Why do men fight wars? (part two 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 two of two; part one is here.  See other sources at the end.


Today we have a guest article by Callie Oettinger:  part two of her series “Why Fight” — Originally published at Steve Pressfield’s website on 12 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. Homer gives us another answer, from the Iliad
  4. Articles and books with more information on this question

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

The special forces operator told me the children in Afghanistan need him more than his own kids. My gut reaction: Tell him he’s off his rocker. His kids need him, too. But then he explained that the kids in Afghanistan needed someone to fight for them. His wife was strong and could do that for their children in the United States, but he wanted to go fight for other children around the world — the ones who didn’t have someone. He liked it and he was good at it.

“Because they like it” was the first comment I received to last week’s post. It took me back to the conversation with the operator. Though it took place a few years ago, it plays on repeat in my mind. I keep going back to it. I have two young children and struggle with parents who leave their own children behind. But I also know that this operator is no different from the doctor working long hours away from home because he believes in helping his patients more than making money, or the social worker spending just as much time with other families as she does with her own. In every profession there are men and women who are passionate and good at what they do. This takes them away from family and friends. But for them, it is that thing they live out loud. The same holds true for warriors on the battlefield.

(a)  The exhilaration of combat

From Sebastian Junger’s War (2010):

Civilians balk at recognizing that one of the most traumatic things about combat is giving it up. War is so obviously evil and wrong that the idea there could be anything good to it almost feels like profanity. Any yet throughout history men … have come home to find themselves desperately missing what should have been the worst experience of their lives.  To a combat vet the civilian war can seem frivolous and dull, with very little at stake and all the wrong people in power.  These men come home and quickly find themselves getting berated by some rear-base major who’s never seen combat or arguing with their girlfriend about some domestic issue they don’t even understand.

When men say they miss combat, it’s not that they actually miss getting shot at – you’d have to be deranged – it’s that they miss being in a world where everything is important and nothing is taken for granted. They miss being in a world where human relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life. . . .

For some reason there is a profound and mysterious gratification to the reciprocal agreement to protect another person with your life, and combat is virtually the only situation in which that happens regularly. These hillsides of loose shale and holly trees are where the men feel not most alive — that you can get skydiving —  but the most utilized. The most necessary. The most clear and certain and purposeful. If young men could get that feeling at home, no one would ever want to go to war again, but they can’t.

And for the operator, that’s when he felt most “utilized” and alive, too — helping others and saving lives.

(b)  Combat brings a feeling of power and accomplishment

Sugar Ray Leonard offered another perspective in his autobiography The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring:

In the ring, for the first time in my life, I felt I could conquer any force. Strange isn’t it? The ring is where men try to do great harm to one another, and where I felt the safest.

(c)  People do what they’re good at doing

Bob Dylan in a Playboy interview (March 1966):

Dylan:  … you have to have belief. You must have a purpose. You must believe that you can disappear through walls. Without that belief, you’re not going to become a very good rock singer, or pop singer, or folk-rock singer, or you’re not going to become a very good lawyer. Or a doctor. You must know why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Playboy: Why are you doing what you’re doing?

Dylan:  Because I don’t know anything else to do. I’m good at it.

And just like Dylan’s “very good lawyer” or doctor or musician, the warrior is good at what he does. And, yes, he likes it, too.

(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 kid, traveling and living the life of an Army Brat.

(3)  Homer gives us another answer

From Book VI of the Iliad, as Hector goes to fight the Greeks outside the invincible walls of Troy

Andromache … now came to meet him with a nurse who carried his little child in her bosom — a mere babe. Hector’s darling son, and lovely as a star. Hector had named him Scamandrius, but the people called him Astyanax, for his father stood alone as chief guardian of Ilius. Hector smiled as he looked upon the boy, but he did not speak.

Andromache stood by him weeping and taking his hand in her own. “Dear husband,” said she, “your valour will bring you to destruction; think on your infant son, and on my hapless self who ere long shall be your widow — for the Achaeans will set upon you in a body and kill you. It would be better for me, should I lose you, to lie dead and buried, for I shall have nothing left to comfort me when you are gone, save only sorrow. I have neither father nor mother now.

And Hector answered, “Wife, I too have thought upon all this, but with what face should I look upon the Trojans, men or women, if I shirked battle like a coward? I cannot do so: I know nothing save to fight bravely in the forefront of the Trojan host and win renown alike for my father and myself.

