Historical Event Reconstruction Debriefing
FSH TX 78234-6133
(DSN 471-) Comm (210 221-6985/8342
Peer Review Status: Internally Peer Reviewed
Creation Date: Unknown
Last Revision Date: Unknown
(Photo of S.L.A. Marshall below is from the cover of SLAM: The Influence of S.L.A. Marshall on the United States Army.)
Combat Stress Manual (US Army):
Historical Event Reconstruction Debriefing
Colonel (later Brigadier General) S.L.A. Marshall was the chief US Army historian in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He developed the method of conducting interviews with the surviving members of small units in the field soon after the battles. This was the only way to find out what had truly happened. He found that these historical debriefings, when properly conducted, were also very beneficial to the units themselves. The process repaired and strengthened unit cohesion and readiness to return to battle. Marshall (19 ) regarded this finding as one of his two most important contributions to the Army.
Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (J. Mitchell, 1982) and other stress debriefing techniques have grown from Marshall's observation. Recently A. Shalev (final report, unpublished, 1993) has tested the original, Marshall type of historical group debriefing with Israeli Army units after actions in Lebenon. He found them beneficial. This training card closely paraphrases the appendix in Shalev's report which describes the Marshall technique. That appendix drew from Marshall's own outline (1944) and from raw documents including handwritten transcripts of actual debriefings.
SEE TABLE FOR A SUMMARY OF MARSHALL'S DEBRIEFING METHODS.
Debriefings take place on the battlefield as soon as possible after the action. All the survivors of the battle are present, including all ranks and roles (except those who were medically evacuated).
Prior to the session, the debriefer learns about the battle outline and the specific role played by the unit to be debriefed. Acquaintance with the technical information (e.g. ground, weather, manpower, weapons, food, ammunition, etc.) is essential to make sense of material brought up by the group in the debriefing. In Marshall's words, the interviewer must "study all the available maps" and "learn beforehand the larger significance of what the company accomplished - more fully than the company itself."
The session opens with informing the group about the procedure and it a goals. At this point, superiors are often invited to endorse the debriefing and give their blessing. The instructions define the group's task as "describing the combat with all the possible details." They emphasize the significance of learning from the experience. Witness/participants are encouraged to share their contribution with the whole group. "The narrative is constructed out loud in the presence of the whole company." (Marshall, 1944).
For the duration of the debriefing, military ranks are set aside. Here you are all equal witnesses. For the time being, we all stand on the same ground. If you hear any man present, whatever his rank, say something which you think is incorrect...it to your duty to stand up and speak your peace." (Marshall, 1944) Testimonies are weighed according to their "obvious validity" and pertinence to the course of the operation regardless of the rank of the witness. "The word of a superior as to what a man (or a group) did should not be allowed to prevail against the direct testimony of the man himself."
After a short period of modeling by the historical debriefer, the unit's commander is invited to take the lead and conduct the session. If he is fit to lead them in battle, he is fit to lead them in reliving the battle experience." The historical debriefer, however, is always there to remind the commander not to use the session for teaching purposes and to refrain from expressing opinions on soldiers' conduct during the engagement.
The reconstruction of the battle must follow a "strict chronological path." It uncovers the events in sequential order. This structure helps to avoid evasions and to focus the discussion on factual reality other than on interpretations. All the available information on each stage of the action is exhaustively collected from all the witnesses present. The ideal is to cover every aspect of the action, gather all points of view, clarify each issue, and leave no blank spots. No scrap of evidence is so small as to be discarded at the time of the inquiry. "It is often found that the key to all that occurred may be some fact known only to two or three members of the company which they themselves considered to be of minor import."
Tolerance of ambiguous information is the rule during the session. Premature closure must be systematically avoided. Contradictory statements are dealt with by encouraging further clarification (by the same or other participants) and by looking for more details. Additional information is never discredited on the basis of prior data. "The record should not be regarded as closed at any time.
Marshall warned against discounting any testimony or confronting any witness with disbelief or mistrust. Maintaining the integrity of the process (i.e. encouraging openness and communication) is more important than rectifying possible misperception and achieving a "definitive" version of the events. The debriefer must, however, be very cautious in accepting any piece of information as "true" which might represent projection or scapegoating. Witnesses can describe what they saw others do, but should refrain for inferring or attributing the motives of others. Marshall warned especially against the tendency of soldiers to attribute fire from unknown sources to other American or allied units. The debriefer can remind participants to retell only the observed facts and defer judgement to the formal investigation which will follow.
As a military historian, Marshall was interested in facts rather than in opinions. However, his concept of 'factual reality' included soldiers' thoughts, assumptions and feelings as well as the decisions and actions that followed. "The record is supposed to be warm and humane since an Army is a living and not a mechanical organism." The 'group's spirit' is also a part of the factual reality. Such factors as fatigue, malnutrition and anticipatory intuitions should be recorded and recognized as causes of behavior during action.
