On 8 Jan 2021, an USI backed study on ‘’Prevailing Stress Levels in Indian Army due to Prolonged Exposure to Counter Insurgency/Counter Terrorism Environment” suggested that the officers face much more stress than what is faced by the jawans. Understandably, Indian Army rejected the findings made by the study saying the number of personnel who have been talked to or the sample survey is too minuscule to derive such conclusions and the morale of the troops is very high.
The anathema to the word combat stress in IA is a classic ostrich and the sand response and mind you the study talked about officers and not the troops. Can’t help recalling the famous dialogue of Amitabh Bachchan starer movie; ‘Mard ko dard nahin hota’ while it may be profoundly apt for physical pain but the same may not be true for psychological pain or stress. It is one of those few things in combat that are truly consistent and relatively predictable.
There is no epiphany in this idea; Arjun refusing to pick up arms in Mahabharat can also be attributed to some form of combat stress in the mythological era and it had to be the leadership and guidance of Lord Krishna to ensure that the mental turmoil of his prodigy was put to rest.
From the primitive battles of prehistoric nomadic tribes to the politically and technologically orchestrated military operations of today, individuals are asked to perform incredible tasks that are often counterintuitive to the human psyche. Unfortunately, many of these same stories do not have an epilogue of the proverbial day after; the heroic and brave warrior suffering a fateful tragedy. Heroism is not without cost. Traditionally, the price of war has been viewed primarily in terms of physical injury and death. It is easy to understand why.
“From the primitive battles of prehistoric nomadic tribes to the politically and technologically orchestrated military operations of today, individuals are asked to perform incredible tasks that are often counterintuitive to the human psyche.”
Combat stress is finally going to affect morale and motivation of the group as a whole and this may determine the future contours of conflict wherein the like General Patton had said, “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. It is the spirit of men who follow and of the man who leads that gains the victory.” The spirit of the man who leads is the point of focus of this exposition as it’s the officer cadre in the unit which invariably determines the behavioral pattern of the unit.
One wise old veteran had told this green horn subaltern in 1996 and those words still ring true, “CO’s attitude is the unit’s attitude, the unit would mirror the CO’s mental state both in peace and war”. The morale and motivation of the Armed Forces are a direct manifestation of the officers who lead the men to battle or prepare them for it during peace.
Before we dwell further into the role of officers in M2 (Morale and Motivation), it may be prudent to understand these terms. Motivation and morale are two independent concepts that are inherently related. They are intertwined as individual fibers in a rope, each unique but very similar to each other and necessarily intertwined to make something useful when each would be useless on its own. One must have at least minimally high morale to be motivated, and motivating people, when done properly, can often help to improve morale.
It is for this reason that the two are frequently able to be used interchangeably, with only subtle differences between them — differences that warrant individual treatment of the two concepts, but not individual chapters. Motivation is the degree to which a person is psychologically compelled to achieve a goal.
There are two basic types of motivation sources: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is based on internal factors — self-determination, challenge, and curiosity. Extrinsic motivation relies on external incentives to motivate such as reward and punishment.
For example, a person may feel internally motivated to improve his life by starting an exercise routine, or a unit may motivate an individual to increase efficiency by offering performance-based incentives. In contrast, morale is the degree to which a person believes in a goal and feels that it is worth being included among those things that take precedence in his life at that time.
These two aspects involve, “Increasing soldier and family resiliency: restoring balance and enhancing combat readiness and sense of belonging to the organization for soldiers and families. It would have to be achieved through “measures and services that result in a quality of life to soldiers and families commensurate with their sacrifice and service”.
This strong focus on family and additional services in the Indian Army is representative of the new socio-economic realities and metamorphosis of the idea that a soldier’s priorities will be on things other than the mission if their more immediate concerns, such as the wellness of their family, take precedence in their minds, giving an image of morale that is relative to the other factors in their lives.
“Positive combat stress behaviors result in heightened alertness, strength, endurance and tolerance to fight or flight response. Positive combat stress precipitates strong personal bonding between troops and leaders and the pride and self-identification which they develop with the unit’s history and mission.”
One must have morale to be motivated, but people will often be motivated to do what’s necessary to achieve things that give them high morale. We’ll also see how these two things can be used to enhance forces, or to decimate them in the battlefield. The psychological forces based upon elements of morale are those that Carl von Clausewitz, Prussian military strategist, called “moral forces” in his final work entitled On War.