Well do I know that the day will surely come when mighty Ilius shall be destroyed with Priam and Priam’s people ,but I grieve for none of these — not even for Hecuba, nor King Priam,nor for my brothers many and brave who may fall in the dust before their foes — for none of these do I grieve as for yourself when the day shall come on which some one of the Achaeans shall rob you for ever of your freedom, and bear you weeping away. It may be that you will have to ply the loom in Argos at the bidding of a mistress, or to fetch water from the springs Messeis or Hypereia, treated brutally by some cruel task-master …

(4)  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

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)



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

  1. To me a more interesting question is why do politicians and armchair generals like to go to war and why the public doesn’t stop them?

    1. That is, of course, the big question of history. Wars tend to have unexpectedly large costs and unexpectedly poor “returns”. Yet we love them so. Fortunately there is a solution.

      From “A Taste of Armageddon“, The original Star Trek, original broadcast 23 February 1967:

      ANAN (leader of the planet Eminiar Seven): You realise what you have done?

      KIRK: Yes, I do. I’ve given you back the horrors of war. The Vendikans now assume that you’ve broken your agreement and that you’re preparing to wage real war with real weapons. They’ll want do the same. Only the next attack they launch will do a lot more than count up numbers in a computer. They’ll destroy cities, devastate your planet. You of course will want to retaliate. If I were you, I’d start making bombs. Yes, Councilman, you have a real war on your hands. You can either wage it with real weapons, or you might consider an alternative. Put an end to it. Make peace.

      ANAN: There can be no peace. Don’t you see? We’ve admitted it to ourselves. We’re a killer species. It’s instinctive. It’s the same with you. Your General Order Twenty Four.

      KIRK: All right. It’s instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We’re human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands, but we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes. Knowing that we won’t kill today.

  2. @FM,

    I think the solution is mandatory military service AND mandatory combat deployment for children of Congress and the executive branch. Note there are few campus protests against our wars now because the volunteer army has skewed towards children of the poor and underprivileged.

    1. Having to serve in the military because of “who your parents are” kind of goes against the very ideals this country was founded upon. However, maintaining a small military to handle any immediate threats while having to RELY on a random draft from among the population (and requiring an actual declaration of war to do so) to take on any larger overseas expeditions would probably have people thinking a lot more about what we are getting ourselves into beforehand.

  3. So would bring back active conscription make us think harder about whether to send our sons and daughters off to war? Ive read this point of view in other articles and I agree with Vraiesalope on this.

    1. Even if you could bring back active conscription — which I doubt, and I’ll explain why — I don’t think it would necessarily make people think harder about sending our sons and daughters off to war unless we made it very difficult for the children of privilege to find ways of avoiding service. If we make it possible for the children of privilege to avoid serving, we’d simply be going back to the way things were around the time of the Vietnam War. The working class was overrepresented in the people who were sent off to fight and die for the country because they didn’t have the kind of money or connections to defer their service…but at least today, they have at least some choice over whether they will serve or not.

      The Military Industrial Complex is the reason why I don’t think you will ever be able to bring back active conscription. When we eliminated active conscription, it meant that we had fewer recruits because people were no longer required to serve…and that meant that there were fewer people to do all the work that had once all been performed by soldiers. This opened the door for private contractors to come in, since the work still needed to be done. The longer the supply chain becomes, the more expensive the supplies become because everyone in the chain needs to receive compensation. What this means is that if you bring back active conscription, all the private contractors are probably going to give the Congresscritters in their area an earful because there would be less need for contractors if there are recruits to do the work again. Those defense contracts often involve a lot of money, and you can’t tell me that none of it ever comes the Congresscritter’s way!

  4. FM Note: I strong recommend reading this comment!
    A number of years ago, I was drinking beers in the kaserne in Zurich with a friend who’d served as an officer in the Swiss military. As the beer flowed, he said something that put me on the floor (it still does) approximately:

    “You can tell the purpose of a military by its logistical train. Here in Switzerland, our military’s purpose is entirely oriented around making an attacker pay a heinous amount of blood for every meter of Switzerland that they take. So we have demolitions in place, supplies in cache, wire-guided ATGMs revetted where they can cut any road into the country to pieces, runways with buried cratering-charges, and so on. But if tomorrow the word came down that I needed to plan to invade, say, Lichtenstein, I’d have to ask my political leaders, ‘How shall we get the troops there, on Lufthansa?’ Does FEDEX allow you to ship munitions?“*

    I cannot describe the impact of this casual remark on me, but let’s just say it completely opened my eyes about the purpose of the US military. Never mind that a country the size of the US would be nearly impossible to control without a genocidal strategy, we have an insane nuclear deterrent that makes us only subject to attack by non-national actors. There is no nation on earth that can expect to survive scaring the US, let alone actually threatening it.

