Team Cohesion/Trust

Team Cohesion/Trust

Controversy occurs in the military when civilian officials attempt to impose questionable policies and practices on the armed forces in pursuit of misplaced priorities.  Such policies, designed to put egalitarian goals to the ultimate test, frequently conflict with classic elements of military culture.  Because the armed forces differ from the civilian world in many respects, an inherent tension exists between sociological goals and the needs of the military.

Unit cohesion, for example, is essential for a strong military force.  Cohesion is more than being liked by others; it is a willingness to die for someone else.  Horizontal cohesion within a given unit involves mutual dependence for survival in combat.1  Vertical cohesion is the bond of trust that must exist between the commander in chief, subordinate leaders, and the troops they lead.2

Both types of cohesion develop from strong bonds of mutual confidence, trust, and discipline that make survival possible under chaotic wartime conditions.  Military discipline does not just happen—it must be taught by leaders who have the trust of people who will live, and sometimes die, under their command.  Essential elements of military culture foster qualities that are not duplicated anywhere in the civilian world, including selfless courage under fire during war far from home.

Without essential factors such as unit cohesion, discipline, and high morale, the armed forces would degrade into disorganized cohorts of self-interested and leaderless young people armed with lethal weapons.  This is why morale and the culture of the military, defined most simply as “how things are done,” must be guarded at all times and never taken for granted.  As columnist Thomas Sowell wrote, “Military morale is an intangible, but it is one of those intangibles without which the tangibles do not work.”3  

In this article for the Ashbrook Center, Professor Mackubin Owens, a former Marine and instructor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI, addresses the issue of unit cohesion and misunderstandings about it.  He also makes a personal comment that is relevant to the issue.

“In a February 3 Wall Street Journal op-ed, I argued that the current law banning military service by homosexuals ought to remain in place. I based my contention on the importance of non-sexual bonding as the glue of unit cohesion, which is an important contributor to military effectiveness. As expected, I received a great deal of feedback, some positive, some negative. I thought it might be useful to lay out the objections to my piece with my responses.
“First, some have claimed that the studies indicating the importance of cohesion in war have been "discredited." On the one hand, I am tired of academics who rarely have any military experience telling me and others who have actually led men in combat that unit cohesion is not that important. On the other hand, the only way they can get away with the claim is to redefine cohesion in such a way it loses all significance. A law office on K Street is in no way comparable to a military unit operating under the stress of combat.
“Here’s how the 1992 report of the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces described cohesion: the relationship that develops in a unit or group in which 1) members share common values and experiences; 2) individuals in the group conform to group norms and behavior in order to ensure group survival and goals; 3) members lose their identity in favor of a group identity; 4) members focus on group activities and goals; 5) unit members become totally dependent on each other for the completion of their mission or survival; and 6) group members must meet all the standards of performance and behavior in order not to threaten group survival.
“…Finally, critics of my piece conclude that those such as myself who make the argument that the ban on homosexual service in the military are simply bigots. This claim is similar to that of those who argue that opposition to President Obama’s policies is motivated by racism. I can’t speak for others who share my view, but in fact my late brother was homosexual. I got along fine with him and his circle of friends, all of whom were cognizant of my views. I am as opposed to bigotry as anyone. Homosexuals should and do possess the equal civil rights of their fellow citizens. But there is no "right" to serve in the military and in that case, military effectiveness should trump all other considerations.”

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In this article, Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis, USA (Ret.), explains how a Pentagon Military Working Group to which he was assigned in 1993 defined the quality of “unit cohesion.”

This article defines the importance of unit cohesion in modern warfare:


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This an excerpt of a book chapter by CMR President Elaine Donnelly titled “Defending the Culture of the Military,” published in May 2010 by the Air Force University Press as part of a book titled Attitudes Are Not Free: Thinking Deeply about Diversity in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Footnotes are in sequence but different from the original text, which begins on page 249, linked above.  

