|Unmanaged Unit Cohesion:
The Consequential Contributor to the My Lai Massacre
History 490: Honors Course in History
April 16, 2013
In March of 1968, a group of American soldiers descended upon the Vietnamese village of Son My under the impression they were to meet the enemy in direct combat for the first time. Upon their arrival in the My Lai hamlet, the men found only Vietnamese noncombatants. Despite the innocence of the civilians, the American soldiers of Charlie Company began a massacre. The incident in My Lai, often referred to as the worst atrocity in United States Military history, showed the possible negative consequences of unit cohesion. Pressure placed on soldiers to conform to the group was a direct result of high cohesion. The United States Army Criminal Investigation Command (USACIDC) interviewed every soldier involved in some way with the My Lai Massacre. Those testimonies were used in an attempt to prove that, while inept leadership, racism, and vengeance are accepted as the causes behind the massacre, unit cohesion is the overarching contributor.
CHAPTER ONE. Unit Cohesion: Context................................................................................7
Role in Military 9
Effect on Soldiers 10
Relationship to Combat Effectiveness 13
Role of Combat Stress 17
Symbiosis between Killing and Bonding 18
Conformity and Groupthink 20
CHAPTER TWO. Contributing Factors Found in the Vietnam War and My Lai...................23
Type of Unit 23
CHAPTER THREE. A Case Study of Unit Cohesion’s Role in the My Lai Massacre...........38
Description of Charlie Company and the Events at My Lai 38
Analysis of Unit Cohesion’s Role in the My Lai Massacre 45
Camaraderie within Charlie Company 45
Unit Specialization in Charlie Company 46
Leadership of Charlie Company 47
Charlie Company’s Relationship to Vengeance 51
Charlie Company and Racism 53
Figure 1: Timeline of Charlie Company Prior to Massacre 58
Figure 2: Routes Taken by Various Soldiers through My Lai 59
Figure 3: Significant Events in My Lai 60
Map A.1: Map Showing Location of My Lai, Duc Pho, and Quang Ngai 61
Map A.2: Map of Operational Area and Quang Ngai 62
On March 16, 1968, Charlie Company of 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade touched down near the village of My Lai in Vietnam.1 The events that followed forever shaped the view that Americans, and the world, had on the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. Charlie Company, led by Captain Ernest Medina, made their way through the village and massacred noncombatants whom they believed to be Vietcong sympathizers. Historians and the United States military have considered vengeance, racism, and inept leadership the three factors that led to the My Lai Massacre. The works published on this topic, however, failed to include unit cohesion in the list of influential aspects. Scholars have recognized unit cohesion as a positive influence on a group’s combat effectiveness for decades. However, they have not examined the potential negative consequences of cohesion, especially when it lacked efficient management. Unmanaged unit cohesion occurred during instances where a commanding officer neglected to control his soldiers as negative consequences first appeared. Using My Lai as an example, Captain Medina could have immediately called for a cease-fire and assessed the situation when the lack of Vietcong2 soldiers became evident. This would have prevented the high levels of cohesion found in Charlie Company from influencing other soldiers to join in the group’s atrocious activities. Unit cohesion was the largest contributing component to the massacre at My Lai. The aforementioned factors are included in a set of five influential elements to cohesion; the type of unit, camaraderie, leadership, vengeance, and racism increased the bonds soldiers shared, and the pressure those men inadvertently placed on each other.
Unit cohesion is the phrase used to describe the bonds formed between soldiers while they are in the same unit. These bonds acted as a support system for soldiers to help them face the hardships of war. Common backgrounds, beliefs, and hobbies can strengthen unit cohesion, but none so much as shared combat experiences. Soldiers in the thick of battle relied on their fellow comrades to protect them no matter what. This mutual trust and bond led many soldiers to give their lives to protect their friends. While cohesion positively influenced combat effectiveness and the morale of soldiers, in certain situations it could have negative consequences. Underlying pressure on soldiers to follow the group led some to participate in acts they may have otherwise completely avoided. The bonds of Charlie Company negatively influenced many soldiers to join in the killing of noncombatants.
