Originally published in 2015, and still true.
Every year or so, an article appears sounding the alarm over morale in the military. This piece from World Affairs Journal is no different, analzying recent data and polling on the state of military morale.
I made a note to write about it, because it seemed alarmist and disingenuous.
Reading through the text, there isn’t a lot of hard evidence that indicates morale is actually low. Most of the data comes from informal polls that don’t directly correspond to “morale” but instead touch on things like pay and job satisfaction.
Morale, as an idea, should to be defined before it can be analyzed.
the confidence, enthusiasm, and discipline of a person or group at a particular time: their morale was high.
That’s a book definition, and it seems ok for a start. But I’ve been unable to find an agreed upon military definition of morale, which seems odd, since it is always touted as a chief concern. With no firm definition of morale, it’s hard to say if it is high or low.
This Stars & Stripes article from October 2003 (a time where I can personally attest to as a period of low morale) unpacks the discussion of morale and trying to define it. All soldiers know it’s important, but not everyone can agree on what it is, only, like pornography, you know it when you see it.
Of course, there are the three pillars of morale: chow, mail, and pay. Mess with any of those and morale will sink. For today’s troops, I’d add in free time and connectivity, to a lesser degree. These are elements of “big tent” morale. These are things that depend on acts of Congress and the Department of Defense to deliver.
Polling as a means of measuring “big tent” morale is ineffective. Soldiers, since time immemorial, always gripe, no matter how good or bad the situation.
Instead of polling, recruiting and retention numbers serve as a better measure of “big tent” morale.
At a time when the military as a whole is downsizing, benefits are becoming scarcer, and the operational tempo remains high – despite the wars “being over” – recruiting and retention numbers remain at one-hundred percent and above in a recovering economy. That is, there isn’t a rush to the exit. Servicemen and women continue to join and stay in the service.
Anecdotally, the grass is always greener on the other side. Troops today talk about wanting to deploy more, like we did in the mid-2000s. There’s also a post-COIN running discontent with trying to accomplish a myriad of seemingly distracting tasks while being told to always find and exploit opportunities to train.
Even some of the guys who served back then talk about those days with a tinge of nostalgia.
It’s easy to forget how tough those times were. Friends were being killed, deployments lasted 15 (+) months, and the military enacted policies like “stop-loss” and Individual-Ready Reserve (IRR) call-ups to make numbers.
When the military has go to the small print in enlistment contracts to make numbers, that’s a sign of overall low morale.
Just like the APFT is simply a benchmark of physical fitness, recruiting and retention numbers only provide a snapshot of overall morale.
Still, individual units can have high morale when morale across the force is low, even (or, especially) down to the squad level. Plenty of units had high morale during the mid-2000s when things were tough. This morale is different from the “big tent” morale discussed earlier. This is the morale that comes from small-unit cohesion. The biggest factor in this is, of course, leadership. A good leader who can filter out the nonsense while still accomplishing the mission can (mostly) insulate his or her element from low morale. This is why you’ll often hear soldiers talking about how great “their last unit” was. What they’re really saying is that they liked it better with their previous leadership.
This type of morale might be better measured through polling, but not in the aggregrate. This morale is better measured through small unit sensing sessions, informal discussions, and listening to the remarks from soldiers as you pass them by – the things they say in your presence, just to see how you respond.
On the other hand, simple measures of low morale and discontent would be desertion rates and “fragging” incidents. Although there may be others, these two in high number, or beyond the infrequent lone episodes would be a good indicator that there is a true morale issue in the force.
Interestingly, new Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey is looking at troop morale through the prism of small, common sense changes that can be made, to include allowing headphones to be worn in fitness centers while wearing the phsyical fitness uniform (a source of much emotional heartache for this author). While small things like headphones and socks might seem inconsequential to troop morale, these micro-policies can have significant effects over time.
There are so many other places the morale discussion can go. Discipline and punishment in a unit has an effect on morale. A soldier who goes unpunished for an infraction only to see another soldier who commited the same infraction receive an Article 15 can be a blow to overall morale, as it reeks of favoritism and selective enforcement.
Admittedly, I didn’t do a ton of research for this post. I’d be curious to know if an actual military definition of morale exists (it doesn’t in Operational Terms and Graphics). It’s also an interesting discussion to have, even in terms of our allies. The Iraqi Army, as a whole, likely suffers from low morale, as indicated by the high rate of desertion in the face of the enemy. Individual units, though, like the elite Counter Terrorism Service, seem to have higher morale. What is the cause? Leadership? Pay? Equipment? Sense of purpose? Skull masks?
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