Personal Reluctance to Report Sexual Tension or Physical Abuse

When a female soldier reports an incident of sexual harassment or abuse, she enjoys the presumption of truthfulness. But under the new LGBT law, if a male soldier reports an incident of homosexual harassment or abuse, he will face the suspicion, if not the presumption, of unacceptable attitudes toward fellow soldiers who are homosexual.
Both male and female heterosexuals whose sexual privacy and values are violated by the new LGBT law will hesitate to file complaints, lest they be suspected or accused of prejudiced attitudes that violate the new “zero tolerance” policy favoring homosexuals in the military. Having no recourse, many will leave the all-volunteer force.
When problems occur, commanders will face the thankless burden of trying to find out what happened and who was responsible for what.  Regardless of the he-said or she-said details, in emotionally charged disputes such as this, the consequences would be the same, tearing individual units apart.
There are many personal reasons why women hesitate to file complaints when unwanted sexual approaches occur—embarrassment, intimidation by a superior, fear of not being believed, and so forth.  Heterosexual men confronted with the same type of approaches from other men would face all of the factors that deter women, plus the additional concern that a complaint might lead to questions about their own sexuality. Among men, such insinuations are considered “fighting words.”
A March 2008 story in Clinical Psychiatry News, quoting speakers at an annual meeting of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, reported that “male veterans who have a history of military sexual trauma often fail to disclose their condition until well into treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, and have many motivations for covering up their problems.”4
According to a special report in the Florida Times quoting Veterans Affairs psychologists, a unique program designed to counsel veterans, particularly men who were raped or sexually assaulted in the military, found that men are even more reluctant to report such incidents and subsequent problems than women are.  “Military men do not report the attacks because they fear no one will believe them, their careers will be damaged, they will be labeled homosexuals or they will suffer retribution from the attackers or their commanders.”5
In an article about male military sexual trauma (MST), Harvard Medical School psychology instructor Jim Hopper commented, “When they get assaulted, they’re unprepared to deal with their vulnerable emotions.  They resist seeking help. They believe that their hard-earned soldier-based masculinity has been shattered.”  Gay activists writing on favorite Web sites frequently deride or ridicule such concerns about personal privacy, berating anyone who even mentions the subject.6

Institutional Barriers to Full Disclosure of Problems

A Navy Times editorial reported that incidents of male sexual assault often are underreported and may be more prevalent in the military than in other parts of society. Navy Times further reported that unlike the civilian judicial system, military courts do not offer a publicly accessible docket of pending court-martial cases.   As a result, “military commanders release that information at will, giving them unmatched control over information that should be out in the open.”7
Two cases summarized below demonstrate the risks of sexual abuse that could occur, with little or no public notice, if the 1993 Eligibility Law is repealed.
    Navy Lt Cmdr John Thomas Lee. Lt Cmdr J. T. Lee, a 42-year-old Catholic priest, was a Navy chaplain who tested positive for HIV, an indicator of AIDS, in 2005. Between 2003 and 2007, Chaplain Lee was assigned to counsel midshipmen at the US Naval Academy and Marines at Quantico, VA. According to court testimony and factual stipulations signed by Lee and Navy prosecutors, Lee committed numerous sexual offenses with a young midshipman, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, and a Marine corporal.  His conduct was all the more reprehensible due to his undisclosed HIV-positive status and the betrayal of trust associated with his role as a priest and chaplain.8
The Washington Post reported on 7 December 2007 that Lieutenant Commander Lee pleaded guilty to several serious charges, but nevertheless got off with a 12-year prison sentence reduced to two, with only 18 months to be served.  The plea bargain effectively swept the case under the rug with little public awareness that the scandal even happened.
A surprisingly candid article in Newsweek stated that according to a 2007 report, up to 60 military chaplains were convicted or strongly suspected of committing sexual abuse over the past four decades, sometimes against the children of military personnel.9  Studies suggest that sexual assault among military men is most prevalent among junior enlisted ranks.10
According to a recent Navy Times article about sexual misconduct, a Navy Department online survey of about 85,000 sailors and Marines found that reports of male-on-male sexual assaults have increased sharply, up to about 7 percent from 4 percent in 2004.  Navy official Jill Loftus indicated that reasons for the increased reports were unclear, but resources for men experiencing sexual assault are few in comparison to those available to women.  She added that some commanders of all-male units told Navy officials that they didn’t need sexual assault training or coordinators because they assumed they were not needed with only men in their units. The required inclusion of openly gay and bisexual personnel in all-male and mixed gender units would worsen the underlying problem, not improve it.  ) 11
Chief of Naval Operations Adm Gary Roughead, who had previously dismissed such reports as “anecdotal,” should order a full investigation and a detailed report on all alleged male-on-male assaults.  Absent such a review, claims that there have been no problems with discreet gays in the military should not be considered  reliable.
    Pfc Johnny Lamar Dalton. In 2007 Pfc Johnny Lamar Dalton, 25, was charged with assault with a deadly weapon—the HIV virus.12  Dalton reportedly disobeyed orders by having unprotected, consensual sex with an 18-year-old, who became HIV-positive shortly after the encounter with Dalton.  The Associated Press reported that Dalton pleaded guilty to assault for unprotected sex and was sentenced to 40 months in prison, reduction in rank, and a dishonorable discharge.13
In answer to an inquiry from the Center for Military Readiness (CMR), an Army spokesman confirmed that Dalton’s records would show only his criminal violations, not the lesser offense of homosexual conduct.  This is standard practice, especially when authorities are mindful of the impact of charges on innocent family members.14  For this reason, discharges that involve homosexual conduct may not be reported to the public or to members of Congress—now or in the future if Congress votes to repeal the 1993 law.



