West Point scholar and Army major says technology is destroying unit cohesion

Soldiers from the 423rd Military Police Company use their cell phones while waiting to be briefed. (DoD photo by Adam Holguin)

The U.S. Marine Corps decided it was time to put away the phones at get back to the basics of “what they used to do”.

The decision was announced by Gen. Robert B. Neller, commandant of the Marines Corps, during a conference on the future of expeditionary warfare at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies last month.

“You’re living out of your pack, you’re going to stop at night, you’re going to dig a hole, you’re going to camouflage, you’re going to turn off all your stuff, and you’re going to sit there, and you try to sleep,” Neller said. “And you’ve got to be careful to not make any noise, and you’re going to try to have absolutely no signature. Because if you can be seen, you will be attacked. That’s the difference, and that’s where we’ve got to get.”

While the Marine Corps decision was made mainly for security concerns, a U.S. Army major from Modern War Institute at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point believes the rest of the military should follow suit for another reason -unit cohesion.

The concept of unit cohesion was introduced to the military in the 1980’s and its premise was simple.

“The bonding together of soldiers in such a way as to sustain their will and commitment to each other, the unit, and mission accomplishment, despite combat or mission stress,” wrote Fred Manning in  Morale and Cohesion in Military Psychiatry.

Army Major John Spencer argues that mobile devices, the internet, and social media are “individualistic technology” that threaten the building of cohesion in military units.

“A soldier will not willingly stay in a unit unless physical, security , and social needs are met,” said Darryl Henderson in Cohesion: the Human Element in Combat, published in 1985

Spencer says group activities, that used to build close bonds between soldiers, are disrupted by technology that is disconnecting soldiers from their environment and community.

“This is a sign of the U.S. military’s ongoing battle with the individuality we see in our society. Without action, they risk losing team bonds that mean life or death on the battlefield,” he said in an article on Defense One.

“When new recruits join the service, they are formed into small teams of squads, platoons, and companies. They eat, sleep, exercise, and train with these teams.”

Spencer says that technology has changed the social practices of America, but more steps can be taken to counter the threat of degrading military unit cohesion.  He suggests the military can continue to build teams by banning phones at everyday events and making them more focused on social bonding.

“These events and practices are the weapons against individualistic technology that threaten building cohesion in highly performing teams. Let’s discuss over lunch,” said Spencer.

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