Incident at Muc Wa

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; out of print) and The Psychology and Physiology of Stress: With Reference to Special Studies of the Viet Nam War (Academic Press 1969) — Daniel 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.

A Vision So Noble


Overshadowing all other influences in the camp is the possibility of enemy attack, which colors even the most routine activities. The tension that this threat creates fluctuates to some degree with the prevailing intelligence reports about enemy activity in the area, but it never disappears entirely. A characteristic pattern develops with an air of expectancy that increases gradually during the late afternoon and early evening. It reaches a peak between sunset and midnight, at which time an all out attack diminishes and the tension begins to dissipate. By morning there is a feeling of relaxation, and the tension is at its lowest point. In the afternoon the cycle begins again. Occasional mortar or small arms fire into the camp is enough to reinforce this pattern and remind the team members that they are indeed in a hostile environment.

The personality characteristics observed in the twelve subjects made it clear that each man prided himself on his individuality and independence. As a result both of various selective processes and of training, these Special Forces soldiers were marked by an intense faith in their own capabilities, and a belief that the need to rely on others carries with it the implication of weakness. This strong belief in self-reliance, existing often from childhood, and an established pattern of using active aggressive behavior to deal with any threat to their well being, is seen among the majority of men who choose Special Forces as a career. Theses qualities make him ideally suited to the rugged demands of guerrilla warfare, with it emphasis on the ability of the individual to survive by his own skill and resources against the severest natural and man made adversity. Special Forces provides him a lifestyle in which by exposing himself to extremely hazardous conditions and coping with them successfully, he can constantly reconfirm his faith in his own omnipotence and invulnerability.

The usual pattern of warfare for these men in Vietnam is to use the camp as a base and maintain the initiative by actively seeking and engaging the enemy with patrols and ambushes. This type of aggressive control is highly consistent with their own needs. However, when confined within the barbed wire perimeter of the camp by the threat of attack, the relative inactivity and passivity they are forced to accept is antithetical to their usual self-image. Tied down to the defense of a fixed piece of territory, the military initiative must be abandoned and with it their preferred style of behavior.

Frustration at being subjected to a state of constant uncertainty without the ability to retaliate in their more accustomed aggressive manner is felt by all the team members. Several expressed the wish that the enemy would make an all out attack and relieve the tension of constant anticipation. There is competition to be included in the patrols outside the perimeter, although they all know that the majority of deaths occur at these times.

Frustrated in their desire to come to grips with the enemy, the men find other outlets for their aroused aggression. Except at times of actual attack, when group cooperation is imperative, open conflict between group members is commonplace. Labeled "cabin fever" by the men themselves, heated outbursts over trivial issues transcend the usual military barriers of rank, but are rapidly forgiven. As a whole the group members rarely express anger towards the enemy, and generally regard them with unspoken respect. The feelings they must have for those who are realistically threatening their lives appear to be displaced onto the non-Americans within the camp, who are more readily accessible and who pose no threat of retaliation. Relations with their Vietnamese counterparts are always strained, but are clearly exacerbated when the external threat is greatest. It is interesting in this regard that a strong distinction is made by the team members between the Vietnamese and the Montagnard soldiers, with the latter, who are less readily identifiable with the Viet Cong, being spared much of the animosity. A further target for the hostility of the group is their higher command, the "B" team forty miles away in Pleiku. There is a feeling that the "B" team bears much of the responsibility for the military threat to the camp, and complaints are made that they live in comfort, care little about those who are "really fighting the war," and fail to adequately support the camp.

Among the twelve team members a precarious and often changing balance of relationships exist. On the one hand, the shared danger of the external threat pushes them towards accepting cooperative membership in the group, while at the same time the all important need of these men to confirm their self-reliance and independence, together with the conflicts generated by their displaced aggressive urges, acts to force the group apart. Much of the time the latter force prevails, but the physical confines of the camp limit the extent to which personal isolation can be achieved, and imposes a level of intimacy from which it is hard to escape. Their attempts to achieve physical and psychic space from one another were observed to produce an overt pattern of territoriality in the camp.

One might anticipate that with little available ground space in the camp, the team members would share equally that which they had. However, this was not the case and individual team members would jealously guard those areas of the camp to which they felt they had a special claim. The two radio operators would refuse entry into the communications bunker; the medics allowed no other team member into their dispensary, and even the weapons specialist felt that they had personal ownership of any area in which ammunition was stored. At times this behavior reached ludicrous proportions, as when one medic claimed that he felt other team members brought germs into his already inevitably dirty and fly-infested dispensary. It is perhaps of significance that these men whose job was to defend a small piece of territory with their lives, should behave this way towards one another when frustrated by the enemy's failure to attack. A need to gratify an aroused urge towards territoriality would seem to exist.