Not all contributing factors are beneficial because unit cohesion produced negative effects; the pressure a soldier faced to participate in something they found unsavory was similar to an extreme form of peer pressure. Soldiers realized that failure to comply with the group mentality could lead to isolationism. When a soldier became isolated from his only sense of family and home, his motivation to continue fighting declined along with the bonds he used to share with his unit. The massacre at My Lai began when one soldier, of their own accord, killed a noncombatant, yet cohesion caused more soldiers to join in rather than keep to themselves. A cascading effect took place after the first civilian death, and as soldiers saw their friends shooting, they joined in.3 Underlying pressure placed on soldiers within Charlie Company by their peers fostered higher group participation in the massacre.
The events that took place in My Lai shocked the American public. They found it difficult to believe that soldiers belonging to the United States military could be capable of committing such an atrocity. While the atrocity is inexcusable, the public lacks the understanding of the military mindset, specifically during times of high stress. Effectively combating guerilla warfare was difficult for the United States Military. Leaders could not create effective battle strategies because it was impossible to pinpoint where the enemy planned to strike next.
One of the most influential factors, leadership, played a large role in the levels of cohesion within Charlie Company. Two differing leadership styles contrasted to create a positive cohesive group and a negative cohesive group. These designations signified how a group’s cohesion increased, either positively or negatively. The difference between these two depended on whether the most influential factor was good or bad. Both positive and negative cohesion increased combat effectiveness and created support systems for soldiers. Charlie Company as a whole enjoyed positive unit cohesion because their commander, Captain Medina, was a well-respected and tough man. His men enjoyed being under his command for various reasons, although the only complaint lobbied against him was a lack of compassion when dealing with soldiers’ personal problems. Conversely, the first platoon of Charlie Company, led by Lieutenant Calley, experienced negative unit cohesion. He lacked the qualities of a good leader, constantly getting his men lost or incorrectly following orders. Multiple soldiers referenced a complete lack of respect for him. Lieutenant Calley’s platoon became more cohesive through their disdain for their commander.
Overall, unit cohesion was a positive phenomenon that increased the combat effectiveness of a group. It should be recognized, however, as a powerful tool to sway the decisions of individuals. The majority of Charlie Company did not plan on massacring men, women, and children when their helicopters touched down in the landing zone. As more people started to participate, a cascading effect began. Years later, many veterans were racked with guilt over their participation in the My Lai Massacre. They knew it was a spur of the moment incident, and they subconsciously wanted to join the killings later, just to continue to feel like a part of that group. Despite a lack of published works on the topic of unit cohesion and possible negative consequences, like the My Lai massacre, it cannot be ignored. While soldiers realized the massacre was wrong, they had difficulty saying no because they knew refusal to join could come back to haunt them. Unit cohesion is a fascinating phenomenon, but there can be negative consequences if it is not managed properly requiring all aspects to be studied to better understand it.
Unit Cohesion: Context
While the theory of unit cohesion, or the strength of the relationships between soldiers, existed before the Second World War, studies of its relation to combat effectiveness were more prevalent during the Vietnam War era. Scholars and military leaders noticed the identifiable link between a group’s cohesion and their performance in battle. Unit cohesion was more than just a positive factor in combat effectiveness because, in certain situations, the pressure negatively influenced soldiers. When bound to his peers through loyalty and common experience, a soldier’s possibility for participation in an unsavory act increased. These acts even included an atrocity such as the My Lai Massacre.
This chapter explains unit cohesion to better make the argument that it has caused negative consequences to occur. Soldiers who are placed in small, or primary, groups find that, “…their natural instincts of self-preservation, which would counsel them when in real danger to run away, are balanced by acquired herd instincts compelling them to face up to and overcome danger and fear for the sake of the group.”4 Soldiers blatantly ignored their primal instincts to protect their own lives and occasionally placed themselves in direct harm. Frank Richardson likened unit cohesion to a herd mentality usually present in large groups of people who performed similar actions. Unit cohesion transcended this definition to include a soldier’s love of, and loyalty to, his peers.
