Cover Story

Psychological Science and the Transformation of the Military

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman once said “War is hell.” It says so boldly on his statue in New York City’s Central Park. Now, a small army of psychologists is researching how to take at least some of the hell out of modern warfare and help combatants and their families survive it, cope with it, even excel at it.

The scientists are both going to war to study it and bringing war home as vividly as they can to prepare those who will be asked to fight the next one.

Col. Tom Kolditz is one of those who went to the war. A social psychologist, he heads the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the US Military Academy at West Point. From April 19 to May 6, with fighting in Iraq still going on, he did in-depth interviews there with both US troops and Iraqi prisoners of war.

He took three others with him. Leonard Wong, his long-time colleague from their years advising the Pentagon on personnel matters, who is now at the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. Col. Terence Potter, a West Point professor of Arabic only a half year from retiring with 30 years of service, agreed to go as interpreter. And infantry Lt. Col. Ray Millen went along to learn how tank warfare was working in the city of Baghdad, but helped with the psychological data gathering.

“As a group we went everywhere together,” Kolditz said. They collected data on small-group cohesion, comparing task cohesion – how well members of a group work together – with social cohesion. Psychologist Nora Kinzer Stewart had done much the same with British and Argentinian soldiers after the Falkland Islands war and wrote a book about it, Mates and Muchachos.

“Part of the reason we went was to replicate what she did in a way that would be useful to the US Army,” Kolditz said. “Cohesion is important because under the strain of combat, routine motivations disappear. You can’t invoke rank or legitimate authority. You can’t threaten a soldier in combat with disciplinary action, or offer more pay. All these influences pale in the face of death or injury.

“Therefore, higher order motivations must prevail, and the need to not let buddies down has historically been a major motivator for soldiers in combat. So have higher order notions of sacrifice for things like freedom – but to a lesser degree than the more interpersonal concerns. That makes the soldier’s life a rich domain for psychologists, but perhaps the most difficult and dangerous lab!

“We went to Iraq to do research that no one else was in a position to do, but we also felt some obligation to pursue it for the soldiers whose stories needed to be told in greater depth and with less superficiality than an embedded journalist might tell it.”

Fighting in Smaller Units
In the past, wars were fought along battlefronts. Entire armies lined up against each other and charged across battlefields or opened fire from trenches. The US fought its Revolutionary War, Civil War, and two World Wars that way. Vietnam changed all that. The very term “battlefield” became an anachronism. Today, Kolditz said, “The Army is fighting in smaller and smaller units. To the individuals confronted with mortality, the person next to them is their universe. That’s why the psychology of combat is so interesting, at least to me.”

His team started at a prisoner-of-war camp near the Kuwaiti border. Staffed by a military police brigade that consisted mostly of New York City police and firefighters, it was named “Camp Bucca” after a firefighter killed at the World Trade Center on September 11. “The New York City police department flag was flying over the base when we arrived,” Kolditz recalled.

He and his team were at Camp Bucca four days, interviewing Iraqi prisoners 14 hours a day. They did a total of 34 individual, structured interviews, “unquestionably the most difficult research interviews I’ve ever done. Many Iraqis had no schooling, translation was difficult, we were in the worst conditions imaginable. We did the interviews from the tailgate of a Mitsubishi SUV with a poncho draped over it for shade. It was 112 degrees most days. The transcribing and translating and ability to get through to the Iraqi conscripts was a continual challenge.” But they needed to push on. “The only way we were going to get to enemy prisoners during hostilities was to do it right then.”

With US troops they had more time. They interviewed 16 marines while staying two days at Al Hillah, Saddam Hussein’s 40,000-square-foot marble-floored palace overlooking the ruins of Babylon; it had been looted. Then, based at Baghdad International Airport, they traveled to outlying Army units to conduct interviews, including with members of Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s old cavalry unit that had spearheaded the drive into Baghdad. All Americans they interviewed had been in active combat within the previous two weeks and had members of their units killed.

