By Charles Bausman
Developing a soldier who is capable of overcoming fear is a problem that has presented itself to military organizations since the dawn of warfare. Fear is an inherently natural reaction to a life-threatening situation (combat), causing at best a less capable and decisive soldier. At worst, the soldier may endure a complete psychological paralysis.
For the purpose of this article, we will look at methods currently employed by U.S. Military branches with a focus on infantry and special operations units. We will not cover methods employed at entry-level schools (Boot Camp, OCS), as they are well known and utilized for all recruits.
Special Operations Psychological Tools
Research conducted by the Rand Corporation compared various methods that special operation units utilize for personnel beginning their respective selections and training pipelines. While not directly related to fear, these tools are implemented to allow these special operations candidates to overcome adversity and the stressors of their training.
- Mental Skills Foundation: Understanding the relationship between performance and psychological states
- Confidence: Strategies to build, sustain, and protect confidence. Self-assurance.
- Goal Setting: Personally meaningful goals supported by core values. Breaking larger objectives into manageable tasks.
- Attention Control/Concentration: Emphasis on understanding how attention works and how to control it to enhance focus and concentration
- Arousal Control: Practical skills on managing arousal levels and the stress response to meet the demands of the situation and restoring energy.
- Imagery/Visualization: Mental rehearsal of successful outcomes to build confidence and promote effectiveness.
- Self-Talk: Internal dialogue to guide thoughts, emotions, performance, etc.
- Compartmentalization: Dividing or segmenting adverse events or setbacks for later processing.
Interestingly, seasoned Pararescuemen (PJ’s) interviewed in this study did not remember these tools as fundamental to their success in gaining entry into their career field.
Intuitively, arousal control, confidence, and compartmentalization would appear to be the best methods in controlling fear in combat scenarios, especially over the length of a deployment or a career.
Live Fire Exercises
Weapons training and live fire maneuver exercises generally follow a predictable progression for soldiers and units. This begins with basic skills or individual training standards (ITS) associated with the specific job of the soldier. An example of this would be demonstrating proficiency with organic weapon systems under day and night conditions.
This continues on to fire and movement (firing and moving along the same axis of attack), then fire and maneuver (Firing with a maneuvering unit on an intersecting axis) at increasing unit size. Squad to platoon to company to battalion is the general unit size progression, with the implementation of supporting arms (Artillery, close air support, etc.)
While certainly focused on a tactical skills progression, it has a secondary purpose of increasing the individual’s familiarity with environmental conditions associated with combat.
In a controlled training environment, soldiers will maneuver as close to bullet and mortar impacts as is safe. These lines are highly researched and strictly enforced to ensure the safety of the troops, but you are still able to feel the blast concussions, hear the rounds impact, and see it’s effect on the target.
This training, while still a “one-way” range, assimilates the soldier too many of the conditions that may be experienced on the battlefield. This, in conjunction with fine-tuning immediate action drills (IAD) and unit SOP’s, increases confidence and may enable the soldier to control their mind and body in a chaotic environment (arousal control).
Force on Force
Force on force exercises generally pits two units against one another, utilizing paintball or laser tag type technology to create a clear and realistic training scenario. Very little can duplicate employing ground tactics against another thinking enemy capable of countering your actions; force on force creates this environment challenging soldiers and leaders alike.
Instead of firing at a lifeless target, now you are sighting in on another breathing human being. David Grossman, author of “On Killing” and “On Combat” has written extensively on the benefits of this methodology and it’s relationship to effectiveness in combat. This training often occurs in compartmentalized close quarter environments, in which your enemy may engage you from any small aperture, three hundred and sixty degrees around you.
More advanced training facilities have integrated simulated explosives, with role players “injured” and displaying extremely realistic looking injuries. Additionally, the sounds and smells are artificially injected into the facility, to create a full sensory experience.
Again, the secondary effect of this method of training allows for the individual to grow more accustomed to this dynamic and threatening environment. The reaction of fear is reduced if it has been realistically experienced in a training environment.
Violence of Action
Assaulting a compound filled with the enemy trying to kill you is not a natural human reaction. The violence of action is a mentality taught by military institutions and small unit leaders to overcome the “flight” reaction and commit to an otherwise lethal course of action.
The violence of action can be trained in a variety of ways. Pitting two soldiers against one another with physical violence (Ground fighting, boxing, etc.) establishes a baseline of confrontational violence that is generally condemned in our society. Executing an IAD at full speed and under full load furthers the cultural mentality of violence. Training a small unit leader to make a decision and execute in a chaotic environment with minimal information at hand further enhances violence of action.
Fear inoculation as seen here is a beneficiary of training techniques utilized by U.S. military forces. Through repeated exposure to the environmental conditions associated with combat, the theory is the individual soldier will be less susceptible to fear and more likely to be effective when it becomes a “two-way” range.
What isn’t found in our research is training specifically designed to train for fear. How do we duplicate a fear so great that one is afraid for one’s life without actually putting them at risk? How do we measure this? Does single mode fear exposure (climbing a challenging route) translate to success in controlling fear in war? Are there indicators that a person will naturally control fear more successfully than their peers? These are questions we want to answer.
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