One of my current little projects is a paper on unit cohesion in the sixth century (AD/CE) for a book on that topic. Fortunately, it is something that I've thought about before, particularly when I was doing the PhD thesis. So far, besides some mental mapping of the shape of the paper, I've been reading and re-reading some of the literature on the subject, both that dealing with the ancient world and the modern. As I say, some of it I've read before, and some I haven't. This post, then, pretty much like all the others, will serve as a research diary entry. In this case, I need to take stock of my progress so far, and write down some of the things I've been thinking about.
First, I've occupied myself with looking at some of the standard literature - again, it's extensive so it can only be a selective reading, and some of it's new (to me), some of it's not. One of the classics is Marshall's Men Against Fire, a book that pops up in a number of discussions. I confess that I've found it a difficult book to read, and not because of the complexity of the content, but rather because of the style and, to some degree, its content. Marshall writes like someone who knows a great deal about their subject, and then exaggerates how much they know all while on occasion fudging the content to suits one's ends, and without going to the trouble of supporting these sorts of claims. Granted, I'd read about the book in the past, and this might have coloured my reading (first time), and I also expected to enjoy it much more than I did. I'm also writing this post decades after it was written, so much of what Marshall writes seems pretty obvious to me now, and in a way that it probably wasn't to his initial readers.
Now, one of the key highlights include Marshall's suggestion that the majority of WWII US soldiers didn't actually use their weapons (20% or less). The former point has inspired the work of later writers, including those who've tackled the ancient world, like Goldsworthy and Sabin (both to some degree or other). It has been jumped on by a number of people, however, and in the copy I have there's a preface (by Russell W Glenn) that basically shows how those figures are a load of crap. Another book on my to-read list is Grossman's On Killing, and I have this sneaking suspicion that he too uses similar figures - I wonder if I'll discover that he gets it from Marshall. If so that will cast doubt (in my eyes) on the applicability of at least some of material. Indeed, although my paper's on cohesion, it's clear that combat motivation is connected, and it's worth considering. If few men really were able to make an effort to kill in combat, how would an ancient army work around this? It's worth stressing too that ancient peoples, and even those from different places and times (Greece, even Athens vs. Sparta, Imperial Rome, Republican Rome, Late Antique Rome, etc .), would approach war in a different way from us, even if we're all humans. We also don't have ancient people to interview, or ancient diaries to read, to figure out how often weapons were discharged and the like - harder to do with swords, easier with arrows and javelins. Even if we did, of course, interviews aren't always the best means of deducing this sort of information. People forget things, or confuse things, or even fabricate things, intentionally to suit their own ends, or unintentionally to give the interviewer what he or she might want. So, in some ways were better off without it. In sum, Marshall's numbers are suspect, and even if they aren't it's extremely difficult to do this for the ancient (impossible?). Worth noting too, that Marshall's views were heeded by the US military, and later research evidently showed that proportion of soldiers who fired their weapons in subsequent wars (Korea, Vietnam) improved significantly as a result of the changes they made.
The second key suggestion was Marshall's abundant claims that one of (or the) main reasons men fought
was for the men in their unit (social cohesion, bonding, band of
brothers stuff, etc.). This key point has, in some circles, achieved far more in the way of acceptance. The "band of brothers" perspective certainly has been adopted by the public, but many scholars too see this as the best means of explaining unit cohesion. A recently published book on the 2003 Iraq war, for instance, argues for the continued importance of social cohesion in explaining performance, though the authors also stress ideological motives (which they contrast with motivations of past American soldiers). It shouldn't be a surprise to learn that many have questioned this too: this brotherly bonding is not what motivates men and leads to cohesion. For the ancient world, Crowley has questioned its application to Athenian hoplites, while Lendon has questioned its applicability to Roman soldiers. Then there are a number of sociologists and political scientists, amongst others, who have questioned how effectively social cohesion explains performance (in combat in particular).
If we move beyond Marshall, we discover that there are two different kinds of cohesion that have been the focus of much of this research, social (the bonding of Marshall), and task (unifying to achieve a goal). You can have one without the other, and social cohesion doesn't necessarily lead to task cohesion. Even within the topic of social cohesion (or is it separate?) - or group cohesion (the unit cohesion that's the focus of my paper) - there are a host of variations, from peer bonding, to leader bonding, to organizational bonding, to institutional bonding. We also find primary cohesion, and secondary cohesion. For the purposes of the volume, they've (editors) make unit cohesion the umbrella term, with some of the variables worth pursuing including: horizontal unit cohesion, vertical unit cohesion, task cohesion, and social cohesion. Their definition of unit cohesion is: "
the bonding together of
soldiers in such a way as to sustain their will and commitment to each other,
the unit, and mission accomplishment, despite combat or mission stress". There is, then, a baffling array of potential terms and topics of discussion.
The question, then, is how I narrow down what is already a large collection of material, even if I've only presented some of it. Part 2, then, will focus on how I plan to address this in the paper.