“We found huge differences between the Iraqi and US soldiers in the group dynamics of their small units,” Kolditz said. “Iraqi cohesion within units was based principally on tribal or regional similarities. Rather than coalescing as a unit, they had these fragmented cliques of people from the same regions who tended to pull their units apart, while the US forces coalesced. We haven’t totally sorted out why, but I think it has a lot to do with the diversity in the US Army – by race, gender, socioeconomic standing and geographically.”

Why does that matter? “In the Army, we create the conditions in our units that we want to create. If social cohesion is important, then we will resource that. We will make sure there’s time and other resources applied to building units that coalesce in that way. On the other hand, if it is not important, there are policy implications for that as well.

“Also, the notion of cohesion has very positive implications for diversity,” he said, “because cohesion tends to build in combat units irrespective of the backgrounds of the individuals involved. It points to the ability to bring people together from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds and have them work as a team. We learn a lot about diversity and how to build high-performing teams. That’s what we’re doing at the Military Academy, creating leaders who can take various groups of soldiers and turn them into high-performing teams.”

Lighter, But More Lethal
It’s all part of the Army’s ongoing transformation of itself from a Cold War force permanently stationed in places like Germany and Korea to what it calls an “Objective Force,” a leaner, more agile force that can move swiftly from the United States to hot spots around the globe, then return home.

“We have to be smaller, lighter, but more lethal,” Kolditz said. “We intend to be fully transformed to the Objective Force by about 2015.” That will require highly capable soldiers who are adaptable, creative and comfortable with high technology.

APS Charter Member Zita Simutis, the Army’s chief psychologist, directs the Army Research Institute in Alexandria, Virginia. ARI, the Army’s personnel performance and training research lab, is charged with learning how to train and equip those super-soldiers of the future.

“Courses are not that great at imparting knowledge,” Simutis said. “Experience is the best teacher. We’re trying to find more ways to get people to learn from experiences, to make those experiences more realistic. So we go around recording vignettes. We now have a book of vignettes of things that actually happened at the National Training Center [at Fort Irwin, California].”

At the Center, trainees fight mock battles that are as realistic as possible without actually wounding or killing each other. The psychologists who collected the trainees’ stories were interested not just in what happened, but “what were the cognitive activities that took place, what can be learned from these, from the leaders who were successful and those who were unsuccessful,” Simutis said.

Going Hollywood
The compiled vignettes, 66 Stories of Battle Command, gives Army instructors examples of “situations that real people have faced and concerns they’ve had.” It is to be followed by a second book of personal accounts about stability and support operations, including situations encountered in post-war Iraq. “We just started out in this line of research a couple of years ago,” Simutis said. “We’re expanding our leader development research program.”

Part of that expansion is “going Hollywood,” she said, because a book of stories isn’t as powerful as experience. Stanley Halpin, a social psychologist, heads the Development Research Unit at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He brought the war home for ARI with a movie called Power Hungry. It’s both a teaching tool and a research vehicle, made by the Institute of Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, an army-funded organization that uses professional actors.

In 12 minutes of Hollywood-style fiction it tells the story of four hours in Afghanistan: a small army unit assigned to protect food distribution to Afghan villagers has a new captain who quickly has to deal with a string of crises, including internal conflict, attacking rival Afghan warlords and a food-hauling convoy that comes from the wrong direction, forcing the original protection plan to be scrapped.

“Things basically go to hell almost from the beginning, and the captain and his subordinates are just struggling to cope with all this,” Halpin said. “It’s a fairly intense portrayal.”

Using movies to teach is not new. The Army has been doing it for years with the film Patton, Halpin said. “What we’re doing differently is building material into which we have intentionally embedded certain themes of leadership that are there for the instructor or mentor to pull out and use.

“A fundamental approach we’re trying is to find out if we can help people to learn from these experiences, to provide a structure that helps them to understand and integrate the knowledge. In a sense, we’re activating the formal intelligence,acquired from books and lectures, to help activate the informal intelligence, practical knowledge learned from experience.”

He intends to develop a series of such movies “built around the kind of situations we see happening. It’s very much trying intentionally to do what used to happen with old soldiers sitting around a campfire telling war stories to young soldiers. We’ve taken the first small step in this direction.”