Unit cohesion was similar to an advanced form of peer pressure. The difference, however, was the intensity between the two. Peer pressure was mild in nature, typically came with no threats of violence and occurred amongst teenagers. Peer pressure tended to carry negative connotations, like tempting teenagers to smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol. Unit cohesion, on the other hand, was an intense form of this social phenomenon that took place in groups of soldiers and during combat situations. In the past, the cohesion of a unit was thought to determine the combat effectiveness of said group but nothing more. Interviews and testimonies from Vietnam veterans actually pointed to a unit’s cohesion being an invasive part of a soldier’s decision making process. Unfortunately, those choices were not always ethical. Under heavy loads of stress, even negative decisions helped bond soldiers together. This is not to say that the soldier wanted to act unethical, but in some instances they believed it was the best choice for their comrades, or their feelings of vengeance became too intense.
War could not occur without a loss of life, and unit cohesion affected how soldiers reacted to losing one of their own. Perhaps the most common reaction was feelings of hatred and a desire to retaliate. A soldier’s drive for vengeance developed out of love for their friends, not hate towards the enemy, because, “love of comrades is compelling, and among friends brought together as a group for the purpose of violence, that love is often a prelude to immoral action.”5 The immoral action mentioned in the quote referred to the killing of innocent people by a soldier in response to the loss of a friend. A soldier’s motivation to fight came from many things, but they may have fought, “…bravely out of a sense of honor, to help his fellow man, and to avoid being unsoldierly in the eyes of his comrades.”6 The thought of letting their group down and appearing undeserving of the uniform scared many soldiers during their careers.
In many soldiers there existed an intense fear of failure in the eyes of their unit and friends. To a soldier, failing the unit was the ultimate mistake and could result in feelings of isolationism. The unit, following a soldier’s failure, may have ignored or excluded him.7 It is easy to understand why a soldier feared this banishment. All alone and in a foreign land, their unit was the only feeling of home that a soldier had while they were deployed. Ignoring a fellow soldier had detrimental effects to the cohesion of the unit. In intense fire situations, a soldier who had failed was usually marked as the last person who would receive help. This type of soldier was, “…the combatant who, in a decisive moment, refuses to soldier, who refuses to expose himself, to return fire, or hold his position is severely judged and often punished by his fellows if not his command.”8 This soldier was viewed as a coward and abandoned or isolated in some manner. This abandonment of the coward tended to result in their death, although many soldiers believed cowards had no right to live.9 This group mentality played a large role in the military of the United States.
Role in the Military
History showed multiple nations implementing small groups in militaries since the first century BCE.10 The very basic belief in unit cohesion began during this time, yet people failed to recognize its role in combat effectiveness. A small unit’s ability to rely on each other in combat helped increase their efficiency on the battle field. During an engagement, soldiers stopped thinking as individuals. Their sole focus became keeping the men on their left and right alive throughout the battle.11 Many soldiers, especially conscripts, lacked previous thoughts towards violence or murder until they were in the thick of an engagement. For some, they killed the first time with little difficulty. For others, killing went against their moral fiber. Interestingly, those soldiers went against the group mentality which is difficult. They did not make those choices lightly because, “the soldiers who resist coercion toward illegal action in war, following their own values and the rules of war, must have extraordinary inner strength. They can lose comradeship, they can be called ‘coward,’ and their death becomes more probable.”12 A desk at headquarters usually awaited men that failed to fight to get them off the front lines. Some simply lacked the ability to take a life, whether it was innocent or hostile. Taking a life was an intense emotional experience that placed a lot of stress on a soldier. Thankfully the military hierarchy helped those men with clearly defined roles and support systems.
