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Letter From Military History - July 2012

By Michael W. Robbins 
Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: May 03, 2012 
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Mixed Motives

Motivation is important to understanding the conduct of warriors in all times and places, from Gettysburg to the Golan Heights. Of course, the range of human motivations is wide, stretching from what we customarily think of as lofty reasons for fighting—personal and national defense, ideological righteousness, religious conviction, various forms of honor and nationalistic pride—all the way down to a lust for power, self-centered ambition, greed, plunder, vengeance, even to outright atrocious and criminal acts (Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, for example). That said, individual motives in any conflict and at all levels of military and political rank are often mixed and can't be adequately understood as simple matters of good or evil, of soldiers being either gung-ho or apathetic.

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Even in situations in which combatants' motives are obviously at odds—as when national navies and fleets of privateers each compete to destroy an enemy's merchant shipping—individual motives are likely mixed: Some privateers are also patriots and are avowedly trying to help win a maritime war, while some regular navy officers and men would not ignore an opportunity to take an enemy prize or two.

Few observers of the human condition have grasped the complexities of motivation as fully as William Shakespeare. To cite but one example: Mark Antony's speeches about the motives of Marcus Junius Brutus and the other conspirators—"such honorable men," as Antony repeatedly and sarcastically characterizes them—on the occasion of Julius Caesar's assassination.

In many a campaign or battle the intensity of individual motivation has demonstrably made the winning difference. Confronting an existential threat is sure to sharpen one's motivation. For individual soldiers, facing annihilation at the hands of an overwhelming force of charging, shrieking enemies is strong incentive to put up one hell of a fight. Similarly, the threat of destruction of one's home—be it Acre, Florida or Moscow—can heighten motivation, as can the threat of national conquest by a powerful invader.

Whatever the stimulus, the relative intensity of individual motivation can account for otherwise surprising outcomes of battles, whether at Marathon or Boyacá. Motivations are not the sole key to understanding the intangible differences between victory and defeat, but neither can they be ignored.

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