Metrics of Morale: Conceptualizing Mental Health in the U.S. Army, 1940-1945

Annie Boniface, Harvard University

During World War II, morale came to signify vastly more than fighting spirit: it became both a gauge and a source of mental health and combat efficacy. Despite the proliferation of methods and professionals dedicated to treating and preventing mental health casualties in World War II, morale – an amorphous, decidedly unscientific quality – featured enormously in the papers, plans, and policies of military psychiatrists. Researchers collected survey data on soldiers’ attitudes and cross-referenced scores with their battle performance to establish a connection between the moving target of “strong morale” and “strong combat performance.” The cure for low morale was identification with the war cause. Psychiatrists and policymakers argued that if a soldier believed deeply enough in the righteousness of American participation in the war, they would be immune to the psychological effects of sleepless nights, damp tents, and fear. By 1944, two influential psychiatrists concluded, “Establishing and maintaining good morale constitutes the chief objective of preventive psychiatry in the Army.” This paper investigates the place of morale in World War II-era mental health. It explores how one Army psychiatrist’s conceptualization of morale as tantamount to war zeal expanded to a wider program of research regarding morale’s significance. It examines the design, results, and impact of the Research Board’s studies on troops’ attitudes and beliefs. It explains how psychiatrists came to lead morale efforts, despite the term’s new association with foreign policy edification. It also identifies some ways in which morale took up residence in military mental health policy. Overall, this paper asks how a nonspecific, everyday concept became the object of research, fascination, and import for both the War Department and psychiatrists, and it offers questions about the usefulness of morale in the genesis of military and civilian psychiatry.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 44. Mental Health and Aging