Allan D. English | “A Predisposition to Cowardice? Aviation Psychology and the Genesis of ‘Lack of Moral Fibre'” | 1995

Sigmund Freud

“Lack of Moral Fibre” (LMF) applied to aircrew in WW2 was controversial, and the threat of being labeled LMF could inspire as much fear as operations against the enemy.

This article traces the origins of LMF from WW1 antecedents, through interwar years, into early WW2.

Bartlett, founding member in 1939 of the Flying Personnel Research Committee (FPRC) was one of Britain’s most distinguished psychologists, w/major contribution = comprehensive use of Freudian theory to explain psychological disorders of war. He stated that temperament, which he described as an “endowment,” was most important factor for individual adaptation to military. Said that “weaklings,” described as mentally unfit personnel,” should “be eliminated” from the services. He emphasized that personal will, based on temperament, allowed soldiers to combat mental illness.

Contrast w/American behaviorist view. American J.B. Watson believed fear was learned response that could be unlearned. Explicitly rejected by Bartlett.

With war imminent, psychiatrists hoped to cull the “weak” using objective selection tests, pyschiatric screening.

Air Commander F.N.B. Smartt, Principal Medical Officer of Bomber Command, January 1941, wrote that the “importance of temperamental unsuitability in causing psychological disorders in members of air crew” necessitated the “radical elimination of those unsuitable individuals.” For first time, used term, “Aircrews lacking in moral fibre.”

During WW1, scientists agreed that assessing flying temperament was a nigh impossible task. By WW2, neuropsychiatrists armed w/Freudian theory believed they could succeed where others had failed, and 1943 FPRC study confirmed. Study concluded: “prognostic opinions of service psychiatrists are consistent in the degree of accuracy.”


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