Understanding Fear's Effect on Unit Effectiveness
Fear makes men forget, and skill which cannot
fight, is useless.
-Phormio of Athens
English Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill
branded the World War I battlefields of the Somme as the "graveyards
of Kitchener's Army." An entirely new weapon of war appeared
on those battlefields-the British Mark 1 tank. Advancing against
the Flers-Courcelette line, the 11 tanks penetrated German defenses
on 15 September 1916, creating terror out of proportion to their
threat. One eyewitness described the effect: "Panic spread
like an electric current, passing from man to man along the trench.
As the churning tracks reared overhead, [men] threw up their hands
in terrified surrender or bolted down the communication trenches
towards the second line."1 Although
most of the tanks failed to reach their objectives that day, they
had indeed made a frightening first impression.
While the armored vehicles might have been
novel, the fear they engendered was nothing new. Warfare has undergone
many changes and seen many technological advances, each of which
has engendered fear.
Adversaries will continue to use fear as a
weapon, especially in asymmetrical warfare, so it is prudent to
reexamine fear's effect on unit effectiveness in military organizations.
In Fight or Flight, Geoffrey Regan says, "Fear . . . must be
channeled so its control becomes the first step in becoming an efficient
soldier."2 Understanding the psychological
advantage that effectively led, well-trained, and cohesive organizations
have over an opponent should encourage commanders to train their
units to recognize and overcome fear.
A Historical Perspective
Warfare has always been a human endeavor. In
his study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, John Keegan notes,
"What battles have in common is human: the behaviour of men
struggling to reconcile their instinct for self-preservation, their
sense of honour and the achievement of some aim over which other
men are ready to kill them. The study of battle is therefore always
a study of fear and usually of courage."3
However, the study of fear has more often been the purview of physicians
and historians than military professionals. Officer corps have traditionally
focused on questions of tactics, doctrine, materiel, and logistics.
Fear, defined as a physical and emotional response
to a perceived threat or danger, was an important element of French
Military thinker Colonel Charles Ardant du Picq's classic work,
Battle Studies: Ancient and Modern Battle, on battlefield psychology.
4 Du Picq describes how fear and hesitation
could decay offensive spirit and how courage was a "temporary
domination of will over instinct" that was imperative for victory.
Similarly, World War I Royal Fusiliers medical officer Lord Moran
(Charles McMoran Wilson) saw fear as a "response of the instinct
of self-preservation to danger," while courage was a "moral
quality-a cold choice between two alternatives. . . . Courage is
Encouraging soldiers to overcome fear while
moderating the effect of fear has been a task that military leaders
have grappled with forever. Greek moralist Plutarch relates how
the Roman general Aemilius Paulus, viewing the Greek formations
at the battle of Pydna in 168, "considered the formidable appearance
of their front, bristling with arms, and was taken with both fear
and alarm; nothing he had ever seen before was its equal."6
A similar reaction occurred at the battle of Waterloo in 1815 when
French General Jean Baptiste d'Erlon's attacking corps met the British
infantry's steady fire. Of interest is that the soldiers in the
least immediate danger bolted first. One French officer said, "As
we approached at a moderate pace the fronts and flanks began to
turn their backs inwards; the rear of the columns had already begun
to run away."7
For leaders to make an impression on frightened
soldiers during the era of close-order formations was much simpler
than it is today. Soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder gained
strength from close physical contact and from their officers, whose
definition of courage required them to face enemy fire unperturbed.
One Union soldier advancing on Fort Donelson, Tennessee, in 1862
gained courage from General C.F. Smith, who rode calmly among a
hail of Confederate minie balls: "I was scared to death, but
I saw the old man's white mustache over his shoulder, and went on."8
By the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871,
fire and movement had largely replaced close-order tactics, and
the battlefield became a much lonelier place. Long-distance weapons
required soldiers to disperse, and combatants in both world wars
found it increasingly difficult to maintain an offensive spirit.
They were less able to physically rely on each other or their leaders.
Historian Joanna Burke observes, "The longer the feelings of
isolation and confusion lasted, the less likely it was that anyone
would act aggressively."9 U.S.
Marine Corps Lieutenant Philip Caputo was equally stunned by the
muddled, unforgiving environment of Vietnam, but found that fear
of battle was not so cut and dried: "There was a strange exhilaration
in our helplessness-the feeling, half fear and half excitement,
that comes when you are in the grip of uncontrollable forces."10
The Nature of Fear
Caputo's statement suggests that although fear
is ubiquitous on the battlefield, its source is not so readily apparent.