    Since that conversation I have often pondered the idea that the US could plausibly stand down the entire DoD except for the national guard, and we’d remain too tough a nut to crack, more or less forever. Other than to maintain our expensive empire, we do not need a navy – navies are only for force projection in the era of tactical nukes, stealth aircraft and cruise missiles. We don’t need an air force other than to put on expensive technology demonstrations at air-shows and to give wingwipers flight time. The 300-odd bases around the globe that we know about? Close them. We could shut the whole damn thing down. It would not make one whit of difference to US national security, though it would certainly affect out international footprint, errrr, bootprint. We could put the smart boffins in the defense/industrial complex to work trying to develop sustainable fusion reactions and – if they pulled it off – conquer the planet by the simple expedient of buying it.
    * I raise my Killian’s to Florian, wherever you are, now!

    1. DOD has very little to with US “security” and it is not really that interested in defense, It’s questionable if any other state could get enough military force to the US in the numbers required to overcome the local NRA let alone the army.

      The US military is an overwhelmingly offensive force designed first to justify the MIC (a defensive force would be orders of magnitude cheaper. See the “threat from China” as an example) and secondly to support the pet interests of factions with the MIC (see the invasion of Iraq and the current Iranian war buildup).

      DOD and the MIC reduce US security by continually searching for threats to justify themselves, spending billions the US doesn’t have and the eventuall blow back caused by bullying people who don’t initially wish to harm the US.

  5. An article we will *never* see from 28 February 2013:

    President Elect Mitt Romney has made two dramatic moves in his few days of office. He has moved to invade Iran to “finally finish the job that GWB so admirably started.” “We’re taking out the other Evil Twin.”

    The other move: “In addition, in solidarity with the majority of the American people, I’m deploying all five of my sons to the Persian Gulf,” he intoned in his trademark radio voice. “I promise you that they won’t be in some air conditioned flight deck on a carrier, but will be shoulder to shoulder with the boys from Iowa, North Carolina and Ohio whose parents put me in this fine office!”

    1. About Romney’s children:

      Like those of most Presidents, Romeny’s children have no military service (and are too old to enlist):

      • Taggart Romney (born 1970): Managing Partner at Solamere Capital, CMO of L.A. Dodgers, VP of OnField Marketing at Reebok, Director of Strategic Planning at Elan Corp
      • Matthew Romney (1971); VP of Property Management at Excel Legacy Corp, Product Manager for Microsoft Corp.; Bachelor of Arts from BYU and MBA from Harvard
      • Joshua Romney (1975): Owner of Romney Ventures (a real estate developer), Acquisition Analyst at Intercontinental Real Estate
      • Dr. Benjamin Romney (1978): Practices Internal Medicine in Boston; Degree in Management from BYU and a medical degree from Tufts University School of Medicine
      • Craig Romney (1981): Advertising Music Producer at McGarry Bowen

      Source here.

      But he could send his grandchildren.

  6. I’m not so sure that war doesn’t pay. So far, we’ve just been looking at the issue from the egalitarian, democratic point of view of the average American joe. And from his perspective, sure, war looks like a pretty raw deal, if he actually stops to think about it. But what are the alternatives, really, macroscopically? What if we looked at the issue from a systemic perspective?

    I think that the American masses have benefited from American aggression the same way that the masses of empires throughout history have benefited from imperial expansion. The same way that livestock benefit when their masters cut down more forest to make room for them to graze. American military dominance translated into economic dominance after two world wars, and the American masses who scrounged and sweat and bled to win those victories were rewarded with a booming age of prosperity as profits flowed in from around the world. They did not get nearly so large a share of those profits as the elite class, of course, but what were their alternatives? Getting nuked like the Japanese, getting firebombed like the Germans, getting enslaved, repressed, and starved to death like the Latin Americans, Indians, and other brown peoples of the world.

    The American-dominated financial system that has now spread to cover nearly the entire globe has brought great material benefits to the American masses. At least, it has done much better for them than it has for less-well-positioned masses in less-fortunate countries. The stability and dominance of this financial system depends on American military dominance. It was American military dominance that maneuvered the Soviet empire into a nose-dive, it is American military dominance that permits covert and overt overthrows of regimes that resist participating in the global financial scheme. It is American military dominance that provides security guarantees to lesser Western nations and allies of the West which allow them to align themselves comfortably within the America-centered system. The entire system, as it is currently configured, rests on unchallenged American dominance.

