Human Factors In Warfare: Fear In A Lethal Environment

Chaplain (Capt.) Emil Kapaun (right) and Capt. Jerome A. Dolan, a medical officer with the 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, carry an exhausted Soldier off the battlefield in Korea, early in the war. Kapaun was famous for exposing himself to enemy fire. When his battalion was overrun by a Chinese force in November 1950, rather than take an opportunity to escape, Kapaun voluntarily remained behind to minister to the wounded. In 2013, Kapaun posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his actions in the battle and later in a prisoner of war camp, where he died in May 1951. [Photo Credit: Courtesy of the U.S. Army Center of Military History]

[This piece was originally published on 27 June 2017.]

Trevor Dupuy’s theories about warfare were sometimes criticized by some who thought his scientific approach neglected the influence of the human element and chance and amounted to an attempt to reduce war to mathematical equations. Anyone who has read Dupuy’s work knows this is not, in fact, the case.

Moral and behavioral (i.e human) factors were central to Dupuy’s research and theorizing about combat. He wrote about them in detail in his books. In 1989, he presented a paper titled “The Fundamental Information Base for Modeling Human Behavior in Combat” at a symposium on combat modeling that provided a clear, succinct summary of his thinking on the topic.

He began by concurring with Carl von Clausewitz’s assertion that

[P]assion, emotion, and fear [are] the fundamental characteristics of combat… No one who has participated in combat can disagree with this Clausewitzean emphasis on passion, emotion, and fear. Without doubt, the single most distinctive and pervasive characteristic of combat is fear: fear in a lethal environment.

Despite the ubiquity of fear on the battlefield, Dupuy pointed out that there is no way to study its impact except through the historical record of combat in the real world.

We cannot replicate fear in laboratory experiments. We cannot introduce fear into field tests. We cannot create an environment of fear in training or in field exercises.

So, to study human reaction in a battlefield environment we have no choice but to go to the battlefield, not the laboratory, not the proving ground, not the training reservation. But, because of the nature of the very characteristics of combat which we want to study, we can’t study them during the battle. We can only do so retrospectively.

We have no choice but to rely on military history. This is why military history has been called the laboratory of the soldier.

He also pointed out that using military history analytically has its own pitfalls and must be handled carefully lest it be used to draw misleading or inaccurate conclusions.

I must also make clear my recognition that military history data is far from perfect, and that–even at best—it reflects the actions and interactions of unpredictable human beings. Extreme caution must be exercised when using or analyzing military history. A single historical example can be misleading for either of two reasons: (a) The data is inaccurate, or (b) The example may be true, but also be untypical.

But, when a number of respectable examples from history show consistent patterns of human behavior, then we can have confidence that behavior in accordance with the pattern is typical, and that behavior inconsistent with the pattern is either untypical, or is inaccurately represented.

He then stated very concisely the scientific basis for his method.

My approach to historical analysis is actuarial. We cannot predict the future in any single instance. But, on the basis of a large set of reliable experience data, we can predict what is likely to occur under a given set of circumstances.

Dupuy listed ten combat phenomena that he believed were directly or indirectly related to human behavior. He considered the list comprehensive, if not exhaustive.

I shall look at Dupuy’s treatment of each of these in future posts (click links above).

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Shawn Woodford
Shawn Woodford

Shawn Robert Woodford, Ph.D., is a military historian with nearly two decades of research, writing, and analytical experience on operations, strategy, and national security policy. His work has focused on special operations, unconventional and paramilitary warfare, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, naval history, quantitative historical analysis, nineteenth and twentieth century military history, and the history of nuclear weapon development. He has a strong research interest in the relationship between politics and strategy in warfare and the epistemology of wargaming and combat modeling.

All views expressed here are his and do not reflect those of any other private or public organization or entity.

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  1. I have just finished reading the presentation and have a question.

    Regarding the paragraph in Dupuy’s presentation called “Defensive Posture”, did he later in his research expand this concept into “Tactical Posture” and consider factors such as a general’s “personality” or preferred tactical posture to be a multiplier depending on the tactical posture that circumstances forced him to adopt? For example, a naturally cautious commander (e.g. Montgomery) may be expected to do better in a defensive battle (e.g. El Alamein) than an offensive one. He was in his ‘zone’.

    Impressive work.

    • Dupuy did do a limited comparison of the performance of the Allies and Germans between World War I and II, and between the belligerents in the Middle Eastern wars of 1967-1973 in Numbers, Predictions & War. He also noted that there differences in the combat effectiveness between individual divisions in World War II. In Understanding War, Dupuy examined the case of the U.S. 88th Infantry Division, which had the highest individual combat effectiveness score of all of the Allied units and most of the German units in HERO’s World War II Italian Campaign data base. Dupuy attributed the success of the 88th Division primarily to the highly effective leadership of its commander, Major General John Sloan. Given enough data, it should be possible to analyze the performance of specific units or leaders to determine relative proficiency in specific situations.

  2. This is pathetic propaganda. The Communist regime did not tolerate religion, therefore it tried to destroy the orthodox church, the very same church Putin is trying to rehabilitate under his banner, instrumentalized of course. By posting this you are only doing Russian nationalists a favour.
    The Soviets were neither religious, nor the “good guys”. Seeing this on the TDI gives me a bad taste in my mouth. Might as well post agitprop or “romantic realism” of the NSDAP.

  3. Fair enough. The image is an artistic rendition of a photograph which had no clear reference to Kursk or any particular conflict. That was added by the artist. I will add a different picture to the post.

  4. I think I should post this question under the Fear category.

    In Dupuy’s response to Mearsheimer’s critcism he stated that unit quality was not necessarily directly linked to morale (Mearsheimer argued that Japanese and Soviet troops were more likely to retreat, while facing higher quality opponents, which was then refuted by Dupuy).
    This leads to the question if higher quality forces (especially elite) are less likely to rout.
    I understand that leadership may play a significant role in inspiring lower quality forces but can fanaticism or ideology, perhaps desperation cause a similar effect? May it be even cultural?

    E.g. if we take the Napoleonic Wars as an example, Grenadier units charging regular line infantry with bayonets would usually cause the lower quality line unit to either disband or reposition, instead of actually “accepting the duel”. Guard units however would rarely back off in such a situation, as their superior training would make them more confident.

    • I suspect that Dupuy would say, and I would concur, that higher quality troops are less likely to rout on the battlefield than lower quality troops. I doubt this is a controversial assertion. Your question is an interesting one and there is a considerable body of English-language academic research on the topic of military effectiveness. I would point out that there is a difference between this concept of military effectiveness and Dupuy’s concept of combat effectiveness. Dupuy’s research focused specifically on force-on-force military combat, as opposed to the broader subject of overall military effectiveness. Many of Dupuy’s critics failed to perceive the difference. (To be fair, Dupuy could be indistinct at times in his own writing on the subject, I think.) I wrote a blog post on a recent book examining military effectiveness by political scientist Jasen Castillo that you might find relevant and interesting:

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