The many definitions of troop morale

Marines at Camp Get Some, located in southern Iraq at a former university, pack up to go home.


By WARD SANDERSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 16, 2003

What is morale?

Brass and troops use the word all the time. Defining it is more difficult.

Is it the willingness to die for one’s country? The conviction that what one is doing is important? The glee of soldiers when a new batch of DVDs hits the exchange?

“I think it’s a tough one for me to answer. The answer is squishy,” said Col. David MacEwen, senior officer charged with Army Morale, Welfare and Recreation in Iraq. “Is it things or is it a feeling? I don’t think it’s things. I think what contributes to it are ‘Do my leaders, does my service and my country and does my family care about me?’”

The “Reader’s Companion to Military History” defines morale as “a spiritual quality thought to be desirable in soldiers,” and “a sublime, self-denying state” giving troops a sense of purpose higher than that of individual survival.

U.S. Army Field Manual 22-100 calls morale “the human dimension’s most important intangible element” and “a measure of how people feel about themselves, their team, and their leaders.”

A Marine stationed at an old pistol factory in Iraq, 1st Lt. Dave Lewis, defined morale with squared-away bluntness: “It’s all attitude.”

Whatever the nuances of their definitions, military minds and troops agree that high morale leads to valor. Many also say morale is influenced by the conviction that a cause is important, and in a democracy, the certainty that folks back home support it. Additionally, they say that these factors, more so than new CDs or celebrity visits, are the true determiners of morale.

Charles Moskos, a military sociologist and professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., said morale is the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for something greater.

“That’s the ultimate morale,” Moskos said. “What tells them to do it is different. There has to be belief in the cause, too. That’s what most observers don’t mention.”

Staff Sgt. Joseph Chapman, a soldier surveyed with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq, wrote that morale is “unit cohesion; how well the command informs the soldiers; and the facilities that are around us.”

Another soldier in Iraq called morale “a mind-set. Expectations versus reality.”

The Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., teaches officers that morale leads to obedience.

“Bottom line, they buy into the vision,” Lt. Col. Tom Bradbeer, of the college’s Center for Army Leadership, said. “They buy into what the doctrine is all about.”

For Steven Aftergood, senior research analyst with the Federation of American Scientists’ Military Analysis Network, morale is best defined by what it is not.

“It’s easier to identify the opposite of morale than to identify what it is,” Aftergood said from Washington, D.C. “The opposite is cynicism. If you have cynicism, you don’t have morale.”

He said success depends on a cocktail of faith in mission, optimism, camaraderie and confidence in commanders.

“It’s really a multifaceted concept,” said retired Lt. Col. Daniel Smith, who served in intelligence, as a military attaché and as a West Point instructor and is former chief of research for the Center for Defense Information. “One is a sense among the troops themselves that what they are doing is worth the effort and the sacrifice. And that’s fundamental going in. Also fundamental is the sense that the population of the country as a whole supports what they’re doing.”

Smith said mumbled gripes over field conditions and amenities turn to roars only after the real pillars of morale have already crumbled.

Speaking in Iraq, V Corps Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth Preston traced bad morale to “things that create stress, frustration and concern among soldiers.”

“High morale would be defined as what the soldiers’ priorities are for how they’re spending their time over here on this mission,” Preston said. “I would think that you’ve got soldiers out there that put the unit and mission first and themselves last.

“There’s those that have that kind of vision. They look long-term beyond themselves.”

Staff writer Marni McEntee contributed to this story.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Steve Umfleet of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 15, out of Kansas City, Mo., helps frame a building in Iraq. The Seabees have stayed busy in Iraq and that, some leaders in the unit say, has helped keep their morale up.