Book Review: A.L. George, The Chinese Communist Army in Action: The Korean War and its Aftermath (New York, 1967)

Dr Alexander George’s book is a fascinating insight into how the newly created Chinese communist state in the late 1940’s sought to direct, sustain and shape small group relations in their People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and how this system functioned under the stresses of combat in during the Chinese intervention in Korea during 1950-51.

Alexander George’s book was originally a RAND report commissioned by the US Airforce during the Korean War to examine how the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was created and how it sustained the morale in its armed forces. George and his team based their report on based on interviews with 478 Chinese prisoners of war captured by UN forces between March and May 1951.[1] The report was updated and published in its book form in 1967 and this is the subject of this review.[2]

At the heart of PLA doctrine was the belief that ‘man’ could defeat technology and modern weapons through human ingenuity, guile and above all, morale. To develop the ‘human element’ necessary to achieve this, the PLA system aimed to build high levels of morale amongst its soldiers.[3] The PLA was a highly regulated and ordered organisation that mandated the way inter-personal relationships were conducted amongst its soldiers in small groups. Leaders believed that the basis of good morale was founded on correct ideological beliefs and actions and, as a result, comradely relations had a political-ethical dimension. Unlike Western armies, the PLA not did permit ties between men that were autonomous and free from institutional control. The ideal of relationships were dominated by the communist pattern of thought and way of life that George likened to resembling the closely knit military-religious orders of the past.[4]

The PLA sought to create appropriate behaviour amongst its soldiers through a variety of means. The function of training, leadership and organisation was not only to make effective soldiers but good communists who were ‘anti-individualist’, accepted the party leadership and put the ‘people’ before themselves. There was significant political indoctrination in small groups which aimed to isolate the individual from the group socially and psychologically unless they accepted the prescribed group life and behaviour. Conformity to PLA prescribed group norms were enforced through group ‘self-criticism’ meetings at the squad or platoon level where individual behaviour was examined, criticised and discussed. Individuals failing to meet group standards could be encouraged, bullied or coerced to conform to community demands. The PLA also practised egalitarianism with minimal notions of rank. Voluntarism was also encouraged with members actively persuaded to participate in the life, work and functioning of the unit.[5]

The leadership developed a complex political structure within the military hierarchy to reinforce coerce, encourage and sustain the behaviour that was mandated. Five semi-autonomous political agencies were entwined with each command level of the military organisation from company upwards. These agencies covered organisation, education and propaganda, political defence (or surveillance), youth instruction and ‘popular movement’. External to the politico-military command structure, was a corresponding parallel structure of communist party committees at each command echelon.[6]

From Chapter 4 onwards, George discusses how the system met its official programmatic goals and performed under combat conditions during the Chinese intervention in Korea. He devoted considerable analysis on the role of the company political officer (CPO) who had broad control over the means by which the character of a unit could be shaped. The CPO had responsibility for material welfare such as food and medical supplies; troop welfare, that covered processing leave or requests for marriage; political pedagogy; and finally, political security and surveillance.[7] The POWs gave varied ratings of their own experiences about how their CPOs met these responsibilities which suggested that CPOs differed widely across the PLA in popularity, competence and success. However, over all 68% of 61 POWs interviewed on this subject had a mixed or negative orientation to their CPO and small group life as a whole.[8] That aside, the majority of POWs (57%) had a favourable view of their CPO’s personal character, those judging it as positive mentioning the CPO’s kindness, education and friendly nature.[9] CPOs were rated by 54% of POWs as providing adequate material assistance and 78% were gave their CPO a positive rating on handling complaints against senior leaders.[10] Tensions between soldiers and their CPO often arose when men approached their CPO for assistance on welfare issues, such as requesting leave. Only 7% rated their CPO performance of his welfare functions as being good.[11]

Over all, George considered that the attempts of CPOs to integrate men into their unit to conform with the ideal of PLA comradely relations had failed as majority of POWs (75%) regarded themselves as part of an ‘out group’, not engaging with the official regimen. However, this did not mean that those in the ‘outgroup’ developed intimate relations with each other because the surveillance, monitoring and fear in units persuaded many to dissimulate, keeping their personal views to themselves. This kept potential discontented individuals ‘atomised’, dependent on behaving in the prescribed manner to have a social life in the group. This also prevented subversive cliques forming that could plan or conduct non-sanctioned activities such as desertion.[12]

Promoting the official sanctioned norms in groups in line with communist dogma was a system of criticism meetings and a sophisticated network of morale informants. The CPO and the other political agencies in the military structure were all part of an elaborate infrastructure for monitoring men’s behaviour and attitudes. This included reporting by covert operatives or overtly by political officers or the CPO, such as observing the morale of men through their work, marching or behaviour off duty.