Numerous environmental and operational factors conjoin to create
physiological and psychological effects on soldiers that can ultimately
lead to combat ineffectiveness. Among the most obvious of factors
that wear on soldiers' nerves is exposure to the elements, which
often induces numbing fatigue that can lead to cognitive deficits
and even catatonia. Although technological advances counteract some
effects and improve combat performance in some respects, modern
soldiers receive little respite because they are practically compelled
to fight at night. Writer Richard Holmes aptly notes, "The
net result of this increasing activity at night has been to deprive
the soldier, already physically tired after a day's marching, fighting,
or digging, of sleep."11 Cumulative
lack of sleep, combined with other privations such as hunger, affect
efficiency on the field of battle and the individual and organizational
will to resist fear.
Individual factors can stimulate fear just
as easily as the operational environment can. In his memoir, William
Manchester recalls his fright while fighting in the Pacific during
World War II. He felt paralyzed with fear one night in part because
of his active imagination: "A fresh fear was creeping over
my mind, quietly, stealthily, imperceptibly. I sat up; my muscles
rippling with suppressed panic."12
Caputo found that men with lively imaginations are prey to fears:
"A man needs many things in war, but a strong imagination is
not one of them. In Vietnam, the best soldiers were usually unimaginative
men who did not feel afraid until there was obvious reason."13
During World War I, many officers believed that conscripts with
lower intellects made better fighting men, arguing that they were
less susceptible to fear.
More recent studies show that soldiers with
a greater mental aptitude are more self-confident and better able
to deal with ambiguous and confusing situations. 14
World War II soldier-philosopher J. Glenn Gray noted how war's randomness
was frightening and beyond comprehension for even the most intelligent
warriors: "The deepest fear of my war years, one still with
me, is that these happenings had no real purpose."15
Why death struck some and not others suggested
that at least some aspect of war, despite technological advances,
would continue to be beyond man's control. A chapter in Infantry
in Battle devoted to action and morale tells how forced inactivity
can diminish a man's spirits: "A soldier, pinned to the ground
by hostile fire, with no form of activity to divert his thought
from the whistling flails of lead that lash the ground about him,
soon develops an overwhelming sense of inferiority. He feels alone
and deserted. He feels unable to protect himself."16
What we find, then, is a number of dynamics
and stimuli colliding, either in short bursts of time or sustained
over weeks and months, that encroach on a soldier's physical and
mental well-being. One combat analyst observes about fighting the
Japanese in the Pacific jungles during World War II, "The night,
[which] in itself is bad . . . , added to the jungle, produces fear
that makes unaccustomed men forget all the military wisdom they
Added to the difficulty of assessing fear-producing
elements in battle is the fact that individuals have varying capacities
to deal with the stresses of combat. Within those individuals, and
even units, fear and courage are often unpredictable phenomena.
Soldiers who stand fast on one day might break under the strain
of battle the next.
Many things can induce fear in soldiers, and
there are many types of fear soldiers face. Combat is about wounding
and death and produces much anxiety over anticipated physical harm.
Vietnam platoon leader Michael Lee Lanning remarked, "Close
brushes with death brought not a feeling that I was invulnerable
but rather that my number might be due to turn up at any time."18
Participants in battle must react to identifiable threats as well
as a pervasive, insidious uneasiness-differences that psychologist
Sigmund Freud characterized as "objective anxiety" and
In a profession that places profound emphasis
on the traditional value of personal courage, fear of failure weighs
heavily on both leaders and soldiers. In January 1917, World War
I Captain J.E.H. Neville wrote to his family before going into battle
for the first time: "The only thing I'm not certain about is
whether I may get the wind up and show it. I'm afraid of being afraid."19
During World War II, John Watney was similarly concerned about balancing
the dread of physical harm with shaming himself in front of his
comrades: "I was a coward; and the thing I feared more than
anything in the world was to break up in battle and give way to
that cowardice . . . ; I prayed, until a lump came into my throat,
to be spared that degradation."20
The contemporary battlefield also produces
the anxiety of being alone. Reassurance from nearby mates, which
strengthens resolve against the enemy and his weaponry, withers
when friendly sights and sounds are absent. The increasing urbanization
of combat only increases such seclusion. The nature of urban terrain
with its walls, compartmentalization, and limited visibility enforces
These adversaries form another central category
of fear-fear of the enemy. For centuries, soldiers have struggled
with managing fear caused by an often seemingly invincible foe.
