In Face of Death--What Makes Soldiers Disregard Instinct? : Training: Reflex, loyalty and hatred of the enemy can be cultivated to ensure that GIs fight instead of flee.
For Pfc. Autumn M. Smith, a 20-year-old soldier assigned to a Patriot missile team in the Saudi capital, the ground war--and with it, the mind-numbing terror of combat--began on the night of Jan. 21, when the battery’s launch canister ran dry.
Facing an incoming barrage of Scuds that, as far as she knew, could have spewed out deadly chemical agents, Smith scrambled out of her protected bunker and raced 450 yards through deafening noise, molten debris and blinding smoke to help reload the canister for the next volley.
Smith’s commanding officer, Lt. Eddie Wilson, described her performance as common valor. “That’s everything the military expects of its soldiers,” he boasted.
But Smith, a slightly built Texan who might well have shrunk from a threatening situation before she joined the Army two years ago--has a simpler explanation for her courage under fire: “This is my job,” she explained. “For months in training, they want to get you to the point where you react and not think. And that’s what you do.”
Smith’s response is the military’s answer to a question as old as warfare itself: What is it that makes men--and, increasingly, women--disregard instinctive fear and fight rather than flee in the face of deadly fire?
As American ground troops plunge into combat against Iraqi troops, there is heightened interest in what it is that makes GIs stand and fight in the face of burning trenches, artillery fire and the sight of mutilated comrades.
Although military doctrine emphasizes training and leadership, most military specialists agree that U.S. servicemen sent into Iraq and Kuwait will stand and fight more because of loyalty to each other than to their officers or their country.
“When it gets down to the zero hour, and it’s you and almost certain death, it is the team , the immediate family members, that send you over the ridgeline,” said Marine Col. Wes Fox, a Vietnam veteran and Medal of Honor winner.
“In those kinds of situations--in the dark, moving into machine-gun fire--the guys to the right and left of you are more important than Mom, the flag and apple pie,” Fox asserted. “You don’t see the flag, Mom’s not with you, and apple pie’s the farthest from your mind.”
Traditionally, military tenets have held that soldiers fight hardest for the smallest unit they are serving with. In most cases, that’s the squad.
“The short answer is to be found in the small group that forms within the unit--the squad, the tank crew, the artillery crew--a small group that controls the day-to-day behavior of the soldiers,” said retired Army Col. Darryl Henderson, author of “The Hollow Army.”
“That’s why soldiers expose themselves to enemy firepower,” he added.
Soldiers in the field confirm Henderson’s contention. “My personal goal is to get home alive and get seven of them soldiers (in my squad) home alive, too,” said Sgt. Todd Burnett, a 25-year-old squad leader.
Pfc. David Dumas, a 21-year-old combat engineer, agreed. “They’re there for me, and I’m there for them--it’s a big family-type thing,” he said.
Accordingly, most military training traditionally has stressed the importance of the buddy system. The process of instilling soldiers and Marines with a team spirit begins with basic training and continues through the advanced infantry training that many soldiers receive.
In basic training, especially, GIs are taught to subordinate their own concerns to the good of the group with which they are serving--their squad, their platoon, or the Army or Marine Corps itself.
The intensive training is designed to meld the high achievers together with those who may have discipline problems and teach all of them to define success in terms of the group’s overall goals.
During the Marine Corps’ “warrior” training, young men and women endure 10-hour days of physical discomfort and drill-sergeant discipline designed to convince them that they can endure more and perform better than they were prepared to do in civilian life.
But most important, the training develops what one Marine calls the bond of “shared hardships” that will push Marines to fight--and die for each other--in combat.
To be sure, the technique for psyching soldiers up to ignore danger in combat has changed somewhat over the years.
The perception that American GIs performed poorly in Vietnam prompted officials to step up their emphasis on small-group teamwork. In the 1980s, Army Chief of Staff Edward C. Meyer launched “cohort” programs aimed at keeping soldiers together in the same squads for years.
But by the mid-1980s, as peace took hold and the memories of Vietnam faded, the cohort programs were abandoned, and the services turned instead to an “individual replacement system” that rotates such squads regularly but gradually, one man at a time.
As a result, more than half the tank crews in the 1st and 3rd armored divisions, which have major roles in the ground war, have been subjected to such transfers, according to a recent report.
But while many of those crews now have operated as teams for several weeks, some experts expressed fear that they still had not built up the level of trust and mutual reliance that might have come with longer stints together.
“These are not spare parts you’re shifting around the battlefield--they’re soldiers and they’re buddies,” Henderson said.
“The more they’re shifted, the more their effectiveness is eroded. They perform as small groups, not individuals. But the individual replacement program assigns them computer numbers and treats them like spare parts.”