1  In his address to the “Boys of Pointe du Hoc” on the 40th anniversary of D-Day 1984, Pres. Ronald Reagan described the force of military cohesion: “You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet, you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? . . . We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief; it was loyalty and love.”
2  William Darryl Henderson, PhD, testimony before the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces, 26 June 1992, and Commission Report to the President, 15 November 1992, Finding 2.5.1, page C-80-81, quoting Dr. Henderson’s book, Cohesion: The Human Element, National Defense University Press, 1985.
3  Thomas Sowell, “The Anointed and Those Who Aren’t,” Washington Times, 8 February 1993, E3.
4 Jeff Evans, “Men with Military Sexual Trauma Often Resist Disclosure,” Adult Psychiatry, March 2008, 21.
5 Alan Snel. “Male (and Female) Rape in the Military,” Florida Times Special Report, 17 January 2003. This article included graphic descriptions of some of the assaults suffered by men seeking treatment for military sexual trauma.
6 Bill Sizemore, “Military Men Are Silent Victims of Sexual Assault,” Virginian Pilot,, 5 October 2009.7 Editorial. “Corps Puts Spin Control Ahead of Victims’ Health,” Navy Times, 17 December 2007, 44.
8 Ernesto Londono, “Navy Chaplain Pleads Guilty: HIV-Positive Priest Is Sentenced in Sex Case,” Washington Post, 7 December 2007, B-1.  In one of the pornographic photos obtained by the Post, Lieutenant Commander Lee was sitting nude on a sofa in his office flanked by an image of the Virgin Mary and a framed photo of Marine Gen Peter Pace, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
9 Dan Ephron, “Questionable Conduct,” Newsweek, 15 December 2007.
10 Andrew Tilghman, “Military among Settings in Which Assault ‘Most Likely,’” Navy Times, 17 December 2007, 9. This article quotes Mic Hunter, a psychologist and author of Honor Betrayed: Sexual Abuse in America’s Military: “The military, boarding schools, sports teams and prison—these are the settings where a male is most likely to be assaulted.”
11 Philip Ewing, Navy Times, “Male-on-Male Sex Assaults Increase,” Navy Times, 7 December 2009, 22.
12 Michael Moore, “Soldier at Bragg Charged with HIV Assault,” Raleigh News & Observer, 18 July 2007.
13 Associated Press (AP), “US: HIV-Positive Paratrooper Pleads Guilty to Assault for Unprotected Sex,” Washington Post, 1 November 2007.
14 Maj Thomas Earnhardt, US Army Forces Command (FORSCOM), to the author, e-mail, 28 January 2008. Major Earnhardt wrote that Private First Class Dalton was not charged with homosexual conduct because “it’s not in the Army’s interest to pursue an additional charge that imposes no criminal penalty.”