- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
What prevents combat trauma? In the same July 1944 article from the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry that I cited the other day, Dr. Herbert X. Spiegel, a psychiatrist assigned to an Army infantry battalion in North Africa in World War II, made these observations:
"Good leadership meant good morale, and this, in turn, meant a low psychiatric casualty rate and good performance…The company commander or platoon leader…saw to it that his men got the best possible food under the circumstances; sent blankets up to them at night if it were at all possible; made every effort to keep them well supplied with water and ammunition; saw to it that promotions were fair; made certain that good work and gallantry were properly recognized; he got mail, news and information to them when possible; and he made sure that violations of rules were treated quickly and fairly. But above all, by these actions, he made his men feel they were not alone, that he was backing them up with everything humanly possible. That, plus technical ability, constitutes a good leader."
Tom again: I think that is about as good a summary I’ve seen. I’d like to see it quoted in our military manuals on small unit leadership. And I can’t think of a more important subject for this blog.
Yet even with good leadership, there clearly are limits. Another reader, Mike F., sent along a link to an Army study of "the old sergeant syndrome" in late World War II-experienced and trusted combat leaders simply falling apart after too much. "When they were evacuated for psychiatric disturbances the matter became of real interest to all from the company commander to the commanding general of the division, for these men were among the best and most effective of the trained and disciplined combat infantry soldiers. These soldiers eventually developed abnormal tremulousness, sweating, and a tendency to be the first to get in and the last to leave a foxhole. They became useless to their unit."
Here’s a sample:
CASE 27. A 29-year-old technical sergeant with 30 months’ service who had been overseas 21 months and had an aggregate of 310 days of combat was admitted during a rest period after the battle of the Gothic Line. He had been thrice wounded in action. He stated that he began to have abnormal battle reactions 60 combat days previously. He said: "Now if I get in a hole I just want to stay. It bothers me more now than it ever did before. This last battle my company was ordered to take a house, and within a few hundred yards of the place a couple of my boys got their feet blown off. We withdrew and I went to the commanding officer and told him I had a feeling that I was going to get it this time, and that I couldn’t take it any more. He gave me a direct order to, and it was either do that or have a bad record, so I went." This soldier had tried on three occasions to have his rank reduced to that of private. "You see," he said, "as a platoon sergeant, you are more often than not a platoon leader, and I couldn’t lead the men like I did before. Under shelling I got jittery. A platoon sergeant is a leader. If he isn’t out in front it affects the men."
This soldier was born on a ranch in Texas. He stated that his father was epileptic, but that he rarely worried about it and that it had not affected him in any way. His parents were harmoniously married. There were seven children, of which he was next to the oldest. He had a happy family life and had many friends on nearby ranches. No significant neurotic traits or conflicts were elicited in the history. Enuresis, nail biting, temper tantrums, running away from home, nightmares, and somnambulism were all denied. He left home to work on another ranch at the age of 14, after completing the eighth grade, and had been steadily employed as a rancher until induction. He had always been self-reliant and industrious. Single, he had no significant sexual conflicts. His Army career was characterized by steady promotion after his arrival overseas. He stated that he had been held down in the States by a lack of T/O vacancies. A letter from his battalion commander stated: "It is my opinion, through observation, that he has reached the end of endurance as a combat soldier. Therefore, in recognition of a job well done I recommend that this soldier be released from combat duty and be reclassified in another capacity." This battalion commander, incidentally, was noted for his unyielding attitude toward psychiatric casualties.