The Only War We've Got

Within the group an intense struggle prevailed for informal control. These were men for whom the ability to demonstrate mastery over their environment is extremely important, and the extent to which they can tolerate membership in the group is directly related to the position of power which they can acquire.

In the formal structure a captain is the leader of the team. However, he is usually young and with relatively little combat experience, a critical commodity for acceptance in the group. Several of the enlisted men are senior to him in years, and some have a lifetime of combat experience behind them. Overall status of the team is considerably affected by the length of time each member has spent in camp. Therefore, an officer who has spent many months in the camp has a considerable advantage over a man assigned to an already established team he will have to fight for acceptance by the other team members as their rightful leader. He always has the advantage of his assigned position and rank, and as long as he can maintain his interactions with other team members within the context of the formal military command his status is unchallenged. However, this forces him to keep a marked social distance from the group. The greatest asset that he has is his access to all incoming information into the camp. With the exception of the intelligence sergeant, he has a monopoly in this area, and his skill in releasing or withholding information can be a critical instrument of power in his hands. Perhaps the most successful team leaders are those who combine their access to the available information with the successful establishment of alliances with already powerful team members. This they can do by providing choice patrol assignments, arranging for trips to Pleiku, or merely by flattering their ally with admission of their dependence on him.

The captain cannot, however, escape the value system of the group that places a premium on the ability to prove oneself in combat. Led by the "Team Sergeant' (the senior enlisted Non-Commissioned Officer), the rest of the group urges the Team Leader to attempt highly dangerous missions and expose himself frequently to death and injury, with the implication that only in this way will he be able to gain their respect. This they do by discussing the failures of the team leaders of other "A" teams, by extolling the accomplishments and bravery of past team leaders of their own team, and particularly by describing their own acts of heroism in combat. The social pressure exerted on the young commanding officer, whether he responds to it or nor, frequently remains a central focus of interaction in the group. In some instances attempts by the team leader to consolidate his role by acts of bravery will be countered by equally daring exploits on the part of the other team members. When this happens it is likely to continue until one or the other of the protagonists is killed. It is not by chance that the mortality rate of Special Forces officers in Vietnam is reported to be higher than in any United States force at any time in any previous war. The subconscious awareness that many team members have of the demands they have placed on their leader is reflected in the level of guilt that the death of the team leader engenders in the team. One way in which this is seen is the lavish praise he receives after his death, which is in sharp contrast to criticism they had for him previously. Unfortunately, this reaction in turn makes it considerably more difficult for his replacement to gain acceptance in the group and the same pattern is likely to be repeated.

Although an officer can function as the team leader without having gained full acceptance from the team, it is almost impossible for the Team Sergeant to do so. As the senior enlisted man, he must maintain his position by force of character alone. He cannot fall back on the formal command structure as can an officer, nor does he have the same access to incoming information. As the spokesman of the nine other enlisted men he will be placed under strong pressure by them to challenge the team leader for control of the whole group. If he fails to do this, he will not gain the support of the men, even though he may be the oldest and most battle experienced member of the team. The officer who attempts to overcome this conflict by forming an alliance with this man may well help destroy him in the eyes of the rest of the group. The usual resolution comes when the Team Sergeant is able to maintain the respect of the other men by symbolically challenging the officer, and the latter has learned to tolerate the threat without allowing it to develop into a competitive spiral leading to the death or one or both of them.


The findings in this study are in sharp contrast to the observations made by Harris on combat troops in the Korean conflict. We found little evidence of the "buddy system" which he described, nor did we observe in our subjects' significant emotional dependence on the social fabric around them. External threats have traditionally been considered a prime factor in producing cohesion and closeness in a group. However, among the members of this Special Forces "A" team acceptance of the dependent role in the group was so alien to their self-image that the danger that drove them together also stimulated forces that tended to push them apart.

These differences appear to be attributable to the unique personalities of those who choose this way of life. For the average infantry soldier, often a draftee, combat represents merely a dangerous threat to his welfare, and he will seek any available form of physical and emotional support to enhance his survival. By contrast, the Special Forces soldier has come to incorporate his ability to survive in combat as part of his normal adaptation and as a significant aspect of his self-realization. He seeks exposure to danger with an almost addictive fervor in order to reconfirm his faith in his own ability to overcome it. For him, it is not merely to survive but how often and how independently it is accomplished.

Peter G. Bourne, MD, formerly chief of the Neuropsychiatry Section, US Army Medical Research Team, Vietnam; currently Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Green Templeton College, Oxford University

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