The movie-makers had done extensive interviews at West Point with Army captains who had seen action in Afghanistan, Kosovo or Bosnia. From these they had developed 63 story lines, only a few of which are in Power Hungry. Halpin said they will probably do similar interviews with officers returning from Iraq.

His team has been testing Power Hungry on small groups of officers – a process that’s been on hold while most of the likeliest test audiences have been in Iraq. At the end of each showing either a live teacher or a computer-generated mentor engages the audience in dialog about the movie. The trainees even get to question characters in the movie. They also are asked to respond to a questionnaire to determine if the movie is achieving its objectives.

One finding so far, Halpin said, is that the movie-computer combination is a good tool for the kind of training that’s needed. “In the typical war-game, the protagonist has no character or personality. To the extent the players get involved, it’s cognitive, it’s intellectual. They don’t get involved emotionally, except for the desire to win.

“Good actors, however, can get them to react the way they would to other people. That’s why we’re looking at the Hollywood approach. What we want to know afterward is, does our audience agree with our assessment? Is it reacting to real people? Is it intense? Has learning taken place? Is our experimental stimulus being perceived the way we expected it to be perceived? Every time we’ve gone to an Army audience, the viewers have picked up on different things than we thought they would.

“We also want to find out more about what the effective mentor has to do,” he said, because he plans eventually to create the ideal computer-generated mentor, then let the computer do the “teaching.” That “intelligent tutor” technology is still 8 to 10 years away, Halpin estimates, but whether or not the technology proves successful, valuable lessons are being learned.

Different Wars, Different Enemies
“There are dozens of issues we’re going to be pursuing over the next four or five years,” Halpin said. “What is the right set of leadership themes to embed in the stories? What are the training development details? How many can you teach simultaneously?

“In the 33 years I’ve worked for the Army, we’ve always been in a state of transformation. These last few years the transformation has been intentional, with high level support for planning and development. The new Army involves a lot of different approaches to how to fight wars.”

But the Army faces a dilemma. “Look at history over the last 10 years and project it out to the likely future,” Halpin said. “The Army is going to be fighting very different enemies under very different conditions. It’s very likely that nothing is going to be the same. Just as Iraq was not the same as Afghanistan, Afghanistan not the same as Kosovo, and Kosovo not the same as Bosnia.”

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it’s a very different kind of Army engaging a very different kind of world, and “the pressure just keeps getting more and more intense, where you don’t have the time ahead of time to think about what it’s going to be like and develop the principles of engagement that are going to guide behavior. In the future, we’re going to have to have people who will need to have had the expertise before they’ve had the experience to develop it.

“In the old world, you experienced it and then you became an expert. In the new world, you probably won’t do the same thing twice. Just about the time you develop the expertise to handle one kind of experience, you have to go off and do something different.

“This is the fundamental dilemma. Our Army officers are going to be faced with situations nobody has ever seen before. If expertise is in part being able to recognize situations that are similar to what you’ve been involved in before so you can draw on your experience, how do you draw from experience when you haven’t had it yet? And if you learn from experience, what good does it do you if you are never going to be there again?

“Given all of that, our tentative answer is to provide people with experience that gives them some background in general areas of the types of missions that they will face and helps them develop the broad understanding and ability to adapt once they are faced with a real situation.”

What his team is doing, Halpin said, “is based on principles derived from fairly sound research. Our program is a mix of a pragmatic approach – let’s try it out and see what happens – and strong elements having to do with what and how people learn from experience, to try to better develop that whole concept. That theoretical concept is going to guide the next generation.”

They are also still developing a sense of the aspects of leadership they want in their movies – communication, decision-making, developing and motivating subordinates, team-building and teamwork, being able and willing to learn, and above all self-awareness.

“If we provide this kind of structure for thinking about other people’s behavior in these fictionalized movies,” Halpin said, “and then ask people to apply the same structure in thinking about their own behavior, then they have a strong basis for adapting to new and different circumstances, because they’ll have a framework for thinking through problems that involve leadership issues. The specific focus is leadership. It’s how do you react to other people, how do you guide them and help them to do a better job.”

