Understanding Why Soldiers Decide to Fight

Silhouette of soldiers near helicopter in desert landscape

Raphye Alexius / Getty Images 

A study adds new perspective to the age-old question of why soldiers fight. Dr. Leonard Wong, associate research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, said the paper “Why They Fight: Combat Motivation in the Iraq War" validated the popular belief that unit cohesion is a key issue in motivating soldiers to fight. But, the paper also produced some “surprising information on soldiers’ patriotism.”

Why Soldiers Fight

Originally, the question rose from Samuel Stouffer’s “The American Soldier” study released in 1949 , which chronicled the World War II soldier’s attitudes about facing battle.

Combat infantrymen returning from the war most often said they kept fighting to "get the war over so they could go home. The second most common response and the primary combat motivation, however, referred to the strong group ties that developed during combat," Stouffer reported.

Stouffer’s conclusions supported historian S. L. A. Marshall’s “Men Against Fire,” released in 1942.

“I hold it to be of the simplest truths of war that the thing which enables an infantry soldier to keep going with his weapons is the near presence or the presumed presence of a comrade … He is sustained by his fellows primarily and by his weapons secondarily.”

Another noted research paper by Edward A. Shils and Morris Janowitz showed surprisingly similar results among Germany’s Wehrmacht soldiers who fought on, even as Berlin fell.

Since these papers, the desire of “not letting your buddy down” has been the conventional wisdom as to why soldiers fight.

Is It Really All About Camaraderie?

“Recent studies have questioned this traditional wisdom,” Wong said. Shortly after major combat operations ended in Iraq, Wong and a team of researchers from the War College headed to Iraq to find out firsthand if the traditional wisdom remains valid.

The team went to the battlefield for the interviews because they wanted to speak with the soldiers while events were still fresh in their minds.

The team asked the soldiers the same question Stouffer asked in his 1949 study: "Generally, in your combat experience, what was most important to you in making you want to keep going and do as well as you did.”

American soldiers in Iraq responded similarly to their ancestors about wanting to return home, but the most frequent response given for combat motivation was “fighting for my buddies,” Wong’s report said.

Why Social Cohesion Matters in Combat

The report uncovered two roles for social cohesion in combat.

One role is that each soldier is responsible for group success and protecting the unit from harm.

"That person means more to you than anybody," a soldier said. "You will die if he dies. That is why I think that we protect each other in any situation. I know that if he dies, and it was my fault, it would be worse than death to me.”

The other role social cohesion provides is the confidence and assurance that someone is watching their back. In one infantryman’s words, “You have got to trust them more than your mother, your father, or girlfriend, or your wife, or anybody. It becomes almost like your guardian angel.”

Once soldiers are convinced their personal safety will be assured by others, they are empowered to do their job without worry, the study stated. It noted that soldiers understood totally entrusting their safety could be viewed as irrational. One soldier shared his parents’ reaction: “My whole family thinks that I am a nut. They think, ‘How can you put your life in someone’s hands like that? … You are still going to be shot.’”

Despite the occasional skepticism of outsiders, the report concluded, soldiers greatly valued being free of the distracting concerns of personal safety.

Is Patriotism Still Alive and Well?

While Wong’s study showed Stouffer’s concept on the value of soldier cohesion remains valid, it had a different view of patriotism’s value.

Stouffer argued that ideology, patriotism, or fighting for the cause, were not major factors in combat motivation. “Surprisingly, many soldiers in Iraq were motivated by patriotic ideals,” Wong said.

Liberating the people and bringing freedom were common themes in describing combat motivation, the report stated.

Wong credits today’s volunteer Army having “more politically savvy” soldiers as the reason for the change. He said today’s more educated soldiers have a better understanding of the overall mission and provide a “truly professional army.”

“While the U.S. Army certainly has the best equipment and training,” the report said, “a human dimension is often overlooked ... Its soldiers also have an unmatched level of trust."

“They trust each other because of the close interpersonal bonds between soldiers. They trust their leaders because their leaders have competently trained their units. And, they trust the Army because, since the end of the draft, the Army has had to attract its members rather than conscripting them,” Wong wrote.

Wong said the trust his report shows is high, but warns, “Time tests trust.”

He said uncertainty can unravel trust, and today’s environment of open-ended deployments and talks of downsizing could reduce the trust if not carefully managed.