Unit Cohesion in Warfare

Over this past weekend, rather than watching the overpriced millionaires hitting each other, a couple of friends of mine and I spend the weekend gaming, where a particular argument broke out over the role of discipline in the armed forces, over leadership style and just how people should be managed in warfare.

A basic element of warfare is a military that is able and willing to carry out the orders as an extension of that nation’s will or foreign policy. This is a consistent part of the practice of war, an element that is seen throughout the world when it comes to effective forces, and is often a key element in why militaries succeed in their goals. As far back to Egyptian times, early warfare utilized massed infantry tactics, involving large numbers of soldiers working in concert to obtain their objectives, and backed up, usually, by cavalry and archers.

A good example of this would be the Assyrian military, under Assurnasirpall II in the 9th century BC. He put together a “formidable Assyrian army [that] was well organized in its infantry and siege arms, but the mobile arm was in transition. The infantry was forced into two main groups: the spearmen and the archers.” (Archer, World History of Warfare, 20) The mobile arm of this military was one of the first introductions of cavalry in warfare, and together, each element represents a significant change in tactics from one to the other, but all must be used in concert with one another, especially as the cavalry forces transitioned from chariots to regular cavalry forces. (Archer, 23.) Furthermore, Archer attests that “It appears the most important reason for Assyrian success was that Assyrian rulers were progressive in importing, incorporating and improving military ideas, expertise and weapons from neighboring and often hostile societies.” (Archer, 23) Thus, an army that is able to improvise and adapt to changing tactics and techniques when it comes to war fighting, seems to be on better footing, not only in incorporating the ideas by adding in new classes of soldiers, but also finding ways in making them work together. Moving across the world to China, one sees that this is much the same, with the Ch’in army from around the same time, which utilized a mainly infantry force, one that adapted to changing conditions.

John Lynn, in his book, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture, notes early on that there are similarities in the conduct of Greek soldiers as well: “The aspis protected more than the hoplite who carried it, because it overlapped with the others to form a shield wall that covered the front of the entire phalanx… Other parts of the panoply protected the individual hoplite, but in a sense, his aspis guarded his comrade and the phalanx as a whole, because a gap in the line could prove fatal in battle.” (Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture, 6) This helps to reinforce the nature of organized combat and speaks to the necessity for such an organized force. On one hand, it helps to protect the soldiers in the line as they carry out their mission. Soldiers who fled from battle were considered treasonous, and would be punished for letting their comrades down. However, another element of this is purely practical on the part of the commanders: a force that is able to work together and not break down under the stresses of battle is a force that can ultimately succeed in battle, and depends upon the soldiers working together in a unified fashion to protect one another.

There are other dissenting opinions of this, such as through Victor Davis Hanson in Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Ride of Western Power, who asserts that democratic nations are better able to succeed in battle because they have a stake in what they are fighting for. While this certainly can play into part of this argument, as in how the soldiers are motivated for fighting prior to a battle, it seems far more likely that soldiers who are best able to work together are the ones who can best succeed – the Persian military was certainly able to achieve much throughout their military reign, and were bested by soldiers who were simply far more cohesive, using better tactics.

Similar traits continued through the sixteenth century, as firearms and gunpowder began to supplant archers and conventional foot soldiers. Not only did gunpowder weapons revolutionize warfare at that point, it helped to reinforce the need for a disciplined fighting force. While archers could fire at higher rates, firearms themselves utilized chemical power stored within the weapons, allowing soldiers to fire a continual rates without tiring, but also allowing these soldiers to be less skilled, meaning larger armies could be raised. However, the routine steps that were required to utilize these firearms were applied to units as a whole, and thus, the need for an organized military force remained. In this instance, because of the slow rates of fire from soldiers, orchestration from the unit commanders was needed in order to protect the unit, as well as to make that unit an effective offensive force on the battlefield. This so-called gunpowder revolution had a major impact on the battlefield as a whole, with large-scale militaries operating through to the 20th century.

The lessons that can be learned from this are seen through the militaries that have succeeded throughout time: a superior military utilizes a strong, heavily disciplined military that can respond to orders and innovation at the same time. Throughout history, massed infantry units were frequently used, and this discipline and adherence to orders was used to keep these units together in formation. Failure in some cases of even just one person to follow orders and their training could mean problems with the formation as a whole, and the entire tactic and battle could be placed into jeopardy because of that. In modern times, militaries train their soldiers to work as a unit to protect and support their fellow comrades for the very same reason – battles are a complex being that requires coordination on a larger scale, and every part must operate as planned to reach a desired outcome.

Sources: World History of Warfare and Battle: A History of Combat and Culture.

Advertisements