    So now we have a downturn. So what? No one complained during the 1990’s when the gravy was rolling in. And what’s the alternative? Be like Mexico?

    So, is it really in the American masses’ best interests to end American military dominance, thus allowing the global economic system to float freely and shift where it will? If the system shifts eastward and leaves the US out in the cold, where will the average American joe find a job? The capitalist elite might get lucky and be allowed to shift their capital to somewhere where there’s a profit, but the average joe will be left to starve.

    Maybe this grim outcome is already happening, and maybe it is inevitable. If so, does the average American joe have any right to complain? He has rolled in his share of the riches of empire. Do weakness and ignorance give him any moral superiority over his masters?

    1. Matt D — I believe your logic is flawed, as seen in this sentence:

      “The American-dominated financial system that has now spread to cover nearly the entire globe has brought great material benefits to the American masses”

      You assume that the wars since WWI (esp since Korea) have supported the post-WWII geopolitical and economics systems. I doubt that this is so. I doubt than even a reasonable case can be made for that proposition. Instead these wars have weakened the US both financially (eg, Johnson’s guns and butter policy sparked the great inflation) and geopolitically (eg, positioning the US as just another aggressive war-like great power, undoing the great work of the post-WWII settlement).

    2. Fabius– You’re right, that would be a gaping flaw in the argument. But let’s think about this– has the US ever not been just another aggressive, war-like great power? We expanded first through decentralized aggression against Indian tribes, then centrally-directed aggression against Mexico, then centrally-directed aggression against Indian tribes, then aggression against Spain and the Phillipines, then the rest of the Latin American countries, and then against Japan. And this only brings us up to the outbreak of World War II. All of the instances of aggression that I just listed directly expanded opportunities for either settlement or business investment by American citizens.

      After World War II the main opposition to the Western-centered economic system came from the Soviet Union, and America’s aggressive policies are widely acknowledged to have played a key role in eventually cracking the Soviet system wide open. Easy profits from privatization and investment in former Soviet countries flowed into Western banks.

      So now maybe the US looks like a big bully. But if there weren’t a big bully on the block, is it even imaginable that the world economic system would be as uniformly integrated as it currently is?

      So perhaps Vietnam and Iraq were costly, horrific, and apparent failures. Aggression is a high-risk strategy. Is there any high-risk strategy that doesn’t turn up a failure every once in a while? And were these wars really failures, from a systemic perspective? All of the costs were concentrated at the lowest levels of society of the aggressor nation and on the victim nations. The decision-makers at the top were able to reap monetary profits from both wars, and the damage to their revenue stream from the American masses has been either overwhelmed by subsequent economic growth or subsidized by their access to revenue streams in other parts of the world.

      And, if we accept that Vietnam was fought against global communism, then it was either a long-term strategic success or an acceptable tactical loss in that struggle. And let’s not forget that no matter how much we lost in Iraq, we did prevent the emergence of an independent regional power in the Middle East– key to Western prosperity because of the current structure of the oil market.

      And setting Vietnam and Iraq to the side, we can look at dozens of smaller-scale, lower-cost covert and overt operations that were very successful at opening new avenues for American profits and for keeping existing members of the international system in line.

      So I think it can be reasonably argued that American aggression since World War II has been successful in spreading and maintaining an integrated world economic system. These actions may also have damaged the economic prospects of the American masses, but these masses always have been, by definition, expendable, and are doubtless much better off materially overall than they would have been without America’s history of aggression.

      I don’t take any particular joy in this interpretation, and I am open to being proven wrong.

      1. “But if there weren’t a big bully on the block, is it even imaginable that the world economic system would be as uniformly integrated as it currently is?”

        We cannot prove a hypothetical. But Europe was VERY highly integrated in the generations ending in 1914, probably as or even more integrated than today. And there was no “big bully” making the rules. On the continent the UK was just another great power.

        Given the limited communication and transportation technology, even the world (at least the Western nations and their colonies) was relatively well-integrated. Although the integration was to a large extent networks of European nations plus their colonies and ex-colonies — which were in turn loosely tied to one another. Still, it was one world even then. Proven in an infernal sense by the way war so quickly spread across the world.

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