The debriefor must show "warm interest and respectful attention." The debriefer "should be ever ready with praise . . . He cannot obtain the interest of the company and its complete participation unless he conducts himself as a STUDENT rather than as a TEACHER."
Marshall did not assure confidentiality, as is now advised in Critical Incident Stress Debriefing and in unit survey interviewing. Rather, he showed respect for the witnesses' integrity and identity by recording their names, ranks, addresses and some personal history, and citing the principle contributors in the final historical reports.
The facts concerning death of comrades are of critical importance. "It will be found, almost without exception, that these men (who had died) played a conspicuous part in the actions and that the living are especially concerned with being exact in relating what did happen to those who were killed." The debriefer must be sensitive to the way which the death of comrades affected survivors during the battle and during its reconstruction. The memory of the dead adds a dimension of seriousness and truthfulness to the process.
Marshall's debriefing sessions are the longest (and largest) in the literature. Debriefing, according to Marshall, should continue until the whole picture to obtained. It should be limited only "by the time it takes to achieve the desired result." Some sessions reportedly took three working days. Marshall estimated that roughly seven hours are necessary to debrief one fighting day (for an infantry company which might have 40 to 80 members). This relaxed attitude towards time helps to generate a group process characterized by openness and lack of pressure. The soldiers are engaged in a meaningful process of reliving and restructuring their experience with their comrades.
Although Marshall considered the practice of debriefing as fairly simple and recommended it to commanders without formal training, he recognized the existence of group resistance and had to deal with it. What he described was a group process that started in an atmosphere of caution and closure and progressively changed into one of openness and enthusiastic participation. This process might take from a few hours to several working days. With some companies, a congenial atmosphere can be established "within ten minutes of the start of an interview." In other cases, the debriefing officer has to work patiently with the company for a day or more until "the dam breaks." Marshall postulated a link between difficulties in debriefing and the quality of leadership: a company with poor leaders was harder to engage in debriefing.
Marshall used simple terminology to define the individual's emotions and attitudes. Fear, camaraderie, loneliness, pride, honor and leadership were his key concepts. Terms such as anxiety, stress, motivation, denial, or support, were not a part of either his narrative or his combat analysis. Marshall's language seems to have matched that of the soldier and must have facilitated communication.
The methods of Historical Event Reconstruction Debriefing (HERD) are relevant today in the "preventive maintenance (as distinct from "psychotherapeutic") approach of Critical Event Debriefing (CED). While CED, like Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, does deliberately elicit and validate the thoughts, emotional reactions and physical stress responses of the participants, and does teach about "normal post-trauma experiences . . . at the end, it follows HERD's process of the participants filling in the DETAILED, UNBROKEN HISTORICAL TIMELINE.
HISTORICAL EVENT RECONSTRUCTION DEBRIEFING
TABLE: SUMMARY OF S.L.A. MARSHALL'S DEBRIEFING TECHNIQUE
1. Debriefings are conducted as soon as possible after the action.
2. Prior to the debriefing session, the debriefer collects information about the unit's background, structure and role in the battle, and the outcome of the action.
3. The participants are told that the debriefing consists of a chronological reconstruction of the event in its minutest details (to understand and learn from the action, not as fault-finding).
4. All those who took part in the action participate in the session. No others are allowed to participate (although new replacements to the unit can be allowed to listen if the veterans agree).
5. The debriefer emphasizes that all ranks are put aside during the session and all participants have equal status as witnesses.
6. After initial "modeling" by the historical debriefer, the debriefing is led by the unit's own commander.
7. The entire group takes part in the reconstruction of the action in all its details. Each soldier is encouraged (but not forced) to add his own version to the other soldiers' accounts.
8. All the information and all points of view on each stage of the action are collected from the participants.
9. Ambiguous information and contradictory statements are recorded by the interviewer as illustrating the complexity of human interactions during an event.
10. Criticism and attempts to teach are discouraged. No open disbelief in any witness's testimony is expressed by the interviewer.
11. No attempt is made to reach agreement among participants. Premature conclusions and closure are avoided.
12. The debriefer creates and maintains a congenial atmosphere and facilitates communication and openness throughout the session.
13. Emotional reactions are recognized and validated, but are not emphasized. No deliberate psychological intervention (e.g. clarification, interpretation) is attempted by the debriefer.
14. The session is not limited in time, and continues for as long as it takes to reach the comprehensive description of the event. It may adjourn temporarily for breaks, and resume after food and sleep.
MENTAL HEALTH/CSC DEBRIEFERS TODAY SHOULD BE READY TO BLEND THE METHODS of HERD and CED to FIT THE NEEDS OF THE SPECIFIC UNIT AND SITUATION.
Excerpts below from Bringing Up The Read: A Memoir (SLA Marshall)
"The work had the threefold purpose of demonstrating the weakness in the old hit-or-miss method, substituting a system that could be centrally controlled, and starting a school for the training of people who could extend the system. Had the war lasted, it might have proved more than a novel, local experiment.