Effect on Soldiers
In a time of war, a support system was crucial, especially for inexperienced soldiers who were adjusting to the new and stressful situation. Some soldiers may have reacted negatively, but this did not affect the group dynamic because, “the functions performed by the primary group are the same regardless of whether the orientation of the individuals is positive or negative; the group enforces standards and sustains and supports the individual.”13 Complete immersion in a group provided many benefits, many of which were made known to soldiers. In the military, “Soldiers were taught to realize that belonging to the group would sustain them in combat after other supports had fallen away.”14 These other supports included leadership, motivation, and home-life, among others. The support system found in small units was also beneficial following the death of a fellow soldier. Mike Ransom, a platoon leader during Vietnam, wrote in a letter to his parents following a friendly fire incident, “They are saddened by the death of a buddy, but he is gone. The concern among the team (for that is what we are) is how it will affect the man who shot him. Will he fall to pieces over this and be unable to perform his function? This is what we’re worried about first and foremost. War is Hell!”15 While the platoon remembered the soldier they lost and grieved his passing, they immediately shifted their focus to the wellbeing of the soldier who accidently killed him. They knew that if they let this soldier have a breakdown, they would lose yet another soldier, a detrimental blow to the unit’s cohesion. Unfortunately, these support systems and like-mindedness could have negative effects.
A combat medic named Gordon Livingston, outspoken about his disapproval of the war, wrote that his, “…views were well known in the unit. I felt, however, that my ability to influence events by individual persuasion was insignificant when the self-interest of everyone lay in the direction of more war, more death.”16 Livingston knew that he was not well liked due to his opinions on the war, but luckily he did not see a lot of action where this could have affected him in a more serious manner. Regardless of whether or not soldiers shared the same opinions, they were part of a system that helped with the emotional highs and lows of war.
There are two specific, intense emotional situations that a lot of soldiers in Vietnam had to deal with during their tour. The first intense emotional situation was the high many soldiers felt after they had taken a life. There was a high likelihood those men never had a murderous thought until they found themselves in combat and, “for most ordinary men who are not born to kill, it is possible that the intense excitement generated by carnage will dazzle them.”17 Unfortunately, this is where unit cohesion could take a negative turn. As soldiers witnessed their friends kill innocent noncombatants, many felt the need to participate to avoid failing their unit because, “once the killing started, soldiers could not break cohesion with their friends – they killed together.”18 These actions helped bond the unit and strengthen the cohesion, but through atrocious acts. For every negative, however, there is a positive and cohesion can help soldiers during the darkest parts of a war. Losing a comrade was one of the hardest things that happened to a unit because the fallen soldier was so entrenched in their everyday life. He was more than family to them, because families do not experience the horrors of war. A quote that explains how emotionally linked soldiers are can be found in Trained to Kill. These soldiers cared for their friends and, “the soldier seasoned by combat tends to the wounded and the dead with the greatest concern. Because friends and self are so fused in battle, caring for friends – even those who are dead – is tantamount to taking care of oneself.”19 Soldiers who died in battle were held in the highest esteem for they paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect their unit and friends. Being a participant in a combat engaged unit, “…demands complete unselfishness, a readiness to risk getting into trouble to keep a comrade out of it; to forgive all his sins…and, in the ultimate test of battle, to live up to the well-known text: ‘Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.’”20 The power to forsake one’s natural instincts of self-preservation to save their friends showed the influence of unit cohesion and the effect it had on soldiers. The men in the unit were aware that they must continue to uphold the values of the group.
The designation of a military unit does not change, even when its soldiers are transferred. Charlie Company held the designation of Charlie Company long before the My Lai Massacre, and long after its occurrence. Part of a soldier’s training included becoming well versed in the history of their unit so they understood what the men before them went through, and the associated honor of membership. When a soldier joined a unit, he became a part of its history. This began the process of becoming entrenched in the unit and feeling the effects of unit cohesion because, “He [the soldier] takes pride in the unit’s history and feels a sense of responsibility to maintain a heroic tradition and to contribute to that tradition.”21 Soldiers had a basic grasp of military history and when they connected their unit to famous battles of the past, they understood the importance of its contributions. This pride was coupled with the fear that they would tarnish their unit’s heroic history. It was the same fear, mentioned earlier, that they would fail their peers and become outcasts. A strong unit history could diminish the feelings of fear because, “…knowledge that his unit has performed heroically and successfully in the past, and that it possesses substantial military resources, gives the soldier the feeling of belonging to a powerful and successful group and helps war off feelings of impotence and vulnerability.”22 Just knowing their unit performed successfully in the past gave soldiers the confidence they needed to preserve that history.
