When asked why he battled, Audie Murphy replied, “They were killing my friends.”
Throughout history, as seen in fiction and non-fiction writing, the reasons for fighting are often much simpler than the wars being fought. Country, family, friends, self-preservation are often the reasons.
The following are excerpts from different books and papers, on why different people/groups have fought through the years.
Lions of Kandahar: The Story of a Fight Against All Odds by Rusty Bradley and Kevin Maurer,
“My family is why I fight”
Airman’s Odyssey by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
If, at dawn to-morrow, I fight again, I shall know finally why I fight. . . . I believe that what my civilization calls charity is the sacrifice granted Man for the Purpose of his own fulfillment. Charity is the gift made to Man present in the insignifigance of the individual. It creates Man. I shall fight against all those who, maintaining that my charity pays homage to mediocrity, would destroy Man and thus imprison the individual in an irredeemable mediocrity.
I shall fight for Man. Against Man’s enemies—but against myself as well.
The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present, Shannon E. French
When my Naval Academy students have finished reading the Iliad, I often ask them to tell me which of Homer’s characters they admire most, and why. A popular reply is Hector, prince of Troy, and the reasons they give most concern their sense of why he fights. It may surprise some to learn that competitive young American students would favor a character who champions the losing side of the battle. But it is Hector’s humanity and nobility of character, not his unhappy fate, to which they are drawn.
Homer’s Prince Hector is a man who fights with tremendous ferocity on the battlefield but who is not driven by rage or bloodlust. Although he relishes his moments of small-scale victory, we are given the impression that Hector fights not because he wants to but because he has a duty to his people. He would rather be at home with his wife and young son, Astynax, but he is the greatest warrior that the Trojans have. If he does not defend the city, it will certainly fall to the Greeks. His exceptional physical prowess and martial skills, combined with his standing in the community as a respected member of the royal family, create special responsibilities for him. By rights, his brother Paris (the cause of the crisis) should have offered himself up for the protection of Troy. However, since Paris chooses not to live up to his obligations, the burden shifts to Hector’s more capable (and unshirking) shoulders. The defense of the city is placed in his hands, and all the hopes of the Trojan people are pinned on his performance as a fighter and a leader.
Senator T.W. Palmer, during the Seventeenth Reunion, Society of the Army of the Cumberland
We have been taught by the books that war was destructive; that schoolmasers were the creatures and promoters of peace. We have been told that the pen was mightier than the sword, a saying which implies that they were two rival and not congenial forces. The cloister and the camp have been regarded as typifying the antipodes of human life, and yet the pupil of Socrates—the man who perpetuated and developed the philosophy of his master, the man who gave his whole life to metaphysical study and dreamy meditation—said that the men who fought at Marathon and Salamis were the schoolmasters of all Greece. What he meant was a matter of inference, but we may deduce from his surroundings that he wished to impress upon his people that the devotion of the 10,000 who met and defeated eleven times their number at Marathon was an example more ennobling and more lasting than all the speculations of the Academy, than all the eloquence of the Agora. He meant more: he undoubtedly meant that their example showed that the refinement and culture of Athens had not enervated her sons; that while other Grecian states had consented to become tributary to the Persian king, the men who won those victories knew what independence and nationality meant, and proposed to maintain them; that the true soldier, the man who fights for a principle, knowing what he fights for and why he fights for it, is the man who not only had been trained in the gymnasium, but has listened in the schools. He must also have referred to that spectacle of other leaders generously giving away their right of command that Miltiades might lead them on that fateful day.
Undersea Warrior: The World War II Story of “Mush” Morton and the USS Wahoo by Don Keith
“People ask me why I go to war and fight. Right out there is the reason.”
He pointed toward his wife and children and had them stand up for applause.
The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great by Steven Pressfield
I have always wished to become a man of wisdom. That is why I fight and why I have pursued the vocation of arms. Life is a battle is it not? And how better to train for it than to be a soldier? For have you not noticed of these sages, my friends, that they are the consummate soldiers? I inured to pain, oblivious to hardship, each takes up his post at dawn and does not relinquish it for thirst, hunger, heat, cold, fatigue. He is cheerful in all weathers, self-motivated, self-governed, self-commended. Would, Alexander, that we had an army with such a will to fight! We would cross this river before the count of three hundred.
“Are you saying, Telamon,” I inquire, “that your training as a soldier prepares you for the vocation of sage?”
The party responds with amusement. But I am serious. Telamon answers that he wishes he were that tough. “These men are beyond me, my friends. I must apprentice myself to them for many lifetimes.”
Patton’s Panthers: the African-American 761st Tank Battalion in World War II by Charles W. Sasser
Lieutenant Long, Baker Company CO, had come an impressive distance since starting out in the army at Fort Knox as a cook, one of the few positions open for Negroes. He was still an excellent gourmet cook. After graduating from OCS, he and Lieutenant Ivan Harrison became the first two black officers in the U.S. tank corps.