I dealt with the patrols as rapidly as I could get to them by jeep or helicopter, starting as soon as the word came through that a patrol had been hit. We did our work in the early morning hours, meaning from around midnight until 0500 or so, before the survivors had been given rest or a chance to clean up. The average debriefing session lasted four hours, and we gathered in whatever bunker was handiest to their point of return in our front lines. As the story of the patrols as well as the account of the Pork Chop Hill battle have appeared in other of my writings, little more than that need be said here.
Most of the work was done by guttering candlelight, my desk being a rude bench or stack of empty jerry cans. It made little difference. I had long since had the knack of writing under any conditions. The data on an average patrol fight would run around 12,000 words.
The men, irrespective of how grievous their losses, were eager to talk things out. Recounting the experience and getting it on record was a kind of emotional purge for them, and they could find untroubled sleep when we finished. None of this surprised me, though it did astonish their own commanders. I had learned in World War II that such work eased their brooding, made them feel that some recognition had come and that not all loss had been waste.
The battle and its aftermath stay with me because out of action I had found what I had been seeking-some peace of mind. Working with Trudeau was likewise a balm and a boon. He was both a general and a whole man. Technically a superb engineer, and so energetic that amid battle he was rebuilding sector by sector the miserable positions he had taken over sixty days earlier, he was also rebuilding men. A division grievously neglected and humiliated under its former commander had become heads up and proud amid ordeal through his human touch.
Trudeau, though an amateur, is as much a virtuoso with the banjo as Captain Eddy Peabody. After the Pork Chop Hill battle; he led the scratch orchestra that we had whipped together. I fitted in as soloist and song leader. After our day's work was done, we toured main positions putting on small shows for the troops needing it most.
Trudeau also set up an R & R center in the division rear area so that line fighters who were wearing thin could be pulled back from the bunkers and given diversion for a week or more without having it counted against leave time. An experiment, it worked beautifully, due to the interest of a general who truly cared about people. I had long been aware that our system is woefully slack in this regard. All psychiatric counsel is too far removed from the pressure zone. Good men get pushed beyond endurance and are broken when just a few days of relief might restore them wholly. The gap between high command knowledge and the roots of this problem has not narrowed appreciably since my recruit days.
All of the field interviewing of the 7th Division and its attachments was done either while the unit was in a blocking position or occupying front line bunkers. During daylight hours the front was fairly somnolent. I spent three nights on Dale, West View, and Arsenal Outposts, which lay between our main trenches and the enemy-held ridges, my mission being the regulation of our supply system. I found that each outpost was stocking at least four times as much ammunition as it would be likely to fire in a full night of engagement, which meant that, if any became overrun, the overload was a gift to the enemy. This condition had been present for months. Trudeau knew nothing about it until he sent me to check, but his regimental commanders should have inspected and corrected the situation.
Dr. David Rioch of Walter Reed Hospital and two light colonels from his staff (all were psychiatrists) had followed me around for two weeks listening in on the group critiques. At the end Rioch came to my van one evening. He said: "We've seen troops open up for you in a way that they never do for us. What's the secret?"
"There isn't any. You begin at the beginning. You work through to the end. You preserve chronology. Your brain has to be able to do that and to think about the missing pieces. Doing that, you can get recall."
Rioch wanted to know if I had learned anything new from the interviews in Yokkokchon Valley. I told him I didn't know yet. Time must be allowed for reflection. It is only through the repetition of the thing not heard or understood before that the brain becomes alerted, freshened by a feeling of possible discovery and extended like a hound after a rabbit. The assimilation is done in the head as the search progresses, and the written record is simply a handy body of proof should my conclusions be challenged.
Doing my daily piece for the Detroit News wasn't even a minor worry. Much of what I wrote home dwelt upon the wondrous beauty of the Korean spring, in contrast not so much to the war as to my dismal impressions of that country in 1950-51. "Korea," a British officer had told me before my first visit, "is merely a mountain of dung." So I had found it, and on leaving, hoped that I would never return.
My second time out, nature at her loveliest proved how wrong I had been. From a point in no man's land, our fighting front looked like a rhapsody in pink, so thickly covered were the slopes and saddles with wild plum and chindolea, a shrub somewhat like a rhododendron with large blooms the
color of fuchsia . . . ." (p219-20)
Marshall Method - WWII.
Combat Stress - Korea .
SLA Marshall Series at CGSC .
SLA Marshall in a presentation at the U.S. Army Command and General
Staff College (18 NOV 1953), " . . . one of the things I've always regretted is that I was never able to attend this institution. There was a certain time in my life, when they said I was too young to attend. And then suddenly, overnight, I became too old to attend it. It was a blow to me, but I am sure that it worked out for the best as far as the reputation of the school is
SLA Marshall Library Collection.
SLA Marshall ". . . failed in his entrance to West Point because he was thought to have lack of writing aptitude." CGCS Commandant MG Lionel C. McGarr, 20 May 1957.