1. Careers
Send to a Friend via Email
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Discuss in my forum

Why Soldiers Fight


Updated May 15, 2014

A study released in July adds new perspective to the age-old question of why soldiers fight.

Dr. Leonard Wong, associate research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute said the paper “Why They Fight: Combat Motivation in the Iraq” validated the popular belief that unit cohesion is a key issue in motivating soldiers to fight. But, the paper also produced some “surprising information on soldiers’ patriotism.”

Originally, the question rose from Samuel Stouffer’s “The American Soldier” study released in 1949 chronicled the World War II soldier’s attitudes about facing battle.

Combat infantrymen returning from the war most often said they kept fighting to “get the war over so that they could go home. The second most common response and the primary combat motivation, however, referred to the strong group ties that developed during combat,” Stouffer reported.

Stouffer’s conclusions supported historian S. L. A. Marshall’s “Men Against Fire” released in 1942.

“I hold it to be 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.”

Another noted research paper by Edward A. Shils and Morris Janowitz surprisingly showed similar results among Germany’s Wehrmacht soldiers who fought on even as Berlin fell.

Since these papers, the desire of “not letting your buddy down” has been the conventional wisdom as to why soldiers fight.

“Recent studies have questioned this traditional wisdom,” Wong said.

Shortly after major combat operations ended in Iraq May 1, Wong and a team researchers from the War College headed to Iraq to find out firsthand if the traditional wisdom remains valid.

The team went to the battlefield for the interviews because they wanted to speak with the soldiers while events were still fresh in their minds.

The team asked the soldiers the same question Stouffer asked soldiers in his 1949 study -- “Generally, in your combat experience, what was most important to you in making you want to keep going and do as well as you did.”

American soldiers in Iraq responded similarly to their ancestors about wanting to return home, but the most frequent response given for combat motivation was “fighting for my buddies,” Wong’s report said.

The report uncovered two roles for social cohesion in combat.

One role is that each soldier is responsible for group success and protecting the unit from harm. As one soldier put it, “That person means more to you than anybody. You will die if he dies. That is why I think that we protect each other in any situation. I know that if he dies, and it was my fault, it would be worse than death to me.”

The other role is it provides the confidence and assurance that someone is watching their back. In one infantryman’s words, “You have got to trust them more than your mother, your father, or girlfriend, or your wife, or anybody. It becomes almost like your guardian angel.”

Once soldiers are convinced their personal safety will be assured by others, they are empowered to do their job without worry, the study stated. It noted that soldiers understood totally entrusting their safety could be viewed as irrational. One soldier shared his parents’ reaction -- “My whole family thinks that I am a nut. They think, ‘How can you put your life in someone’s hands like that? … Your are still going to be shot.’”

Despite the occasional skepticism of outsiders, the report concluded, soldiers greatly valued being free of the distracting concerns of personnel safety.

While Wong’s study showed Stouffer’s concept on the value of soldier cohesion remains valid, it had a different view of patriotism’s value.

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.