The Human Dimensional Qualities of the Close Fight

Written by  MG (Ret) Robert H Scales

This night’s patrol had been a wasted effort. Three hours of carefully scripted maneuver through enemy terrain had resulted in nothing but fatigue and sore muscles. The squad moved through the darkness on a invisible tether, each man marking the distance from his buddy as if a hidden hand moved them closer or farther away depending on the cover available. Now they were working across a wide ridgeline stepping over or around boulders and scrub pines that impeded progress.

The soldiers were particularly alert now because they knew the enemy’s habit of ambushing returning patrols just out of machine gun range from their patrol base. Perhaps the enemy knew the night was too quiet, the patrol schedule too routine, the temperament of the men too focused on hot food and the security of walls and wire and the fortified outpost that awaited them just a mile or two away.

Nothing is more searing in the human consciousness than the silence of night broken by the intense staccato of gunfire. Thank God this enemy always shoots high against figures silhouetted in the skyline. Only one man was down, the rest flopped prone into a firing position. Now the fight of their lives would begin….

The routine above is repeated virtually every day by our ground forces in some of the most dangerous and inhospitable places in the world. The lives of soldiers in small units depend on the ability to fight and win in the close fight. Their fight is a very human one, a test of skill and will to win. For a moment place yourself on this ridge line and imagine how the psychological strength of these men might be amplified by better understanding the human dynamics that make soldiers and leaders into superbly competent small units.

  • See and sense the enemy such that there are no surprises.  Every psychological advantage on the battlefield is enhanced by knowledge of the enemy. Courage, cohesion, audacity, and the ability to maneuver without caution or friction. In fact dominance  in the close fight is defined by one side seeing the enemy while remaining unseen.

  • Emotional Stability: maintain condition short of the emotional breaking point. War is a test of will. Lord Moran in his classic work “The Anatomy of Courage” defines courage as a crucible of emotional staying power that is drained by exposure to all of the wearing effects of close combat: first among these is fear of course. But there are others: thirst, fatigue, hunger, a sense of isolation, distrust of leaders and fellow soldiers, and, of course, palliation, or the fear of dying alone. Even the best trained small units begin to drain the crucible of courage once serious shooting begins and the rate of emptying accelerates as the battle continues. The unit “breaks” when the crucible empties and the unit is stressed beyond its emotional breaking point. When a unit goes beyond this point it can no longer remain cohesive and effective and must be removed from the battlefield to be rebuilt physically and emotionally.  The key to long term fighting power is for commanders to anticipate the breaking point in the heat of battle and remove the unit from direct combat immediately before it collapses.

  • Group resilience: Resilience is a collective trait that defines the ability of a unit to “snap back” from emotional, psychological, or physical erosion after a close combat engagement. This emotional elasticity comes from a unit that has a reserve of those traits that define the ability of a unit to be stretched and returned to full combat capability in a very short time: physical fitness is key. So also is the ability of each soldier and leader to “shake off” quickly the trauma of initial contact.

  • Graceful degradation of collective resolve. The ability to moderate the “rate” of emotional decline in combat is essential. Anecdotal evidence from previous close combat engagements strongly suggests that the ability to flatten the sine curve of collective emotion in the close fight is a key component to staying effective and avoiding moral collapse throughout the engagement.  Commander’s rheostat

  • Cognitive clarity: Seeing is not enough. Commanders must be able to deaden their emotional highs and lows such that they retain the ability to make decisions intuitively with less than perfect information and often alone and under extreme stress. Cognitive clarity comes with the ability to trust emotion over reason; to develop a finely tuned ability to decide under pressure and ignore the caution that comes from waiting on more information or wasting time trying to invoke traditional military decision making processes.

  • Trust in available support: Every small unit in contact knows that it cannot fight alone. Confidence in winning, audacity to continue the fight, willing to stay when outnumbered all depend in large measure on trust that they will be supported by others. No small unit carries enough ammunition and supplies to last for very long. No soldier will fight audaciously unless he is sure that he will be evacuated if wounded. No soldier carries enough killing power on his back to achieve firepower dominance over an enemy likely equipped with small arms as lethal as his own.

  • Trust in leaders: At the small unit level trust comes from confidence among soldiers that a leader’s decision making skills will give them the greatest chance of surviving contact with the enemy. Thus a soldier’s trust at the small unit level is less sensitive to other factors traditionally sought at the operational or strategic level such as intelligence, fitness, ethical behavior or rank. Soldiers will always follow a leader who braves the crack of the first round and reacts in a manner that will get the mission done at the least cost in blood.

  • Moral suppression. Those familiar with the dynamics of close combat will attest to the phenomenon of moral authority in the close fight. When units enter the deadly zone usually both sides are aware of who will win. Past performance and reputation are powerful forces that often make one side assume a position of inferiority. Conversely soldiers who are confident in their abilities and the abilities of their buddies and leaders generally cannot be beaten. Suppressing an enemy’s will to fight can only be done by achieving a level of moral dominance though extraordinary battle skill and audacity demonstrated over time.

  • Heightened senses. Some soldiers and leaders possess an intuitive ability to see the battlefield. Part of this skill of course comes from familiarity with physical surroundings. Others gain the advantage by exercising an extraordinary ability to “read” emotions of the indigenous population. Some can actually sense the presence of the enemy and smell out particularly dangerous situations. The best of these “native scouts” use on board or remote electronic sensors to see well ahead, deeply beyond their immediate surroundings.

  • Comfort with killing: destroying a life is, thankfully, not a natural act. Mindless killing is an act of psycho pathological behavior and cannot be tolerated in combat. Thus an effective small unit must possess a delicate emotional balance between restraint and ultimate aggression in close combat. Most experienced combat veterans will testify that the hardest kill is always the first. More often than not first kills will have to be experienced against an enemy to whom killing is a natural act. Thus one of the most difficult leadership tasks in the human dimension is for a commander to inure his team emotionally to killing from the very beginning of an operation with no psychological “work up.”

  • Lessened fear of spatial and temporal isolation: the greatest single source of psychological friction on the battlefield is “palliation” or the fear of dying alone. Fear of violent death permeates a soldier’s being and long isolation saps all of his senses. Palliation is reduced by constant reinforcement by leaders and the “touch” of a nearby buddy. As the fight begins the noise and confusion of the close fight amplifies the need for reinforcement and touch at the very time when both are very difficult to achieve.

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