The motive behind the man: why soldiers fight

Pixabay Photo

RBC | I once read a fascinating report from The Strategic Studies Institute entitled, “Why Soldiers Fight: Combat Motivation In The Iraq War.”1 Among other points, three should strike us profoundly on Veterans Day.
First, a soldier’s mind must be set on what he is fighting for. As we will see in our second point, the overall result of the study was that, “today’s U.S. soldiers, much like soldiers of the past, fight for each other. Unit cohesion is alive and well in today’s Army.” But also found was “that soldiers cited ideological reasons such as liberation, freedom and democracy as important factors in combat motivation.”
The study first went back to the drafted soldiers of World War II. Early in the war there was a general attitude of apathy; while conscripted soldiers were not grouchy or mutinous, they just did not care. After seeing the ineffectiveness of boring lectures on the subject, Chief of Staff of the Army, General George Marshall, brought in movie producer Frank Capra and told him to make a movie that would “explain to our boys in the Army why we are fighting, and the principles for which we are fighting.” Critics claimed that there were more important things to do, but Marshall insisted on men motivated and knowledgeable about the cause of freedom. The result was the famous and riveting seven-part Why We Fight film series that emphasized that the war was not “just a war against Axis villainy, but for liberty, equality and security.” That did, indeed, help the problem.
This has greatly deepened in today’s Armed Forces, which in 2013 celebrated 40 years of an all-volunteer force. Today we see “a professional army,” in which “soldiers are also sophisticated enough to grasp the moral reasons for fighting.” They are also “well-educated” and “amazingly in touch with the pressing issues of the day.” That is an important statement. Some characterize military personnel as simply brutes who cannot get a job anyway and just know how to shoot a gun. On the contrary, they are professionals who know why they are fighting and what they are fighting for. Every American should be thankful that those people are protecting our liberty and pray that this attitude is never lost again.
Second, a soldier’s mind must be set on “unit cohesion,” that is, he is fighting for his buddies. This principle, in fact, is the main point of the study. In World War II, while ideology, patriotism, or fighting for the cause were certainly factors in combat motivation, “cohesion, or the emotional bonds between soldiers, appeared to be the primary factor.” Historian S. L. A. Marshall is also quoted in the study. In his 1942 book, “Men Against Fire,” he noted, “I hold it to be one of the simplest truths of war that the thing which enables an infantry soldier to keep going with his weapons is the near presence or the presumed presence of a comrade. . . He is sustained by his fellows primarily and by his weapons secondarily.”
It was also fascinating that the report cited that the same basic principle was true among the German Wehrmacht. POWs were asked why they continued to fight “despite the overwhelmingly obvious evidence that Germany would lose the war.” While allegiance to Hitler was secondary, the primary motive was “the interpersonal relationships within the primary group.” Among American soldiers, this was true not only of World War II but also continued in the Korean War, where “‘buddy relations’ were critical to basic survival.” It was likewise observed that during the Vietnam War “combat primary group ties [served] an important role in unit effectiveness.”
The same is true today. “Social cohesion appears to serve two roles in combat motivation. First, because of the close ties to other soldiers, it places a burden of responsibility on each soldier to achieve group success and protect the unit from harm. . . The second role . . . is to provide the confidence and assurance that someone soldiers could trust was ‘watching their back.’” In stark contrast, when Iraqi POWs were asked about their combat motivation, “the near universal response was that the Iraqi Regular Army soldiers were motivated by coercion.” More than anything else, “they were fearful of the dreaded Baath Party to their rear.”
Third, a soldier’s mind must be set on trusting the leadership over him. As the report once again observes, “The U.S. Army is the best in the world because, in addition to possessing the best equipment, its soldiers also have an unmatched level of trust. They trust each other because of the close interpersonal bonds between soldiers. They trust their leaders because their leaders have competently trained their units.”
Let us honor our veterans and current military personnel this Veterans Day by remembering “Why Soldiers Fight.” This might also encourage all of us to adopt the same attitudes toward each other and our nation’s leadership.

1(Leonard Wong, Thomas A. Kolditz. Raymond A. Millen, Terrence M. Potter [Carlisle, PA: The Strategic Studies Institute, 2003,])

By Doc Watson | Special to the Herald Times