A few weeks ago I remarked, in passing, that I thought that morale was more of a function of officers than of the rank and file. The argument, put forward very briefly, was that in, say, a hoplite phalanx, the ordinary rank and file could not see how the overall battle was going. They were wearing helmets with restricted views, hemmed in by comrades and, above all, attempting to avoid getting killed while not being accused of cowardice. They are not going to have much time or opportunity to look around and see what else is going on on the battlefield.
The role of an officer, however, is different. Part of an officer’s job is to look around and see what is going on. At least, an officer’s job would include, for example, trying to make sure their unit is not going to be hit in the flank. That requires them to be aware of what is going on on the flank, so they have to have a broader view of the battlefield, and so they are more likely to know whether things are going well or badly.
This consideration, I submit, should probably apply throughout what is often known as the era of linear warfare, which means, I suppose, most wars to the Franco-Prussian one in Europe, maybe the American Civil War and similar sorts of times. The idea is that the rank and file are some sort of ill-informed automata who just keep shooting or charging or marching or whatever because they have no information upon which to choose to do something else, and, even if they do, discipline and fear of punishment keeps them from making such a decision.
So, as units (and entire armies) can and did run away, what sorts of things happened to make this happen?
Here, I fear, we enter into speculation, but we may manage to at least ground it in some sort of empirical behaviour. Group reactions are not well understood, I think, in psychology, but we do have a certain amount of information which suggests that some sort of model could be created.
I’m going to start in a slightly odd place, however, but hang in there. The (US) theologian Walter Wink makes, in his ‘Powers’ books, some interesting points about crowds. He was a civil rights activist, and recalls his fear when, on his way to a protest, he and a colleague were pulled over by the police. As it happened, they were pulled over for a minor motoring offence, but, Wink observes, they thought it was for being a civil rights protestor in that time and place.
Upon arrival at the protest, Wink and his, by then, thousands of colleagues did something that, on his own, he had not dared to do: defy the police and the orders they gave to disperse. There is, Wink observes, a significant difference in our behaviour when we are alone or with just a few, as oppsed to being en mass.
Wink goes on to refer to another example of the same sort of thing. A rioting football (soccer, presumably, American football fans seem to be much quieter, or rendered somnambulant by fast food) crowd is made up of individuals who, in the normal run of the mill sort of times are law abiding, usually hard working sorts of folk.
A brief look at the histories of the recent riots in the UK suggests that, in general, the individuals in question were not particularly gang or crime related; many had already been in court for minor offences, true, but nothing like that they were accused of during the riots themselves. Thus, Wink concludes, there is a single ‘spirit’ or ‘power’ or ‘angel’ of the crowed, which gives it a ‘mood’, and overpowers the individuals own volitions.
Now, if we transfer this sort of thing to an army unit, we immediately see that, while not expressed in these terms, a lot of time in armies is spent building up this ‘power’ of a unit; often it is called ‘esprit de corps’, or tradition or something similar. In the British army, for example, battle honours, flags, formal dinners, parades, oaths and so on are all used to try to build up some sort of unit ‘power’., in Wink’s sense.
Some units go beyond this, of course, in building up a mystique. For example, the British Paratroop regiment have bright red berets, a tradition of fighting against the odds and doing what few other units could have done (most recently clearing and holding Helmand province in Afghanistan with less than half the troops it takes now). Whether you believe the story or not, that is how the unit is framed, that it its power, its spirit, its angel.
So, when a unit runs away, who has cracked? Looked at from Wink’s perspective, it is, in fact, no one individual, but the ‘angel’ of the unit, the collective will of the individuals. That is probably the case, but the question is then, how did the angel of the unit (look, I’ll drop the scare quotes, OK? Just don’t go on about incorporeal spirits, messages from God and Thomistic beatitude) get into this state?
Given the arguments deployed above, it is probably not the rank and file who have decided to give up on the battle. The most influential people on the angel of the unit are probably the officers and NCOs. The latter, in particular, would be likely to have the experience to know when to fight and when to run, when to hide and when to surrender. Therefore, in measuring the morale of a unit, we are probably, broadly speaking, measuring the morale of the officers and NCOs (in whatever guise they are).
Of course, in a wargame we are also looking at the morale of our human opponent. I’ve seen a number of wargamers get so depressed by a few bad dice rolls that they have conceded the game, even though they were not technically losing. Or, perhaps, that is simply a measure of the general’s morale on the field.