Photograph of Marine Raider charging a wire barrier in training

U.S. Marine Corps #55237. Via

Morale is the willingness to expose oneself to danger or to endure discomfort in order to complete a mission. Since almost everything the armed services do involves one or both, morale is crucial to military effectiveness. Napoleon once said that "the moral is to the physical as three is to one."

Unit cohesion

While morale is drawn from many sources, it is widely recognized that one indispensable factor is unit cohesion. Men fight best when they fight alongside comrades with whom they have trained and with whom they share a common bond of trust. Thus, fighting power was maximized when replacements were kept together throughout the recruiting and training process and were sent in large groups to be integrated into depleted units that have been pulled out of the fighting line. However, such rigid personnel policies made it difficult to keep units in the front line for a prolonged time, and they ran the risk of divisions involved in heavy combat depleting their replacement pool while divisions in quieter parts of the battle zone build up a backlog of replacements. Personnel policies of the major powers reflected various trade offs between flexibility and unit cohesion.

U.S. Army policies represented one extreme of this trade off. There was a single large replacement pool shared by all divisions in a theater. Individual men were sent wherever they were needed, sometimes being fed directly into the front line. This approach almost completely ignored the psychological needs of the soldiers, who were regarded as interchangeable parts that could be inserted anywhere in the military machine. This was an astonishingly inhumane personnel policy for a great liberal democracy, but reflected a military philosophy that emphasized firepower and minimized the importance of morale. However, the American replacement policy did have the benefit that units suffering heavy casualties could draw replacements from one large pool rather than quickly exhausting a smaller regional pool. The Marines, as well as some specialized Army branches such as the Airborne, were much more careful to keep a man with his unit, and as a result, they enjoyed much better unit cohesion and combat effectiveness. The episodic nature of Marine and airborne operations, as well as the specialized training of the replacements, favored such a replacement policy. 

The strict regional basis of Japanese recruitment represented the other extreme. The Japanese organized all echelons on a geographic basis, so that a Japanese division might be recruited from a particular prefecture and a company within that division from the same small town. Thus the basis for Japanese morale was family and village honor. This produced excellent unit cohesion, but units suffering heavy casualties quickly exhausted the available manpower in their geographic base while other units had manpower to spare. The effect on civilian morale at home when a unit was annihilated could be devastating: Japanese citizens from Gifu Prefecture still make visits to Mount Austen on Guadalcanal, where two regiments recruited from their fishing villages were annihilated in 1943, to search for remains.

The British system was a compromise between these extremes. The British system emphasized regiments as the principle training organization and repository of tradition, whose function it was to supply fresh battalions to brigades as needed. Battalions were recruited on a regional basis by their regiment, which favored unit cohesion. However, battalions were not assigned to divisions on a permanent basis. When a battalion was exhausted from prolonged combat, it would theoretically be withdrawn en masse and replaced with a fresh battalion, which need not be from the same regiment. Ideally, this allowed a division to remain in the front line indefinitely, while depleted battalions moved into reserve and then exchanged for fresh battalions with fully integrated replacements. The difficulties of the British Army arose from shortages of manpower and lack of generalship, not from its replacement policies.

Unit cohesion beyond the immediate circle of friends within a company depended on various trust cues. This was an important function of uniforms, unit patches, and decorations that is often misunderstood by armchair strategists who mock "spit and polish."  The U.S. Marine saying, "Every Marine a rifleman", is best understood as a statement of unit cohesion beyond the immediate squad level: Every Marine should be able to count on anyone wearing a Marine uniform to share the common training and bond of trust implied.

Richard Wheeler (1970), who was a Marine rifleman wounded on Iwo Jima, made an important observation about morale under fire:

There were men whose anxiety was etched on their faces, but few gave the feeling a voice. It is not true, as commonly believed, that a group of people sharing a perilous experience grew stronger if they make a free confession of their fears. This is more likely to edge them towards panic. The strength of such a group depends upon how adept each person is at keeping up a courageous front.

Leadership and training

Another indispensable source of morale is leadership. Men are reluctant to follow the orders of commanders in whom they lack confidence. Leaders earned such confidence by being seen sharing the dangers and discomforts of their men and by producing victories. Company officers and NCOs were particularly important in this respect, since few men knew or cared who their commanding generals were.

When not in contact with the enemy, it was the responsibility of leaders to see to it that their men received rigorous and effective training. This developed physical and mental toughness and gave the men confidence in themselves. Successful completion of challenging team training activities also helped create the bonds that constitute unit cohesion.

Leadership also included discipline. Disciplined troops feared to let their leaders down. Even in Western armies, a leader could not afford to be seen as weak, and in the Japanese Army, brutality was almost expected of  noncommissioned officers and junior commissioned officers (CINCPAC 1945):

Word has gotten round among the men that if an officer has not the spirit to strike a soldier he is not fit to be a commanding officer.

