‘They can’t kill us all’: Morale and the Study of Strategy


‘What are they going to do’, said one young man protesting in Hong Kong this week, ‘they can’t kill us all’. While one may admire the confidence and determination of youth, two points spring to mind. First, the Chinese authorities certainly could have killed the thousands of protestors massed in downtown Hong Kong; but, second, it was highly unlikely that the Chinese would have to do so.

It was far more probable that those ordinary citizens, courageous as they were, would have lost the will to continue the protest and negotiated a compromise settlement or have folded under pressure from the Communist party. Thousands of miles away in the Middle East, Islamic State fighters have recently precipitated the collapse of the Iraqi Army. War may be slaughter, but few Iraqi troops demonstrated a determination to fight to the last man or the last bullet for the Iraqi state.

In fact, rarely does one side have to kill everyone to subdue an enemy. Herein lies a fundamental truth in war and conflict: matters of morale and motivation are often central to outcomes.

Although the maintenance of morale has long been recognised in military circles as an important factor in war, ‘outside these circles’, as John Baynes has pointed out,  ‘there is sometimes difficulty in appreciating why this is so.’ Morale is a nebulous and difficult to define concept and is not obviously amenable to quantification.

General Sir Ronald Adam, the Adjutant General of the British Army during the Second World War, said that morale could only be ‘painted with the impressionistic brush of a Turner and not with the microscopic detail of a Canaletto.’ More recently, André Loez has gone so far as to say that ‘le “moral” des soldats n’existe pas’. Without a clear and reliable definition of morale, or an accepted approach to assess or ‘measure’ morale, it is extremely difficult to make connections between military outcomes and morale. As Millet, Murray and Watman have argued, one must include in the analysis of military effectiveness ‘non-quantifiable’ factors as well as those more readily amenable to measurement. ‘A more limited method only provides equally limited conclusions’.

In an attempt to make a contribution to the understanding of morale in military affairs, I argue, in a new article, ‘In Search of the ‘X’ Factor: Morale and the Study of Strategy’, that the concept of military morale remains ill defined, inconsistently used and poorly understood.

The article proposes that the concept of morale has no place in a critical analysis of the past unless it is clearly differentiated from definitions associated solely or primarily with mood or cohesion and the group. Instead, for morale to have explanatory value, particularly in a combat environment, a functional conceptualisation is proposed, which, while not excluding the role of mood or group cohesion, focuses its meaning and relevance on motivation and the willingness to act in a manner required by an authority or institution.

By drawing on studies made across the social sciences and on primary archival evidence from the British and Commonwealth Army’s experiences in North Africa in the Second World War, the article generates a multi-dimensional model of morale.  It suggests that morale can best be understood as emerging from the subtle interdependencies and interrelationships of the many factors known to affect military means. This perspective on morale allows the interaction between morale and policy to be explored in a manner that facilitates insight into the art of war (strategy).

The article explores methodologies to ‘measure’ and assess morale and argues, through the use of a case study on the North African Campaign of the Second World War, that the theories, models, definitions and methodologies explored can be employed by policy makers, military leaders and scholars to better understand and develop strategy.

Photograph: A soldier from 5 Platoon, 2 Mercian Regiment fires a 66mm HEAT L1A1 Rocket at insurgents during heavy fighting in Operation Panchai Palang near Babaji, Helmand, Afghanistan. (Courtesy defenceimagery.mod.uk)


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