On Morale


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.

morale |məˈral|
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 a 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 maks?

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Chow, Mail, and Wi-Fi: Pillars of Modern Soldier Morale

Field Chow

The other day I was having a conversation with another solider about morale, as soldiers tend to do half-way through a deployment. We were having a back-and-forth on the pros and cons of adopting different policies “for the sake of morale.” At some point, I brought up the ancient “three pillars of soldier morale”: chow, mail, and free time.

Now, I’ve actually heard “chow, mail, and pay” as the three before, and that might be true, too. But rules of three are important, and pay is not something junior level leadership can really influence (unless it’s taking it away), so I like to think of the big three as chow, mail, and free time.

I don’t know where these “pillars” originated, although I remember reading about them in reference to the Korean War. General Ridgway was a big proponent the big three. He was keen on ensuring his soldiers got hot chow at least twice a day while fighting the war – and to this day there is no question that hot chow is a morale booster – whether the soldier is in the field or at war. MREs are modern miracles, but there is nothing better than a “fresh” meal served hot in an austere environment.

Mail has always been a morale booster – especially care packages. For most of our history, “mail” meant physical mail; letters and notes, sealed in envelopes and traveling across the world, from the kitchen table in Indiana to a fighting position in Da Nang, Verdun, or Helmand province. For today’s modern soldiers, the physical letter has been aggressively outmatched by email, and to a greater extent, Facebook. I haven’t written a single hard-copy letter since arriving in July – I wrote a half-dozen a day in Iraq in 2003. Take away my ability to get online though, and I would revert back to writing letters, without a doubt.

Free time, or rather, unstructured time, is time for soldiers to do whatever it is that pleases them – movies, video games, reading, staring at the wall for hours – whatever. The point is, if a soldier’s time is micro-managed from the time he wakes up until the time he goes to bed, he will slowly become bitter. For leaders, striking a balance between structured and unstructured time is important, and more of an art than a science. There is no perfect formula. It’s all based on understanding the context, which changes daily. A leader has to sniff out the rhythms and know when to give it some gas and when to let up (and when to shift to neutral!).

Going back to the conversation, when I brought up the classic three pillars, this soldier retorted that “this isn’t World War II or Vietnam,” meaning this model of morale is outdated for the modern soldier. While I certainly agree that this generation of soldiers (like every generation of soldiers) is different from those of the past, I always considered the morale model to be solid and enduring. Is hot chow, reliable mail, and a degree of free time not enough anymore? Do we need to ensure high-speed internet is available at the front lines? Should leaders cave at the requests to relax uniform standards for the sake of “morale?”

My immediate reaction to the idea that today’s soldiers require a different morale model was incredulity – not possible. My thought process has always been that if the big three are being satisfied – chow, mail, free time – then a soldier has no reason to have low morale, personal issues not withstanding.

I let the thought stew for a moment and then, with a flash of humanity, thought that maybe – just maybe – it is possible that for today’s soldier, a different model is required. Context is important here, and while every deployment experience is different (none of my three have been similar), it can generally be said that unless you are on a forward COP or invading a country, counter-insurgency or stability operations lends itself to a higher living standard. Amenities are plenty. Hot showers and hot chow are the norm, not the exception. Mail arrives regularly. War is famously boring, and soldiers usually have ample free time. Those three pillars being met, is it possible for a soldier to then have low morale because he wants more, or that he has grown accustomed to those good things? Like an addict, do we need to inject a stronger medicine to get our fix?

Again, context matters. All of this can be wiped away in an instant with a more austere environment. But I do wonder about the ramifications of a generation of soldiers who are accustomed to bringing their smartphones with them to the field and being at all times, a click away from home. Maybe it’s not all bad. Maybe it’s the worst thing ever.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.