Relationship to Combat Effectiveness
The reasoning behind the creation of small group units in militaries was the relationship found between unit cohesion and the combat effectiveness of that group. Unit cohesion alone could keep a soldier fighting even when they felt they could not take another step because, “…comradeship stimulated by shared deprivation, stress, the need for psychological comfort, and constant personal interaction and communication, allows the soldier to endure combat.”23 Some scholars and historians, like Richard Gabriel and Paul Savage, claimed, “…the performance of the American Army during the Vietnam War indicates a military system which failed to maintain unit cohesion under conditions of combat stress.”24 While their work, Crisis in Command: Mismanagement in the Army was an important publication, their thesis was flawed. John Fowler, in proving Gabriel and Savage incorrect, stated, “Men and units cohered, fought, persevered. Infantrymen complained about the war, yes, but their complaints echoed combat frustrations.”25 These men may have complained, but they were complaining to men who shared their frustrations, and strengthened the cohesion they already shared as comrades. The most common way to form cohesion within a unit was to complain about something all the soldiers disliked. Soldiers complained about fighting the war, humidity, lack of enemy presence, guerilla warfare, and many other facets of the Vietnam War. Interestingly, despite their hatred of the surroundings, units in the Vietnam War were still efficient during combat situations.
Sam Sarkesian defined combat effectiveness as, “…a range of sociopolitical issues from the pros and cons of the selective service system and obligations of citizenship to manpower resources.”26 This meant the combat effectiveness of a nation’s military encompassed a lot more than just how well they fought the enemy. On a smaller scale, effectiveness became an equation which included four elements: readiness, cohesion, effectiveness, and credibility.27 The effectiveness with which a unit engaged their enemy could be separated into two of those elements. A unit was effective in combat when it could, “…demonstrate readiness and cohesion.”28 Readiness became something every soldier in Vietnam knew well. The guerilla warfare style of the Vietcong and the People’s Army of Vietnam soldiers called for Americans to be ready to fight at all times. Little to no warning appeared before a booby trap or a mine severely hurt a soldier. It was during trying times like an ambush that soldiers’ mental stability came into account. The more mentally prepared soldiers were, the more likely they would perform positively in combat.
A unit had to be mentally prepared to engage the enemy or their attack would fail. A unit with high levels of cohesion would mentally prepare themselves for a combat situation, which increased their effectiveness. Depending on how long the unit has been together, they might have a high cohesion level, or they might not. Soldiers who fought together for a while could understand what his fellow soldiers might do next, and helped them communicate on the battlefield. While a group of soldiers who completely lacked cohesion could win an engagement, a cohesive unit would generally sustain fewer casualties and perform more efficiently.
Cohesive units tended to show higher levels of communication, in contrast to units that lacked strong cohesion. An article on the theme of cohesion states, “…groups composed of members with strong positive attitudes toward one another…should be characterized by a generally high drive level [motivation] reflected in the amount of communication among the members.”29 This showed that higher levels of positive communication point to the existence of a highly cohesive group. While consistent communication during a combat situation was not always possible, what could get through to soldiers would bolster their motivation to continue with the task at hand. This higher motivation in response to communication also increased the confidence of the soldiers and positively influenced their effectiveness in combat.
Combat effectiveness was influenced the most by the confidence of the soldiers in that unit. It should be noted that groups with high levels of cohesion showed increased confidence as well. Other than being confident in their group, soldiers also required assurance in the realm of weapons training. Intense weapons training took place before soldiers actually deployed so they gained confidence with their weapon.30 Once a self-assured soldier existed, that confidence spread to others in his unit and increased their cohesion. A cohesive unit allowed for the potential of a hero to emerge. A predisposition to heroic actions did not exist and was purely situational. In essence, soldiers did not risk their lives in a heroic fashion based off genetics, however certain instances allowed men to separate themselves from the group and earn recognition. A study found that soldiers worthy of the title of hero came from cohesive units and stable families.31 Psychiatric casualties became more prevalent in groups or units with a low level of cohesion, and an unstable familial upbringing.32 Low or little no cohesion in a unit opens up every soldier to the threat of a mental breakdown, for, “lack of cohesion may be viewed as a part of the main stress or as a lack of group defenses against the threat.”33 It is unknown whether a lack of cohesion added more stress to the soldier in the absence of a support system.