Instead of relying on cohorts to deliver combat effectiveness, the military is using a two-pronged strategy that centers on preparing soldiers for battle by imparting rigid discipline and realistic and repetitive training. The Army’s new battle cry has become: “Train as you fight, fight as you train.”
In recent years, the service has sought to inure soldiers to the paralyzing terror of warfare by teaching them reflex responses during realistic combat training maneuvers.
Such techniques aren’t guaranteed. Army officials concede that even electronic simulators--and mock adversaries, such as those at Ft. Irwin’s National Training Center--may not fully prepare a soldier for the actual horrors of combat. But they insist that a soldier who scores successes in such games before the shooting begins will perform with greater confidence when he finally comes under stress.
To many, the Persian Gulf War is the first and best test of the U.S. military’s new train-as-you-fight philosophy.
But there still are some unanswered questions. While experts agree that training and group loyalty plays an important role in motivating soldiers, they aren’t sure about other factors, such as strengthening a soldier’s political values or intensifying his hatred for the enemy.
The first is the subject of a good deal of controversy. Military officers scoff at the argument that soldiers operate best when they believe they are fighting for important political values.
“Except in deep conversations with hard-bitten officers, you won’t hear values talked about a lot,” said Charles Moscos, a leading military sociologist. “The military doesn’t believe in that because they can’t control it the way they can training and discipline.”
But outside the armed forces, there is a strong feeling that soldiers, to be effective, must believe in the values they are fighting for--particularly if a conflict continues beyond a few days or months.
“Values are not that important for short-duration conflicts,” Moscos said. “But as the war wears on, you finally have to believe there’s something deeper” than just surviving a battle.
One example he cites is that if black Americans come to believe they are fighting a “rich man’s war” for control over oil, their fighting spirit may flag if they begin to see black comrades die in great numbers.
The troops that American GIs now face use less subtle techniques. In the Iraqi army, officers frequently order soldiers into battle at gunpoint. And deserters are shot on sight. Those who fought at the Saudi town of Khafji and west of Wafra on Jan. 30 were no exception.
And what about hate--the emotion that Lord Moran called “the blunderbuss in the armory of those in authority, to be fired off whenever they wished to stiffen the people against the enemy”? Is a soldier’s valor in the face of fire stiffened by hate for an enemy?
Israeli psychologists have speculated that soldiers who hate their adversaries may underestimate his capabilities and thus make poor decisions.
In the midst of World War II, however, one distinguished U.S. psychiatrist, Leonard Sillman, argued that hate for an enemy may serve as a soldier’s “steel helmet for the mind,” making him less vulnerable to the stress of killing and seeing his buddies killed.
What is clear about hate is that it does not seem to take firm root among American soldiers. At the peak of World War II, only 27% of soldiers in the European theater and 38% of those in the Pacific said they were helped by hatred for the enemy when the going got tough.
“In all my time in the Army, in Korea and Vietnam, I’ve never found a soldier doing what he’s doing because he hated the enemy,” said Henderson, a former infantryman.
Indeed, in the Persian Gulf, American GIs who witnessed the furious aerial and artillery bombardment of Iraqi troops that took place before the ground war began have offered up sympathy, not hate, for the enemy.
“They’re out there doing the same thing we are--they’re doing what they think is right,” said Marine Lance Cpl. Gerald Childress, 20, of Spotsylvania, Va.
“Either that, or because they’re scared for their families. They’ve got families back home, children on the way and all that good stuff, just like we have.”
Up to the start of the ground war, that strategy--reinforced by minefields designed to keep Iraqi troops together as well as to hold allied soldiers at bay--succeeded in discouraging Baghdad’s troops from fleeing their positions even under horrific aerial bombardment.
Some Western experts feared that having to huddle together to survive may have given Iraqi troops a kind of small-unit cohesion that could enhance their performance in combat, much as American training is designed to do for U.S. units.
But while Henderson called the Iraqi forces “a big unknown,” military research suggests that Arab forces in general may not be capable of the kind of small-unit cohesion that has sustained Western soldiers in warfare.
Sociologist Yehoshefat Harkabi, who analyzed Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War for Israeli intelligence, argues that Arab fighting forces lack cohesion--a reflection of a culture in which Arab men are divided from one another by suspicion and hostility.
“Because of this defect in the social fabric, each Arab soldier, in the critical moments of combat, finds himself fighting not as a member of a team, but as an abandoned individual,” Harkabi wrote in his analysis. “Consequently, each individual tends primarily to look after himself, and the unit disintegrates.”
In the end, Moscos argued, “all that good stuff” that soldiers have--each other, their families, their country and their perception of its values--will create many more heroes than hate will.
“In general, fighting for something seems better than fighting against something,” he said.
Healy, of The Times’ Washington bureau, was recently on assignment in Saudi Arabia.