In his view, whereas the physical resources available to each side, “seem little more than the wooden hilt, the moral factors are the precious metal, the real weapon, the finely honed blade.” He argues that since a battle is won only when one side has conceded defeat, the goal of even violent conflict must be to kill the enemy’s spirit, rather than their men, and that the nature of a military victory in battle is the defeat of the morale of their opponents.
Morale is shown in the degree of cohesion that the individual units of a military have, and the amount of motivation to accomplish their mission expressed through their actions. High morale cannot be achieved on its own; it must be facilitated through proper organization, coordination, management, and motivation and this is where the leadership or the officer cadre steps in.
The high-priority issues of a person must be secured to focus on the goals at hand; people must not be worried about their physiological needs, their families or possessions, or the stability of the organization of which they are a member, including the interpersonal relationships within that organization, which must, in itself, lack conflict.
These basic needs must be sufficiently fulfilled for a person to dedicate such a large proportion of their time and efforts to an all-encompassing activity such as warfare. This is described in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which most of us have read at some point of time.
“The spirit of the man who leads is the point of focus of this exposition as it’s the officer cadre in the unit which invariably determines the behavioral pattern of the unit.”
In considering the question of what leaders can do to facilitate coping with stress of military operations and maintaining the morale of a sub-unit or unit, it may be useful to take a closer look at what battle hardiness is and consider how it might operate as a motivational or stress resiliency factor.
Conceptually, hardiness is a personality dimension that develops early in life and is reasonably stable over time, although amenable to change and probably trainable under certain conditions. Hardy persons have a high sense of life and work commitment, a greater feeling of control and are more open to change and challenges in life. They tend to interpret stressful and painful experiences as a normal aspect of existence, part of life that is overall interesting and worthwhile.
A notion that leaders high in hardiness may influence subordinates to think and behave in more hardy or resilient ways has been established by research and hence the importance of leader in countering combat stress and maintain the morale of the unit.
The key operative power of a leader is to buffer or transform stressful experiences to a particular interpretation that can be cognitively framed and made sense of within a broader perspective of ‘just cause’ and greater agendas as well as an essentially interesting, worthwhile chance to learn and grow. The stressful experience then can have beneficial effects instead of harmful ones. In a sub-unit, young leaders are in a unique position to shape how stressful experiences are understood by members of the team by his interpretation of experience.
In isolated posts and often thankless operations like road opening, where troops are regularly exposed to extreme stress and hazards leading to flagging motivation and low morale, junior leaders are in a unique position to shape how stressful experiences are made sense of, interpreted and understood by his sub-unit.
The leader, who by example, discussion and ideas communicates a positive construction or reconstruction of shared stressful experiences, may exert an influence on the company in the direction of his or her interpretation of experience; toward more resilient and hardy sense making.
Given the promising results seen thus far in IA, this junior leader influence process merits further active encouragement. A better systemic support would be of substantial value not just for military organizations, but for any leader interested in promoting resiliency and mental health in groups exposed to highly stressful circumstances.
“It’s interesting that in today’s environment we are advancing YOs up the ladder faster than ever before as they assume the mantle of company commander; this new role necessitates rapid learning and that causes fear for those who step up to the challenge and create stress.”
Stress is not necessarily bad or harmful. Positive stress (or eustress) is that degree of stress which is necessary to sustain and improve tolerance to stress without overdoing the stress experience. Positive combat stress behaviors result in heightened alertness, strength, endurance and tolerance to fight or flight response. Positive combat stress precipitates strong personal bonding between troops and leaders and the pride and self-identification which they develop with the unit’s history and mission (unit izzat).
The ultimate positive combat stress behaviors are acts of extreme courage and action involving almost unbelievable strength. They may even involve deliberate self-sacrifice. Positive combat stress behaviors can be brought forth by sound military training, wise HR policies and most importantly good leadership. The results are behaviors which are rewarded with praise and perhaps with medals for individual valor and/or unit citations.
During operations, sub-unit leaders have the additional responsibility of preventing or minimizing combat stress and at the same time ensuring adequate eustress and motivation. Leaders and buddies have the responsibility of continuing to talk through especially traumatic events.
This should be done in a supportive way to individuals who show signs of distress in the after-action debriefings through personal conversations. Ardant Du Picq, a 19th century French officer, articulated that, ‘You can reach into the well of courage only so many times before the well runs dry.”
