Letter from Military History – May 2010

Feeling War

Amid a handful of Confederate graves in a quiet civilian cemetery in Leesburg, Va., is one modern war-related burial site that commands attention: Bold letters on a plain white stone spell out the name of the deceased and the dates of birth and death. Beneath, on the type of memorial line that most often contains a sentiment like "Our Beloved Father" or "Rest in Peace," are the stark words "Murdered by the Japanese in a POW Camp, 1944."

Far stronger than the usual "Killed in Action," this epitaph affirms an emotion raw enough to persist beyond the grave.

Strong emotions are, of course, a major element of warfare. The stronger they are, the more of a factor they become in understanding all aspects of war, including the way conflict starts. England’s King John, for example, besieged Rochester Castle in 1215 to avenge his humiliation at the hands of barons who’d compelled his signing of the Magna Carta. Emotions are powerful motivators of soldiers and provide a key element of unit cohesion, as Richard Holmes makes clear in an essay on why the British Redcoats were such an effective fighting force. Those strong emotions are common among all levels of the military and, as evidenced by that gravestone in Leesburg, among families.

Many military historians, including Sir Max Hastings, have noted that wars reveal humans “at their best and worst.” That is an apt way to describe the very wide range of emotions—from joy to sorrow, relief to bloodlust and nearly every other emotion in between—that war evokes. Controlling and channeling those emotions is a major element in the very structure and operational doctrine of an effective army and a goal in every basic military training program—especially those that focus on leadership.

It would be difficult to understand fully the behaviors, the decisions and the reactions of soldiers on the battlefield without appreciating the gamut of emotions that can and surely will arise in combat. Accordingly, it is evidence of that understanding when military historians do, in fact, take into account the raw emotions war unleashes.

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