“Not for my God and my country, but for me and my people, that’s why I fight,” he told reporter Trezzvant Anderson, who was always interviewing men in the battalion. “I swore to myself when I entered the army that there would never be a headline saying my men and I chickened. A soldier in time of war is supposed to accept the idea of dying. That’s what he’s there for; live with it and forget it. I expect to get killed, but whatever happens I am determined to die an officer and a gentleman.”
“The Compromises of Life and other Lectures and Addresses” by Henry Watterson
I take it for granted that there is no one of you who has enlisted for a soldier who does not want to be a soldier and who has not resolved to be a soldier. That much at least is the heritage of the Kentuckian. But even in soldiership there is a right way and a wrong way. The famous Confederate General Forrest said of war that “it means fighting and fighting means killing.” He also said of success in battle that it is “getting there first with the most men.” Some of us are old enough to remember the delusion that once had a certain vogue among the unthinking that one Southerner could whip six Yankees. We got bravely over that; and now that we are all Yankees, let it not be imagined that one Yankee can whip six Spaniards. It is always better to overrate than to underrate the enemy. He fights best who fights truest. He fights best who knows why he fights and for what he fights, and who, when he goes under fire, says to himself, “I have but one time to die, and, please God, I am as ready now as ever I shall be.” The Irish have a couplet which declares:
“Not man, nor monarch, half so proud
As he whose flag becomes his shroud.”
That is only another way of repeating the old Latin heroic that it is sweet ot die for one’s country.
The Red Book of Guerrilla Warfare by Mao Zedong
Although discipline in guerilla ranks is not as severe as in the ranks of orthodox forces, the necessity for discipline exists. This must be self-imposed, because only when it is, is the soldier able to understand completely, why he fights and why he must obey. This type of discipline becomes a tower of strength within the army, and it is the only type that can truly harmonize the relationship that exists between officers and soldiers.
Willing Obedience: Citizens, Soldiers, and the Progress of Consent in America, 1776-1898 by Elizabeth D. Samet
The citizen-warrior knows why he fights. “Military service makes men equal,” writes J.G.A. Pocock, “Because men in arms defend the same things without distinction, they come to have the same values; because they are not all disciplined to accept the same authority, they are all obedient to the res publica; because the public authority monopolizes force, there can be no subjection of one private citizen to another.” Thus militia service theoretically removed the relation of arbitrary private subjection—precisely the relation on which slavery itself was predicated.
“Band of Brothers—Warrior Ethos: Unit Effectiveness and the Role of Initial Entry Training,” Col Donald M. Sando, U.S. Army War College
WHY SOLDIERS FIGHT
Studies of combat motivation often identify the importance of primary group dynamics and group attitudes, beliefs and behaviors to explain in part why men fight when they might not otherwise. Most notably S.L.A. Marshall in World war II, Roger Little in the Korean War, and Charles Moskos during Vietnam War all observed the importance of strong group ties and interpersonal relationships within the primary group on behavior and attitude of soldiers in combat. Nora Kinzer Stewart’s examination of both British and Argentine forces in the Falklands conflict reinforces the primacy of cohesion, morale and motivation in small unit performance in battle. More recently, a study of combat motivation among U.S. Infantrymen and Marines in Operation Iraqi Freedom concludes that “cohesion, or the strong emotional bonds between soldiers, continues to be a critical factor in combat motivation.” Although these studies included exclusively male units, the role of primary group influence and horizontal bonding is assumed to have similar effects in female and mixed gender units.
A less immediate but no less important aspect of small unit cohesion and success in battle is a cultural trust of the army as an institution and commitment to the moral validity of the fight. This appears to be especially true of professional armies. The survey of soldiers in Iraq concludes that “because our soldiers trust the Army as an institution, they now look to the Army to provide the moral direction for war.” Research of Israeli and American combat stress casualties suggests that soldiers “committed to a principle of patriotism, a just war, an ideology, or a belief in the nation’s principles” are more likely to withstand the stress of combat. Loyalty and patriotism to national objectives, or societal cohesion, were observed as contributing factors for both belligerents during the Falklands conflict.
Strong bonds among soldiers; faith in comrades and commitment to unit goals; and a culture of trust in institutional values are critical to success on the battlefield. The cultural attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of Warrior Ethos – disciplined initiative, teamwork, determination, sacrifice – enable unit effectiveness. A review of other armies and services informs our understanding of how cultural attitudes, beliefs and behaviors contribute to Warrior Ethos and unit effectiveness.
