Anti-Morale: What causes retreat and surrender?

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.

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