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Don't Repeal "Don't Ask/Don't Tell"

Don't sacrifice unit cohesion for a social experiment.

12:00 AM, Jun 15, 2010 • By STUART KOEHL
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But the most effective of all was the creation within the larger unit of small groups of eight to ten men (what the Romans called a contubernium), who lived and served together.  Often recruited from the same village or region, these men, if not already friends, neighbors or even family, soon established a very close personal bond as a “primary group.”  Through shared hardship they became a “band of brothers” who would look out for each other, fight for each other, die for each other.  Fear of death is ubiquitous in combat, and the desire to hide or run often overwhelming, but for a man there is a worse fear—being perceived as a coward in the eyes of the primary group, of letting down his friends, his mates, his buddies.  The instinct for self-preservation fights with loyalty to the primary group, and the stronger the primary group, the harder and longer the men in it will fight, the more pain and suffering they will endure, before, finally, the flight instinct takes over and the rout begins. 

If this was so in the age of musket and sword, it is far more important today, because one can no longer control armies through external discipline. The lethality of modern weapons requires modern armies to fight dispersed. Instead of standing shoulder-to-shoulder in serried ranks, they spread out, several yards between men, deliberately exploiting cover to avoid detection. The frontage held by a 600-man battalion in the Civil War is today held by a platoon of just 40 men. With everybody diligently cultivating invisibility, the result is an apparently “empty battlefield.” But if the enemy cannot see the soldier, neither can his officer, most of the time. Effectively alone, it is much easier for the individual soldier to just cower in his foxhole, or even slink away to the rear, with nobody the wiser. 

Modern “fire-and-movement” tactics are based upon the principle of “shared risk”: one element of a unit shoots to suppress enemy weapons, while a second element rushes forward to positions from which they can fire upon the enemy, at which point the two groups switch roles, repeatedly, until the enemy position is overrun.  This demands a high degree of trust: the fire unit is not going to expose itself to enemy fire unless it is sure the movement element is actually going to rush forward; and the movement element is not going to rush forward unless it is sure that the fire element is going suppress the enemy.  Even within elements, every man has to be sure the other will do his job, otherwise he is less likely to do his own. 

Modern armies try to ensure this through “internal discipline”—training and indoctrination intended to inoculate the soldier against the noise and chaos of the battlefield, reducing the necessary actions to an instinctive drill that enable him to respond automatically to commands and other stimuli. But even more than this, modern armies rely on small unit cohesion, the bonding of the primary group (still, after two millennia, your basic 8-man squad). If the group bond is strong, then the men will shoot and move rather than let their buddies down. Conversely, when the group bond is weak, it’s every man for himself. 

In World War II, the U.S. Army ignored small unit cohesion.  Rather than pulling units out of the line to rebuild and integrate replacements were inserted directly into combat from “replacement depots,” like interchangeable parts in a machine, without time to acclimate to combat or to form bonds with the men in their squad or platoon.  Strangers fighting among strangers, they were far more prone to “combat fatigue” (now called PTSD) and took casualties at a far higher rate than men who had trained together for months or years.  Major General Charles Gerhardt, commander of the 29th Infantry Division from D-Day to VE-Day, observed: "Our first replacements, right after D-Day, had to be put right into units, and many a man joined the division at night—and if his unit was heavily engaged, he was dead before anyone had really known him."

The U.S. Army repeated the same mistakes in Korea and Vietnam; not until the 1980s was small unit cohesion given the attention it deserves. 

So what has all this to do with gays and women in the military? Everything. 

In Stephen Pressfield’s novel Gates of Fire, the Spartans at Thermopylae, knowing in the morning they will “Dine in Hades,” debate among themselves the question, “What is the opposite of fear?” The men give various answers—courage, hatred, anger, duty—but Deinokles, the hero of the piece, has the last word.  Looking at his comrades, tired, filthy, bruised, many wounded, he shakes his head and says, “The opposite of fear is love.”

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