Role of Combat Stress
Unit cohesion played a major role as a support system for soldiers, but it did not prevent all the negative consequences combat stress. Studies of combat effectiveness during war revealed that, “The prolonged exposure to combat is associated with the gradual loss of biological resiliency. Chronic fatigue, sleep deprivation, enduring battle tension, marginal sustenance with food and water being to take their toll.”34 When soldiers succumb to the stress of combat and think victory is out of reach, “Group cohesion and group solidarity are undermined.”35 Combat stress affected each soldier differently, but some were more susceptible than others. Prevalent cases of combat stress appeared in:
(1) raw, insufficiently trained troops; (2) inactive, defeated, retreating troops; (3) fatigued men exposed to prolonged or intense combat; (4) regiments with low morale due to lack of confidence in their leader or absence of group spirit; (5) unarmed or surrounded men who, while under fire, were unable to fight back, attack, or retreat.36
Some people naturally dealt with stress well and relied on their cognitive flexibility. Combat stress continued to affect soldiers in the contemporary era as they returned home from war. Currently, between 5 – 15% of soldiers returning from deployment experience some form of mental health problem.37 These numbers, when compared to the statistics from the Vietnam War, do not seem nearly as startling. Approximately 50% of the men who fought in Vietnam still suffer from some sort of psychological issues brought on by the intense combat.38 The number was staggering, but, “exposure to heavy combat…and especially to atrocity…is a major factor in the frequency of psychological and psychiatric disturbances in Vietnam veterans.”39 The best way to fight off possible combat stress was to identify with a group because, “the achievement of group identification and a sense of group solidarity lessens the vulnerability to combat stress, strengthens the capacity to withstand tension, and promotes the ability to mobilize and direct aggressive activities in the service of the group.”40 Soldiers made those bonds and fostered their own cohesion while in Vietnam, and created the support systems needed to deal with the death they faced.
Symbiosis between Killing and Bonding
The stress of combat, coupled with the cohesiveness of a soldier’s unit, can cause soldiers to work towards group survival over individual survival. As a group, the unit participated in combat situations where some American soldiers took another person’s life for the first time. The type of killing did not matter, because at that moment a soldier slayed an enemy combatant to protect the group. Even atrocities could bring soldiers together more, increasing the bond (or cohesiveness) between them. Some soldiers were seen by their peers as emotionally unstable, and therefore more likely to attack a noncombatant.41 Failure to participate, even if it went against a soldier’s ethical beliefs, allowed them to become isolated emotionally, and sometimes physically, from their unit.42 While Nadelson wrote that soldiers who chose not to participate in atrocities were usually attacked by other members of their unit, there was no evidence of this happening in regards to the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam.43 Eventually, men realized the errors they had made, and lived with the guilt for the rest of their lives.44 Ironically, due to cohesion, even the people who did not participate still felt guilty and possibly suffered from combat psychiatric problems. The goal of the killing was not to strengthen the cohesion of the unit, but it became a consolation prize. For the horrible offense of taking someone’s life, soldiers became closer to each other so they could deal with the stress easier. It might have to do with the fact that only another soldier knew what it was like to take a life. Regardless, the killing of the enemy, or innocent civilians, pulled soldiers together and solidified their cohesion.
While killing strengthened cohesion, a high level of cohesion had to already exist for the majority of soldiers in a unit to participate in an atrocity. With the great mix of ideology that appeared in units as soldiers from different backgrounds joined the same crowd, many groups had morally strong soldiers who would oppose a massacre. The reason those soldiers might have participated in an atrocity was related to their cohesion. A psychology article regarding unit cohesion stated that, “…a group’s level of communication, and the tendency of its members to conform to the dominant group opinion on an issue, will be positively related to the degree of cohesiveness present within the group.”45 This meant that members of group might change their opinion, or their behavior, to better match the dominant group. If the majority of a unit decided to kill an entire village, the outliers eventually participated simply because the dominant group did. This only happened in instances like My Lai, where cohesion of the unit was extremely high and allowed for the negative consequence of an atrocity when left unmanaged. The symbiosis between killing and bonding became a reflexive part of a soldier’s behavior and created a cascading effect that built upon itself as it moved through the unit.