Early in the American Civil War, Union cavalry battled cavalrymen
as well their own fear that they could never match the Southerners'
equestrian skills. World War II British Field Marshal William Slim,
slogging through the Burmese jungles, fought to overcome his soldiers'
belief that Japanese soldiers were superior jungle fighters. Not
until experiencing tactical victories were the soldiers able to
conquer their fears of the enemy and perform on a more equal level
with their rivals.
Not all soldiers magnify enemy soldiers' capabilities;
many see the enemy as being like themselves- soldiers facing the
stress associated with having to take other men's lives. Dave Grossman's
book On Killing is replete with the costs entailed by the Army's
expectation for the soldier to kill.21
He claims that the burden of killing is so great that "in many
circumstances, soldiers on the battlefield will die before they
can overcome" their intense resistance to killing another human
A survey of wounded combat veterans in the
European Theater during World War II is telling. Of the 277 soldiers
interviewed, "65 percent of the men admitted having had at
least one experience in combat in which they were unable to perform
adequately because of intense fear."23
Because fear can incapacitate, it is necessary to address ways to
Fear can be mitigated through certain factors,
but there is no single absolute way to reduce fear. Soldiers need
a battery of tools to deal with fear because soldiers react individually
to combat situations. German Captain Adolph von Schell said of his
World War I battlefield experiences, "Soldiers can be brave
one day and afraid the next. Soldiers are not machines but human
beings who must be led in war. Each one of them reacts differently,
therefore each must be handled differently. . . . To sense this
and arrive at a correct psychological solution is part of the art
If leaders are to understand how fear affects
their units' effectiveness, they cannot lead and fight relying solely
on rigid precepts from manuals and procedures. They need to take
measures to integrate fear's effects into the unit's preparation
Controlling fear is within reach of well-trained
units. Realistic, demanding training provides a soldier advantages
in the struggle of natural instincts for self-preservation against
real or perceived threats. Proficiency in drill in the age of Prussian
ruler Frederick the Great was a great source of confidence and,
as Holmes contends, little has changed over the last 250 years:
"Part of the stress of battle stems from its puzzling and capricious
nature: battle drills help to minimize the randomness of battle,
and give the soldier familiar points of contact in an uncertain
environment, like lighthouses in a stormy sea."25
Mastery of fundamentals, such as individual
and crew battle drills, results in a measure of competence that
leads to confidence. Israeli military psychologist Ben Shalit thought
that men could train to overcome fear by handling frightening and
unusual situations. While such preparation might not have guaranteed
fearlessness in battle, it did develop a "trust in one's ability
to handle difficult situations."26
Still, mastering fundamentals has limitations. While being able
to fire a weapon no matter what else is occurring is crucial in
battle, the training of automatic responses is only one step in
the process of preparing for combat. The World War II Stouffer study
of the American soldier found that "there are very few routine
act sequences which would be generally adaptive, whenever a given
kind of danger was encountered."27
Incorporating battlefield stimuli-the sights,
sounds, and smells of a firefight-into training makes training real.
Combat affects soldiers violently, and they must be conditioned
to deal with their fear. If training can condition a soldier to
kill, then training can condition him to cope with fear. The key
is not desensitization but sensitization. Soldiers need to know
how their minds and bodies will react to fear and develop a combative
mindset that mitigates the psychological and physiological effects
Experiential learning is critical in sensitizing
soldiers to the bedlam of combat. Leaders must create unpredictability
in their training events yet allow failure among leaders and followers.
Von Schell was adamant that "we must teach our men in peace
that battles differ greatly from maneuvers and that there will often
be critical periods when everything seems to be going wrong."28
Creating sensory chaos in training (chaos that often cannot be realized
in simulation centers) can only be done by creating sensory chaos
during training. Soldiers must train in situations where they can
learn how they individually respond to stress and anxiety. They
must then be given the opportunity to discuss their emotional responses
in after-action reviews. If training is to be effective in the fight
against fear, soldiers must be allowed to reflect on doctrinal issues
as well as human issues.