Marshall De Saxe, opined that, “A soldier’s courage and motivation must be reborn daily,” the most important task of leaders was to understand this, to care for and prepare soldiers before battle, and to use methods during battle which recognize that morale and motivation must be renewed. Leaders must understand this human dimension and anticipate soldiers’ reactions to stress and counterbalance it with their presence and charisma.
It takes mental discipline and resilience to overcome the plan going wrong. Leaders need to understand that stress and fear will always be a part of their job. Battling the effects does not mean denying them; it means recognizing them and effectively dealing with it to maintain the morale and motivation in the unit or sub-unit.
“All men are frightened. The more intelligent they are, the more they are frightened. The courageous man is the man who forces himself, in spite of his fear, to carry on.” Wrote Gen Patton in his book War as I Knew It, Leaders must understand the human dimension and anticipate soldiers’ reactions to stress, especially to the tremendous stress of combat.
Transformational leadership is considered the elixir for combat stress. As the name suggests, the transformational style “transforms” subordinates by challenging them to rise above their immediate needs and self-interests.
The transformational style is developmental: it emphasizes individual growth (both professional and personal) and organizational enhancement. Key features of the transformational style include empowering and mentally stimulating subordinates; leader must motivate troops first as individuals and then as a team. To use the transformational style, a leader must have the courage to communicate his intent and then step back and let subordinates operate.
Transformational style allows a leader to take advantage of the skills and knowledge of experienced subordinates who may have better ideas on how to accomplish a mission. Leaders who use this style communicate reasons for their decisions or actions and, in the process, build in subordinates a broader understanding and ability to exercise initiative and operate effectively which can reduce stress and provide purpose.
“In a sub-unit, young leaders are in a unique position to shape how stressful experiences are understood by members of the team by his interpretation of experience.”
While enough has been said on the role of a young leader to handle combat stress of his sub-unit; the YO would also be experiencing stress that is off the charts. Perhaps it’s competitive pressures, dysfunctional culture, poor teamwork, ethical dilemmas, and lack of HR engagement. Sometimes the stress is externally driven, sometimes it’s internal, and often it’s out of his control. While he may cope with it the most critical aspect for him is to develop Stress Resilient Emotional Intelligence (SREI) is “the ability to resist the negative influences of stress on the emotional aspects of decision making by flexing and adapting to sudden change.”
When stress levels go up, a leader’s ability to act in an emotionally intelligent way goes down, sometimes catastrophically. If you have low emotional intelligence (ability to express and control your emotions, as well as to understand, interpret and respond to the emotions of others), you begin to miss important information coming from your own emotions, compromise your ability to accurately assess the emotions of others, or fail to act in an emotionally appropriate way.
It’s interesting that in today’s environment we are advancing YOs up the ladder faster than ever before as they assume the mantle of company commander; this new role necessitates rapid learning and that causes fear for those who step up to the challenge and create stress.
Whether we’re ready or not, the shortage of officers will perpetuate and likely accelerate the rate at which less-experienced leaders are promoted into roles of greater responsibility. More and more, sub-units will be led by officers whose experience leaves them ill-equipped for the challenges they will face. These young leaders will encounter more stress, and they will continue to struggle to conquer the new and unfamiliar territory of bigger, higher-risk roles and responsibilities.
But fortunately, there are relatively straightforward ways that we can intervene to increase the rate of success in conquering these challenges. Organizations can take action to promote the right leaders by assessing their transitional skills prior to promotion and not be coloured by regimentation, painting clear pictures of what lies ahead, and getting senior leaders involved in the dialogue with transitioning leaders so that they can help to clarify how success should be defined.
Individual leaders must recognize that leadership transitions require reexamination of their own strengths and vulnerabilities. Most will feel jarred by the changing dynamics and the complexity of their roles. They will likely feel as though they have less control and will need to find ways to put trust and capability into the hands of JCOs and senior NCOs who report to them. They must, with each successive step upwards, seek information about how they can apply their skills in new ways to the evolving paradigm world around them.
To assume that what worked before will work again is perhaps the quickest route to failure. Having a network of colleagues and peers who can provide feedback, guidance and insight is an essential element to successful transition. Taking action to educate, communicate and provide training, coaching, and guidance to the young leaders struggling with transitions can clearly make a dramatic impact on the success rates of newly promoted leaders, and can help to build the more stable leadership pipeline that IA needs to retain professional edge.
(This article has been penned under a pseudonym. Views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Mission Victory India)