Sunday, April 29, 2007

Preparing for the Worst

One of the last papers I am preparing for my ILE-CC is a plan to put a Battalion that has just suffered some serious losses (including it's CO, XO, S-3 and CSM - I am supposed to write from the viewpoint of the CO) back on it's feet. A terrible and vital task, indeed.

The first thing that leapt to mind was S.L.A. Marshall's advice in Men Against Fire:

“When troops have been hard used in battle, and especially when green troops have taken heavy losses during their first engagement, talk itself is the easiest and most effective first step toward the re-establishing of a fighting morale.
Nothing is more likely to break the nerve of an intelligent and sensitive young commander in the aftermath of a costly and bloodletting experience than to leave him alone with his thoughts. That holds true also of the men under him. Men need to talk it out. The need of such a release is greatest when they feel they have been whipped.
It makes little difference how clearly the circumstances say that the fault was not one’s own. The shock of seeing one’s own men or comrades killed and of pondering one’s own hand in the making of their fate leads almost inevitably to a mood of self-accusation and bitterness – the tokens of moral defeat. The more able and conscientious the commander, the more likely it becomes that he will react in this way.” [p.118]

“The darkest hour for the novice in war comes with the recoil after the unit has been badly hit. It is then that the young commander has the greatest need of the friendship and steadiness of his superior or of any other officer whose judgment he respects. Criticism or tactical counsel are of no value at that time. They can be given later if necessary, but in the wrong hour they add to the hurt. Let him get out his crying towel! When he has told how it happened, the important thing is that he be given a pat on the back, an assurance that he did his full duty, and some little reminder that while he may feel his losses are excessive, such incidents are an unavoidable feature of combat and do not keep one from coming back the next round.” [p.119]

I have taken this advice to heart, especially as the possiblity of making LTC comes around next year. May God grant that I never have to avail myself of it. However, if I ever have to, I hope I have a superior officer like my outgoing Brigade Commander, or COL Algermissen, who was my TF Eagle CO. I think they understand this, and would do the same for one of their BN commanders.

Oh, and what does one fear could happen?

“The treatment is simple. Its psychological results should be apparent. I have seen it work many times in battle… But it is by no means a rule of action even among those senior officers who make a sincere effort to live close to their troops. More times than not, I have seen them freeze up in the very hour when their subordinates were hurting worst for a few words of understanding. Then someone else had to come along and do the job for them. Likewise, I have witnessed units which had been badly bruised their first time in battle, spend several days in painful brooding, and then bounce back almost at once when given a little intelligent moral treatment by a superior. A man remains a man after he puts on a soldier suit. Death in the company is like death in the family. Talk relieves tension. It is the first step toward moving on to life’s next problem.” [p.199-120] (emphasis added)

Always easier if you have a CSM Bones (an excellent Command Sargeant Major), or an Inner Prop (a fellow field grade officer) to prod you out of that, should it happen.


Blogger Cybrludite said...

This seems to be one thing war movies get right. I hadn't really noticed it until I read that quote, but this is exactly what we saw between Gunny Highway & Lt. Ring in "Heartbreak Ridge" after Profile's death, And between "Hoot" & Sgt. Eversmann in "Blackhawk Down" after Jamie's death. I didn't realize that this war movie cliche had such a basis in fact.

8:01 PM  
Blogger Major John said...

Hollywood could do worse than to pick up a copy of Men Against Fire.

8:10 PM  
Anonymous Chuck Pelto said...

TO: All
RE: When Things Seem at Their Worst...

....I recommend you all remember the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion at the Battle of the Salerno Beachhead.

Thrown in to stop the Nazis from reinforcing their effort to throw the invasion back into the water, they were literally, 'written off'.

They lost their commander as POW. Their XO decided to hold up in the hills, abandoning his mission, until a future link-up.

What did the troops do?

Those crazy paratroopers went off on their own hook to kick ass and take names. Doing what their 'leadership' refused to do.

THAT'S 'fighting spirit'.


[Fury from the Sky]ww

9:47 PM  
Anonymous Pomp said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:38 AM  
Blogger Major John said...

If you don't like SLA Marshall's words, don't take it out on my comments section.

8:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whether the Duke of Wellington said that the Battle of Waterloo "was won on the playing fields of Eton" or not, it is obviously a huge advantage for a soldier to have had the experience of playing on a team in competitive sports. Baseball, I think, is especially instructive. Everyone makes an error now and again but, eventually you learn to shrug off the errors and get back into the game, because the game is not won or lost over a few errors, but on the overall effort of the team. Maybe the team would have won if you hadn't bobbled the ball on a perfect double play setup and allowed a run to score. But, the team might also have won if more guys had got on base to score. It's a team effort, and a cumulative winning attitude, that leads to victory in the end.

8:57 AM  
Blogger Major John said...

While I understand the principle you are illustrating, I don't think booting a grounder is as hard to shrug off as having four of your platoon killed, if you are a young 2LT Platoon Leader...

9:42 AM  
Blogger Citizen Deux said...

The comparison to the American public and the view of the present war is striking - used to glittering victories and stunningly quick ends to conflicst - we refuse to back losing teams. The public could have used a stern talk from our CINC as to the nature, brutality and reality of war.

To even spend a few minutes in the depths of defeat and despair will enlighten more than a century of vistories, good luck with the treatise!

1:53 PM  
Blogger Major John said...


We'll see - I mailed it in today for grading.

2:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

MJ @ 9:42 -

Yes, it is different in degree, but not in kind. It's like dipping your foot into the shallow end of the pool of anguish, knowing that in some way, you contributed to the defeat. But, you learn that defeat is going to happen no matter what and, being imperfect, sometimes, you are going to have some responsibility for it. It's part of the learning process and, the more experience you have dealing with it and overcoming it, the better prepared you will be in real life when the stakes are higher.

I tell my kids, play as hard as you can, because if you do, and you know when you are being honest with yourself, if you do, then by definition, you cannot do any more. You have to lay the momentary defeats aside, because the game is long, and the only real losers are those who give up, and allow themselves to be beaten.

9:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I knew COL Algermissen when he as a BN XO. He's the heat. Nice guy, really smart.

4:50 PM  
Blogger Major John said...

Anon - the darndest thing abour COL Algermissen was that when he took command, I thought "oh crap, I'm in for it now". By the time I left for home (he still had 6 months left) I had the utmost respect for him... goes to show the first impression ain't always the correct one.

2:09 PM  

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