Freud once warned that we should never underestimate
the need to obey, and in times of extreme stress, men look to be
led. The relationship between leader and led can moderate strain
during battle. Certain analysts allege that officers taking on a
strong paternal role can exert great influence on unit effectiveness
in combat. Bourke surmises that as long as the "father"
is "strong, decisive, and technically competent . . . his men
would feel protected . . . from overpowering anxiety and would be
able to kill without qualm."29
In essence, the leader is key to establishing group norms.
Articulating clear group norms is just as important
as establishing them. British Field Marshal A.P. (Earl) Wavell contended,
"There is one quality above all else . . . essential for a
good commander, the ability to express himself clearly, confidently
and concisely, in speech and on paper."30
Individuals and units need specific goals and objectives in times
of stress to provide purpose and direction, not to micromanage their
actions. British General Sir John Hackett noted how "a group
of people can often be dominated by the one person who sees most
clearly, and can best explain, the issue. Bewildered men turn, as
children do to grown-ups, towards anyone who can help clear the
confusion in their minds."31
Leaders have a responsibility in training to
understand and prepare for the human aspects of war, recognizing
their soldiers' limits, needs, and motivations while remaining tactically
and technically proficient, which is a tall order for younger officers.
While they must manage their own fear in combat, they must also
cope with subordinates' fears. Most important is setting the right
example-what Napoleon viewed as keeping a cool head-despite good
news or bad. The other essential task is providing soldiers with
as much information as possible, for it reduces uncertainty and
anxiety: "The 'absence of information' is one of the conditions
that fosters panic in troops: 'fears arise from matters they don't
understand-keep men informed.'"32
Developing unit bonds
While a leader plays a significant role in
reducing fear in combat, so do soldiers themselves. Commanders and
historians recognize comradeship as an ingredient for combat effectiveness.
Fighting for a cause has less influence on behavior than fighting
for messmates. Du Picq says, "Self-esteem is unquestionably
one of the most powerful motives which moves our men. They do not
wish to pass for cowards in the eyes of their comrades."33
Group pressures can validate norms set by leaders who, in turn,
must ensure that organizational expectations match the goals and
aspirations of those within the organization.
With regard to fear, the key for military leaders
is to build strong, personal bonds among soldiers to develop trust
horizontally and vertically within the unit. Military historian
S.L.A. Marshall offers his soundest arguments in Men Against Fire:
The Problem of Battle Command in Future War, where he discusses
tactical cohesion and why men fight.34
Marshall asserts that personal honor is a powerful motivator in
battle and that soldiers rarely aspire to unworthiness. Still, either
through physical or social isolation, men fall prey to their fears
and provide no combat value to the organization. Underscoring the
importance of unity, Marshall emphasizes the "inherent unwillingness
of the soldier to risk danger on behalf of men with whom he has
no social identity."35 Leaders
must temper the fostering of unit bonds with individual responsibility,
of course, for at its basest level, fear is personal.
What cohesion and group interdependence impart
is a sense of belonging for soldiers dealing with fear. Group membership
can by itself provide an impetus for behavioral changes. Isolated
individuals act quite differently once they rejoin their original
groups. In building unit training effectiveness, leaders must realize
that individual proficiency, while critical to battlefield successes,
does not guarantee sanctuary from the effects of fear. Collective
training must focus on mastering tactics, techniques, and procedures
and understanding the human aspect of fighting within a group. A
commander's goal should be to develop bonds that provide a sense
of cohesion, as a British 71st Regiment soldier experienced during
the Peninsula War in Spain. In his first charge, he felt his "mind
waiver," but when he "looked alongst the line; it was
enough to assure me. The steady determined scowl of my companions
assured my heart and gave me determination."36
A Human Endeavor
In the search for the path to success in an
army transforming for the future, the Army must not forget that
warfare has always been and shall always be a human endeavor. Despite
advances in the conduct of war, fear is an ever-present feature
on the battlefield, and to combat fear and its effects, leaders
must realize fears' sources and consequences. Unit trainers should
recognize the importance of integrating fear into mission-essential
task training because few things are more vital than maintaining
individual and unit presence and composure under fire. In short,
leaders must prepare units to deal with fear.
