French soldier, circa 1915. Rare color photograph from World War I. Image courtesy of Time magazine.  French soldier, circa 1915. Rare color photograph from World War I. Image courtesy of Time magazine.

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

Instead of writing about the “white flag” of surrender – feats of heroism make for a more enjoyable and standard military affairs subject.  That way we avoid the necessary slog through cowardice; who wants to read about people running away?

In the interests of “warming in” to what could be a bit of an ugly subject, the essay will commence with an authoritative source.  Colin Gray in The Strategy Bridge, has written about the “ingredients that make for high enough morale” (p. 215).  These can be “chemical (vodka, rum, indeed anything alcohol), spiritual (trust, inspiration, self-confidence) or a lack of alternatives (desperation).”  Though the list seems a bit grim, it does provide a usable hypothesis (and gives additional meaning to the phrase “liquid courage”).  Gray describes where he believes morale comes from.  An equally useful endeavor might be to consider the opposite – what causes morale to fail?  How does “anti-morale” grow?  For the purposes of this essay, “anti-morale” is defined as the “inability of a group’s members to maintain belief in an institution or goal, particularly in the face of opposition or hardship.”  So, what causes soldiers to run, retreat, and even surrender?

There are several places we could look for help to answer these questions.  We might start with General Ulysses S. Grant, who coerced and compelled the surrender of three Confederate armies in the American Civil War (Forts Henry and Donelson, 14,000 prisoners; Vicksburg, 28,000 prisoners; and Appamatox, 25,000 prisoners).  With these on his resume, we could fairly refer to Grant as the “Patron Saint of Anti-Morale.”  Of course, we have to go beyond Grant – military morale is not so simple a matter.  It might be if militaries were comprised of the obedient guard dogs that Plato counseled in Republic.  Consider the only two qualities WWI-era military dog trainer British Lt. Col. Edwin H. Richardson listed as necessary to propel the canine forward in battle: “affection for master and the love of reward.” (Rebecca Frankel, “The Dog Whisperer,” Foreign Policy, Sept/Oct 2014).  As armies are certainly not comprised of Plato’s dogs – the challenge of maintaining morale is ever present.  Based upon a quick survey of available resources, this essay finds three broad categories of anti-morale: inability to see the connection between tactical action and policy objectives; failure of belief in military and political leaders; and, tactical action is perceived as ineffective, meaningless, or counter to desired objectives.

1. Inability to see the connection between tactical action and national military and/or policy objectives.

Our first example of anti-morale comes from United States soldiers in Afghanistan.  Consider the case of (now infamous) Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who reportedly walked off a U.S. base in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, and was held in captivity for several years.  An in-depth New York Times report contained several interesting findings.  Multiple interviews with “former platoon mates” yielded “sharply contradictory accounts of how Sergeant Bergdahl viewed the war, and America’s proper role in it.”  In the end, the investigation came to the conclusion that “he was, like other soldiers in the platoon, often disappointed or confused by their mission in Paktika [a province in western Afghanistan].”

Additionally, the news magazine 60 Minutes ran a story titled “The life and death of Clay Hunt.” Hunt was a decorated Marine who fought in Afghanistan in 2007 and eventually took his own life in 2011. His best friend from the unit recalled:

“The rest of us refused to look at the larger picture of the war that we were fighting in Afghanistan. And Clay refused to allow himself not to look at it. He saw our friends continuing to die and get maimed. And, you know, we would go out on these missions, and we’d get in firefights where we’d kill people. And he had to justify that. And when those doubts start to creep in your mind, that’s when you – that’s when you start to lose your mind. And that’s what started to happen with Clay.”

Both these individuals exhibited an inability to connect their tactical actions with some higher policy or purpose.  To be more direct, one might cite the words of another soldier serving in Afghanistan, Specialist (later Sergeant) Brendan O’Byrne, featured in War by Sebastian Junger (p. 170): “What am I doing in Afghanistan? What am I doing here?”  Soldiers are often confused or cannot figure out how the mission they participate in might be in service to some higher objective.  And when their principal leadership – platoon leader and platoon sergeant in these cases – cannot make those connections, bad things happen.  Sometimes this variant of anti-morale strikes on the battlefield, as in the case of Bowe Bergdahl; sometimes it lies in wait until after combat, as in the sad story of Clay Hunt.  Either way, it seems that at the individual level, the inability to connect tactical action to larger military and policy objectives can be a powerful source of anti-morale.

2. Failure of belief in military and/or political leadership; the perception that military and/or political leadership is inappropriate or illegitimate. 

The classic example here might be the German July 20, 1944 plot to kill Adolph Hitler.  This category is distinct from the above in that the military figures can see the broad connections between tactical actions and policy objectives.  This variety of anti-morale concerns itself with the failure of belief in military and/or political leadership.  In short, those who succumb to this anti-morale often view their strategic leadership as illegitimate.

