Mysteries of Motive

In a recently discovered unpublished account of one 18-year-old farm boy’s service in the 5th Illinois Cavalry, he (we’ll call him Harry) notes this farewell exchange with his stepmother:

“As I left the house, my stepmother asked, ‘Where are you going?’

‘I am going to the War,’ I replied and walked away.”

And that, in Harry’s brief memoir, was that. No exploration of motive, no signs of self-analysis, no psychologizing about war and danger, life and death—indeed, in 1861 psychology as we know it had not yet been invented. So perhaps to taciturn young Harry, hiking off on a November afternoon to join the Union Army just seemed like a good idea at the time. Eventually, after many privations, dangers, some combat, one rifle wound and several bouts with disease, Harry did reflect at greater length on his experiences, but not much on his motives, then or later.

Today we’ve accumulated an enormous body of knowledge both inside and outside the military about individual motives and behaviors, about small-group cohesion, about the dynamics of leadership. But in historical investigations, most of it does not help answer that most tantalizing of historians’ questions: “Why did he do it?” The question works at all levels, from privates to top officers, when assessing decisions and behaviors in war.

Why did General A call for a retreat at the end of a day’s fighting that had left his troops in command of the field? Why would General B fail to counterattack when the enemy forces were so obviously faltering? Why would General C agree to a hopeless suicidal charge into a valley surrounded by a numerically superior foe?

Why indeed? Absent a self-evident motive, a detailed, self-analytical diary or a post-operation interview, there may be no answer that satisfies historians who are reaching back from our own hyperanalytic age across the generational and cultural divide. Perhaps the only answer available is the plain and obvious one of sheer, unexamined impulse, as acted upon by cavalry volunteer Harry back in the fall of 1861: It just seemed like a good idea at the time.