Stating that a unit is trained to standard
according to mission training plan checklists is not sufficient
if a leader is to be a good steward of his soldiers. His challenge
is to evaluate tactical and technical competence and his soldiers'
level of psychological preparedness for combat. Soldiers need to
be sensitized to the effects of fear and have tools to master their
fears. The goal of integrated mental training should be to increase
each soldier's threshold and, by extension, the entire unit's threshold
to the physical and psychological rigors of being afraid. If Napoleon
was correct in stating that in war the morale to the physical is
as three is to one, than preparing soldiers to deal with fear is
indispensable for maintaining unit combat readiness.
1. Gwynne Dyer, War
(New York: Crowne Publishers, Inc., 1985), 87.
2. Geoffrey Regan, Fight or Flight (New York:
Avon Books, 1996).
3. John Keegan, The Face of Battle (New York:
The Viking Press, 1976), 297.
4. Charles Ardant du Picq, Battle Studies:
Ancient and Modern Battle, trans. John N. Greely and Robert C. Cotton
(Harrisburg, PA: The Military Service Publishing Company, 1946),
5. Lord Moran (Charles McMoran Wilson), The
Anatomy of Courage (Garden City Park, NY: Avery Publishing Group,
Inc., 1987), 16, 61.
6. Plutarch, quoted in Victor Davis Hanson,
The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classic Greece (New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), 98.
7. Sir George de Lacy Evans, in Keegan, 172.
In an example of the effects of "posturing," Gunther E.
Rothenberg, quoted in The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978), 69, asserts that
in the Napoleonic era, "Generally, it was the threat of the
bayonet, and not the actual clash that decided an issue."
8. C.F. Smith, quoted in Lew Wallace, "The
Capture of Fort Donelson," in Battles and Leaders of the Civil
War, ed. Ned Bradford (New York: Dutton, 1956; reprint, New York:
Meridian, 1989), 78.
9. Joanna Bourke, An Intimate History of
Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth-Century Warfare (New
York: Basic Books, 1999), 65.
10. Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War (New
York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977), 112.
11. Richard Holmes, Acts of War: The Behavior
of Men in Battle (New York: The Free Press, 1985), 123.
12. William Manchester, Goodbye, Darkness:
A Memoir of the Pacific War (Boston: Little, Brown and Company,
13. Caputo, 85.
14. See Anthony Kellett, Combat Motivation:
The Behavior of Soldiers in Battle (Boston: Kluwer-Nijhoff Publishing,
15. J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors: Reflections
on Men in Battle (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1959),
16. "Infantry in Battle," The
Infantry Journal (1934): 184.
17. Unknown, quoted in Lee Kennett, G.I.:
The American Soldier in World War II (New York: Charles Scribner's
Sons, 1987), 168.
18. Michael Lee Lanning, quoted in Peter
S. Kindsvatter, American Soldiers: Ground Combat in the World Wars,
Korea, and Vietnam (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003),
19. J.E.H. Neville, quoted in Holmes, 141.
20. John Watney, quoted in John Ellis,
The Sharp End: The Fighting Man in World War II (New York: Charles
Scribner's Sons, 1980), 101.
21. Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological
Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Boston: Little, Brown
and Company, 1995).
22. Ibid., 4.
23. Samuel A. Stouffer and others, The
American Soldier: Combat and Its Aftermath (New Jersey: Princeton
University Press, 1949), 201-202.
24. Adolf von Schell, Battle Leadership
(Fort Benning, GA: The Benning Herald, 1933; reprint, Quantico,
VA: The Marine Corps Association, 2001), 12.
25. Holmes, 42.
26. Ben Shalit, The Psychology of Conflict
and Combat (New York: Praeger, 1988), 117.
27. Stouffer, 222. See also Bourke, 72-73.
28. Von Schell, 38. See also on-line at
<www.statisticalinnovations.com/products/ goldminer_ tutorial1.html>,
accessed 20 May 2004.
29. Bourke, 133.
30. Field Marshal A.P. (Earl) Wavell, Soldiers
and Soldiering (London: Jonathan Cape, 1953), 144.
31. GEN (Sir) John Hackett, The Profession
of Arms (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1983), 219.
32. Joseph J. Ondishko quoted, in Kindsvatter,
33. Du Picq, 154.
34. S.L.A. Marshall, Men Against Fire:
The Problem of Battle Command in Future War (Glouscester, MA: Peter
Smith, 1978), 153.
35. Marshall, quoted in F.M. Richardson,
Fighting Spirit: A Study of Psychological Factors in War (London:
Leo Cooper, 1978), 7.
36. Source not given.
Also available online at: