Why do men fight wars? (part one of two)

Summary:  One of the great mysteries of history is why men fight wars.  Peace and prosperity in the 21st century might depend on understanding and managing these forces in a world caught in a pincer between the horrors of 4GW and atomic wars.  Here guest author Callie Oettinger shows several perspectives on this vital question.  This is part one of two; see part two here.  See other sources at the end.

Today we have a guest article by Callie Oettinger:  Why Fight” — Originally published at Steve Pressfield’s website on 5 December 2011, then at the Marine Corps Association’s website, and reposted here with their generous permission.


  1. Callie Oettinger’s excerpts from works about combat
  2. About the author
  3. Articles and books with more information on this question

(1)  Callie Oettinger’s excerpts from works about combat

“They were killing my friends.”
— Audie Murphy, the most decorated US soldier in WWII, when asked how he found the courage to fight an entire German infantry culture

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.

(a)  Lions of Kandahar: The Story of a Fight Against All Odds by Rusty Bradley and Kevin Maurer (2011)

“… the good-byes took a toll.  My wife had a weary look.  Leaving my child was excruciatingly painful.  You can’t explain why you’re going, and that’s all they want to know.  But the why, for me, is really simple.  I fight, but its hard for them to understand the reason I had to travel thousands of miles away to do it.  My family is why I fight”

(b)  Airman’s Odyssey by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1984)

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 insignificance 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.

(c)  The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present, Shannon E. French (2004)

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.

(d)  Army of the Cumberland, William D. Whipple (1885) — Senator T.W. Palmer speaking during the Seventeenth Reunion of the Society of the Army of the Cumberland:

We have been taught by the books that war was destructive; that schoolmasters 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.

(e)  Undersea Warrior: The World War II Story of “Mush” Morton and the USS Wahoo by Don Keith (2011)

“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.

(f)  The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great by Steven Pressfield (2004)

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.”

(g)  Patton’s Panthers: the African-American 761st Tank Battalion in World War II by Charles W. Sasser  (2005)

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.”

(h)  The Compromises of Life and other Lectures and Addresses” by Henry Watterson  (1903)

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 to die for one’s country.

(i)  The Red Book of Guerrilla Warfare by Mao Zedong  (this version published in 2010)

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.

(j)  Willing Obedience: Citizens, Soldiers, and the Progress of Consent in America, 1776-1898 by Elizabeth D. Samet (2003)

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.

(k)  Band of Brothers—Warrior Ethos: Unit Effectiveness and the Role of Initial Entry Training,” Colonel Donald M. Sando, U.S. Army War College, 3 May 2004

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.

(l)  Enhancing Warrior Ethos in Soldier Training: The Teamwork Development Course” by Gerald Klein, Margaret Salter, Gary Riccio, and Randall Sullivan, United States Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences, August 2006

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.

(2)  About the author

Callie Oettinger is a principal of Oettinger & Associates (PR and marketing), and the Editor for Commandposts.com (website of St. Martin’s Press with articles by authors writing on military news, history, and relevant fiction). Her interest in military history, policy, and fiction took root when she was a child traveling and living the life of an Army Brat.

(3)  For more information about why men fight wars

See these FM Reference Pages for links to other posts:

  1. America’s military, and our national defense strategy
  2. History – economic, military and geopolitical
  3. An Army near the Breaking Point – studies & reports — Note the reports about military recruiting
  4. Bloodlust – a natural by-product of a long war?, 11 August 2009

Other books and articles asking why men fight:

  1. Why men fight: a method of abolishing the international duel by Bertrand Russell (1917) — Russell (1872–1970) was a mathematician, philosopher, pacifist, and winner of the 1950 Nobel Prize for literature
  2. Why men fight” by George S. Patton, Jr. (1927)
  3. The Culture of War by Martin van Creveld (2008)
  4. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman (Lt. Colonel, US Army, retired) (2009)
  5. Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It by Robert A. Pape (Prof of political science at U of Chicago) and James K. Feldman  (2010)



11 thoughts on “Why do men fight wars? (part one of two)”



    1. Kapuscinski’s The Soccer War is also an awesome read. I spent a lot of time in Latin America and he nails it cold.
      FM Note: Opening of the Wikipedia entry for The Soccer War:

      The Soccer War (La guerra del fútbol, in Spanish), also known as the 100 hour War, was a four-day war fought by El Salvador and Honduras in 1969. It was caused by political conflicts between Hondurans and Salvadorans, namely issues concerning immigration from El Salvador to Honduras. These existing tensions between the two countries coincided with the inflamed rioting during the second North American qualifying round of the 1970 FIFA World Cup. On 14 July 1969, the Salvadoran army launched an attack against Honduras. The Organization of American States negotiated a cease-fire which took effect on 20 July, with the Salvadoran troops withdrawn in early August.

      Eleven years later the two nations signed a peace treaty on 30 October 1980[1] to put the border dispute over the Gulf of Fonseca and five sections of land boundary before the International Court of Justice.

  2. I often visit your site with much enthusiasim. Although we do not always agree in your final analysis, I find you/your writers some of the best. I often repost your post at my site never altering the content. Will continue to visit and promote your insight.

  3. A very nice compilation. It says a lot about the psychology of why people persist in the face of mortal danger, but very little about the root causes of armed conflict itself.

  4. Estienne De La Boetie – Discours Sur La Servitude Volantaire:

    For the present I should like merely to understand how it happens that so many men, so many villages,Dictatorships present many puzzles. so many cities, so many nations, sometimes suffer under a single tyrant who has no other power than the power they give him; who is able to harm them only to the extent to which they have the willingness to bear with him; who could do them absolutely no injury unless they preferred to put up with him rather than contradict him.[3] Surely a striking situation! Yet it is so common that one must grieve the more and wonder the less at the spectacle of a million men serving in wretchedness, their necks under the yoke, not constrained by a greater multitude than they, but simply, it would seem, delighted and charmed by the name of one man alone whose power they need not fear, for he is evidently the one person whose qualities they cannot admire because of his inhumanity and brutality toward them. A weakness characteristic of human kind is that we often have to obey force; we have to make concessions; we ourselves cannot always be the stronger. Therefore, when a nation is constrained by the fortune of war to serve a single clique, as happened when the city of Athens served the thirty Tyrants,[4] one should not be amazed that the nation obeys, but simply be grieved by the situation; or rather, instead of being amazed or saddened, consider patiently the evil and look forward hopefully toward a happier future.

    I share La Boetie’s puzzlement: why is it that men can be so easily talked into something that is so obviously against their own self-interest? For in whose self-interest is it to go to war? For all the talk of freedom or justice or what-have-you, the guys who hold the spears and march to the sound of the guns are virtually never the ones who will come out better for it. The winner is nearly always some coward who is well away from the line of battle.

    Growing up in the 60s I remember the poster that asked “What if they had a war and nobody came?” It seems like such a rational and obvious idea. That people still come is a testament to the power of lies.

    1. I can think of no better reply than this poem from Arthur Rimbaud (the greatest poet who ever lived!) translated into English by Paul Schmidt:


      While the red-stained mouths of machine guns ring
      Across the infinite expanse of day;
      While red or green, before their posturing King,
      The massed battalions break and melt away;

      And while a monstrous frenzy runs a course
      That makes of a thousand men a smoking pile –
      Poor fools! – dead, in summer, in the grass,
      On Nature’s breast, who meant these men to smile;

      There is a God, who smile upon us through
      The gleam of gold, the incense-laden air,
      Who drowses in a cloud of murmured prayer,

      And only wakes when weeping mothers bow
      Themselves in anguish; wrapped in old black shawls –
      And their last small coin into his coffer falls.

  5. Romantic/Heroic tales about war represent some of the basic archetypes in human consciousness in essential form. Such tales probably tell us more about the archetypes than the root causes of war, although conflict between socially preferred archetypes/paradigms is probably one of the main “given reasons” for war over the last 5,000 years. (the “superior” or “chosen” people vs. the “inferior” people)

    All of the imperial war societies were slave societies. The ability to “degrade” the value of human beings from “other” cultures is most likely a core component of the psychology of war.

    Evolutionary theory seems to suggest that protection of “culture” is of supreme importance to humans (human beings are superb social imitation machines, imitation is the basis of “learning”, culture retains such learning and is thus *as much part of human adaptation* as are genes). It also appears that the ability to “model the mind” is a crucial element in how humans understand each other and imitate each other. (this may be why archetypes are at the base of myths, literature, etc.)

    The Pleistocene and the Origins of Human Culture: Built for Speed“, Peter J. Richerson (Prof of Environmental Science and Policy, UC Davis) and Robert Boyd (Prof Anthropology, UCLA), July 1999.

    If the marginal benefit of reducing the neural circuits unique to individual learning are modest, social species enlarging their maps to take advantage of social learning may come under selection to improve individual learning as well. If the two systems share the overhead of maintaining the memory storage system and much of the machinery for evaluating the results of experience, the marginal benefits in quality or rate of information gain may be large relative to the cost of more specialized nervous tissue. If members of the social group tend to be kin, investments in individual learning may also be favored because sharing the results by social learning will increase inclusive fitness.

    … In essence, the end of the Pleistocene ushered in an intense competitive [CULTURAL] arms race between human populations where the winners were typically those with the more sophisticated traditions.

    So, war is probably an evolutionary by-product. Human evolution is based on hunting (humans are both hunters and hunted), and war is a scaled up version of the hunt, right? Human evolution includes murder, also found in other primate species.Again, war is presumably upscaled murder.

    War is also most likely a scaled up version of evolutionary mechanisms inherent to human social structures. Humans are evolved to survive via deep family/clan social bonds, reinforced by culture, ritualized compassion-altruism, and so forth (dual inheritence, or gene-culture coevolution). Defense of the clan against predators or agressors (invading clans) is most likely another cause of war. Or, on the other hand, attacks against other clans/tribes in times of diffficulty (such as resource scarcity), or migration.

    War also probably evolved in relation to the 1% of any human population with tendencies toward psychopathy/sociopathy. Clearly a psychopath/sociopath can be “useful” as a military leader in occasion, at least in the short run. Too much psychopathic tendency is generally bad, but small doses on specific occasion

    The peaceful Primate alternative: Bonobos. Bonobos use extremely frequent and brief sexual contact to maintain peace within their clans. Bonobos society is matriarchal.

  6. Not sure, but it seems that the dicussion so far is absent an analysis of one of the classic answers:

    “Because God/Jesus told us to go to war.”

    (the “chosen people” archetype.)

    1. I actually think that that’s a very boring comment. Blaming war on religion is about the same as blaming plane crashes on gravity. Without gravity there would be no atmosphere and you wouldn’t even be able to breath oxygen for your brain to even begin thinking about building a plane and flying high.

      You can’t wish away human meaning-making and resource scarcity any more than you can wish away gravity and 3-dimensional space. They are unavoidable life-giving forces whose drawbacks have to be accomodated.

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