Letter from Military History – May 2011

By Michael W. Robbins
3/3/2011 • MH Editorial

Why Do Soldiers Fight?

It’s a question as old as warfare itself, something many an ancient general must have pondered. Most of the answers are well known: For God and country. For self-preservation, fellow soldiers and family. For a powerfully felt cause and set of beliefs—whether just or not. For honor and glory, adventure and plunder. For money, freedom and status. To prove oneself, redeem oneself, advance a career. To follow orders or a charismatic leader. To cheat death, as in this explanation by a soldier fighting in the Middle East: “I fight because those guys down the valley are trying to kill me and my friends.” Or as in the frontline infantry of the Soviet army in World War II, whose devotion to fighting was regularly stiffened by the presence of backup NKVD units whose job it was to shoot would-be deserters and retreaters—a cynical and pragmatic variation on the kill-or-be-killed motivation.

Answers to this age-old question may be obvious in general terms, but as with nearly every human motivation, the individual variations and combinations of answers are many—and not all of them obvious. And therein lie many endlessly fascinating war stories: What combination of motives led so many young Americans to run out and sign up for service on the occasion of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor? Similarly, perhaps, what prompted so many young Russians—male and female—to sign up on those late June days in 1941 when the armies of Nazi Germany first swept across the borders in a massive surprise invasion of the Soviet Union? There was patriotic anger and outrage at the naked aggression, and surely fear that these were truly existential threats to the home country. And perhaps a host of other motives.

Then, what about the mercenaries, from 18th century Hessians to 20th century French Foreign Legionnaires, who even while paid scant wages are known to have fought with vigor—even desperation and heroism? Did they sign up to fight because they were bored? Or because they had few other options in life? Or did they—like modern-day cops who prefer crime-ridden precincts—appreciate the chance for action? Or are there other, far darker personal motives? Do some warriors just like to kill people?

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