Feature Article

Improving military psychologists' credibility with combat units

Tips on how military psychologists can successfully integrate into combat units.

By Mark A. Staal, PhD, ABPP

Lucius Paulus Macedonicus was a Roman general who served during the Third Macedonian War. He was renowned for his military strategy and was an effective commander and statesman. In discussing the nature of military leadership consultation and those who are ideal to advise military commanders, he made the following statement:

Commanders should be counseled chiefly by persons of known talent, by those who have made the art of war their particular study, and by those who are present at the scene of action, who see the enemy, who see the advantages that occasions offer, and who, like people embarked on the same ship are sharers of the danger.

— Lucius Paulus Macedonicus, Roman General (ca. 168 B.C., Third Macedonian War)

Lucius didn't know it at the time, but he had a lot to say about what attributes and experiences make for a good military psychologist. His insights are as relevant today as they were more than 2,000 years ago.

Be of Known Talent

Consultants to military commanders must have “the right stuff.” In the context of military psychology this means that not all psychologists are necessarily going to be a good fit for integrating into combat units. Those who lack an operational mindset and those who cling too tightly to their moniker of “Dr.” and position as “expert” may find it difficult to build rapport with wary operators. Many military psychologists struggle to let go of these elements (to the degree that they build walls separating themselves from those they serve). Many psychologists risk the opposite pitfall, “going native” or falling into the allure of the operational environment in an attempt to fit in and be accepted.

To help ensure military psychologists are a known talent, they should go through whatever screening process and initial training that other unit members complete. In the Special Operations community, this often includes psychological and medical screening, physical fitness tests and a formal interview by unit leadership. In addition to an independent license, work experience and maturity, there are a number of training requirements that are often job enhancing, if not required, such as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training; aviation or aeromedical consultation training; and other combat-skills training.

Military psychologists must understand their commander's intent and how to execute that intent through their area of expertise. They must see through the lens of normalcy and not pathology. They are greatly aided by a personality and temperament that lends itself to building rapport with unit mates, and they must have a “thick skin.” Although some measure of their position will be recognized, their performance and capabilities will largely determine whether they are successful.

Be Students of the Art of War

There are a number of opportunities for psychologists to become students of the art of war. Individuals who are driven toward self-improvement, those who identify themselves as military officers before their medical specialty, and those who pursue various military support training courses are likely to make good embedded support elements. In addition to being good military officers, military psychologists must also be students of warfare, the war fighter, and their service and its military components and capacity. Here are some useful questions to ask:

  • What am I reading to be a better student of my craft? There are many useful and thought-provoking books relevant to military psychology: Grossman's “On Combat” and “On Killing,” Stouffer's “The American Soldier,” Keegan's “The Face of Battle” or Lord Moran's “The Anatomy of Courage.”
  • What does my boss read? How about the war fighter I support? I ask every operator I talk with for their top three books. I tell them I'd like to better understand how they think and how they see the world. What I get back are titles like Pressfield's “Gates of Fire,” Runciman's “Fall of Constantinople,” Coll's “Ghost Wars,” Naylor's “Not a Good Day to Die,” or Gladwell's “Outliers” and “Tipping Point.”
  • How do I apply my service's core values or codes? How do I balance officership and my professional identity?
Be Present at the Scene of Action

To maximize effectiveness one must apply resources strategically. Several models have been tested within the military regarding placement of military psychology assets, and some are better than others when it comes to operational support and integration. Position is important because it directly impacts a psychologist's ability to influence the decision maker, reduce stereotypes, increase access and support the mission.

Psychologist as Special Staff to the Commander and Chief of Staff

This is the most common model used within U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) regarding placement of operational psychologists. The benefits to the model include ready access to the commander and command staff, clear separation from the medical element (e.g., stigma of mental health, access to care, proximity), and greater freedom of movement toward other military elements and mission areas (e.g., intelligence support, organizational assessment, personnel selection).