Japanese officers sometimes used their swords to urge their men forward, and not always while leading from the front. It was not unknown for a Japanese officer to summarily execute a man who exhibited cowardice or simply failed to obey orders promptly.

Historian Kawano Hitoshi (in Peattie et al. 2011) paints a different picture of leadership and morale in 37 Division, a Class C "security" division in China. From extensive interviews with surviving veterans, he concludes that unit cohesion in Japanese formations was built around leaders to a greater extent than in the American forces, so that the death of a squad leader could cause the squad to disintegrate. However, this was not mindless obedience; leaders who were incompetent and got their men killed quickly lost the respect of their men, just as in any other army. 

Other factors

Other factors in morale included the perception of whether one's side was winning, the the quality of food and other supplies, and even such little things as mail from home. The latter was a mixed blessing. While prompt delivery of mail was generally good for morale, many men lived in fear of the dreaded "Dear John." A November 1944 morale report to the British War Office reported that (Hastings 2007):

Anxiety about domestic affairs is rife among the troops, particularly long-serving men. Nine time out of ten it is caused by selfish women. Few officers or men feel completely secure. In one unit both the CO [commanding officer] and RSM [regimental sergeant major] asked privately for my advice about their matrimonial troubles.

These fears were not irrational. In the United States, the divorce rate jumped from 16 per 100 marriages in 1940 to 27 per 100 in 1944.

For many men, religion was an important consolation. Both Commonwealth and U.S. units were served by chaplains drawn from many faiths who tended to the spiritual needs of the men. The Japanese armed forces had no chaplain corps per se, but state Shinto was deeply ingrained in most Japanese fighting men and there were Shinto shrines on large warships. The spirits of warriors who died honorably were thought to gather at the Yasakuni Shrine in Tokyo, where they were worshiped by the Emperor himself. Mutaguchi Renya, commander of the Japanese forces participating in U-Go in Burma, reportedly built a Shinto shrine at his headquarters when the battle turned against the Japanese. It was also the custom of Japanese soldiers to make every effort to return some portion of a fallen comrade's body to Japan, and Allied soldiers unacquainted with this custom were shocked to find body parts in Japanese field packs.

Ideological indoctrination seems to have been much more important for the Axis than the Allies, with the exception of Russia. The U.S. Office of War Information surveyed Army draftees in August 1942 and found that fewer than 10 percent had a "consistent, favorable, intellectual orientation towards the war" (Fleming 2001). On the contrary, the most common attitude could be summarized as "Let's get it over with so we can all go home." While a number of authorities, such as Van Creveld (1982), minimize the importance of ideology to morale during the Second World War, Hastings (2007) argues that it was a major factor in the greater fighting power (after adjustment for firepower and logistics) of Axis infantry. However, Hastings further argues that this was the unavoidable consequence of raising young men in a liberal society, and so British and Americans should not wish for it to have been any other way.

Civilian morale

Total war calls for maximum production from civilians, who simultaneously must endure greater privations than is normal in peacetime. Since increased pay as a morale booster was rarely an option, other means of boosting morale were vital. Civilian morale was typically bolstered with propaganda emphasizing the threat to the nation and the need for the maximum effort to support the troops. Where civilians were subject to strategic bombing, the immediacy of the threat was sometimes a perverse morale booster, but only if the nation was seen to be fighting back effectively. A sense of the shared challenge to the nation played a role somewhat like unit cohesion in the military, while leadership and training (even training of little objective value, such as Civil Defense drills in areas under no foreseeable military threat) also played their part. 

Leadership included instilling civilians with the sense that their leaders shared their concerns and that civilian efforts were important. This was largely a propaganda exercise, but might include competitions between production teams and small but highly publicized bonuses or other awards to outstanding workers or workers who made valuable suggestions for improving efficiency.

Signs of poor civilian morale included absenteeism, loafing, and high turnover. Poor worker morale might also manifest itself as strikes, but these could provoke a sharp response, such as threats to change the draft classification of striking workers in defense industries in the United States. This was mild compared with the response in many other belligerent powers, which might go as far as imprisonment or execution of "shirkers." In 1942, aqbsenteeism ran as high as 8% in Maritime Commission shipyards and turnover at about 10% per month. The Maritime Commission found it necessary to construct what amounted to entire new communities near U.S. shipyards established in areas that previously were not densely populated, in order to maintain worker morale. Some 30,000 apartment units were constructed in Richmond alone.


Bergerud (1996)

CINCPAC (1945; accessed 2011-6-17)

Fleming (2001)

Flynn (1993)

Hastings (2007)

Lane (1951)

Peattie et al. (2011)

Sledge (1981)

Van Creveld (1982)

Wheeler (2007)

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