Leadership and stress in combat
Combat is sudden, intense, and life
threatening. It is the Soldier’s job to kill in combat. Unfortunately, combat
operations may involve the accidental killing of innocent men, women, and
children. Soldiers are unsure how they will perform in combat until that moment
comes. The stresses experienced in combat and even the stress preparing for,
waiting for, and supporting combat can be substantial.
Leaders must understand this human dimension
and anticipate Soldiers’ reactions to stress. It takes mental discipline and
resilience to overcome the plan going wrong, Soldiers becoming wounded or dying,
and the enemy attacking unexpectedly.
When preparing for war, leaders must thoroughly
condition their Soldiers to deal with combat stress during all phases of
operations-mobilization, deployment, sustainment, and redeployment. (See FM
6-22.5 for more on combat stress and FM 3-0 for descriptions of specific
deployment phases.) The most potent countermeasures to confront combat stress
and to reduce psychological breakdown in combat are:
- Admit that fear exists when in combat.
- Ensure communication lines are open between
leaders and subordinates.
- Do not assume unnecessary risks.
- Provide good, caring leadership.
- Treat combat stress reactions as combat
- Recognize the limits of a Soldier’s
- Openly discuss moral implications of
behavior in combat.
- Reward and recognize Soldiers and their
families for personal sacrifices.
Units are stabilized during mobilization and in
preparation for deployment. Stabilization allows leaders and Soldiers to build a
trust relationship while the unit undergoes rigorous combat skills certification
or theater-specific training. Confidence in leaders, comrades, training, and
equipment are key factors for combat success.
During initial deployment, units should be
eased into the mission. A daytime operation could precede a night raid, for
example. Training and drill can continue while leaders deepen a personable
leader-to-led relationship with their Soldiers based on trust and not fear of
rank and duty position.
During sustaining operations, units at all
levels should discuss and absorb critical operations experiences and help
individuals cope with initial combat stress. Soldiers can be encouraged to
reveal their true feelings within their circle of warrior comrades. If the unit
suffered casualties, leaders should openly discuss their status. In this phase,
it is important to keep people informed about wounded and evacuated team members
and to weigh the unit’s losses and successes. Memorial services should be held
to honor the fallen. Soldiers and leaders who do not succeed during operations
should be retrained, counseled, or reassigned. The unit should be allocated
appropriate rest periods between missions. Ensure Soldiers with serious issues
have access to mental health professionals if necessary.
When preparing to redeploy, Soldiers should
talk about their experiences. Leaders and commanders should be available first
and refer or bring in backup like psychologists or chaplains when needed. During
this phase, leaders must emphasize that Soldiers have an obligation to remain
disciplined, just as they were during deployment. Soldiers must participate in
provided reintegration screening and counseling. Leaders should stress that it
is acceptable, and not shameful, to seek appropriate psychological help.
Once returned to their home station,
organizations and units generally remain stabilized to further share common
experiences before the individuals are released to new assignments. This can be
difficult for returning Reserve Component forces that are often released very
soon after redeployment.
When possible, Soldiers should have unfettered
access to medical experts and chaplains to continue their physical and
psychological recovery. Experts helping and treating the psychologically wounded
must work hand-in-hand with the unit chain of command to stress the importance
of maintaining good order and discipline. Aggressive or criminal behavior to
compensate for wartime experiences is not tolerated.
The Army has implemented a comprehensive mental
health recovery plan for all returning Soldiers to counter post-traumatic stress
disorder. Sound leadership, unit cohesion, and close camaraderie are essential
to assure expeditious psychological recovery from combat experiences.
OVERCOMING FEAR IN BATTLE
Leaders need to understand that danger and fear
will always be a part of their job. Battling the effects of fear does not mean
denying them. It means recognizing fear and effectively dealing with it. Fear is
overcome by understanding the situation and acting with foresight and purpose to
overcome it. Army leaders must expect fear to take hold when setbacks occur, the
unit fails to complete a mission, or there are casualties. Fear can paralyze a
Soldier. Strong leaders share the same risks with their Soldiers, but use
competence and extensive training to gain their Soldiers’ trust and loyalty. The
sights and sounds of the modern battlefield are terrifying. So is fear of the
unknown. Soldiers who see their friends killed or wounded suddenly have a
greater burden-they become aware of their own mortality.
Combat leadership is a different type of
leadership where leaders must know their profession, their Soldiers, and the
tools of war. Direct leaders have to be strong tacticians and be able to make
decisions and motivate Soldiers under horrific conditions. They must be able to
execute critical warrior tasks and drills amidst noise, dust, explosions,
confusion, and screams of the wounded and dying. They have to know how to
motivate their Soldiers in the face of adversity.
What carries Soldiers through the terrible
challenges of combat and operating in support under hazardous conditions is good
preparation, planning, and rigorous training. Realistic training developed
around critical tasks and battle drills is a primary source for the resilience
and confidence to win along with the ability to gut it out when things get
tough, even when things look hopeless. It is leader competence, confidence,
agility, courage, and resilience that help units persevere and find workable
solutions to the toughest problems. The Warrior Ethos and resilience mobilize
the ability to forge victory out of the chaos of battle to overcome fear,
hunger, deprivation, and fatigue and to accomplish the mission no matter what
THE WARRIOR MINDSET
It is important for Soldiers to acquire and
maintain a warrior mindset when serving in harm’s way. Resilience and the
Warrior Ethos apply in more situations than those requiring physical courage.
Sometimes leaders will have to carry on for long periods in very difficult
situations. The difficulties Soldiers face may not only be ones of physical
danger, but of great physical, emotional, and mental strain.
An essential part of the warrior mindset is
discipline. Discipline holds a team together, while resilience, the Warrior
Ethos, competence, and confidence motivate Soldiers to continue the mission
against all odds. Raw physical courage causes Soldiers to charge a machine gun
but resilience, discipline, and confidence backed by professional competence
help them fight on when they are hopelessly outnumbered and living under
As Erwin Rommel wrote in 1937, it is still
valid for the complex combat environment of the War on Terrorism: Training to
high standards-using scenarios that closely resemble the stresses and effects of
the real battlefield-is essential to victory and survival in combat.
Merely creating a situation for subordinates
and having them react does not induce the kind of stress required for combat
training. A meaningful and productive mission with detailed constraints and
limitations and high standards of performance induces a basic level of stress.
To reach a higher level of reality, leaders must add unanticipated conditions to
the basic stress levels of training to create a demanding learning environment.
Helpful Links Covering Combat Stress:
- Leaders Guide for Managing Marines in
- News Article: Army takes proactive
strides to manage combat stress
- Combat Stress Control
- California National Guard Combat
Stress Control (CSC) / Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM)
- FM 6-22.5 Combat Stress (PDF)
Source FM 6-22 Army Leadership and FM 6-22.5