Psychologist Assigned to the Operational Support Unit

The benefits of this model are similar to those listed previously; however, this model has the potential to reduce some flexibility and freedom of movement as it unnecessarily adds a layer of distance between the psychologist and the commander. This distance can be overcome by a clear delineation of the military psychologist's primary responsibilities and duties as an operational support element, as opposed to solely a mechanism of health care provision.

Traditional Model of Mental Health Care

The traditional model of mental health care in which the psychologist is embedded within a mental health clinic and under medical architecture has proven more challenging. This difficulty comes largely from the overlay of medical service activities required, the medical model of service application, the organizational culture of traditional medicine, and layers of distance between the psychologist (as consultant) and the line commander (as client). This model, although ideal for health care provision, is less desirable for embedded psychology support to combat units.

See the Enemy and Share the Danger

Hard training, deployments and a willingness to share in the suffering and the sacrifice is what earns military psychologists their bona fides and credibility. Another part of seeing the enemy and sharing the danger requires that we understand the enemy and our unit's mission. As a military psychologist, that means becoming a student of COIN (counterinsurgency), CT (counterterrorism), FID (foreign internal defense), as well as friendly and enemy TTPs (tactics, techniques and procedures), culture, language (to a degree), ideology and adversary motivation. In preparation for recent conflicts it meant a lot of reading: Patai's “The Arab Mind,” Nydell's “Understanding Arabs,” Pickthall's translation of the Quran, Lawrence's “Revolt in the Desert,” and even “Islam for Dummies.” It also meant reading books like the Marine Corps' “Small Wars Manual,” Nagel's “Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife,” Gurr's “Why Men Rebel” and Taber's “War of the Flea” (and many more).

Finally, as line commanders have recognized the value of military psychologists, formal training courses have been developed to help support their mission requirements. The current list of military psychology training courses has grown exponentially and includes support training in SERE, aircraft mishap investigation and prevention, aeromedical consultation, behavioral science consultation to interrogation and detention operations, hostage negotiation consultation, high-reliability personnel selection, traumatic incident response and so forth.


There are many more things to say that cannot be captured in a brief article. Although there isn't a formula that guarantees success concerning military psychologists' ability to integrate into combat units, Lucius Paulus left us with a good place to start:

  • Be of known talent.
  • Be a student of the art of war.
  • Be present at the scene of action.
  • See the enemy and share the danger.

Clark, M. (2003). Islam for dummies. Indianapolis: Wiley.

Coll, S. (2004). Ghost wars: The secret history of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet invasion to September 10, 2001. New York: Penguin.

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Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.

Grossman, D. (1995). On killing: The psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society. New York: Back Bay Books.

Grossman, D. (2004). On combat: The psychology and physiology of deadly conflict in war and in peace. New York: Warrior Science.

Gurr, T. R. (1970). Why men rebel. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Keegan, J. (1976). The face of battle. New York: Penguin.

Lawrence, T. E. (1927). Revolt in the desert. London: Jonathan Cape.

Moran, L. (1945). Anatomy of courage. London: Constable and Company.

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Naylor, S. (2005). Not a good day to die: The untold story of operation anaconda. New York: Berkley.

Nydell, M. K. (2002). Understanding Arabs: A guide for westerners (3rd ed.). Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural.

Patai, R. (1973). The Arab mind. New York: Macmillan.

Pickthall, M. M. (1996). The meaning of the glorious Qur'an. Beltsville, MD: Amana.

Pressfield, S. (1998). Gates of fire: An epic novel of the Battle of Thermopylae. New York: Bantam Books.

Runciman, S. (1969). The fall of Constantinople 1453. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Stouffer, S. A., Suchman, E. A., Devinney, L. C., Star, S. A., & Williams, R. M. (1949). The American soldier. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Taber, R. (1965). The war of the flea: Guerilla warfare theory and practice. Bungay: New York: The Citadel Press.

United States Marine Corps. (2005). Small wars manual (reprint of 1940 edition). Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific.