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Observations on Group Behavior in a Special Forces A Team Under Threat of Attack

[The following paper was written by Peter G. Bourne, now vice-chancellor of St. George's University in Grenada, and is posted here with his permission. Dr. Bourne is also the author of Men, Stress, and Viet Nam (Little Brown 1971) and The Psychology and Physiology of Stress (Academic Press, 1972) — Dan Ford]


Small group behavior has long been a topic of major interest to investigators in the social sciences. Naturally occurring groups, experimentally formed groups, and groups designed to have a therapeutic influence in recent years. Stimulating this work has been the underlying belief that the small group represented a manageable microcosm of human interaction, the study of which should lead to important inferences about the wider society. It is now acknowledged that insights into small group behavior have important implications for our understanding of social systems, of culture, and of personality.


The study of group behavior in the military has been of particular interest because of the unusual external stresses to which those in the Armed Forces are subjected. Beginning with the classical paper, "The Small Warship," by Homans in World War II, wide-ranging studies have investigated many facets of group behavior and performance in a variety of military settings. However, investigation of social behavior in combat has tended to focus on large, ill-defined groups; and especially in the Korean conflict the emphasis was upon those factors that contributed to the development of psychiatric casualties. There has been little attempt in the past to study the effects of combat on small, well-defined groups where the adaptations to the stresses of war have been successful.

The war in Vietnam has provided a unique opportunity to study the effects of the threat of death or mutilation in combat on the behavior of small isolated groups of men. This paper reports on observations made on a group of twelve Special Forces (Green Beret) soldiers living in an isolated outpost in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam.


The twelve subjects in this study were the members of an "A" team, the primary organizational unit of Special Forces. Beginning in the early sixties such teams were sent into the mountainous areas of Vietnam to recruit and train the local tribesmen into Civilian Irregular Defense Groups, (C.I.D.G.), para-military units without formal connection to the South Vietnamese Army. Working with a counterpart twelve man Vietnamese Special Forces unit, they establish and defend isolated camps at strategic locations in Viet Cong controlled territory.

This study was conducted in a camp located six miles from the Cambodian border and forty miles southwest of the Central Highland city of Pleiku. The site had been chosen so as to provide significant obstruction to the free flow of arms and men from the Ho Chi Minh Trail into South Vietnam. The threat of attack by an overwhelmingly superior force was always present, but was considerably increased at the start of the monsoon season in May of 1966, at the time this study was initiated. Although no all-out assault on the camp occurred, several members of the team, including successive commanding officers, were killed during this time of threatened attack. A colorful description of life in this particular camp has recently been published by a freelance journalist.


Two of the subjects were officers and ten were enlisted men. All were Caucasian. Two were married, and ten were single or divorced. Ages ranged from 22 to 41 years (median 26). Education ranged from 10 to 16 years (median 12). Years of military service ranged from 1.5 to 20 years (median 5.5). Time in Vietnam ranged from 5 to 36 months (median 8.5), and time in camp ranged from 1 to 10 month (median 8).

All of the men had past combat experience, and for some this had been very extensive. Three of the enlisted men had been in Korea, and one had also fought in World War II. Aside from his general military competency each man in some individual skill, such as demolitions, as a medic, or as a radio operator. They had also been taught an awareness of their responsibility to the group and their mutual obligation to it to maximize their chance of survival.


The author and an enlisted social work technician remained in the camp for three months during May, June, and July of 1966, as semi-participant observers. Frequent informal interviews were made with each of the team members to obtain background information and an understanding of their role in the group. A daily log was maintained of all activities in the camp as well as the significant events in the lives of each of the subjects. Records were also kept of all military activity in the area that had direct bearing on the level of stress in the camp or the demands placed on the team members. Twenty-four hour urine collections for the measurement of various endocrines were made on each subject, and certain psychological tests were administered. These aspects of the study are reported elsewhere.

Brief visits were made to five other Special Forces "A" camps to validate the findings of this study.

continued in part 2