[December 10, 2019] Why do soldiers fight? This age-old question is as valid yesterday as it is today. When I was young, I had the honor of being around recently-returning Korean War veterans. I would listen a great deal and hear them tell the tales of why they fought.
This subject is in two parts. The first, today, I will give the most common answer to the question. Since the beginning of the war on terrorism, there has been a concerted effort by the military to answer the question, Why do soldiers fight? Part 2 will be on some surprising information on other motivations. Hint, it’s about patriotism.
It was hard for me to think about why someone would fight in a war and be at risk of being seriously wounded (or even maimed) or killed. That question was right up there with questions about God and his relationship to us. It was simply beyond my comprehension what the answer could be to either. But, what seemed to come from deep within me was the ability to at least ask questions.
Curiosity drove me to be around those veterans. And I had questions my dad or my granddad, neither of which was in a war, could answer. My uncle “DJ,” on the other hand, was a combat veteran of World War II, but he rarely talked about his experiences. His son (my cousin) and I would never get to hear him explain why he fought. Maybe that is what drove me to be so inquisitive.
New professional studies had added some perspective to the question of why soldiers fight. Dr. Leonard Wong is an associate research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. He published a paper called “Why They Fight: Combat Motivation in the Iraq War.” You can see the full text of the article here (PDF version, approx. 1.8 MB, see link).
Dr. Wong validated the popular belief that unit cohesion is a key issue in motivating soldiers to fight. I have regularly referred to this as “camaraderie,” and it is the leader’s inherent responsibility to mold and encourage it.1 Camaraderie is the spirit of trust and friendship veterans have for one another. It’s the glue that holds veterans together. Once “infected” by it, you can rarely be without it.
I remember going to the local VFW with my Uncle DJ. The room they met was intimidating, full of smoke, and the smell of old bodies and beer. It was usually dark and dirty, and yet I found the presence of these old WWII veterans (they were probably about 45-55 years old in 1960) mesmerizing. I hung onto their stories like the best stories from the Bible. We were in the Deep South, and your military service, to them, was a badge of great honor.
Yes, it was the camaraderie that pulled them together. To be there and witness it, would be something I would never forget.