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.
- Callie Oettinger’s excerpts from works about combat
- About the author
- Homer gives us another answer, from the Iliad
- 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:
- America’s military, and our national defense strategy
- History – economic, military and geopolitical
- An Army near the Breaking Point – studies & reports — Note the reports about military recruiting
Other books and articles asking why men fight:
- 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
- “Why men fight” by George S. Patton, Jr. (1927)
- The Culture of War by Martin van Creveld (2008)
- On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman (Lt. Colonel, US Army, retired) (2009)
- 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)