Fighting Fear

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Individuals developing psychiatric disorders after fewer than 200 days could successfully be returned to combat by the excellent frontline treatment developed in North Africa. But a man who was “worn out” was through as a fighting soldier. (Years later studies showed these ex-soldiers functioning at normal levels in civilian life.)

What was combat stress really like? I needed to go see for myself. I had myself ordered to a battalion aid station in the front lines. Under fire—from some small arms, bombs from airplanes, and, worse, “them shells”—I quickly learned that if the sound of an incoming round went from higher to lower, it had passed by to explode elsewhere. But if the sound kept rising, you’d better duck; it was coming your way. I learned to dive for cover with some enthusiasm.

The sense of danger hit me at once, and in my report I said that the experience of frontline combat duty could no more be comprehended by one who had not had it than could the experience of sexual intercourse. Constant fear of death accompanied a feeling of immediate deep bonding with the other men in the unit. Today, more than fifty years later, the faces of the men in my outfit are still vivid in my mind. If, for example, Blackie, a sergeant, should show up at my front door in Radnor, Pennsylvania, I would recognize him immediately, embrace him, and invite him to stay for as long as he wished. This is true despite the fact that I was with the unit for only three days. I noticed, too, that once I received orders to return to the rear, the feeling of bonding disappeared immediately. I became a stranger in their midst.

Once out of the line, seeking remedies, I consulted with various division psychiatrists who had been diagnosing and treating NP cases for many months. All cited the poor morale, the hopelessness of the infantryman; he saw himself as underappreciated, as the low man on the totem pole, the sucker. One way to attack this was by publicly recognizing the frontline soldier’s importance. I proposed establishing a large combat badge, bright blue, to be worn by every fighting infantryman, and also providing extra pay for days spent in action.

But most important, we had to offer a ray of hope. Army regulations assigned soldiers to frontline duty —period. The only way out was death, injury, or war’s end.

The only remedy would be to change regulations so as to offer a foreseeable end to combat duty and honorable escape. My next step was to return to Washington as rapidly as possible to try to get such a measure adopted. I was concerned that my written report, which I carried with me, might be deemed critical of theater operations—as indeed it was—and seized by censors at the airport. I managed to have myself made a military “courier.” This meant I was given a locked and sealed briefcase, chained to my wrist, immune to censorship. It contained confidential documents, among them my report, and I passed into the States without incident.

Army regulations assigned soldiers to frontline duty—period. The only way out was death, injury, or war’s end.

Back in Washington I began my chief task: to determine the optimum length of the tour—short enough to offer hope for the soldier, long enough to keep the loss of manpower to a minimum. The War Department would have to be assured that the loss was acceptable before it would seriously consider the proposal. I joined forces with Gilbert Beebe, a highly competent statistician in the Surgeon General’s Office, and we set to work determining and analyzing the casualty rates in the Mediterranean theater. By 214 aggregate days of combat duty, all men had broken down psychologically—that is, if they had not been wounded, killed, or lost to physical sickness. The number who had survived that long was so small that the loss of manpower involved in releasing them would be acceptably slight. We finally decided to recommend a tour of 180 aggregate days.

Now to compose that report and the proposal. I had been told that Gen. George Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff, would not read anything longer than a single paragraph on a single page. I distilled what I had to say into that space and bulwarked it with appendices and supporting data, along with the comments of various reviewing officers. Of course I never got a direct response from the general, but the limited tour of duty for infantrymen was adopted and became an Armywide policy, applied in both Europe and the Pacific during the final campaigns of the war—and in Korea and Vietnam as well.

Also adopted were those blue combat badges—plain for infantrymen who had not yet fought and embellished with a silver wreath once the wearer had seen action. They were worn proudly, I believe, and did raise the morale and status of the infantryman. (Soldiers in other combat units—artillery, for instance—who protested could be offered transfers into the infantry, whose casualty rates were invariably far higher.)