One can see this playing out right now in Iraq.  Specifically, this past summer’s retreat of the Iraqi Army in the face of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters.  This military failure has caused many to reconsider their place in the Iraqi security forces.  There are some stories of flat out cowardice: consider the report that “some of the Iraqi soldiers who guarded the Green Zone in the capital had come to work wearing civilian clothes under their military uniform.”  These Iraqi “Clark Kents” are clearly hedging their bets.  Some have made their bets on others – like, for example, the Iraqi Christian militias that are starting to spring up. When the Iraqi Army melted away in northern Iraq, they “left Christians, Turkmen and Yazidis vulnerable to attack and persecution by ISIS.”  A spokesman for the largest of these new Christian forces has said that Iraqi Christians have “lost faith” in the official forces sworn to protect them.

This has become a common theme in Iraq.  One of the enlisted men in the Iraqi Border Guard’s Ninth Brigade has said that his senior leadership was at fault for the retreat: “We were sold, it was a sellout.  Everyone here was willing to fight.”  Interestingly, that particular unit was led by a member of the same tribe as former Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.  In short, this was, the classic “political general.”  As one report found:

“An official familiar with brigade’s preparations said General Maliki lacked the skills or character to lead. As ISIS advanced, the officer said, the general had been more interested in arranging patriotic ceremonies for television than in organizing his units for battle or ensuring they had food, water and fuel.”

It is not hard to see how soldiers would view such an individual as illegitimate; how they might lose faith in that senior leader. Of course, there are a variety of reasons why one might lose faith – corruption is usually near the top of the list.  But one other consideration is plain incompetence, which will be the next type of anti-morale this essay tackles.

3. Belief that tactical action is ineffective, meaningless, or counter to larger military or policy objectives.

The distinguishing feature here is that tactical actors can recognize the shortfall in their unit’s military actions.  They can see the ideal link between their actions and desired policy objectives, and, they do not necessarily consider their military and political leadership to be illegitimate (though that may result).  This is a separate case because individuals develop the specific perception that what they are doing is irrelevant or counter to stated military or policy objectives.

The first case comes from Oxford historian Margaret MacMillan speaking on French mutinies during the First World War on the “Big Ideas” program on August 15, 2009 (at 12 minutes):

“Historians have sometimes pointed to the mutinies in the French army of 1917…I once read the special French government reports of those mutinies in 1917 and they made very interesting reading because the mutinies were often portrayed as ‘they just simply did not want to fight; they’d become pacifists; they thought the war was futile.’ That’s not what the French soldiers themselves said at the time, and this is in the record. They put together what are heartrending petitions, saying, ‘we are willing to die for France, but please, make our deaths worthwhile. Don’t waste us in futile attacks. We will continue to die, but we would like to think that we are dying in a useful way.'”

We can see a similar sentiment today from Israeli intelligence officers – last week, the New York Times reported this story:

“Denouncing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians under occupation, a group of veterans from an elite, secretive military intelligence unit have declared they will no longer ‘take part in the state’s actions against Palestinians’ in required reserve duty because of what they called ‘our moral duty to act’…

In a letter sent Thursday night to their commanders as well as Israel’s prime ministers and army chief, 43 veterans of the clandestine Unit 8200 complained that Israel made ‘no distinction between Palestinians who are and are not involved in violence’ and that information collected ‘harms innocent people.’ Intelligence ‘is used for political persecution,’ they wrote, which ‘does not allow for people to lead normal lives, and fuels more violence, further distancing us from the end of the conflict.’”

In the French case, the individuals felt as though their sacrifice did not matter; in Israel, the individuals believed that the result of their tactical actions were counter to the long term interests of the state of Israel.  In both cases, we see perception of a disconnect (or even, negative connection) between tactical action and policy objectives.


The real question is: what does this all matter?  This has been a short, anecdotal survey of several cases surrounding anti-morale, or, the qualitative characteristics that seem to cause retreat and surrender.  What might we gain from studying anti-morale?

The utility is two fold.  The first is that we should consider anti-morale in a defensive sense to protect our own soldiers from the harmful impact that might result.  Moreover, as military forces often undertake international training missions (i.e. as in Afghanistan, Iraq, and through initiatives like the U.S. Army’s Regionally Aligned Forces construct) – while we focus on building and training up our new allies material strength – we ought to be equally concerned with developing and maintaining their will to fight (this did not quite “take” in Iraq…which, I acknowledge, is a breathtaking understatement).  Should we see negative characteristics start to form in our ranks, we should start asking these three, tough questions:

  •  Do they know how their tactical actions relate to higher policy/purpose?
  •  Do they think their military and political leaders are legitimate?
  • Do they think their tactical actions will be effective and meaningful?

Lastly, considering anti-morale in an offensive sense – these three characteristics above are where we ought to focus our psychological operations.  These appear to be pathways to psychological paralysis that might be leveraged – an edge that clearly has demonstrated efficacy – and something a dedicated military professionals ought to consider when trying to throw an opponent off balance.