Conformity and Groupthink
Atrocities could occur when the dominant group approved it and sent a shockwave through the unit that grew as it moved. In essence, “…the more cohesive the group the more should its members be able to function as secondary reinforcers [sic] for one another and, thus, the more should approval of a behavior (opinion) by members serve to maintain it and disapproval to extinguish it.”46 This quote explained how each member of a group helped spread approval for a behavior by their actions. In a group where high levels of cohesion existed, each member played a crucial role in maintaining that cohesion. For example, Platoon A entered a village to survey the area. A large portion of Platoon A held racist views and hatred toward the enemy but had difficulty distinguishing friend from foe in the foreign land where the war was taking place. One soldier fired upon an innocent civilian, believing they had a weapon. Despite learning that the victim was innocent, the portion of Platoon A who detested the enemy began to kill civilians to seek revenge. The soldiers who immediately began killing civilians after the first death helped reinforce the belief that the soldiers would escape repercussions for participation. The soldiers on the fringes then began to participate and further justified the group’s actions. More and more soldiers participated until the overwhelming majority of the group had joined. Essentially this very scenario occurred in the My Lai hamlet during the Vietnam War. A soldier who truly immersed themselves in a unit with high levels of cohesion experienced a phenomenon referred to as “groupthink”.47
Groupthink, in theory, was the ultimate goal for any military unit because it would allow them to seamlessly interact with each other and complete their objectives. In reality, groupthink usually resulted in negative outcomes when members of the group attempted to reach a consensus. Elements of groupthink appear, “…when a group experiences antecedent conditions such as high cohesion …directive leadership, and high stress combined with low self-esteem and little hope of finding a better solution…”48 Many soldiers during a war failed to see a “better solution” on the horizon and the combat stress they encountered was astronomical. The conditions found during the Vietnam War favored the existence of groupthink in units at the time. Unfortunately, evidence showed that groupthink can, “…result in poor quality decisions and defective decision-making symptoms …failure to examine risks of preferred solution …selective bias in processing information at hand, and failure to develop contingency plans.”49 Many soldiers who participated in the massacre at My Lai made poor decisions, processed only the information which justified their actions, and did not fully assess the consequences of their actions.
Unit cohesion was the bond that tied together soldiers while they fought in combat situations. Because of its intricate link to combat effectiveness, military scholars and historians began to examine unit cohesion more in depth. They found that small groups like squads, platoons, and companies had a higher level of cohesion than battalions or brigades. Soldiers in smaller units, with higher levels of cohesion, were provided with a better functioning support system. This decreased the chances of a psychological causality due to the stress of war. Soldiers leaned on each other to make it through combat situations, which increased their bonds. Cohesion, created and fostered by the unit leader during their training exercises, began to take root in soldiers. For most, there existed a high level of cohesion before they deployed to fight in their first combat experience due to their training. While created by the unit leader in most situations, soldiers maintained their cohesion through creation of relationships within their group. Those bonds strengthened greatly once enemy combatants became involved and fighting began. The high stress of combat possibly acted as a growth hormone to the unit’s cohesion and it increased.
As a unit found itself in more combat situations, and subsequently lost their comrades, cohesion tended to increase. With every loss of a soldier, his surviving comrades felt an increasing amount of vengeful attitudes. As cohesion and stress increased, the possibility of groupthink existed. This phenomenon helped groups make decisions; however those decisions were usually poorly made and lacked forward thinking. Consequences were not usually taken into account and people only acknowledged what justified their actions. In Charlie Company there existed a high possibility for groupthink based off their levels of cohesion. Furthermore, the decisions they made that day reflected the hypothesis that groupthink may lead to poor/detrimental decisions. Unit cohesion played a crucial role in the military history of every great nation. Americans, for example, shared the common beliefs of freedom for everyone. Even this common belief could have provided catalyst for cohesion to start affecting the people in that group. For Charlie Company, their shared beliefs and ideals stretched across a wide range, but they still fostered high levels of cohesion.