War Games: The psychology of combat

War Games: The psychology of combat

Leo Murray
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
War Games by Leo Murray was originally published as Brains and Bullets some five years ago. The book examines tactical psychology: why people fight and, logically, why they don’t. The author uses this as the basis to see how we can get our enemies to stop fighting and thus defeat them without having to kill them.

This book is, quite simply, superb. It picks apart why human beings don’t like to kill each other and why we think like this: what the author refers to as the “aversion to killing”. Subsequently, he then describes the human reaction to stress: it’s more than ‘fight or flight’; “freezing” is in there and also “fussing”. Each of these four responses is explained, both through very relatable examples and the psychological reasons for it. This is then followed by an explanation of why humans do this and what it can mean in combat (it’s not always as simple as you think).

This is tied in to what drives soldiers to fight (examples include cohesion, compulsion, leadership, ‘weapons-pull’ and the individual choice regarding “the last safe moment”) and what drives them not to (this can include ‘weapons-push’, confusion and, once again, cohesion…it does get explained). Confusing as this may sound, it does add up to a clear logical process that can be applied tactically. Murray’s main drive from all this is that it is better to capture your enemy rather than have them withdraw (which is second best) or having to kill them (the worst choice albeit sometimes necessary). Once surrenders start and the enemy understand that it can be done (and they’ll be treated properly), it generally gets the surrender ball rolling.
Getting them to surrender can be done by reducing their confusion (they may opt to fight rather than freeze, fuss or fly) and giving them a clear choice. A simple example of giving your enemy a clear choice is taken from the fighting in NW Europe after D-Day: a British unit developed the tactic of demonstrating (out-of-range) with tank-mounted flamethrowers and then allowing the enemy to see the infantry advance. This tactic let the Germans see the stick (flamethrowers which would burn them out) concurrently with the carrot (infantry to whom they could surrender; when applied properly, it worked every time. This approach is not culturally-specific (eg only amongst Europeans) and could be used in any conflict.

What is also included is the effect of suppressive fire (both direct and indirect) and the impact of flanking attacks; when these are combined as fast, combined-arms attacks, enemies routinely give in. Other chapters include how soldiers can be over-burdened, both physically and mentally, leading to tunnel vision and a lack of awareness. The simple example from Iraq how one commander became mentally fixed, leading to a blue-on-blue, is an eye-opener of the first order.

All of this is based on a significant amount of study (and not just by the author). Murray has not made this up but based it on proven psychological facts, studies of soldiers in combat and training, examination of the effect of direct and indirect fire and interviews with soldiers (most of whom were being brutally honest). It is presented in a manner that can be understood and employed at all levels, based on the premise of levering a tactical advantage to attack the enemy psychologically (which is what, doctrinally, we are supposed to do through manoeuvre warfare).

I recommend this book to everyone. It is accessible, simpler to follow than you might think and offers a sensible and practical way of thinking to defeat our enemies. It should be on bookshelf of every commander and the precepts applied across the board.

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