“Enhancing Warrior Ethos in Soldier Training: The Teamwork Development Course” by Gerald Klein, Margaret Salter, Gary Riccio, Randall Sullivan, United States Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences
What is a Warrior
In the Iroquois tongue Warrior means “one who protects the Sacred Origins,” the man or woman whose honor and duty before God flows from a commitment to protecting the people and the whole web of life that ensures the people’s well being. According to the Lakota Brave Heart Warrior Society, a Soldier follows orders and fights because he is told to. He is externally motivated and disciplined by his commanders. The Warrior, by contrast, is self-disciplined. A Warrior knows why he fights because he has searched his own heart’s motives and has consciously and intentionally chosen to pay the price with full awareness of what will be needed off the battlefield when it is over. [Muse, S. (2005). Fit for Life, Fit for War: Reflections on the Warrior Ethos. Infantry Magazine. 94-2, 23-27.]
Motivated by a Sense of Calling.
Warrior Ethos means motivation from Army values and belief in the cause for which the Army fights – Duty, Honor, Country. Soldiers need to know why they are fighting and to believe it is right. For some this comes with the Oath of Allegiance; for others the beliefs and practices of a religious faith; for others it is simply the knowledge that what they are doing is the right thing to do. This helps Soldiers persist in the face of danger or defeat; it helps us display behavior consistent with the Warrior Ethos of an American Soldier.
Faith in Themselves and Their Comrades.
Underlying the four tenets of Warrior Ethos is knowledge that other Soldiers also behave with Warrior Ethos. Once we are sure we are being looked after, and as much as possible, our personal safety assured, we can maintain the fight, knowing we are not alone. This is important because it relates to protecting each other, and provides some relief from combat stress. Soldiers want to know that if they are wounded their buddies and unit will fight to prevent their capture. They expect medical treatment in a timely manner, and if needed, their remains repatriated. This gives a level of comfort and trust among Soldiers that is essential to combat performance at the small unit level. This is Warrior Ethos.
“Because they like it”
Tony – you inspired me to take this out another step. https://stevenpressfield.com/2011/12/why-fight-part-ii-i-like-it-and-i%E2%80%99m-good-at-it/. Callie
The quote from Stephen Pressfield’s novel about Alexander reminds me, appropriately enough, of this letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams:
I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.
David – Thanks for sharing this. A great quote. Callie
Would like to add this manifesto on what is worth fighting for, from the poet-warrior John Steinbeck (“East of Eden”, Ch. 13):
“…Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite…. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then—the glory—so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories…
“…Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in art, in music, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.
“And now the forces marshaled around the concept of the group have declared a war of extermination on that preciousness, the mind of man. By disparagement, by starvation, by repressions, forced direction, and the stunning blows of conditioning, the free, roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged. It is a sad suicidal course our species seems to have taken.
And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.
“This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for it is the one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost…”
Thanks for this, John: “If the glory can be killed, we are lost…” Callie
Why would I fight?
Mostly because I would be ashamed to look at my friends if I hadn’t fight. Shame is a powerful motivation to do what is “expected” of you.
Of course country, family, ideology, upbringing etc motivate soldiers to fight. But at the end when they decide to stay and keep on fighting and not run is the fear of keep on living with shame.
Your comment reminded me of an interview journalist Jules Crittenden did with John Eade, who fought at Ia Drang. Eade said:
“It wasn’t a matter of living or dying. It was taking care of each other and doing your duty. The anticipation of a future is what you give up. The question was not, ‘Am I going to die?’ We all know the answer to that. The question was, ‘How am I going to die? I am going to die well.’”
“For those who fight for it, life has a flavor the sheltered will never know”. This was a line in the movie “Sucker Punch”, but its origin is from the Vietnam War, not the movie. Unfortunately, the author is unknown.
This line doesn’t answer the question of “Why fight?”, but as Steven Pressfield talks about in the “War of Art”, we are all conduits of the power and beauty of art. The masterpiece is already “up there” with the muses and those that answer the call are honored to have the masterpiece flow through them and gifted to the world (whether others accept them as gifts or not).
The call of duty, the spirit of the warrior is already “up there” with the warrior muses. Our military men and women are conduits of the eternal tradition and code of the warrior. From the beginning of war to the present, this line of blood, glory, dirt, mud and tears is called forth in a select few who the warrior muses know will carry the banner. Some warriors ask for the banner and others do not, but it’s not a matter of asking. It’s a matter of doing. And, all warriors know war is about doing, not hoping. The warrior muses will answer the call when asked in the midst of the fight. The “masterpiece” that springs forth from the warrior is courage, brotherly love, selflessness and loyalty. The warrior muses hold a special place for those that spill their blood for their brothers and for complete strangers.
I am not romanticizing or idealizing war. I have experienced the call and can speak firsthand of what I am writing. However, going back to the very beginning, “For those who fight for it, life has a flavor the sheltered will never know” is the monopoly of a select few that neither romanticizes, nor idealizes war, but seeks to justify and uphold the spirit that the sheltered will never know.
STRENGTH AND HONOR