority of officers can be undermined by the reluctance of the soldiers. They may, for example, seize upon the failure of some promised element of support for an attack (tanks, an artillery barrage, etc.) to arrive at the right time in the promised quantities: “The men squat in their foxholes and count. If they see a default anywhere they feel this gives them a moral excuse to default in their portion. They procrastinate and argue . . . .” In the end the attack goes off half-heartedly, without hope of success. “The rule for the soldier,” Marshall concludes, “should be that given the Australian mounted infantryman when he asked the Sphinx for the wisdom of the ages: ‘Don’t expect too much!’”(17)
Everything army officers know about the nature of battle leads them toward the same conclusion: that it is an environment where nothing works reliably; and no plan or stratagem succeeds for very long. And everything that they know about human nature tells them that man is a frail and fallible creature who requires strong leadership and firm discipline in order to behave properly and function effectively in combat. This fundamental pessimism about the limits of heroism and idealism is central to the professional soldiers’ world, and on the outermost margins of human experience, where they must operate in combat, their assumptions about human nature are absolutely right. So it is only understandable that they are quite ruthless in the ways that they manipulate the ideas and the behaviour of their soldiers.