Criticism meetings were aimed to control thought, behaviour and conduct through group pressure and surveillance. Group meetings could be held at the squad level to discuss issues, how people worked during the day and highlight any shortcomings of individuals and offer group sanctioned punishments, such as reprimands or demanding public apologies for offenders. The group placed any individual deficiencies in political or ideological terms. For example, a soldier caught deserting and was brought before a platoon criticism meeting. He said he was homesick and wanted to see his family, however members of his platoon said he had deserted because of his political weakness, not wanting to defend Korea from US Imperialism. He was then brought before the company criticism meeting where he told the meeting he had ‘bad ideas’ and did not want to fight but realised the error of his ways and wanted to dedicate himself to the country and people. Once his ‘crime’ was framed in this political manner, the group pardoned him by majority decision. Ninety-three per cent of POWs asked about the criticism meetings said such meetings were disliked. George believed the meetings and the informant system were effective at inducing self-control because many Chinese soldiers disliked public humiliation as their culture made individuals very sensitive to loss of ‘face’ in public. He believed that the meetings forced men, even those demoralised and discontented, to dissimulate and behave in mandated ways and give officially dictated levels of productivity in tasks and work.[13] The leadership knew that many men sought to cover up poor morale but many accepted the positive impact this had on behaviour control, notably obedience and conformity, against the wider aims of the PLA to convert its soldiers into good communists.[14]

The final portion of the book is dedicated to how the PLA system functioned under the stress of combat. He made a series of interesting remarks about how this system worked:

  • The dual political and military leadership system largely functioned well as there was no clear civil-military distinction as in Western countries and military leaders largely accepted political primary.[15]
  • There were major weaknesses in the quality of junior leaders throughout the PLA formations deployed to Korea. The PLA doctrine required large numbers of politically reliable highly motivated cadres to lead and organise its forces but it had relatively few such men available. It was forced to use large numbers of former nationalist combatants and soldiers drawn from civilian backgrounds that the PLA regarded as ideologically suspect, such as those who were land or business owners.[16]
  • Units also sought to prepare soldiers for battle through extensive pre-combat briefing and making collective oaths and exhortations. These helped soldier morale by building confidence and knowledge of the enemy and also helped collective feeling of all committing to a mutual end.[17] Many political officers acted as the ‘model’ for their men, giving leadership by personal example in combat, often against official regulations.
  • The surveillance system established in the unit to monitor political reliability in peace was a highly effective method of encouraging soldiers to fight in combat; 83% of POWs said that covert monitoring was ‘ever present’ and gave them no opportunity to desert.
  • The PLA had an elaborate system of material and honorific rewards and decorations were important for morale.[18]
  • Soldiers were also subject to significant war indoctrination on the legitimacy of their intervention and confidence in victory.[19]

The PLA made significant advances in its initial attacks in November and December 1950 after its intervention, but in January 1951, the UN managed to stabilise the front and began forcing Chinese units back. All POWs interviewed on the combat performance of PLA forces said that they had not fought as well as was expected. UN airpower and firepower, and the PLA forces lack of both, had a detrimental impact on their morale. Political leaders and officers sought to bolster morale in some units and they suffered heavy casualties because they led from the front which, in turn, impacted on the ability of units to motivate their troops. Many soldiers were becoming deflated by their inadequate tactics, material inferiority and many began to see the dichotomy of PLA promises of a quick victory, Soviet aid and air cover against the reality troops experienced at the front.[20]

The breakdown in morale led to the erosion of organisational controls. Political leaders blamed combat fear, psychosocial breakdown and psychiatric breakdown as weaknesses in ideological conviction. This attitude reduced trust by men in their leaders and the cause. Though the surveillance system appeared to work well during the first few months of 1951 control of soldiers was further weakened by the deaths of hard core motivated political leaders and military cadres.[21]

This study is in the vein of military sociological inquiry into combat motivation conducted after World War 2 by Shils and Janowitz.[22] There are methodological problems with interviewing prisoners, as well as the small sample size.[23] However, it is a unique insight how the PLA, as a revolutionary guerrilla army, sought to shape and form the primary group and ultimately its soldiers, not only as combatants, but as good communist citizens.


[1] A.L. George, The Chinese Communist Army in Action: The Korean War and its Aftermath (New York, 1967), pp.19-20.

[2] Ibid., pp.16-17.

[3] Ibid., pp.vii-viii.

[4] Ibid., pp.26-31.

[5] Ibid., pp.32-39.

[6] Ibid., pp.43-55.

[7] Ibid., pp.56-57.

[8] Ibid., p.59.

[9] Ibid., p.62.

[10] Ibid., p.66, 77-78.

[11] Ibid., p.73.

[12] Ibid., pp.81-85.

[13] Ibid., pp.95-108.

[14] Ibid., pp.108-111.

[15] Ibid., pp.114-120.

[16] Ibid., pp.122-126.

[17] Ibid., pp.127-136.

[18] Ibid., pp.139-151.

[19] Ibid.. pp.152-162.

[20] Ibid., pp.163-189.

[21] Ibid., pp.191-197.

[22] E.A. Shils & M. Janowitz, ‘Cohesion and Disintegration in the Wehrmacht in World War II’, Public Opinion Quarterly 12 (Summer 1948).

[23] George, The Chinese,  pp.15-25.