Troop morale has been studied since ancient times, and early modern military leaders like Frederick the Great understood such notions thoroughly; defeat, he observed, resulted more from discouragement than casualties. Napoleon's famous aphorism, “in war the moral is to the physical as three is to one,” brings into focus the pivotal importance of troop morale, and he frequently tried to motivate his troops by rewards, medals, or promotion. His views, along with those of the other “great captains,” underscore the complex relationship between morale and success in combat.
Prior to the twentieth century, commanders attentive to their soldiers' morale mainly attended to their physical well‐being. As long as an army was reasonably well fed, had adequate clothing and shelter, and could expect to be paid more or less regularly, its morale might be considered adequate to the task at hand. Belief in a “cause” was thought less important than strong affection for a leader, or the promise of glory or loot. During eras when armies faced each other across open fields, the outcome of battles often hung on the state of morale. An intuitive desire for safety or instinct for survival could lead soldiers to abandon their duty and dissolve into rabble, while those suddenly inspired might snatch victory from defeat.
Modern notions of troop morale arose out of the horrific casualties generated by the trench warfare of World War I. Some military historians suggest that stress‐related casualties were almost unknown earlier. Evolution of weapons technology, mass armies, and General Staff leadership increased the scale and magnified the intensity of warfare, levying terrific burdens on a soldier's mental fitness. Accordingly, troop morale attracted the detailed attention of military and medical authorities. In general terms, researchers understood that men subjected to severe combat conditions for prolonged periods would have to be relieved at regular intervals. Men unable to continue in combat were either deemed cowards or thought to be victims of a debilitating physical condition, “shell shock.”
Lord Charles Moran, a former World War I medical officer, wrote the first systematic explanation of troop morale. Anatomy of Courage, first published in 1945, postulated an explanation for troop morale and explained how it might be managed. Moran argued that courage had measurable limits and could be expended as easily as water can be poured from a beaker. Commanders had to determine how much bravery soldiers possessed and not allow them to exceed those limits without replenishment. Moran also believed courage was largely a function of a man's character. Cowards simply lacked moral strength.
Events of World War II only partially supported Moran's notions. By then, psychiatrists and psychologists had more fully investigated the components of morale, and come to recognize that all troops, not just the weak or morally flawed, were subject to the effects of unrelenting fear and anxiety. Only a sense of duty allowed men to overcome their fears; thus duty—devotion to a cause or to comrades—joined the traditional factors—food, clothing, training, discipline, and leadership—as a defining component of morale. Research conducted during the war, especially that of S. L. A. Marshall, argued that troop morale rose and fell principally as a result of a shared sense of danger. According to Marshall's book, Men Against Fire, (1947), small group dynamics were more important to success in battle than any other factor.
Despite critics' charges of sloppiness and lack of genuine support data, Marshall's main point is hard to ignore. Subsequent research, carried out by experts like Samuel Stouffer, E. A. Shils, and Morris Janowitz, clearly demonstrated the connection between small unit cohesion, morale, and combat capability. By investigating the German army of the Nazi era, Shils and Janowitz showed that the Wehrmacht's ability to fight so effectively, and survive for so long, resulted partly from the German focus on group leadership, human dynamics, and troop morale. Later research by Trevor Dupuy and Martin van Creveld underscored these conclusions. Moreover, Dupuy argued that German effectiveness at the tactical and operational level exceeded that of its opponents. Even when in retreat or significantly outnumbered, the Wehrmacht managed more tactical victories and inflicted more casualties man‐for‐man than did its enemies.
It seems clear that troop morale in the post–Cold War era will remain no less important than before in influencing the outcome of combat. Small professional armies, even when extraordinarily well led, trained, and disciplined, will nevertheless be subject to the same rigors as their ancestors; indeed, the exponential advances in military weapons technology, the increasing impact of artificial intelligence, and the exploitation of the electromagnetic spectrum will only increase the scope and lethality of battle, and magnify the pressure on combatants to survive and function effectively. It will also mandate the continued efforts of senior leadership and medical officers to understand and sustain morale, which is sure to remain crucial to measuring the critical interval between victory and defeat.
[See also Awards, Decorations, and Honors; Combat Effectiveness; Combat Trauma; Leadership, Concepts of Military; Leaves and Furloughs; Religion and the Military.]
Lord Charles Moran , Anatomy of Courage, 1945; repr. 1987.
S. L. A. Marshall , Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War, 1947; repr. 1978.
E. A. Shils and and Morris Janowitz , Cohesion and Disintegration in the Wehrmacht in World War II, Public Opinion Quarterly, 12 (1948), pp. 280–315.
Samuel Stouffer, et al. , Studies in Social Psychology in World War Two, 2 vols., 1949.
J. Glenn Gray , The Warriors: Reflections of Men in Battle, 1959.
Trevor N. Dupuy , A Genius for War: The German Army and General Staff, 1807–1945, 1977.
F. M. Richardson , Fighting Spirit: Psychological Factors in War, 1978.
Martin van Creveld , Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939–1945, 1983.
Richard Holmes , Acts of War: The Behavior of Men in Battle, 1985.
Mark K. Wells