The Human Element In War

An Address Delivered To The US Army War College

By Major-General Charles P. Summerall, Chief of Staff of the US Army
Royal United Service Institution, Vol. LXXII, Feb to Nov 1927
(Reproduced from The Coast Artillery Journal.)

The ways by which a leader's hold may be obtained on men are few and simple. He must live and conduct himself so as to be worthy of their respect.

While the consideration of the human element is predominant in war, there is great necessity of comprehending it as an essential in the management of men in peace. Indeed, if one does not understand and practise the art of controlling the human element in peace, he cannot do so in the test of war. It is trite to say that the human element remains, as it has ever been, the determining factor in battle. Machines and arms may be multiplied and changed, but the man who uses them will determine the final issues of victory or defeat. The psychology of men is a definite quality. It cannot be changed. To be used it must be understood and taken as it is fixed by nature. It can be used to bring about results just as successfully in garrison as in campaign. Indeed, the qualities of discipline, morale, efficiency, loyalty, etc., are only evidences of the degree to which some leader has directed the psychology of his men. For example, to-day we are concerned by a high rate of desertions. Yet we find organizations where the same evil exists only slightly, if at all. Some posts have large numbers of men absent without leave, while others are proud of their good record. Most evidences of indiscipline are capable of being corrected or removed by methods that take advantage of the human element, for any given number of men are essentially the same in the human characteristics as any other like number of men. It is not so much the fault of those responsible as it is their lack of understanding and, in some cases, the aptitude to apply a few psychological principles. All of our schools should teach the theory and practice of dealing with men according to methods that are readily understood. While everyone would not be equally successful, there would be marked improvement in all standards, and the officer who lacked sufficient aptitude would subject himself to elimination.

While much has been written on psychology, the principles needed by the military leader are few: but they must be so thoroughly assimilated that they become a part of his life and personality. The following truths are stated as some of the more essential guides in directing the human element both in peace and in war.

This is absolutely true in every echelon of military command. Thoughts are things, in that a man cannot act or talk other than as he thinks. If an officer wishes to influence his men he must actually be what he desires them to become. A single disloyal remark or act will spread through the minds of his men. He not only will be unable to lead, but he will deprive them of the will or the power to follow. On the other hand, a resolute, loyal, unquestioning leader of any grade will inspire his men with his own indomitable spirit. Thus they will react upon each other and perfect confidence will make an invincible unit within its power, be it a squad or the largest command that one personality can permeate. The power of example thus becomes the measure of leadership.

From the very nature of command the minds of subordinates turn to the leader for direction. A military unit can be no stronger or more efficient than the leader. A subordinate may influence his echelon, but he will not affect other echelons or higher elements. Human nature is jealous and proud. A leader naturally resents the effort of a subordinate to instruct or guide him and is thus not receptive of influence from below. From this it follows that, if a command of any size is good or bad, one has only to fix the responsibility upon the leader.

The real leader will give his subordinates credit for all of their accomplishments, but he can no more escape a similar honour from them than he can escape blame for failure. The true leader not only initiates impulses for his subordinates but he adds force to impulses from above. With a chain of such leaders an order gathers momentum, and on reaching the point of execution it strikes with irresistible force.

The average mind is such that it does not analyse abstract causes or even the great principles over which wars are fought. Men are elemental and practical and cling to real things. They want to have leaders. They want to admire them and they want to follow them. After the classic assaults at Plevna, General Skobeleff II divided men into three categories. A small percentage have no sense of fear and are eager for combat: they will expose themselves recklessly and soon become casualties. Another very small percentage have not been endowed with enough courage to sustain them in danger, and they will soon disappear. The great majority of men in face of danger gladly surrender their wills to their leaders and are easily controlled and guided. These are the men who properly commanded will win the battle. Danger, hardship and tragedy develop a peculiar bond between men of all ranks, for basically human nature is the same. As one real leader has expressed it: "In the face of death all men are equal." Thus men come to have a perfect and almost childlike confidence in a successful leader. The man who, in any unit, shows sympathy, helpfulness and comradeship for his men may be sure that they will fight for him. To secure this response a leader must be known to his men and must be seen by them at the point of danger as well as elsewhere. They must know not only his name and appearance, but his record and they must have personal proof of his care.