A Different Way of Training
All of this is a relatively new role for psychologists, even though their association with the military dates back to World War I, when Robert Yerkes chaired the committee that created the Army Alpha and Beta intelligence tests. It wasn’t until after World War II, however, that then Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote to the superintendent of West Point urging him to start a curriculum of “both theoretical and practical instruction” in psychology because he’d seen young officers using “ritualistic methods in the handling of individuals.”

That letter launched the Military Psychology & Leadership Department at West Point, but it only “came of age” in 1978, when it became the BSL department, said APS member Kathleen Campbell, a BSL associate professor. That was part of a post-Vietnam “paradigm shift” that saw the first West Point class that included women (1976), greater diversity in the Army overall, and a greater emphasis on psychological studies.

“Our research is trying to inform people about the changing world we live in,” Campbell said. “We’re trying to remind the top leadership of the Army, if they are not already converted, that culture is a big part of what we’re going to face. A soldier is not just a combat warrior, but also a peace-keeper. Holding those two identities at once is very difficult. That’s what we’re about, trying to get them to understand the world is not the way it was and all the history they’ve read cannot prepare them for what’s out there.

“We’re into self-reflection – lifelong learning for everybody, from the enlisted all the way through the ranks. Senior Army leadership is actually talking about the notion of empowering soldiers, because decision-making now has to go way down the chain of command. What we try to do with young people is remind them to reflect and learn from their mistakes. You can’t train that stuff into people, but you can put them into situations where they have experiences, then get them to reflect on those experiences. That is very different from what the Army did in training 25 years ago.

“We are all aware that it isn’t a black and white world anymore. And if the world is shades of gray, sitting down and thinking who I am in relation to other people will get us to mutual understanding.” Unfortunately, she said, many cadets arrive at West Point with “very traditional, old-fashioned ideas in a lot of ways. What we’re trying to do is wean them from the notion that ‘I know what’s needed, and when I’m in charge, I’ll just tell everybody what to do.'”

The new ways of war are loaded with psychological challenges, however. For one thing, victory no longer means going home. “You’ve got to be in for the long haul,” Campbell said. “Soldiers are going to be subjected to psychological stress for a long time. In traditional war, after you take an island, there may be a lull of a month before you go on and take the next island, but in Iraq you don’t get that lull, there’s continuous guerrilla warfare, and a lot of fatigue. Psychologically that’s very difficult. We’re trying to come up with well-being models, to teach officers how to diagnose fatigue and stress and what to do about it and how to help their soldiers and themselves, how to get people to be mentally tough.”

She’s currently engaged in three studies to help the Army adjust to that new military landscape and develop leaders capable of dealing with it:

  1. “Road Warriors” – Campbell and her colleagues are collecting data from soldiers and their spouses about the stresses of frequent short-term call-ups to active duty. In past wars a military spouse might be gone for six months to two years, but today’s soldier is just as likely to be called to active duty repeatedly for only a few weeks at a time, putting stress on both children and parents, as each is forced to shift roles back and forth. “We want to know what the most successful families do, and how we can learn from them how to help other people cope,” Campbell said.
  2. The War on TV – Using a sample of 40 in-depth interviews with cavalry wives, Campbell is exploring the psychological events experienced watching the Iraqi war on television 24 hours a day, seven days a week, thanks to “embedded” journalists. She’s asking: “What is this doing to people at home who are watching this? Are there ways in which we need to help families while the spouse is deployed? Do we need different things in place now that they are actually watching the war unfold?”
  3. Self-Monitoring and Leadership – Cadets at the Naval and Air Force academies are being surveyed about their “self-monitoring” behaviors for comparison with a survey of West Point cadets: do young cadets pretend to agree with ideas they oppose in order to “fit in”? West Point’s honor code has a “non-tolerance” clause that “should strengthen cadets’ commitment to integrity,” Campbell said, but the other academies do not have such a clause. Does it make a difference? It’s important to know how cadets react, she said, because “if people do things just to fit in, leadership values could be compromised.”

“We train these people all the time to think outside the box,” Campbell explained, “to think of situational awareness, the notion that you have to be fully present in the moment, sensing what is going on around you, and make the decision that is right for that moment. That’s not easy. The best you can do is what is right at the time. We can’t teach what’s right, but we can teach what right looks like.”

APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

Please login with your APS account to comment.