Men do not fight for fear or for material reward. Courage and fortitude are spiritual and are not influenced by material considerations. A man fights for pride in himself and in his command. Pride is a basic element of human nature. There is no human being wholly devoid of self-respect. The soldier is especially sensitive by reason of his subordination, and when once his pride is aroused he becomes intensely solicitous and jealous of preserving it. In the same way he becomes loyal to his command and his comrades, and he would forfeit his life rather than act unworthily of them or incur the censure of those whom he respects. His sense of justice requires that his good performance be recognized, and where such recognition is withheld he experiences discouragement and depression. His richest reward is recognition by his leaders. This may vary from a simple word of approval to the highest decoration or citation according to his merits. On the contrary, censure or blame rouses the equally elemental quality of self-preservation. The man who humiliates his subordinates or who abuses his authority will forfeit their respect and arouse their antagonism or their hatred. Men want and admire firmness and positiveness, but command must be exercised so as to leave no personal sting. True discipline comes from pride and not from fear. Arbitrary and harsh measures may be easier to adopt, but they will multiply troubles out of all proportion to the gain.

The ways by which a leader's hold may be obtained on men are few and simple. He must live and conduct himself so as to be worthy of their respect. They are unerring in their perceptions, and they not only quickly discover but they abhor shams of every kind.

Men demand a reasonable degree of justice. They expect a leader to be fair and understanding. A single act of glaring injustice will injure his prestige and influence. Men must trust their leader in order to follow him.

It goes without saying that men demand the same courage and fortitude in the leader that they are expected to possess. A single evidence of timidity will end his usefulness. It is perhaps for this reason that officers have at times unduly exposed themselves and suffered unnecessary casualties.

Men are easily discouraged in the face of hardship and unreasonable tasks. With the loss of physical strength and with the exhaustion that is inseparable in campaign, the mind becomes correspondingly weakened. The leader must know how to assign missions possible of accomplishment under the conditions and to organize his resources so as to make success reasonably sure. Repeated failures can only result in a loss of confidence and in ultimate loss of morale.

Men are pleased by having their superiors know their names and something of their performances. While the limitations of higher commanders are soon reached, in the lower echelons a leader should make every effort to know his subordinates personally and make them realize his individual interest in them.

Men read the expression in the face of their leaders and are unconsciously influenced by their appearance, manner and tone of voice. Self-control becomes, therefore, a vital attribute of a leader. To be calm, self-possessed, and self-confident is indispensable. A leader must not only believe that he is right, but he must be so sure of it that he will convince everyone else, by everything he says and does, that his plans and purposes are right. Thus he will make men sure of success even though the plans might not be the best that could be adopted.

Men are capable of understanding the tasks demanded of them and the purposes to be accomplished. They respond eagerly to the leader who will talk to them and explain their accomplishments, their situation and the necessity for further effort. Thus they require a personal relationship toward the leader and a personal identification with his plans. Each man comes to feel an individual responsibility to perform his part even to the extent of feeling that success depends upon his own efforts. In this way the leader accomplishes not what men think they can do, but what he knows they can do. He dispels imaginary evils and obstacles and creates a state of mind and a method of thinking that add immeasurably to the fighting power of his command. Indeed, many difficulties are wholly imaginary. Defeat comes not so much from physical effects as from a state of mind which makes men reduce or cease their efforts. When properly identified with his troops, the personality of the leader remains in their minds, and in the stress of battle his influence encourages them and strengthens their resolution.

Within the limits of personal contact, men should be encouraged to go to their superiors with their difficulties and they should find help or be convinced of the reason why it can not be given. The strongest nature needs human sympathy at some time and a single act of consideration and help may change the entire career of a man for good.

These precepts may be somewhat commonplace and unscientific, but they embrace the essentials of human nature. The greatest responsibility one can have is to be entrusted with the lives and the sacrifice of men and even the fate of one's country in war. No labour is too exhaustive, no effort too great, and no detail too small for those who, as officers of the Army, have dedicated themselves to the motto "Duty, honour and country."